Margot Nash: Experimentation And The Documentary

April 7, 2016
Veteran documentarian, Margot Nash, posits that experimentation is vital when it comes to the non-fiction form, and that today’s filmmaking technology is helping young directors realise their visions without compromise.

The first experimental film that I ever saw was projected on a lounge room wall in the late 1960s. It was Jean-Luc Godard’s Two Or Three Things I Know About Her. I had grown up on Hollywood movies showing at the suburban drive-in down the road, but by the time I discovered Godard, I had fled the burbs and was living in the inner city, soaking up theatre and film and open to anything. Godard inspired many of us because he broke the rules, played with film form, and dared to be political. I don’t know what I was expecting when I climbed those rickety stairs in the big share house to watch my first Godard, but I do know that I sat up when a woman serving in a shop suddenly turned to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, to tell us how much she was paid and what her bills were. I had no idea that you were allowed to do things like that! Later I would make a humorous experimental feminist short with my friend, Robin Laurie, called We Aim To Please (1976) about female sexuality and the male gaze where we broke the fourth wall and threw tomatoes at the camera.

Where do ideas come from? They don’t drop from the sky. They come from being exposed to different kinds of films and seeing what is possible. Jim Jarmusch says, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” Godard said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.” Innovative documentary ideas don’t come from watching bland television, they come from seeking other platforms where unusual work is available, from attending film festivals where festival selectors take risks and from being courageous enough to challenge the status quo. Back when we made We Aim To Please, there was an Experimental Film Fund, which took risks on unknown filmmakers. There were also Filmmakers Cooperative cinemas that screened local and international experimental works. I saw Sue Clayton’s 1979 feminist documentary, Song Of The Shirt at The Sydney Filmmakers Coop in Darlinghurst. I also saw Chris Marker’s seminal 1983 essay documentary, San Soleil, there. Like Godard, these works turned things upside down, and were inspirational to many of us. Over the years, various government initiatives have encouraged documentary filmmakers to take risks, but this has all gone now.  Even Screen Australia’s Signature Fund is a thing of the past.

Today, we seem to have forgotten that, along with the demands of the market place, there is also a cultural need for experimental works. Australian broadcasters and funding bodies continue to face onerous funding cuts, and this has made them even more risk averse. In the rush to second guess the market place, we are not encouraging young people to take the kind of risks that they need to in order to find their voices.

“Today, we seem to have forgotten that, along with the demands of the market place, there is also a cultural need for experimental works.”

I have watched various iterations of the funding bodies come and go, and I have had my fair share of the public purse, but a few years ago, when I cooked up an idea for a personal essay documentary that sat outside of the current fashions, the thought of approaching the funding bodies filled me with dread. With less money and an ever-increasing number of filmmakers wanting it, I knew that they would look for ways to say no rather than yes. If I wanted to spend my precious time jumping through hoops and getting knocked back, I was destined for misery, so I decided to roll up my sleeves and jump in. I wasn’t even sure if I had a film or not, but a 14-week Filmmaker Residency in Zürich in 2012 offered me the opportunity to find out. I taught myself Final Cut Pro and started editing the materials that I had gathered together. It took me another three years working on and off to finish the film. I wouldn’t do it again, but just once I wanted the creative freedom to play without having to please the gatekeepers.

The process that I engaged in is what many young people today take for granted. They don’t bother approaching the funding bodies. They work in their lounge rooms, editing on their computers and finding new ways to distribute their work online. So too Godard, who is now in his eighties and still making films using digital technology and a tiny crew, still pushing the boundaries.

Perhaps it is here – out on the micro-budget margins – that we will see true innovators emerge to take us by surprise, the way that Godard made me sit up way back then. The same old formula docs may well be a safe bet, but I will die of boredom if I see one more of them.  I don’t even mind if something fails if it is a spirited attempt.

Margot Nash is a filmmaker and a Senior Lecturer in Communications at The University of Technology Sydney. Her personal essay documentary, The Silences, opens on April 27 at The Hayden Orpheum in Sydney with a special Meet The Filmmaker event at 6.30pm. The film will also play at Cinema Nova in Melbourne, The Mercury in Adelaide, The Arc in Canberra and The Regal in Newcastle. See www.margotnash.com and The Silences Facebook Page for more.

Picture caption: Margot Nash (right) with her mother Ethel (right), who features in The Silences.

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