Dr. Anna Broinowski's Key Note Address from the 25th Sydney Film School Festival Awards Night.
I have a confession to make – I am totally unqualified to be addressing you tonight as you get ready to unleash your talents on the world.
I am a Sydney Law drop out, a NIDA actor unlucky enough to graduate around the same time as Cate Blanchett, and a twice rejected directing applicant to AFTRS.
I never went to film school, and fell into filmmaking by accident.
Back in the 90s as a jobbing stage actor in Kings Cross, I had a long future of entertaining Sydney lawyers, bankers and doctors - and their husbands - in Moliere re-hashes at the Sydney Theatre Company ahead of me, and a growing certainty that prancing around in corsets for this priviledged crowd would drive me slowly mad.
Desperate for a broader audience, and with nothing better to do, I sat down with my brother one day and wrote a crazy film pitch on a Darlinghurst café napkin about Japan’s cultural underground, with morphing pieces of Sushi and on-camera interviews about drugs and guns with the Yakuza. Our fax happened to land on the desk of an SBS commissioning editor exactly 10 seconds after he’d hung up from the Australian Film Commission – who’d told him they were looking for “off- the-wall ideas” that would normally be too crazy to fund.
One year later, having never directed or produced anything in my life, our $250,000 documentary Hell Bento!! – featuring rock bands Guitar Wolf, Super Junky Monkey and the 5678s (long before Tarantino snapped them up for Kill Bill), along with the Bosoozokku bikers, the Kyoto Yakuza in a hotel they were extorting, a bunch of Otaku futurists, a teenage Geisha and Japan’s number one cross- dressing cabaret group was a cult-hit at the Sydney Film Festival.
2000 people sat in the rococo twilight of the State Theatre and laughed at our jokes – the film exploded on the international festival circuit (except for in Japan, where the Yakuza politely indicated they’d come after us if it was ever screened) – and I was hooked.
Since then my films have taken me all over the world – from underground lesbian foot fetish parties in Chippendale to doomsday cults in Arizona and Astral- channelers in San Francisco; from remote Tartastan Dachas and the ancient Souks of Jordan to the Aum Shinrikyo’s Mount Fuji compound, two weeks before they gassed Tokyo’s subways with Sarin; from interviews with Noam Chomsky, Martin Sheen, Christopher Reeve, John Howard, Lily Tomlin, Helen Caldicott, Ted Kennedy and Pauline Hanson to the Pentagon’s powerful but secretive military film script wing, and a White House Press Conference which I gate-crashed disguised as a TV reporter just before the Iraq Invasion.
I share this with you because it shows how crazy, unpredictable and wonderful the industry you’re about to enter is, how much it is driven by luck as well as talent – and because it underpins the best advice I can give you:
The best way to learn filmmaking is to do it.
Sydney Film School, with 180 productions a year and its hands-on, industry- focused approach, is, I’m happy to discover, driven by the same philosophy. You are tremendously lucky to be graduating from such a place – if it was around when I first tried to be a director, I’d have definitely applied.
So what can I, an outsider who learnt on the run thanks to the generosity of my crew mates, one of the wisest of whom is here tonight, the fearless and brilliant cinematographer Kathryn Milliss – what can I share with you as you enter this new phase in your lives – in which you will, with a lot of grit and a bit of luck, make a living doing what you love?
Your school’s 3 word motto says it all: Curiosity, Courage and Compassion.
HAVE COURAGE: to shine a light on worlds that the mainstream ignores, and, especially if you are working in nonfiction, to speak the truth to power. Be courageous enough to learn the rules, and break them.
HAVE COMPASSION: for the people you are filming and the people helping you film them – and, whenever possible, work with the best. Compassion wasn’t my default setting for a long time, I’m a bit emotionally autistic as Kathryn can confirm.
I’ll never forget the time we filmed backing plates for a doc called Forbidden Lie$ - with Kathryn strapped to the back of a ute in the bumpy backstreets of Jordan, and me yelling like a mini dictator from my comfortable seat in the front.
Or the time we were walking through a classified American security building with an armed escort to film Donald Rumsfeld, and Kathryn with barely a nod, the camera slung casually on her shoulder, quietly pressed record.
