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Robin Hughes

Ray Argall interviewed Robin Hughes on 3 June 2009:
Robin takes us down memory lane at Film Australia’s Lindfield studios where she worked as a filmmaker, a general manager and CEO. Walking past reels of 16mm film and Steenbeck editing machines, she talks about capturing events large and small, political and personal.


Tell us about one of your titles on the website

I interviewed, one that is on site – which was at that time – priests were beginning to leave the priesthood. That was the first interview of that sort of thing, Chequerboard – Too Much For Molony (1969). I did the first interview that had ever taken place in a prison in Australia. We did the first film that’d ever been made that showed the lives of gays, of homosexuals. We looked at the gay movement. We did a couple of major films on people who were poor. And we felt that it had, because it – often made big news in the newspapers, and so on, and the stories would be picked up and taken on.

Because people found this, which we’re now got so used to on current affairs, but this case history way of talking about social issues – people found them – found that really engaging, and so they took it up, and they took these stories to their hearts. We were all very young, and we all had this sort of feeling that we were participating in something important. And that very intimate style of interviewing. It was the foundation for us of the observational method. Although that was an interview, we did a certain amount of observational, and for me, that got quite exciting – for me personally. And later I got very interested in taking that further.

Where are we?

Well, we’re standing in the conference room of what’s now Screen Australia Studios – used to be Film Australia. This table here, was brought from the War Cabinet, um, of the Curtin-Chifley Government, I’ve always been told, and it became the sort of big board table for Film Australia.

How did you get started?

And so after I graduated, I worked for a couple of years as a psychologist, and then I did the big trip overseas, and, um, and I spent a year in Norway, and came back to London and applied for a job as a producer at the BBC. I was in my very early 20s, and it was an unspeakably cheeky and ill-informed thing to do, but to my astonishment, I got the job. It was to be trained on the job. So after having started at the BBC, I came back to Australia and had that classic experience of going along as a woman, with very good references from the BBC, thinking I’d get a job at the ABC, and I remember going in and being interviewed there, and saying, 'Oh, these are lovely references – we’d love to employ you, but there are no vacancies on Woman’s Hour at the moment’. And I said, 'I don’t even know that I’d know how to do Woman’s Hour', because I’d been – at the BBC, I’d been doing, um, an arts program, and a number of features, um, on, you know, economics, philosophical, political themes, so I didn’t quite know – and that was really how – how it was.

But very soon after that, they were starting up the ABC’s Science Unit, and I got a call asking would I like to come in and … So not really having a background in science, I went in to the ABC Science Unit, and then moved – and then they were starting up Chequerboard (1969-75), and so I went and worked on Chequerboard, and there it followed on that path.

How important is collaboration?

It was one of those periods of my life where collaboration really worked so well that I’ve always looked for finding really good collaborative arrangements, or setting up environments in which people could have good collaboration. I’ve continued to have collaborations with, like Tristram [Miall] and Aviva [Ziegler] and there was a period where I worked at Film Australia as a producer, and worked with some of those people. But also met other directors here, and then later, a very interesting time was when the idea of observational documentary, social issues documentary told through the participants – um, decided to take that to commercial television, and the only way that you could do that, really, was with a star.

An interesting working relationship

The old Steenbecks [editing suites] used to be in here. And in one of these along here, I remember Tom Foley who was Head of Editing, um, the late Tom Foley, working down here with Bruce Petty. I was producing – I used to have to bring them down a bottle of Drambuie to keep them going. They were always at loggerheads, cause Bruce always wanted the impossible, and we used to always try to give it to him. He’d made the film Leisure (1976) here, which was a commissioned film, which – which won an Academy Award.

He did some more films after Leisure (1976). Um, he did one that starred Max Gillies – was the first one that I did with him, which was called Megalomedia, and it was about the media. And the thing I remember about that from my point of view, was that Bruce very much wanted to open it with a clip from Star Wars (1977). And I tried to get this for him, and they wanted a fortune – more than our whole budget – for the clip that he wanted. And so I went through their local distributors, I went through their lawyers, couldn’t get anywhere. So one night I sat down, and these were the days of telexes, and I typed out a thing that said who we were, what we wanted, and I sent it to George Lucas himself, with no thought that he’d actually get it, but I just was so desperate. And I signed it 'May the Force be with us’, and sent it off. And the next morning, I came in and there was a reply – I’ve still got it at home – that said you can have it gratis, and signed 'George, good luck.’ So, it was a lesson in how you should always try for what you want.

