Taking this extraordinary journey with the family featured in the documentary Meet the Wallers gives you a slight sense of being a voyeur peeking through a keyhole. Director Jim Stevens spent 20 years documenting the highs and lows of artist and dreamer Mark Waller and the more pragmatic Nicole Waller trying to make ends meet while they both cared for their two daughters in the Northern NSW town of Lennox Heads. We all watch as they age before our eyes, the adults’ marriage under the microscope, the girls progressing from babies to teenagers leaving the family nest.
We have all been wearied by exposure to endless reality television shows where contrivance and stunts pepper the screen. This is a rare warts-and-all reveal of a marriage of a truly authentic Australian couple. A chance meeting with Nicole led Jim Stevens to this project, little knowing his own destiny would be tied to theirs for the following two decades.
Mark Waller was a handsome Aussie surfer, a self-taught artist with a burning sense that his talent would be enough to provide for his family. The film traces the occasional triumph and the more frequent failures as he confronts the reality of trying to make ends meet as a full-time artist. Nicole is a sunny personality, but she is provoked by an endless financial plight to complain a lot. She wants her husband to get a reliable job, then shares his optimism that his art will prevail, and the dollars will follow. Hopes were particularly high when they plunged what little money they had into an exhibition in America. Stevens captures their heartbreak and despair in New York with great sensitivity when not a single painting sells, and all the cash has evaporated.
As the years pass, Stevens is there to document laughter, tears, anger and Nicole’s ever-changing hairstyles. Their daughters are on and off the screen, more like bit players. It is only years on that we hear a rather painful interview with Jasmin when the parents’ union is in danger of breaking. By this stage, Mark Waller’s horizons have broadened beyond the house/studio they had built. He’s set up shop in town where he paints and teaches, employs a business manager and is gaining a reputation as an artist to collect. But a near-death brush with brain cancer brings everything to a halt.
His slow recovery sees the couple reassessing their lives, their marriage, and the way forward. As middle age brings them greater financial and professional rewards, it also delivers a sense of peace, visualised with a poignant scene of the couple floating joyously in the lake near their home. Stevens leaves viewers feeling they have not only met the Wallers, they also came to know them well and were cheering them on.
Anne Maria Nicholson is an author and the former National Arts Reporter for ABC