Tom started his career in the early 1970s making advocacy videos with trade unions and inner-city communities (see Fig Street Fiasco and We Have To Live With It, both 1974). He remains committed to exploring new territory in his choice of film subjects. Tom talks in detail with Damien Parer about his extensive body of work, including Kemira: Diary of a Strike (1984), Homelands: View from the Edge (1993), Exile in Sarajevo (1997) and Gulpilil: One Red Blood (2002).
What makes a documentary so?
What makes a documentary so for me is actuality. It’s lived experience, it’s being able to, I suppose, observe the textures of everyday life. Being able to observe the richness of a conversation, naturally between two people. And also it’s experiencing sudden turning points to a story. Turning points that you could never have planned or envisioned if you were writing a narrative.
Carving out new territory
In Homelands: View from the Edge (1993), and with Billal (1996), the very fact that my parents were migrants influenced me to look closely at the experience of the contemporary situation, or at that particular time. I thought I could bring some of what I’d experienced to what I saw, and I could certainly identify. But I also felt that I was carving out new territory – that nobody had really looked, in a really intense way, closely observed way, at lives of immigrants, refugees. That this was something that hadn’t been explored before in this country, except perhaps superficially. And I guess that’s also why I made films about unions early on, because that was also subject matter that wasn’t ever a subject of documentaries.
Making Kemira: Diary of a Strike
I started to make Kemira: Diary of a Strike (1984) about eight months after I’d made a film called Waterloo (1981), which was my first film, about residents taking action to defend their houses from being bulldozed by the housing authorities in inner Sydney. And that film, I suppose, many people got to watch it, or at least hear about it. And when I decided to make a film about the Kemira Strike, I saw some of the trade union officials and said, 'Look I’ve made this previous film’. And they said, 'Okay, good, we can trust you’. I had to do all this in a huge hurry because really, the strike had just got underway. I rallied together some filmmakers to help me do it, some colleagues – a cinematographer, Fabio Cavadini, and a sound recordist, Russ Herman.
Storming Parliament House
But on the third day of shooting Kemira: Diary of a Strike (1984), they all decided to go to Canberra, and hop on a train. And I thought I would go along with them and see what happens, because there was a big demo planned at Parliament House. Well the outcome of that demo was that they felt so incensed by what was going on in the whole region of Wollongong, unemployment was going through the roof, that they had to make a stand and an impression on the Prime Minister, on Malcolm Fraser, and they crashed right through the front doors of Parliament House to make their point. Now this was quite historic, and we were right inside there with our cameras. And I knew at that point that there was no turning back, that the film just had to be made, and that I could probably raise interest for this project from a funding body, which I did straightaway.
So I continued there for… so after the sit-in strike, after the 16-day sit-in strike, I was interested in finding out the aftermath. I didn’t want to just stop at the end of those 16 days. Well for a start, the people who were underground, I was only really getting to know them. I got to know their families, their wives certainly, and the women were at the pit top talking about their husbands being underground. And their husbands came up and those guys were the second half of the film really. I was interested in finding out the long-term impact on the lives of those families. And it turned out that the person I was following, Nari, separated from her husband. I don’t know, I think something happened to her during the process of the strike which maybe just gave her that confidence that she could live a life that she chose, and that she could cope.
Making Friends and Enemies
I guess I wanted to get across to an audience (in Friends and Enemies, 1987) the fact that mounting a campaign, a strike, is not as simple as just workers in a small union office all making decisions together. There were various layers. And in this case, there were the rank and filers, that didn’t really have much power, they had to go through their union officials, and then there was the boss at the top. So the trade union was a hierarchy, it was made up of various layers and all those layers had to pull together. And the very fact that they couldn’t pull together was probably the reason that the whole strike collapsed.
Reaction to Friends and Enemies
When Friends and Enemies (1987) was released, it caused a big eruption up in Brisbane. It was something that I can sort of shake off and laugh about now. But it left me dazed for weeks, if not months. The film doesn’t really present winners or losers as such. You can find fault with virtually everybody in the film. And in a sense it’s my take about what happened. I presented people with all their foibles and blemishes. And even though supposed heroes, the rank and file, they certainly weren’t perfect either. So when the film was first screened in Melbourne, it almost caused a riot.
After the screening at the Chauvel Theatre we retired to an upstairs cafeteria and people essentially just got up and started putting their views. Some views attacked me. Other views complimented me. Then they started attacking each other. There were factions of the left attacking other factions of the left. There were unionists attacking rank and filers, vice versa. It was quite an extraordinary occasion really, I don’t think I’ve had an opening quite like it.
Inspiration for Homelands
What got me interested in making Homelands: View from the Edge (1993) was that I was interested in the effect of being a torture and trauma survivor in a new country. How you could cope with some… having had this unbelievable experience. And living in another country and coping with that pain. How can you kind of resolve that and reconcile that with your everyday life?
