In Australia, says Craig Reucassel, we tend to be superior about our political process. “We see America as this shit-show dominated by money,” he told us.
What Reucassel discovered while making his directorial debut with the new feature documentary Big Deal was that in Australia, when it comes to money, power, business, and politics, the situation is “much worse.”
In short Big Deal asks, is our democracy for sale? Reucassel and his team, with Christiaan Van Vuuren (Bondi Hipsters) as on-camera guide, investigate the billion-dollar lobbying business in Australia, and try to add up the cost of ‘dark’ donations to our major parties.
Van Vuuren, in the tradition of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, meets with experts, pollies, academics, PR flacks, and grass roots activists to map the intricacies of an issue that impacts the way Australians live now.
He encounters the cynicism of former pollies who claim ‘it’s just the way it is’, to grass roots idealists who are trying to disrupt an insidious tradition.
Using animation, graphs and the occasional joke to explain an incredibly complex story, Big Deal is an entertaining wake up.
We spoke to Reucassel via phone from his home in Sydney.
Did you have dreams of being a director?
“One of the camera people we used to work with, told me ‘you always were a backseat director anyway!’ [Laughs] I never thought of myself as a director at all, but the reality is for many years I was making content…on The Chaser…we would write things, perform them, edit them afterwards, we wouldn’t necessarily be behind the camera…”
How did you get involved with Big Deal?
“I went with the team to Shark Island who were putting it together including executive producer Jen Peedom [Sherpa] and Christiaan Van Vuuren – they’d already been working on it for a while…I was there just to come up with ideas. At the end of that process, Jen Peedom came up to me and said: ‘you should direct this’. I said, ‘what are you talking about, I can’t do that!’ They said, ‘this is what directing is, working out the story…’ It was interesting [to discover] that a lot of the skills were the same skills I’ve been working at for years.”
With your background and Christiaan’s, there is perhaps an expectation that the film might be essentially comedic…but it isn’t at all!
“Interesting you should say that. Christiaan is a comedic person and we shot comedic stuff, but in the edit we would find ourselves agreeing that it wasn’t working. Something I learnt from going from comedy to documentary – I’d be doing a piece to camera and cracking jokes – but you realise that to do the story you have to be honest. Christiaan isn’t such a political tragic [as I am], but he’s concerned and engaged and seeing it through his eyes and his response to things was really great.”
You describe yourself as a bit of a political ‘junkie’.
“Oh yeah! To be honest, I’ve always been interested in money and politics and this topic. One thing I wished I had done in my twenties, was worked as a political staffer. We see the end results, but there’s a lot that goes behind closed doors that we are unable to see and trying to show that and communicate that is a real challenge.
“But that said, it’s not until you really get into a topic and sink your teeth into it that you find out the really interesting stuff. I learned so much on this journey. You don’t know how it works and how much it matters. Having just made two climate change focused docs – War on Waste and Fight For Planet A: Our Climate Challenge – the reality is that you cannot understand Australia’s position on climate change without understanding the money and politics revolving door. That’s why our federal parliament is running behind the sentiment of the people.”
You got some big talking heads including former PM Malcom Turnbull, Jacqui Lambie, Linda Burney…Did you have trouble getting people to go on record?
“Yes. Some people didn’t want to speak. One of the great things that came out of this is that it’s not like every pollie loves this. I would say there’s a battle going on in every party. Certain people gain a lot of their power by the fact that they are good at raising money. There are others who say ‘this just gets in the way of what we wanna do’.”
At the moment there seems a fear in the community – where people are reluctant to speak up for fear of being branded.
“One of the more interesting discussions Christiaan and I had was about getting that right balance between making people aware of the nightmare of it and thinking it’s some bizarre conspiracy… At the moment, there is a tendency toward [understanding politics] as a total conspiracy…[like] saying every single decision is being dictated by one person behind the scenes…It’s a much more complex thing. Donations are just the first step toward getting the access to then create the relationship with the pollie. Then it gets to the point where they feel like friends. It becomes about doing something for a friend and it has nothing to do with money…It’s insidious in the way it works without being black and white…”
It must have been hard to take – some of this stuff you deal with seems so, well, cynical?
“Yeah! It was despairing. We made the film in continuity. We really dove into the shit side of the story about how it all happens, so it was nice to get to the end when we start dealing with community groups…”
Where they are seizing control of the process, making the ‘influencers’ irrelevant…
“Right…we found stories where you start going ‘far out, there is a bit more uplift’. I hate a movie where at the end [the message] is the ‘politicians need to change this’. So, people can say ‘well if it’s just down to the pollies I’ll just put up a few FB post and get on with my life.’
At one-point, Christiaan cries on camera in the face of the community spirit he’s confronted with!
“I was behind the camera crying too! I think that those tears were the feeling of relief, having gone through all this depressing stuff to find glimpses of hope.”
What is your hope people will take away from the film?
“I guess it’s really about becoming active and engaged with politics to try and improve it. There was a penny drop moment for us. Someone was talking about being cynical, where you don’t care anymore. That’s what those who made you cynical, that’s what they want to achieve! They don’t want you to be engaged. In not being involved, it’s easier for them to get their way. That’s why its important to stay involved. It could mean joining a grass roots party. It’s about engaging.”
Big Deal is on limited theatrical release from September 16. If you are in lockdown, you can visit makeitabigdeal.org for details on how to watch the film.