Rolf de Heer’s outstanding contribution to Australian film

ROLF DE HEER

FCCA 2019 ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AWARD

Australia’s premier association of professional film critics, the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA), has presented a special award to filmmaker Rolf de Heer.

The Acknowledgement Award for Excellence recognises his unique body of work, and exceptional contribution over many years to Australian cinema and culture.

The award was made at the recent FCCA Awards for 2019.

Rolf de Heer – international auteur, Australian provacateur

This piece by Jane Freebury, author of Dancing to his Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, was printed in the commemorative material distributed at the FCCA Awards for 2019:

Rolf de Heer learned his craft when the Australian films that reached the international festival circuit had a reputation for high production values and were often seen as vehicles for endorsing the official view of cultural identity. They were good to look at, but safe and non-confronting. It was a reputation that some local commentators, and the late, formidable Pauline Kael in New York, were impatient with.

Then along came Bad Boy Bubby in 1993, a rude retort to the polite reserve that characterised Australian cultural production. A pitch black comedy that was really out there, it had something to offend just about everyone. Even Rolf took a step back at one point and wondered aloud ‘Where the hell did that come from?”

It refused outright to be culturally enhancing and legitimising. Rolf’s films have never made us look that good.

The rest, of course, is history. Bad Boy Bubby shared the FIPRESCI international critics’ prize with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and took out two other prizes at the Venice International Film Festival, won other awards in Seattle and Valenciennes, and was an AACTA nominee for best film.

Notoriety went with the acclaim. Censors in the United Kingdom cut the scene with the cat, leaving other scenes of incest or matricide alone.

So persuasive did Rolf’s films become that we came to find ourselves celebrating more crimes and misdemeanours. The entombment of an errant husband in the family home, the extra-judicial killing of a homicidal, racist coloniser, and so on. A step too far? De Heer made a habit of daring his audiences to take it with him.

In the new millenium, he has become known for his magnificent Indigenous stories in the outback wilderness, The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country, that gave rare prominence to Aboriginal protagonists in Australian film.

However, Rolf has ranged freely across genres, from Bubby’s man-child coming-of-age, to silent comedy in B&W, to intense psychodramas set in the domestic space, to science fiction, and more.

It will surprise some that he has also made two international coproductions with romantic protagonists in pursuit of their passion. The outback trapper fond of jazz in Dingo is a perennial favourite, while The Old Man Who Read Love Stories in the Amazonian jungle is less well known.

Ever since that career-defining moment when Rolf first courted creative risk, it has continued to define him. He has been willing to take risks with projects, even extreme risks, and it has seen him develop a profile as a filmmaker who is bold, innovative, unorthodox and unpredictable.

I believe that his bold and spirited approach has given heart to many young emerging filmmakers In Australia. Yes, it can be done.

The result is a body of work over the last three decades that few contemporaries in the Australian film industry can match for range, ambition and audacity.

Over the course of his filmmaking career – in which he has more often than not been writer/direct/ and producer of his work – he has become adept at the art of bricolage, of using the materials at hand and transforming it. It is his form of creative risk.

Some incident energised him, sparked his curiosity and his imagination, or his indignation, and set him on a course of action in support of social justice. The bricolage has determined the character of the film in production and fixed the de Heer brand.

While refusing to accept the apparent limits imposed by a low budget, he has taken a chance on the very element that presented risk for his production­­. The wheelchair-bound lead actor only able to speak with a voice synthesiser (Dance Me To My Song), shy or incapacitated child actors (The Quiet Room), alternatives to prohibitively expensive filmstock (Alexandra’s Project and Dr Plonk), unwillingness to represent live-action violence (The Tracker), or to manage a large crew (the genesis of Bad Boy Bubby), moving house (The King is Dead). Then turned it into an essential building block.

The restriction or obstacle that might hold another director in check seems to supply the essential energy to this filmmaker’s creativity. A negative is transformed into a positive. Something comes from nothing.

While Australia certainly lays claim to Rolf de Heer, his singular cinema maps a country all its own. Like many auteurs he has created a body of work that is its own country, a place and people of the imagination to which each new de Heer film adds a further dimension. Identifiably Australian, yet refusing to endorse any notion of a national identity, the territory he explores lies at the margins of the mainstream. Inhabited by outliers, marginalised protagonists who effectively and comprehensively turn the table on their oppression.

As Rolf has developed a distinctive authorial signature, he has been a pioneer, revealing to our industry what is possible with limited tools. He has become an inspiring role model for emerging filmmakers working within constraints.

The success of his work is best measured by the admiration, respect, provocation and debate that it has generated.  Rolf is an internationally recognised auteur whose invigorating, challenging work has achieved high standing in world cinema.

 

Drawn from: Freebury, Jane (2015), Dancing to His Song: the Singular Cinema of Rolf de Heer, Currency Press / Currency House, Sydney

 

 

*Featured image: Actor Gary Sweet (on left) congratulates Rolf de Heer on his FCCA award

Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards 2019

 

The Nightingale won best feature film at the recent FCCA Awards 2019 in Sydney.

The film’s star Aisling Franciosi received the award for best actress.