Portrait of a marriage
I found Maria and Carlos [Robles] when I was making a film about trauma and torture survivors. And it became a film about their marriage (called Homelands: View from the Edge, 1993). When I started filming with them, the situation back in El Salvador had changed. And it was possible for people to go back if they wanted to. In this particular family, what made me interested in them was the fact that Carlos wanted to return immediately, just for a visit. But Maria was really settled in Australia. And I immediately knew that something could happen to them, perhaps to their relationship. Carlos knew very little English, Maria had a good job, her kids wanted to stay. So I, after several months of filming with Maria, it became clear that the marriage had severe problems and Maria wanted to desperately find out what Carlos was up to. And she and I went off together and went to El Salvador to track him down.
Showing films to their subjects
But as with all the subjects of my films, I show them the film prior to locking the film off. So they saw the film, they could make comments and suggest changes. And Maria and Carlos saw Homelands: View from the Edge (1993) together, it was a very awkward occasion. They were very nervous, I was nervous, and in the end they said, 'No that’s it, that’s fine, that tallies with the way we thought about each other and how things kind of unfolded’. So yes, there were sensitive scenes, there were sensitive scenes, and it’s absolutely imperative I think on any filmmaker to make sure that people filmed feel comfortable with that. But by that stage they’ve got your trust and you’ve got theirs. So it’s pretty unlikely that they will say no, but there’s always a chance. But it’s never happened to me yet in many films.
As a documentary maker you can’t just pretend that you are going to make film after film after film. Although I was lucky and was able pretty much to do that for 15 years or so from the first film I made, called Waterloo (1981), right through to Billal (1996). And after Billal, I became increasingly aware that, you know, money was scarcer, the funding environment had become quite tight. And I realised I had to move into producing work. And Exile in Sarajevo (1997) was the first film I produced.
Since then I’ve produced many films. And I find that I can move from producing to directing, and often I produce as well as direct simultaneously. But it’s usually, I produce in between films that I myself direct. And when I direct I produce those films mostly myself as well but not all the time.
Producing and editing
Being a producer is actually sometimes easier, in fact mostly easier than being a director. Because being a producer, you stand back and you’re critical and supportive of the director. But essentially you don’t necessarily have to work with the subjects and a director does, and you don’t have to be in the field and on location every day. You’re really there as a sounding board. But more than that, you’re there to really make suggestions. Suggestions could be ways in which new interviews could be made, new scenes could be captured. Depends if it’s an observational documentary, or an interview documentary. You’re there really to say to a director, 'Okay I think you’ve got it, you’ve got the whole story, let’s start editing’. Or you haven’t got the whole story, and there’s still more to be shot.
But then the role of the producer is also to help structure a piece in the editing room as well. And that becomes quite critical, particularly towards the end, that fine cut where often commissioning editors get involved, and other executive producers from funding agencies. The producer’s role there is to really protect the editor. To fight for the editor, to fight for their vision, really.
Why Exile in Sarajevo?
What attracted me to the subject matter (of Exile in Sarajevo, 1997) was the filmmaker. He had this extraordinary resilience and desperate desire to tell the story, that nothing would get in his way. But I had this instinct this would be a good film, even though he had no training in film himself. But at the same time I knew it would be very tough for me as well, to give him some training and surround him with people who could assist him to realise his vision.
When he got going, when he left Australia he left with a cameraman. We had two cameras on board – a large video camera, small video camera – that he took with him. It was just the two of them, the cinematographer and himself. They got to Sarajevo and they somehow got inside the city at night because it was highly, very risky actually getting into the city. You had to travel at night, no lights on in the car, it was a hair-raising experience I think for them to do it. I didn’t go as producer, I stayed behind. But I wanted to keep in touch with them as much as I could.
Finding the story
After about, an initial contact, I didn’t hear from him for about two months and I got quite worried. I didn’t know whether he was still going or what was happening. And then the cinematographer advised me that yes, everything was fine accept Tahir hadn’t found his subject (for Exile in Sarajevo, 1997) yet and they were still researching the story. I knew I had to make some allowance for that. Because really they went in there with a few initial contacts and that was it, they had to find their story, and the story was predicated on finding actual characters. And then a couple of weeks after that point, they found their main character.
Exit from Sarajevo
After about three months the cinematographer (on Exile in Sarajevo, 1997) said that he had had enough, that he had family and kids in Sydney and he was concerned that he was actually going to make it through alive. The intensity of the shelling from the Serb lines was increasing, they had just filmed a massacre in the marketplace. It was shocking really and he wanted out. I said, 'Can you stay another month?’, and he said, 'Only if I get paid more’, which I did, and then he left after that.
And then Tahir took over as the cinematographer. Now he had only a small camera with him, the big camera came back to Australia, back to Sydney, and he had no camera skills at all. That’s reflected in the first few rolls of film he shot which were just about out of focus. But because the material was so emotional and so strong we ended up using some of that in the film. So he found, he continued working. So he continued working with the main character he found who was the mother of the little girl who died. And he found other characters as well to tell the story. He became quite confident really as the time progressed.