What do you do when you're not making films?

There is my secret vice, which I tend not to tell anybody. But so long as it doesn’t go outside this room… Um, I write poetry. I love to read, and that includes reading poetry, and I do write poetry. That’s my secret vice.

I, um, I love the beach. I just can’t believe how lucky we are in Australia with our fabulous coastline, and I love the beach. Um, and I – I suppose for very long periods of my life, it’s been work and family.

How do you relate to the digital era?

In the early ‘90s, I was chairing the council of the [Australian] Film [Television and Radio] School, and agitating for us to move into a digital concept. And I can remember one very eminent person who was on the council, who shall be nameless, was saying, 'Oh, digital, smidgital, you know, what’s … really, oh, this is nothing, oh this is, you know …’ Whereas I could already begin to see, as many people could, that there were going to be interesting possibilities emerge with all of this new media.

What is your strongest personality trait?

I have actually found that in editing one of the things that’s a great help, and probably – I assumed everybody had it, but then I discovered from talking to some other filmmakers that not everybody does – I have got a very good visual memory. So that if I’ve watched, um, rushes, and we’ve got a problem in editing, I can often say, 'Can’t you deal with that by taking that bit, you know, remember where she walks down the stairs and when she gets to the bottom, she’s saying this, and then she turns – you know, there’s a bit there, that’ll cover that.’ And they’ll say 'What, what, what?’ You know, 'Which bit?’ And I sort of can – so I think a visual memory is very useful, for a filmmaker. I think if you’ve got one, you’ll find it a bit easier in the editing room.

Advice for young players?

Well, of course, you know, nowadays, you can’t learn on the job like I did. You need to go to Film School, and so what I – well, I can tell you what I recommended to my own daughter. The first piece of advice I gave her was 'Don’t’, because, you know, if you want a life of penury, you – you go into the film business these days. I mean, when I started, we were treated as professionals. We were paid as professionals. And there was this sort of sense that you had continuity of work. Nowadays, really, in – for a large part of the industry, um, we’re really living more like artists, which in financial terms, isn’t a good move, you know, to move from being a professional to being an artist doesn’t really do a lot for the bank balance. And I think that – so, but if you’re determined to do it, that means that you do it because you love it.

Then I would recommend getting a very good broad education. Um, you know, really doing a general degree probably, rather than a communications degree, um, to begin with, to be you know, really broad-based education. And then go on to doing, you know, Film School post graduate. I think that would be the way to go nowadays, in my view. And, then, the most important thing of all is that because you’re doing it because you love it, make sure that you only go for those things that you think are really really valuable and worth doing. I mean, don’t compromise on that. That’d be my advice.

How is your work-life balance?

When I left Film Australia to have my first child, I continued and did a number of projects as a director, and, you know, on contract from outside, and I found it incredibly difficult because I’d be away from my little child and she didn’t care, but I’d get quite distressed about having to leave her to go. And I got a call, in fact from Tom Manefield, who’d – who’d moved to Film Australia, where they were looking for a producer, and I said 'I don’t want to be a producer’. And I remember very clearly, he said, 'You – as a producer, Robin, you make your own appointments’. And he had to say it a couple of times before I got it, that he was telling me – it will work for babysitters, and it will work for everything else because you’ll know when you’ll get home.

The Chequerboard revolution

There were two strands to documentary film development in Australia. One of them was television, and what happened inside the public broadcasters. And the other one was the film strand, a lot of which happened here at Film Australia. And Chequerboard (1969–75) was quite revolutionary, because we moved right away from looking at the broad social issues that we were looking at, because in the late ’60s, early ’70s, those social issues were huge in the community.

