Unsung Auteurs: Amanda King And Fabio Cavadini

April 19, 2023
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: pioneering Australian documentary filmmakers Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini.

Amanda King and Fabio Cavadini are underrepresented Australian documentary filmmakers who have had illustrious careers in film. Their work is characterised by editorial integrity, a strong voice, and the ability to establish a deeply empathetic relationship with their subject matter, which has included stories which document the struggles faced by Indigenous communities, the devastating impact of inner-city development, and relations between Australia and Timor-Leste since Australia’s complicity in Indonesia’s invasion of the country in 1975, as well as the plight of the people of Bougainville. Underneath the aesthetic of the films and television documentaries which the two filmmakers produce is a broader concern of changing the way that things ought to be. It’s a political state of mind.

Fabio Cavadini was born in Italy and grew up in Switzerland, but moved to Australia in 1969 from Northern Italy near Milan “as a dental technician, specialising in making chrome cobalt plates.” According to him, “there were not many people in Australia who could make [cobalt plates].” He arrived as an assisted immigrant with very little skill in English, which didn’t matter because he started working. In an interview with Gaele Sobott, Fabio outlines that he “didn’t know anything about Aboriginal people or that they even existed in Australia until 1972.” In 1972, Fabio’s brother, Alessandro Cavadini, was making a documentary called Ningala A-Na, on which Fabio worked odd jobs including stills photography, which he was skilled at. The shoot proved pivotal to Fabio’s politics as he states that “Aboriginal people were very strong and unified in fighting for their rights.” This interest continued throughout Fabio’s career as he made various documentaries which tackled Indigenous rights including Innocence Betrayed (Larissa Behrendt, 2014), Where The Water Starts (Amanda King, 2021).

Fabio Cavadini and Amanda King

Amanda King was born in Australia and trained to become an art teacher in Newcastle from 1973 to 1977. Film was the new big thing in art school but King “was taught by the local ABC camera person how to operate a Bolex, but basically, we were working with video.” Her politics were shaped by the conflict occurring in Timor-Leste partially caused by Australia’s involvement in the region, and this passion would continue throughout her career in films like 1989’s Buried Alive, The Story of East Timor, 1991’s The Shadow Over East Timor and 2017’s Time To Draw The Line (with Fabio Cavadini).

Amanda King became preoccupied by the nascent film industry which was becoming revived through initiatives like The Sydney Filmmaker’s Co-Operative, itself an extension of Albie Thoms’ Ubu Films Collective, which was established in 1965 with Aggie Reed, David Perry and John Clark. King’s 1986 documentary Neat On Paper outlines the absolution of the Co-operative by The Australian Film Institute. This early demonstration of uncompromising desire for integrity can be traced right throughout King’s filmography.

Innocence Betrayed. Produced by Fabio Cavadini

Bill Nichols elucidates the foundations of documentary filmmaking in his 2001 book Introduction To Documentary Filmmaking. The book is pronged by eight questions which formulate the titles of each of the chapters tackling, for example, why are ethical issues central to documentary filmmaking? As well as, how have documentaries addressed social and political issues? Nichols formulates that an early pioneer of the documentary form like Dziga Vertov was drawn to its capacity to “reassemble fragments of the world into a new, transformative whole, that revealed the processes and practices that joined people into a collective citizenry.” For Nichols, this ambition represented the “essence of cinema itself.”

But the documentary form shifts, changes and alters according to the socio-cultural pressures which predominate, thus King and Cavadini’s films are indicative of their innovation and passion for the medium. Attached to Nichols’ theorisation of the field of documentary is a historical canon championed by filmmakers like Frederic Wiseman and John Grierson, who advocated for an aesthetic of observational over interrogative in films like Wiseman’s 1968 classic High School. Cavadini and King’s films incorporate both of these components, making them unique figures in the Australian film landscape. This is most evident in the way in which subjects are represented in their films.

A scene from The Great Strike 1917.

What is apparent in Cavadini and King’s films is filmmakers’ compassion towards their subject matter, which has been defined by an ongoing interest in Indigenous affairs, Timor-Leste and trade unions, as with their recent documentary The Great Strike 1917 (2020). In the 1982 documentary The Whole World Is Watching, King documents the outrage many Aboriginal people felt towards The Commonwealth Games being held in Brisbane. Then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen had instated the punitive Commonwealth Act, which removed the right of people to congregate in groups of more than three, thus eradicating the capacity for Indigenous people to protest the games. In a solemn style, key figures of the Indigenous community are captured in the documentary protesting what they deem is an inhumane breach of their rights. King and Cavadini’s films promote advocacy which can only arise when the spectator identifies or has compassion with the experience identified.

