Roger Ungers’ Wheels of Wonder

November 8, 2020
To paraphrase Henry Hill in Goodfellas, as far back as he could remember, Australian filmmaker Roger Ungers always wanted to play with cameras.

“I would always take the camera out with my dad when we went on day trips to capture images from as many different angles as possible!” Roger Ungers reminisces, when FilmInk sits down to talk about his documentary, Wheels of Wonder. “My dad was always very patient with me waiting as I ran around with the camera. I feel he knew I was really passionate and that it meant a lot to me.”

Roger took this passion and used it to fuel his studies in film and TV at VCA. From there, he worked on a ‘myriad film, TV and video projects’ as a camera operator. That kind of work will expose you to all sorts of experience, but for Roger, his sights were set on being one thing: a cinematographer. However, as anyone in the biz will tell you, it’s not an easy path to take.

“Trying to get work as a cinematographer in the film and TV industry is tough, and most of the time you need to work your way up the ladder before you even get to pan and tilt the camera,” Roger says. “I made the decision to work as a videographer and video editor and work on smaller projects designed for online. In the corporate world, there is more of an opportunity to have a consistent line of work, so that’s where I found myself. It allowed me to be behind the camera and bring a vision to life. It has worked for me so far, but having said that, I am so ready to take the next step into documentary film right now!”

That documentary is Wheels of Wonder, which tells the story of a group of social impact creators who trial and test an unusual play cart – The Nüdel Kart – which has the potential to improve the lives of impoverished children through ‘loose parts play’. This kind of play supports invention and divergent thinking. It uses materials that can be carried, redesigned or taken apart, with no specific direction of what’s the right way to do so. There have been swathes of papers written about the importance of play and its benefits in the cognitive development of children.

“Going into this project, I knew nothing about the importance of play. I figured play is just something that was fun for a child to do, as I suppose many people do,” Roger ponders. “After my time in Beirut I learnt that play is such an inherent part of what we do as human beings specifically in our early years. There is a reason that we automatically want to play as a child, and it’s so we can learn and develop when the most amount of activity is going on in the brain.”

The hard-working team of Playground Ideas took their prototype cart to Beirut, where they worked with locals and refugees to create something that could be taken anywhere, in any climate to support any child. Roger was invited along to capture their trials and tribulations.

“I was anxious going into Beirut,” the director admits. “I didn’t know much about the place apart from it hosting the most amount of refugees in relation to its population, which did make me think about what environments I would bear witness to.”

Those who have seen Wheels of Wonder can testify to the heart-warming and emotional scenes of refugee children being allowed to be actual children, as they tackle the contents of The Nüdel Kart to create their own idea of fun. Of course, there were challenges for Roger, including knowing when an appropriate time was to film, and of course, the strong army presence in Beirut where there was the genuine threat of having his camera confiscated.

Nevertheless, Roger stills focuses on the good that came out of his time there. “I am so proud of the achievements of the team and how focused and determined they were. They took on the challenge and brought joy and smiles to the faces of these children; it was so beautiful!”

Roger beams, “There is a moment in the film when a boy runs up to Catherine Sewell, the play specialist, to hug her as we all arrived on one of the days. He was so comfortable with her, and you could just feel the love! There is another moment where the kids are riding on top of the cart and following it as it gets wheeled to the designated play area. Catherine described it as ‘an incredible procession’. These are some of the moments of joy that warm your heart and I believe it is what gives the documentary its magic!”

Back home, Roger has kept in constant contact with the team of Playground Ideas, working on several other projects with them. The Nüdel Kart is now available in its final form, and Roger encourages us to follow their journey online.

But what about Roger? What did he get out of a film where he was producer, director, cinematographer and editor to name but a few roles?

“What I am looking forward to in the future is working with experienced and talented crew members to contribute their creativity and ideas,” he answers. “I can learn from this, and it will only make the film better and me a better filmmaker. I think it’s so important to work with others as it brings new colours to the film. It may not be easier, in that, there will be a lot of back and forth, but it will be worth it in the end!”

Roger’s next project explores the concept of creativity from multiple points of view. He says it will show how people embrace their creative side while acknowledging the highs and lows they face.

“It’s an empowering piece that seeks to highlight and provide examples of how we can be creative in all aspects of our life,” he says. “I am so excited about this project, it’s certainly got the creative juices flowing!”

The Wheels of Wonder screens on SBS on the 20th November 3.30pm to mark UN World Children’s Day and will be available on SBS on Demand after that.

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