And so what we did on Chequerboard was look at those through the eyes of the people actually experiencing them, so they were people in the situations which shaped their lives. We – we didn’t use any experts. We didn’t use – we used minimal if any commentary. It was a combination of interview and a small amount of observation.

Researching Chequerboard

Preparation is the key. That, you know, before – with those Chequerboard (1969–75) subjects, before we went in to do something, say, on poverty, before we even selected the people that we were going to use, we did a tremendous amount of theoretical research, you know, to really find out what was the story that we were looking for, so that the people were selected in order to typify situations that we knew from our research were indeed typical. Um, and so then, when you went in to do the interview, you really knew a tremendous amount about what these people were dealing with, and what the big issues were. It was always attempting to reveal some broader issue that was there out in the wider world.

Ethics of TV exposure

When it started, I was concerned about the ethics of what we were doing, and very interested in setting up really effectively a protocol for researchers, because remember that this hadn’t been done before, and a lot of the people we were going to had no consciousness of what it would mean to be on television. So we took a lot of trouble before they agreed to participate, to be absolutely sure that they were aware that the next day their kids’d go to school, and they would have been seen. So there were a lot of ways in which we had to think about how to deal with some of the issues which still beset documentary filmmakers about how they’re going to go about doing their work.

Be true to your subjects

For me, the big issue always is that you have to try and be very, very true to how the person is. And even if you haven’t agreed with them, and you haven’t really even particularly liked them, if you actually represent them very accurately, you know, it makes a huge amount of diff – For example, I mean, I do remember one case where I was terribly worried what they’d think when they saw it off air, because now I always try and organise that I show people the programs before they go to air.

With Chequerboard (1969–75), we couldn’t because of the time scale of how we did them. And so you’d be terribly nervous that the thing had gone out and sometimes, with a portrait that you had felt was a little unflattering, you know, to the person. But always, if you were true to them – I remember the next day, waiting for a call, and getting a call and finding that the person had been absolutely thrilled with something that I thought had cast them in a bad light. But we’d been very true to them, and so they were very happy. So I think that that’s really the struggle you always have, and the ethical, I suppose, discipline that you have to exercise to not misrepresent the person.

Landscape of the human face

Working on Chequerboard (1969–75), one of the things that I noticed was that within particularly the television frame, there’s what, you know, I came to call the 'landscape of the human face’ – that a face can tell you so much more than words can. And, sometimes when you’ve got a talking head, and they’ll even have finished talking – I’ve got a classic with Nugget Coombs – the great Australian economist, head of the Reserve Bank, leader of the whole of the public service and the setting up of the postwar reconstruction program – an amazing person. And he, in responding to questions about regret, he spoke absolutely movingly about his great distress that we’d never really managed to get proper reconciliation with Aborigines.

And he finished his statement, and finished it, and his eyes had filled with tears – just thinking about that great failure in his life. And he waited, and then, about, many seconds later, he just nodded at the camera. And it was so much more eloquent, even than what he’d said – the look on his face. Um, and I just sort of thought, that is the reason why we need screen-based history, not just auditory or written history. You actually have to have that face to really get the message.

Documentary as discovery

I think that the lovely thing about documentary is the perpetual uncertainty – the fact that from the moment that you conceive it, to the last moment of editing, you’re really in a discovery mode, you know, that you’re writing – that you, that’re you’re – anything can happen. And the surprises are often bigger than anything that you could imagine and dream up for drama. And Chequerboard (1969–75) was the first introduction to shaping a program in the way you’d shape a novel or a short story.

Shaping a story

I think one of the things that has fed into the way in which I approach film, is my love of literature. And often in structural things, I find that the things that I sort of know from always loving books, sort of translate and transfer to the way you shape a story, to what is dramatic, to what is a good way to keep people interested.

From radio to television

One of the things that was interesting for me because I started in radio, remember, and moved into television, and when we first went into – when that move – shift first occurred, we were all terribly concerned that we shouldn’t make radio with pictures. You know, we – we really wanted to use the fact that things moved, and you could do them on a grand scale, and the talking head was something to be avoided, and so on. There was that sort of idea around.