Filming in Sarajevo
Tahir wanted to go into a dangerous situation (making Exile in Sarajevo, 1997). He had made no qualms, he wanted to be right in the middle of the action, and he was prepared to take those risks. Finding a cinematographer to share those risks with him was difficult. We met a number of people. We had many, many coffees around Darlinghurst and the Cross, people were excited by the project and eventually called us and turned us down. And then one person didn’t turn us down, in fact he was desperate to come on board, and pleaded could he come, could he do it, could he come on the film. And yeah we agreed. And, you know, he knew the risks, they were made quite clear to him. All I could do was take out insurance against his life essentially. And for that paying the premium blew most of the contingency in the budget. Look, it’s a risk that the two of them were prepared to take that I wasn’t prepared to take, frankly, as producer. So and when Roman said, 'Look I want to come back’, I respected his wish.
Often there are little bits of film here and there (in Exile in Sarajevo, 1997), you know, within a sequence he [director Tahir Cambis] would advise the editor to take this, put this together with that – he would montage a lot, and use music as a way of smoothing the montage, making it work, integrating it. I found that he was very creative with some of his decisions, but overall the film was still, looked a bit of a mess. And I advised him, look the only way of really putting this together is to have your narration across it. He was a bit resistant to that at the beginning but eventually came around to thinking that yes, this was a good idea. He and Alma [Sahbaz], his partner, worked quite intensely on the narration which I think was, in the end, one of the best elements in the film.
It was very poetic and really, I think, conveys a sense, not only of place but of his own inner feelings towards his city, his old city and the people he met there. The narration is extremely personal. The more he wrote the narration, the more it became his own personal story. And that paralleled the filming process because the longer he was there the more he was, you know, discovering himself through his increasingly dangerous expeditions, particularly his trip to Gerayshta (sp) in a UN convoy.
Making The Diplomat
The initial brief for the documentary (called The Diplomat, 2000) was to make a film about the history of the trade union movement in Australia. It was an idea that I had that I took to the Bicentennial Authority and the ACTU and then Film Australia became involved. In turn Film Australia became the producers but the ACTU were the sponsors and had a very key role to play, because they had to approve the script and approve the final cut. And they approved the script, but they didn’t approve the final cut.
Screening The Diplomat
We screened The Diplomat (2000) at the Paddington Town Hall, there were queues around the corner. We had several screenings over one weekend. We had forums about the film, historians spoke. Even the ACTU sent their own media officer to give their side of the story. The ACTU actually brought me down to Melbourne to try and resolve the issue but to no avail. About eight years after this event, Anne Britton – my colleague, a unionist, who ran MEAA – finally resolved the conflict. And now the film is available to the general public.
Working with David Gulpilil
With Gulpilil: One Red Blood (2002), Darlene’s vision was quite clear. Darlene Johnson was the director, I was the producer. I actually helped also with all the logistics involved in the film. And also doing the sound recording, I thought that as producer with a reasonably inexperienced director that I should be there on location, so we all went to Ramingining together. And I found working with David, I found working with David Gulpilil really interesting, you didn’t know what was going to happen from day to day. But Darlene and I knew roughly what we had to cover.
We were lucky, we got some really quite unique ceremony, we got a lot of great moments down by the swamp, the Arafura Swamp. Also getting David at his most relaxed, and that was when he was essentially fishing, hunting. The test then became to try and integrate the observational material we shot with David with some of the archive material. And some of the films that he was in, as well.
Clearing rights for Gulpilil
As producer clearing rights to films is always tricky, particularly when they are feature films in a documentary because the distributors are sometimes a bit loathe for you to use excerpts from already finished films. But everybody wanted to cooperate (on Gulpilil: One Red Blood, 2002) because it was David [Gulpilil] and David’s fame as an actor was well known.
But really when it came to Walkabout (1970) I had to get right back to the director, Nic Roeg, and he eventually gave me the permission to use it. And I was very, very pleased because he only really gave permission on the basis of what the film was about.
I think what was great about Gulpilil: One Red Blood (2002) is that he is such a well known Australian identity. It got the highest ratings for a television documentary on an Indigenous theme, ever. So more people around Australia watched it than watched any other program dealing with an Indigenous issue, or which featured Indigenous Australians. And I think that’s something to be said for it. So in terms of bridging the gap, yes I think it was effective in doing that. And also the film is used educationally a lot as well.
Uncovering the layers of a story
But, no, coming down off a film is difficult and you think to yourself, 'How am I ever going to get as intensely involved in another, with another group of subjects again?’. But inevitably it happens. It might not happen for a year down the track, but it happens eventually. And you suddenly think, 'God, here are these people trusting you, and you’ve got responsibility to them’, and 'How far can you take this, how much further can you go into their lives?’. And that’s always something that you want to do more and more and more and more as you explore the story. And you think, 'Maybe there’s another layer’ that you need to kind of uncover, unpeel. And often you do, sometimes you don’t though. And sometimes it’s irrelevant – often you’ve got the story.