Forum on “Personal Documentary” – 17 June 2004

Title: Forum on “Personal Documentary”
Location: State Theatre – Market St, Sydney
Description: WHAT:

Panel Discussion in The Sydney Film Festival


State Theatre – Market St, Sydney


Thursday 17 June 2004 – 2.30pm

See Sydney Film Festival for more info and screening times of Bright Leaves.

Chaired by Martha Ansara, the panel members are…
Ross McElwee (Bright Leaves), Helen Newman and Tahir Cambis (Anthem), Gillian Leahy, and Dasha Ross (as filmmaker and a broadcaster who necessarily evaluates a wide range of personal documentaries).
Start Time: 14:30
Date: 2004-06-17

In documentary, the personal is always political, but it also needs to be courageous, engrossing, challenging. Today, the ease and relative low cost of production with digital cameras and desktop editing has brought a flood of personal films – non-linear, sometimes an essay, sometimes a diary, sometimes a journey – but not all succeed.

This new style has brought with it new challenges for both film-maker and audience. What are the strategies by which a personal film engages with the wider society and with its audience. These are the questions we’re throwing at our panel of documentary-makers, including Tahir Cambis (director of 1997 doco, “Exile in Sarajevo”, and whose latest work “Anthem” is screening in this year’s festival) and Ross (“Sherman’s March”) McElwee whose new documentary “Bright Leaves” is also screening. McElwee is a Visiting Lecturer at Harvard University’s Dept of Visual and Environmental Studies, where he teaches a course in film-making. “Bright Leaves”, his subjective autobiographical meditation on the allure of cigarettes and their troubling legacy, is also about film-making – home movie, documentary and fiction film.
Ross McElwee by Ross McElwee

“In 1975, as a graduate student at MIT’s Film Section, I began filming “chapters” from my own life and the lives of people close to me. Those chapters coalesced into two films, CHARLEEN, about my wise and flamboyant high school teacher, and BACKYARD, about my relationship to my surgeon father and my medical school-bound brother. BACKYARD reveals my father’s pride in my brother’s choice of careers, as well as his somewhat puzzled concern about my choice – making documentary “home movies.” He would say to me “Why don’t you try to make nature films.” Instead, I went on to make SHERMAN’S MARCH: A MEDITATION ON THE POSSIBILITY OF ROMANTIC LOVE IN THE SOUTH DURING AN ERA OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROLIFERATION, an absurd title, but one which aptly summed up the major themes of the film. In it, I retraced General Sherman’s destructive Civil War route, interweaving this journey with portraits of seven southern women I met along the way.

SHERMAN’S MARCH achieved wide acclaim, and led to a sequel, TIME INDEFINITE, in which I document my somewhat awkward shift into adulthood, getting married (finally), and then having to confront the sudden death of my father. At the end of the film, I become a father myself. In SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE WALL, my wife and I reflect upon growing up in the shadow of the Cold War as we film life along the Berlin Wall. I recently completed SIX O’CLOCK NEWS, a film about local television news and the fears a father can have about raising a child in a society such as the one we see reflected in the six o’clock news.

Each of these films explores new territory for me, but in almost all of them, members of my immediate and extended family reappear over a nineteen year span. This fact adds, I believe, an additional dimension to my work, providing a record of both how much and how little my family has changed over time.”