Capturing a 'talking head'

And so, um, the – and then in the framing of a face, I think actually capturing a head, I’ve found, is sort of more difficult than you’d think. And to actually listen and work out, sensitively, when to change frame, when to move in close, when to pull out again, when somebody’s showing emotion, when you need to go in, when the sensitive thing to do is not to be so close, when the sensitive thing to do is to be really in close.

Jump cuts

We used jump cuts in Chequerboard (1969–75). Um, that was Tom Manefield. He had this theory that you had to be honest about where you’d cut. Um, I suppose because I think of myself often as a storyteller, and I know that when you’re writing fiction you shape and smooth, I think that the bit of smoothing to make a story cohesive, you know, so long as you’re being honest about the story, um, you know. So I abandoned the jump cut – I never used it myself, in my stuff, never really wanted [to].

Do documentaries rate?

So one of the things that documentary is really up against is the old belief that’s endemic in television programmers that documentary doesn’t rate. The right documentary, made and promoted in the right way, without insulting the intelligence of the audience, but reaching out to the audience in ways to make the work really accessible, can deal with really big subjects, and deal with them very effectively, and – and rate very well. But the belief that they won’t has a terribly inhibiting effect on – on what the results are.

Connecting with audiences

Sometimes when pressure is on, to lift ratings, say, you know, there’s a move to feeling that, um people aren’t going to be engaged by subject matter which is a bit challenging. And yet if you make those challenging subjects accessible to a wide range of people, there’s nothing connects with an audience as well, in my experience. But it’s easy for people to think, 'No, they’ll prefer a quiz show’, you know, and so it can be difficult sometimes, to – to get broadcasters to really comprehend that an excellent television slot can build an audience if it’s promoted, presented properly and you make sure that the quality of the material in it is kept up to scratch.

Why commercial television?

You know, I come from a working-class family. Um, I’ve got a large extended family – there were six kids in my family of origin, and they’ve got kids and, you know, there’s – and I often would think of them. And so that always brought me into thinking – outreach. And commercial television was reaching a hell of a lot more households than, than public broad[casters] … And on a lot of the big issues, you know, one felt one wanted to have that – that outreach. And so I was keen to go to commercial television, and when I got the opportunity, I did.

Reality TV vs documentary

I think that the arrival of reality television confused a lot of broadcasters about what was documentary and what wasn’t. And, you know, in a way, it was stepping into a situation where even calling it ‘reality’ – I mean, you know, you don’t have to watch it for very long to see that the thing that we, as documentary filmmakers strive for, which is to get a natural response from people who’ve got so used to the camera that they’ve forgotten it’s there – never happens in reality television. The self-consciousness of the people, acting how they think they ought to act for the camera, is so evident, and, you know, it’s not that that can’t be, at times, entertaining, but it’s not reality.

Film Australia alumni

Well it is interesting that Gillian Armstrong has always kept a little foot in the documentary camp. And I don’t know about Phil (Phillip Noyce), I’ve sort of lost contact a bit with Phil. Um, but you know, Chris Noonan of course had started at Film Australia, so he had a documentary history behind him, and – but I think they enjoyed and learned from their experience there.

Film Australia history

After the Second World War, what had been just a little film unit in the Commonwealth was turned into the Commonwealth Film Unit, um, which was – which was a large unit. And that moved here, I think, I think it moved here in the ‘50s. Um, and then it worked as the official government filmmaking body, at a time when this was the only place where a lot of films were being made in Australia. And so it was a terribly important learning environment for people.

As the Commonwealth Film Unit and Film Australia, it nurtured people ranging from, you know, Peter Weir, um, through, on the cinematography side, Dean Semler is one of the great names that come from that period, um, Chris Noonan. Once the Film School started, um, Phil Noyce came here for some of the time. Um, there were a lot of the names that we now associate with a lot of success in Australia who got a tremendous amount of training and experience here in this – in this place.

Working in large institutions

The wonderful thing about a large institution is that if you can really get going, you can be very prolific. And I can remember after a stint here as a producer, at the end of the year I had 15 projects that had happened in that year. And I remember going to a weekend where I had to talk with somebody who had, you know, one short film, um, and it really struck me that in a context like this, you’ve got that huge advantage.

