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Documentary democratisation

Dan Edwards: Well Beyond Water; I am Eleven

Andy Ross, Well Beyond Water Andy Ross, Well Beyond Water
“This is now a powerful weapon,” says Sydney-based English musician and record producer Andy Ross, holding up a domestic handycam. It’s the modest camera he used to shoot his award-winning documentary debut Well Beyond Water—a film he says was made “literally without knowing what I was doing.”

Back in December, On the Dox reviewed some of the debates currently raging about new approaches to Australian film distribution (RT118). Recently, I spoke to two documentary filmmakers who have taken advantage of the changing film landscape to make their work and get it out there: Andy Ross and the director of I Am Eleven, Genevieve Bailey. Their films are quite different in scale and ambition, but each is the product of an era transforming the way we make and see documentaries.

The accidental filmmaker

“I made the film for no more than about $600,” Andy Ross says of Well Beyond Water. Commissioned by arts and social change company Big hART to write a piece of music about the experience of drought, Ross went to stay on a sheep farm eight hours southwest of Sydney. Instead of the grinding hardship he’d expected, he found Graham Strong, a leading practitioner of sustainable farming techniques. Strong’s principle pasture is saltbush, an indigenous plant able to thrive in the harshest conditions. His techniques have allowed him to prosper where other farmers have fallen by the wayside.

Although inspired by Strong’s optimism and innovative approach to working the Australian land, Ross fretted about how he would convey his experience out west via music. “I’m no Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan,” Ross admits frankly. “I don’t really know these lives or what they’re up against.” By chance, he had taken a camera and kept a video diary. “On the way home to Sydney the penny dropped. I had all this footage which had really just been a bit of fun for me, and I suddenly thought, ‘I wonder if there is a message I can get out there?’”

Never having previously worked with video, Ross set about teaching himself to edit, building the story around his journey of discovery. “If someone had said to me, ‘What was it like out there?’, well this is it. I tried to convey an honest representation of what it was like for me, and just let the story come out from that.”

The result is a refreshingly unpretentious and eye-opening 30-minute documentary that presents a new take on our relationship to the country we live in. After completing the film, Ross used the online festival submission site to send his film to New Zealand’s Reel Earth Environmental Film Festival. To his surprise, he was not only accepted but took the prize for best short.

A local production company also used the film as a pilot for a series pitched to the ABC, in which Ross would travel the country seeking out those with inspiring solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Ross was disheartened by the broadcaster’s response. “They needed more confrontation in the material,” he recalls ruefully. “It got me angry. I thought, ‘You just don’t get the film.’ It’s about how we can get over problems, not create new ones.”

Undeterred, Ross created a website to host the film and made it freely available. He is now working on a second project, using the same stripped back approach. “I love this idea of the democratisation of film,” he enthuses. “Everybody’s got a voice, but we don’t realise it because we’re so conditioned into thinking it’s only for those with loads of money. But actually we can all speak out now, and this is the main thing I’ve learnt from this whole experience.”

Self-made hitmaker

Genevieve Bailey and Giorgi, I Am Eleven Genevieve Bailey and Giorgi, I Am Eleven
photo Henrik Nordstrom
At the other end of the DIY spectrum is Genevieve Bailey. Her self-distributed documentary I Am Eleven enjoyed seasons at 22 cinemas around Australia in 2012-13, with special screenings in another two dozen or so venues. The film played for an extraordinary 26 weeks at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova. Bailey is now planning an assault on the US.

Although more ambitious than Ross’ film, I Am Eleven was made with similarly minimal means. Bailey’s premise was simple: interview a range of 11-year-olds around the globe about their lives and attitudes. Shooting commenced without any kind of funding and the production was strung over six years. “I’d run out of money, come back and work two or three jobs to save up the money for another ticket. I was doing that every year,” recalls Bailey. “It was like having an addiction.”

She was offered funding by a state agency towards the end of the shoot, but Bailey and her producer Henrik Nordstrom decided they couldn’t accept the strings that were attached. “We were approved on the basis that our company couldn’t own the film and we’d have to hand it over to someone else. We weren’t very comfortable with that given the amount of time, energy and money we’d invested.”

After completing the film themselves and successfully debuting at the 2011 Melbourne International Film Festival, the pair opted to self-distribute, despite offers from multiple distributors. “It was a big risk,” admits Bailey. “It’s not very common for people to self-release in Australia, so I knew it would be somewhat uncharted territory and that we’d be taking on a whole lot of work we could have handed over. But it wasn’t just about control—it was also wanting to learn from the experience.”

And learn she did. Months of work gained I Am Eleven a season at Melbourne’s Nova in July 2012 and an initial weekend at Cinema Paradiso in Perth. Early screenings featured Q&As in which Bailey urged audiences to spread the word verbally and via social media. Other publicity came through sheer leg work. The Friday before the first Nova screenings, Bailey was out plastering Melbourne with posters. “Because we weren’t distributing 10 films that week it could be a handcrafted approach,” Bailey says of the advantage of self-release. “Distributors can’t do that—they aren’t down at Nova handing out flyers. So I became very familiar on the ground with who was coming. And morning, noon and night I was running around doing interviews. All that stuff.”

Despite her success, Bailey is cautious about encouraging other documentarians to take the same path. “It’s a huge amount of work,” she stresses. “And you need to partner with the right people. We had a great publicist.”

Bailey also emphasises the importance of tailored strategies. “The cinemas we wanted to play in—the Nova’s, the Palace’s—will not program your film if they know it’s available digitally at the same time, because they see it as a threat to their box office. They want a clear 90-day window,” she explains. For a documentary with big screen appeal and a potentially broad audience like I Am Eleven, showcasing it initially in cinemas made sense. More niche projects may be better served by one-off events and a prioritising of DVD and digital platforms.

What Bailey’s experience unambiguously shows is that the tools are there to successfully reach an audience if documentary makers are prepared to do the leg work and think strategically. “It’s made me realise that working out how to reach your audience is of the utmost importance,” she says emphatically. “Because I’m not making films for my bookshelf.”

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. 27

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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