What initially began as a teaching tool for Sydney Film School teacher and filmmaker, Leslie Oliver, has turned into a moving portrait exhibition.
"Tell me about a time you fell in love." Faces pale in quiet terror on camera in Leslie Oliver's Love Stories, a video installation of his interviews with students from the Sydney Film School.
As the Head of Teaching and Production at Sydney Film School, Oliver has been asking that very question of over one thousand students for the past fifteen years. What started out as a teaching tool has now evolved into an exhibition, taking place at Waterloo's Brenda May Gallery, as part of the Head On Festival.
"It was such a powerful form from the time I started using it," Oliver explains. "The classes really responded to it in a really clear, emotional way. That's what we're aiming for when we make films!"
In the acting/directing class, the logic is that it's good for you to know what's going on between the director and the actor, so you can be sympathetic in the work you do with them. The students are asked to arrive an hour before the lesson, and come in one at a time like lambs to the slaughter.
"People are always amazed by the looks on their faces when they walk out of the room; they look like they've been through something traumatic. They're quite afraid to come inside," Oliver laughs.
But once they sit down and it's only the two of them, Oliver explains that he just wants to catch a little bit of them talking openly on camera. "I tell them, ‘I'm going to ask you a question and just think about it for a minute before you speak.' There is that initial shock of, ‘Oh no, why'd you ask me this?' But very quickly, they start thinking about it and forgot they are there. It transforms them. When they walk out of the room, it's written on their faces that they've been in some other place."
A single question could not reveal more of a person's soul than, ‘Tell me about a time you fell in love.' One memorable response came from a South African woman in her mid- twenties. Oliver remembers thinking at the time that it seemed odd that she was completing a film course at this point in her life. "It seemed like a pretty big step to go to another country to do this short course in film.
"I asked her the question and she just stared at me. Stared right through me for a moment and then started speaking in strange riddles, saying, ‘He's here now, he's right with us.' She never said anything specific. But she became very emotional. I didn't find out until six months later that the reason she was in the country was that her fiancé had just been killed in a car accident."
The process worked as a Gestalt therapy, a clinical psychology technique of talking to an empty chair (in this case to a camera) where the subject leads themselves to a resolution of their conflicting emotions.
"In a way it brought her painful past into her present life here at the school. It gave her a reason to talk about him even though she didn't do it directly. And it actually made her much more comfortable with us from that point on," Oliver reflects. Two years later she went back to South Africa and called the school asking for a copy of the tape. "She remembers the moment and how important it was to her," Oliver says.
He hasn't always received genuine answers. Some of the aspiring filmmakers have gotten hold of the question before class and tried to "act", but Oliver says he was only interested in what was genuine. "As human beings we're trying to conceal the truth from each other, in order to get ahead we don't always let on what we feel or believe. I don't call it lying exactly but we try to put on a brave face and show a different exterior to what might be going on inside."
When asked whether this was art, film or teaching, Oliver ponders where one ends and another begins, preferring to think of his work as an exploration of how we connect. "This is more a celebration of those people than of my art," he reflects. "My art is very small in this. Human beings given the space to be seen and to be connected with, is a rich thing in itself, and I don't have to do very much to let that happen."
Love Stories will run at Brenda May Gallery in Waterloo May 8-26. For more information about the event, head here.