When I was asked to come in to run Film Australia, I was conscious of those two things. So everything that I tried to do here was to try and make a space in which filmmakers could actually work effectively, unbothered by all the crap that goes on that you have to sort of do to make an organisation accountable, financially viable, you know, all those other things.

Closing the Women's Unit

When I arrived at Film Australia, it had a Women’s Unit in it. And, I’ve always been opposed to Women’s Units. I mean, it’s always struck me that as soon as you isolate, um, you know, something like that, it might be positive for a little while, to give people some experience, but unless it very quickly comes into the mainstream, it means that everybody thinks that everything that’s of interest to that group can be taken care of there, and all the employment decisions are – you know, if you’re a woman, you’re going to go there. And I remember being told there are no vacancies on The Woman’s Hour. So I was concerned to bring it into the mainstream. And the interesting thing was that at that stage, the only women employed on films here were employed in the Women’s Unit. Couple of them in other areas, but not many.

So when I came in, um, you know, we just had a policy that we’d employ the best people, and so gradually we built up a presence of women among the filmmakers. And they were making things for mainstream television, not for community women’s groups, and women’s issues were being covered. And so I – I caused a huge outcry among women that I, a woman, had closed the Women’s Unit.

Reality drama

You had situations like, for example, issues of family break-up where you had ethical problems about access to actual stories. So I devised this method which, when I became Chief Executive here at Film Australia I was able at last to implement, which was that we made a series of films – the first one was called Custody, where we got actors to role play being a family, with a divorce happening, and an issue of custody of the children. But we used a real court, the Family Court. We used real counsellors. We used real lawyers. And the whole thing was conducted, and not even the film crew knew what the judgment would end up being. And so there was this fusion of drama and documentary which, in the days before reality television, I called 'reality drama’.


At Film Australia, there was, um, a program where government departments would commission films on certain subjects. So, um, while I was here, I worked on a little series which included an observational film about a man with a really serious drinking problem. It was directed by Graham Chase, and it was called Thirst.

It was a 20 minuter, and for many years afterwards, people up on drink driving charges were condemned to watch this film, which had a whole lot of, um, information in – buried in an observational film with no didactic commentary. Nothing, just observing a person with a drinking problem. It was terribly powerful for making people think about their own drinking behaviour.

Please Don't Leave Me

I also won a whole lot of awards for a film that was, again, a commissioned film which was called Please Don’t Leave Me, which was about children in hospital. And at that time, parents weren’t allowed to visit children in hospital except in visiting hours. And there was an organisation trying to change that, and they commissioned this film, which was tremendously successful. All they wanted, really, was a whole lot of didactic points. We made it as an observational documentary, without any commentary at all, and it became a huge success and was used, again, for years afterwards, for hospital training, to show the importance. And it was very instrumental in bringing about a situation where children weren’t left without their parents in hospital.

Power of persuasion

George: You’ll recognise this program because it’s one of yours.

Robin: Ah, right. This is – this is Please Don’t Leave Me. Emotional title for an emotional film. We ended up with no commentary at all. We wanted the audience to make up its own mind. So just watching this little boy, sweet little fellow that we were following – he’s giving, giving the next little kid his toy – um, as he stays in hospital without his mum and slowly, slowly falls apart. And it’s heartbreaking, really, as it dawns on him that his mother’s not there, and we just watched it happen. And an audience doing that becomes completely engaged with this little chap, and watches his face fall, and so on. It’s much more telling than anything that you could ever have said in a commentary.

This was funded by the Health Department, with a particular purpose. And we really took it as an opportunity, often, to be able to make a film that you’d wanted, have wanted to make anyway, out of this issue, or around this area, in a way that was really exciting, and communicated. And again and again at the beginning you’d find that they were a bit sceptical, those who were funding, because they wanted it very didactic. But when they saw the power of film to persuade without didacticism, you know film can have such a powerful effect if you’re just asking the person to enter into the situation of this mother, this child, and what’s about to happen to them, and it’s a dramatic thing that’s about to happen to them. And, you take the people with you. And you as a filmmaker, when we were travelling through here, did not know what was going to happen. And I think that’s the really exciting thing about documentary. You know, you don’t know. You haven’t written the script, you know.