Furthermore, Amanda King’s strong social conscience is epitomised in the short documentary Neat On Paper (1986), which outlines the demise and subsequent usurpation by The Australian Film Institute of The Sydney Filmmaker’s Co-Operative. Towards the end of the film, Indigenous activist Gary Foley proclaims that “people don’t want to see films about Aboriginal people…but the co-op demonstrated that there was an audience.” Such frank and sentimental provocations are an example of a reciprocated sense of trust between the subject and the interviewer.

The Shadow Over East Timor

King and Cavadini’s films explore what happens when oppressive forces control communities. For example, in The Shadow Over East Timor (1991), we follow the plight of the people of Timor-Leste as Indonesia invaded in 1975, with President Suharto tightening his grip on the country. Through guerrilla style footage, we are able to see the Frettelin pro-independence party train and prepare their attacks on the Indonesian army who push the Frettelin into the mountains in order to starve them to death. Historical footage documents how reporters Greg Shackleton, Malcolm Rennie, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham and Brian Peters, known as The Balibo Five, were killed. More recently, the Australian producer and director Robert Connelly tackled the subject in his 2009 feature film Balibo, demonstrating how much the conflict in Timor-Leste has resonated with Australians. Films like The Shadow Over East Timor illustrate the recurring characteristic of a King and Cavadini film which focuses on the interconnection between the inhuman and the humane. For this reason, their films tend to be characterised by a sense of optimism even when presenting the most devastating facts.

Concrete City (1994) is an investigative piece which documents the working-class people who live in the old harbour-side Sydney suburb of Pyrmont. The film was co-produced by King and Cavadini, and brings into question the notion of community participation in major urban development schemes, something which Australian cities continue to struggle with today. In one scene, a female resident of Pyrmont reflects on how the suburb “had four fruit shops, a supermarket and a chemist…and it’s slowly just been taken away.” These unassuming reflections are intercut with footage of the neighbourhood, including children playing in the suburb’s vacant lots. The film shows much without stating its intention overtly, which is highly effective. We occasionally view The Sydney Harbour in the background of the shots, but ultimately the filmmakers attempt to show the rich and vital community, which was surviving against great odds at the time.

Fabio Cavadini shooting Where The Water Starts.

For example, in 2000’s An Evergreen Island, we follow the inhabitants of Bougainville, a mineral wealthy island under the jurisdiction of Papua New Guinea but historically linked to The Solomon Islands before colonisation. Once mining giant Rio Tinto has extracted all it can in the Bougainville area, the locals are left impoverished and without resources. Cavadini and King show the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) as they prepare weapons and smuggle fatally wounded people through the waters past the PNG military.

Since An Evergreen Island was released, King has since reflected that “back in 1989, 1990, SBS could see that the Timor story was something Australians would be interested in…now SBS does deal with risky subjects sometimes, but when it involves our own national government, there seems to be a whole lot more sensitivity around it.” All of which highlights how avant-garde King and Cavadini’s films are. It is astounding how frank each of the interviewees appears on camera relaying their trauma and hardship as well as demonstrating their ingenuity in producing recycled guns and natural medicines.

Fabio Cavadini and Amanda King

Art cinema can be defined as contrapuntal to Hollywood, “and its standardised system of production, distribution and exhibition.” Unlike sponsored, or educational films, Hollywood tends to define cinema as entertainment. Thus, Cavadini and King’s films can be recognised as existing outside the parameters of both art cinema and entertainment and lacking deserved attention. Due to the subversive stature of King and Cavadini’s work, within art cinema and Hollywood, it is necessary to recognise their films as representations of what Fernando Solanos and Octavio Gettino define as second and third cinema.

Fernando Solanos and Octavio Gettino’s three definitions of cinema prove useful when analysing Cavadini and King’s commitment to the sponsored film because it is predominantly a subversive art form.  Solanos and Gettino argue that unlike First Cinema, which propagates the system and mainstream ideology, Third Cinema provides real alternatives differing from those offered by the System, and are only possible if one of two requirements is fulfilled: making films that The System cannot assimilate and which are foreign to its needs, or making films that directly and explicitly set out to fight The System. Thus, Cavadini and King’s films can be viewed as an expression of this mode of production because they are critical of the way in which society and dominant modes control power.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Cathy Henkel, Colin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin DavidsonFran Rubel KuzuiElliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. Norton,Larysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.