Rolf de Heer: Dancing to His Song reveals man of vision

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Dancing to His Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, launched on 11 March at Griffith Film School, Brisbane, is published as an advanced eBook, with film clips, by Currency Press.

The first time I watched a Rolf de Heer film was in the late 1980s while writing a column for Australian Society, a national affairs monthly. It was my first gig in film journalism, writing reviews of new Australian cinema that took into account the industry and the cultural context of the time.

After nearly a decade away in the UK, I was back home. As it turned out, the UK had been a vantage point from which to watch the Australian film industry grow in stature. I can remember being chuffed by the reaction of English friends to Newsfront and My Brilliant Career, and was proud to watch Gallipoli with fellow film studies students in London.

And there was a lot happening locally besides. The Year My Voice Broke, Dogs in Space and Dead Calm were to make a splash. Smaller and riskier films like Shame and Rikky and Pete were not being completely swamped by the likes of Croc Dundee II and Man From Snowy River II.
New talent announced itself with Sweetie (Jane Campion) and with Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (John Hillcoat).

Amongst all of this activity, Incident at Raven’s Gate appeared, part science fiction, part domestic drama, part supernatural thriller, directed by a virtually unknown Rolf de Heer. It was championed by David Stratton in Variety and the Sydney Morning Herald and by Tina Kaufman at FilmNews. An impressive mixture of genre it was handled with flair, but did not achieve the recognition it deserved.

Unfortunately, it did not get the release it deserved either. Had it done so, one wonders how de Heer’s profile as a director might have developed subsequently.

Not wanting to make too much of this, and hindsight is a factor, it did announce an interesting new talent. Incident at Raven’s Gate was so assured, so distinctive and told with verve and panache and imaginative use of sound.

Incident was written by collaborator Marc Rosenberg and in 1989 it was too early to talk about the qualities that become apparent over de Heer’s body of work, but re-reading my review reminds me how exciting it seemed then. It was of a piece, authored by a single vision.
Based on the Rolf de Heer we have come to know, this should surprise no one.

It wasn’t until much later—after Ten Canoes—that the idea of writing a sustained study of de Heer’s work took hold.
Some years before, I’d run with the idea of researching a study of Dingo and a group of other international coproductions. (Don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this to Rolf.) But it was that glorious poster with Jamie Gulpilil standing in a canoe in the swamp that prompted me to begin writing a book.

Now was the time to talk about an auteur and his body of work.

Inspired by the challenge, I got in touch, flew over to Adelaide after he agreed to an interview. I was yet to write a word. Most interviews weren’t face-to-face but over the phone when I rang with my list of questions. There were around 30 such interviews, always lengthy.

A couple of years in, an Australia Council grant let me take time off work speechwriting to focus on developing the book.
It was agreed I could watch him on set during the shoot for The King is Dead! At times it was ‘excruciating’ (his word) for him, as he hates to be observed. Moreover, the set happened to be his home, so it was an intrusion on two counts.
The question that guided my research was finding the common ground among de Heer’s very diverse oeuvre. Chercher l’auteur and his authorial signature.

Where would I find it amongst the silent slapstick comedy, the Indigenous stories set in the wilderness, or the upheavals inside the home between husbands and wives, between children and parents and women with disability and their carers? Where amongst the stories of aliens in the outback, or dingo trappers with a passion for jazz, or old men hooked on romance novels in the Amazonian jungle?
De Heer’s penchant for unconventional protagonists and surprising genre choices has created an apparently disparate body of work. In this and other ways, he has made creative risk attractive.
The films frequently tell powerful stories about outsiders who interrogate the status quo, incorporate a strong moral position, and impatience with moral ambiguity and timidity. We were reminded of it only last week with the way he strode into a controversy over political language (‘lifestyle choices’).

And yet the stringent social critique is at the same time an argument for an inclusive community vision.

Despite some self-deprecatory remarks over the years and understandable reluctance to acknowledge his status as auteur, there is no doubt about the single organising vision that organises de Heer’s work. His team collaborate with him to maintain that vision.

The high standing his films have achieved internationally, especially Europe, is a major achievement for any filmmaker, let alone one working on modest budget. One of his most successful films, The Quiet Room, sold in 44 countries on the back of a budget just under $600,000.

De Heer’s singular films have found audiences around the world, sometimes in surprising places. Dr Plonk opened in Russia. Bad Boy Bubby was a big hit in Norway. Dingo went on release, intriguingly, in Sweden, and The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, not well received here, grossed more than €1.3 million in Spain. Dance Me to My Song screened in at least 23 international festivals outside Australia, more festivals that Ten Canoes.

Over the years, the limitations of budget have consistently extracted inventive and resourceful solutions from his practice and rejuvenated his distinctive authorial signature.

Few filmmakers set themselves a challenge in the way that this filmmaker does. Yet he hasn’t sought to solve the self-imposed challenges with more generous finance, but with ingenuity, and therein lies a key to the distinctive, innovative aspect of his work.
The book is written from the perspective of an observer of Australian cinema over some 30 years. There is a chapter covering each of de Heer’s 14 theatrical features, with sections within each on the production and reception context. It’s my firm view that the context of a film is as important as textual analysis and viewer response.

Some biographical detail is woven in as well. It wasn’t until much later in the process that I began to ask Rolf about himself. A film stands on its own merits, of course, but it’s not as though the personal history of the filmmaker is entirely irrelevant either, and throws light on the person behind a significant body of work and his vision.

This article was published in The Canberra Times and on the Fairfax website in March 2015.