Or the time I asked Kathryn to set up some tasteful cinematic lighting, then got her to film a succession of unusual and intricate genital piercings, with every single pubic hair backlit, on a macro lens.
After everything I put her through, I’m deeply grateful that Kathryn had the compassion, dedication and fortitude to keep on teaching me and never quit. The films we made together worked because of her, and often, despite me.
The most talented collaborators I’ve worked with over the years are all compassionate people - people who are driven by something more noble, and much larger, than ego and the need to achieve.
They’ve taught me that solving creative challenges with compassion and not anger is the best way to go – both on the set, and off. It’s a lesson I continue, on every film, to learn again. If you’re working from your heart, each film you make is like climbing a spiritual mountain.
I hope you find it as rewarding – and easier - than I have.
But enough psychology, let’s move to creativity – and number three – BE CURIOUS: about the world around you, and about how you can push the boundaries of the filmmaking form.
As digital natives, you instinctively know the techniques my generation had to study hard to acquire. The world is at your feet and the types of stories you will tell about it, and the numbers of people you might reach, are limitless.
My latest doc, Pauline Hanson: Please Explain! reached 500k people – but a one minute clip from the film on social media reached 1.8 million. Discover how to access this level of audience for your films, and you’ll have it made. How to achieve this beats me – I can’t wait to see how you do it.
I’m going to share with you now a short work/life survival guide for the jobbing filmmaker. I hope it is of some value.
1. Try not to make propaganda for causes you don’t believe in. 2. Be driven by ideas bigger than yourself.
3. Be prepared to fail gloriously, and to polarise your audiences – treading a safe path will guarantee your film is forgotten as quickly as it is accepted.
4. Don’t take awards too seriously – even an Oscar, as Steve Soderbergh once observed, is nothing more than “employee of the month.”
5. Don’t read your reviews. Count them.
6. Know that filmmaking is compromise on an epic scale. If your film ends up being 85% of what you dreamed, be content.
7. Make films about what makes us Us, rather than aping Hollywood, which has sold the world violent, sexist, derivative and frankly boring genre movies as mainstream entertainment for far too long.
8. Ignore the extrinsics of money and fame. If you let these drive you, you will look great on the red carpet, but not make the best films you can.
9. Knock hard, life is deaf. Never accept a No from the gatekeepers. Keep on trying. Festival programmers, funding agencies, film critics, commissioning editors and distributors need you to survive, even when they pretend they don’t. And they are sometimes wrong.
10. Fall in love – preferably with someone who will to wash your socks, make your bread, bolster your battered ego when everything is awful, give you head massages and not complain when filmmaking eats up your life. This person was once known as the wife, and every filmmaker needs one.
11. If you’re lucky enough to find a wife, cherish him - or her. But if you end up with someone who’d rather compete with you, who is threatened by what you have to offer rather than believing in it, get the hell out and replace your wife with a muse. Your muse can be anywhere – in books, in music, in friendship, in politics, in art, in children, on the beach. It doesn’t have to be human.
12. Support one another. When something’s wrong, get together and change it. Join societies that have your back, like the ADG.
13. There’s no such thing as “best” film. Films aren’t athletes, they’re subjective expressions of life – So try not to be like Gore Vidal, who said “whenever a friend succeeds, a small part of me dies” – and instead be happy when one of your colleagues does well. It’s a crap shoot out there, your turn will come.
14. Have as many friends as possible, of all ages and backgrounds, outside the industry – this way you will discover the stories that are really worth telling.
15. Have babies – a pram in the corridor is not the death of art – it can be the start of work that is even more powerful and profound.
16. Don’t procrastinate – most filmmaking is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Don’t talk about it, just do it. (But try not make ads for Nike.)
17. And finally, know that you can change the world. Know that what you do is powerful and feared. The Bosoozokku bikers in Hell Bento!! called the camera a weapon: so use it wisely and well.
Always have a project, be a loyal friend, learn to pick your battles, try to behave ethically, and feel grateful that you are lucky to be making films in what is still one of the most supportive and open-minded industries in the world.
Go out and aim high. You’ll never regret it – and neither will your audiences. Good on you, and good luck.