On Sacred Ground

A program that had a big effect, and in fact got banned from overseas distribution by the then government, which Oliver Howes, who was a director here, brought to me as a producer, um, and it ended up being called On Sacred Ground (1980), and it was because nobody had filmed the Northern Territory Land Council development. So we were making a film about the rise of the Kimberley Land Council, and how it worked, and we had almost finished editing when Noonkanbah happened. Do you remember Noonkanbah? And how the West Australian Government moved in on an – very successful Aboriginal cattle station, and forced them to have mining where they didn’t want to have mining. And so we had to sort of recut the whole film, and cobble it together. We’d spent our budget. It was quite dramatic. And then once it was finished, um, we were told it couldn’t be distributed overseas because the Western Australian Government didn’t look very good in the film, I have to tell you. I hate to tell you.

Australian Biography online

You know, I’ve always called the Australian Biography a project rather than a series. And the way in which you can handle material once you’ve got the online outlet, just gives you a completely, you know, it’s opened up a whole new possibility with it which is really terrific. And one of the things that always sort of slightly broke my heart was that although everything was kept in Archival, it wasn’t able to be seen by others unless they were accessing it for part of their own film. So now it’s online, that makes a huge amount of difference.

Early days of video

Here are some old film cans, you see. Lots of old film cans. Goodness me. It’s lovely to see them again. I haven’t seen film cans for a long time. It’s great. There’s still an old Steenbeck here. Now, Ray [Argall, interviewer], you remember these.

The big thing that shifted to make video work in the editing room was really digital, because I used to – you know, when – when I first started working in video, remember it was, you know, like, terrible editing because you had to go back to the beginning if you wanted to alter anything. I kept saying, we want the equivalent of an electronic bin, you know, because a bin was so good – you could just pull off the bit and put it in. And, in fact, the new technology eventually brought us what I tended to think of as the electronic bin, where you could find your bit that you wanted to muck around with.

Making technology sing

Robin: Ah, here’s George here.

George: Come in, come in. Don’t shoot me. I don’t belong in front of the camera – I belong behind it.

Robin: I have to tell you, George is one of the few people who’s been here through all the vicissitudes, haven’t you George?

George: I certainly have.

Robin: He’s a stayer.

George: Since the old days, when we used to do film.

Robin: I remember when I first came to Film Australia as a producer, having to – presiding over something called a Video Dialogue Unit with this new thing called 'video’ about which everybody was highly suspicious. But what was interesting to me and which I think is a great lesson for all the new media was that – at the beginning, video did shocking stuff, and they were right to criticise it because it was in the hands of the techy heads. It was only the people who were sort of really the technical people and engineers who were sort of calling the shots. When film editors learned how to do video editing, when cinematographers learned to pick up a video camera and do with it as closely as they could what they’d learned to do on film, video took off. And it demonstrated to me once and for all that films are made with minds, not with technology. That it is the creative person using the technology that makes the technology sing.

Directors can't take 'no' for an answer

I really believe it’s terribly important for a director to have enough knowledge of each of the processes to be able to know when somebody’s saying something can’t be done, that – and you know that it can. It – you know, because you do get that a bit with people saying – something that’s going to be hard, or a bit of trouble, and they’ll say no. And if you know they can do it, it helps because you can persuade them to have a go.

Constructive criticism

When I came back to Australia, I assumed that you’d be doing your colleague a favour if you pointed out what was wrong with their program. And I very quickly learnt that that sort of approach to – this is all about improving our game – wasn’t endemic in the culture here. And I think we probably all could do still – even though I think it has improved over the years since, you know, I’ve been around. I think it’s something that we really do need to do, is to separate out feeling personally affronted and feeling that it’s actually a generous thing to offer someone. I mean, you don’t have to take – you know, they could be wrong. You know, if I offered criticism of your stuff, Ray, I could well be wrong but, I think that you can then evaluate whether or not you agree with it.