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Scott Millwood: documentary poet

Dan Edwards

Scott Millwood	Scott Millwood
Photo by Michael McMahon, © Film Australia
It’s rare to find an Australian filmmaker willing to discuss cinema in terms of art, let alone poetry. But at the Documentary Masterclass at this year’s Flickerfest Short Film Festival in Sydney, Tasmanian documentary maker Scott Millwood declared: “I want to talk about epic poetry. I know that’s probably a strange thing to talk about at a doco masterclass, but most of the work I’ve made has been influenced a lot by poetry.”

A casual glance at Millwood’s career would suggest that despite his literary rhetoric, he has made a spectacularly successful leap into the documentary elite with just 2 films. His debut Proximity (1999) did the rounds of film festivals and earned him some recognition as an ‘experimental’ filmmaker, while Wildness (2003) has screened twice on ABC television and earned him accolades, including the AFI award for Best Documentary last year. A more detailed account of Millwood’s filmmaking trajectory, however, offers a sobering account of how difficult it is for Australian documentary filmmakers to bring their vision to the screen and exactly how far they may deviate from accepted forms.

Proximity was shot over a 14 month period in 1996, when Scott Millwood was 23. He had left Australia, feeling “his life here was broken”, and travelled with a camera to Calcutta on a one-way ticket to see, rather masochistically, if the sub-continent could break him. From India he journeyed to Vietnam and China, through former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan, on to Russia, down into Iran and Turkey and finally back to India, where he spent time with a Western woman caring for people with leprosy.

Proximity is part travelogue, part social and political commentary and part philosophical musing, but for all its geographical scope, its concerns are essentially personal and almost defiantly myopic. The film is a collection of images born of a desire to find “beauty in the streets”, with a self-consciously poetic voice-over based on Millwood’s travel diary, making sense of these images in relation to the filmmaker’s inner journey as he moves across the globe. As Millwood himself puts it: “Proximity was me learning about myself.”

For all its occasionally portentous tone, Proximity is quite an extraordinary work from a young filmmaker coming out of a culture generally resistant to exploring the poetics of the documentary image. It clearly bears the influence of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982) and similarly comprises a flow of images loosely connected by a voice-over that doesn’t strive for literal sense, but rather aims to trigger thoughts, memories and resonances in the viewer. Proximity is a film to dream by.

Australian broadcasters and funding bodies are not known for embracing flagrant experimentation and Millwood’s attempts to pursue and essayistic style of documentary filmmaking meant that he endured several years of unfinished projects before finally completing the more conventional Wildness in 2003. The first of these unfinished films was another Marker-influenced work set in Palestine, composed of stills and telling of a man standing at the end of time during the last days of the 20th century. Although Millwood lived in Israel and Palestine for a year and was able to make the film’s opening 5 minutes, as well as a book of the entire story, his talk of a film essay and epic poetry “scared the shit out of broadcasters” and he was unable to find backing to complete the project. As Millwood now wryly observes: “I was trying to make a European film in the wrong country.” A second project based on portraits shot at Melbourne street protests similarly failed to materialise as a film, but later formed the basis of an installation at Melbourne’s Federation Square.

Millwood’s second completed work, Wildness, has been something of a literal and metaphorical homecoming for the director: the film even opens with an aerial shot sweeping over the ocean, across a deserted sandy shoreline and into Tasmania’s wilderness. Wildness tells the story of 2 photographers, Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis, who came to Tasmania from Eastern Europe as refugees in the aftermath of World War II. Truchanas arrived in Australia as a young man, and was soon exploring and photographing the relatively unknown south west corner of Tasmania. Dombrovskis was a small child when he arrived in Tasmania, and was later mentored by Truchanas in photography and surviving the conditions in the state’s south west. Truchanas’ images played a key role in the ultimately doomed fight to save Lake Pedder from inundation by Tasmania’s Hydro Electric Commission in the early 1970s, while Dombrovskis’ image Rock Island Bend was central in the successful campaign to stop the damming of the Franklin River in the early 1980s. Both photographers died in the wilderness they spent their lives documenting.

It’s easy to see why the story of Truchanas and Dombrovskis appealed to Millwood. It has all the elements of an epic poem, including rebirth in a new land, life, death and struggle on a grand scale, all contained in the deeply moving story of 2 talented men whose lives are inextricably linked with Australian art and politics. More specifically, like Millwood, these 2 photographers didn’t just utilise a documentary medium to record the world around them. Through their photographs they sought to interact with and understand their environment, bringing the clarity of personal vision to wild scenes of physical reality.

One of the most effective passages in Wildness clearly illustrates this application of vision. While a voice-over relates entries from Dombrovskis’ diary of trip he took down the Franklin in 1979, a split screen shows contemporary footage of the river on the left, while Dombrovskis’ photographs of the same scenes are displayed on the right. The twin images not only illustrate the river’s enduring grandeur (the scenes have barely changed in 25 years), but also illustrate Dombrovskis’ skill at freezing the pulsating life of the river in images that not only capture the Franklin’s majestic beauty, but actually enhance it.

It is in such subtle manipulation of form for lyrical effect that we see Millwood’s talent for bringing innovation and a poetic sensibility to the documentary form. The best documentaries create connections between different peoples, places and times, but Millwood’s films do more than this. His work allows us to experience something of other people’s lives and sensibilities by exploring how they have opened their eyes and their hearts to their surrounds.

Scott Millwood’s Wildness is available on video from Film Australia. Orders can be made via the Film Australia website and a study guide is available for free download. Contact Film Australia Sales, 02 9413 8634, [email protected],

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 17

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

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