Damon Herriman picked up the best actor award for his role in Judy and Punch.

David Michôd won best director for The King.

Michôd and Joel Edgerton won the award for best screenplay.

Ursula Yovich won best supporting actress for Top End Wedding, while Joel Edgerton won best supporting actor for The King.

Danger Close: The Battle Of Long Tan won three craft awards. Best cinematography to Ben Nott, best original score to Caitlin Yeo and best editing to Veronika Jenet.

The award for best feature documentary was shared by The Final Quarter and Martha, A Picture Story.

Director, producer, writer Rolf de Heer was honoured with a special FCCA award in recognition of a unique body of work and its contribution to Australian cinema.

Bad Boy Bubby re-visited


©  Jane Freebury

Text of a talk introducing Rolf de Heer’s Bad Boy Bubby when it screened in the Banned + Beautiful season at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, in 2017

The first time I saw Bad Boy Bubby was in Indonesia in 1993. It was on laser disk, pirated copy of course. I’m afraid that was the only way there to keep up with new Australian film while overseas.

To say that it was a shock to the system would be an understatement. Also, away from Australia I had missed out on a lot of the fun. Missed out on David Stratton’s astonishing 5 stars—something, as he said, to offend just about everyone—and the controversy it generated.

I had really liked de Heer’s  Incident at Raven’s Gate, a science fiction genre film set in the outback that was released in 1988, though was subsequently a bit disappointed by a languid Dingo, featuring jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, a few years later.

Bad Boy Bubby was de Heer’s fourth film, and he threw everything at it.

His first film had been in 1984, a sweet children’s film, Tail of a Tiger, about a boy dazzled by an old Tiger Moth airplane.

Each of these films had achieved respectable critical notices, if they had not done so well at the box office, nor marked the filmmaker out with the critics.

Bad Boy Bubby was a huge calculated risk. Either de Heer was going to make his name with this one, or give the game away.

At same time, risk became integral to his praxis. For a film to work had to be ‘out there’.  From Bad Boy Bubby on, he built risk into each film he made.

He has since said that as a filmmaker you are doomed to fail unless you go absolutely ‘all out’. It was his will to be ‘extreme’.

To quote the filmmaker: ‘If I was just going to do with ordinary thing then that’s the most risky thing you can do, because just by simple statistical analysis you can work out that only one film in seven even breaks even. And so the chances are that unless you take profound risk, you are going to fail.’

Rolf is very talented, but this is also the view of an artist who is a pragmatist.

When Rolf made Bad Boy Bubby, he had reached his early 40s, and was already ten years in the industry. There is, I think a hint of ‘do or die’ about this film.

The Bubby idea had been brewing for a long time – a ‘no budget’ film, with a two-year shoot.

Originally, it was going to be about child abuse, but de Heer decided to make the protagonist an adult and ditched altogether the idea of using a child actor.

Bad Boy Bubby took around 10 years to gestate, and de Heer returned to it from time to time to add some new outrageous idea—like that of the wheelchair bandit of Adelaide. De Heer, who grew up in Sydney and studied at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, moved to South Australia in 1989.

Rolf had in mind to persuade his friend Ritchie Singer to take the lead role, but Singer politely declined when he read the script, so the filmmaker turned to Nicholas Hope, an English-born theatre actor, resident of Adelaide, who had appeared in one other film. Confessor Caressor, a faux documentary about a psychopath who conducts tours of the lair where he disembowels his victims.

Half of the $800,000 plus budget was put up by Fandango, a production house based in Rome that would become of pivotal importance providing finance for de Heer’s films for years to come. The other half was put up by the Film Finance Corporation. It meant the budget was covered, and the shoot completed within a couple of months.

De Heer has noted that he declined a $3 million budget to make the film. He refused it on the grounds that it would not make the film three of four times better and that a low-budget aesthetic worked best with the subject.

It was also his determination to allow himself the freedom that low budget can afford, that he had not enjoyed during his work on French-Australian coproduction Dingo, despite its $5.6 million budget and big international crew.

After Dingo, de Heer was determined to go small, small as could be.

It is a point of honour for Rolf to work within budget.

The majority of his films have been made for under $2.5 million (well under the low budget ceiling), and most came in well under $2 million.

The Quiet Room, released in 1997, was made for under $600,000. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001), shot in the jungles of South America, was a striking exception with its budget of $14 million.

In its original conception, Bad Boy Bubby would be made on weekends over a couple of years, shot by anyone free to do it. Hence, the credits for more than 30 cinematographers.

Bad Boy Bubby was to be made on a shoestring, with whoever was available to crew at the time. Cinematographers eventually did include famous names today—Geoff Simpson and Steve Arnold who both contributed scenes.

The logic for Bad Boy Bubby was that the protagonist character was a blank page. For de Heer, it meant a stylistic freedom because everything was new. Everything Bubby encountered was something he witnessed for the first time.

Ian Jones, de Heer’s usual cinematographer since Bad Boy Bubby, shot the opening and closing scenes, so you could argue there was a bit of continuity. Though de Heer recalls that all camera operators were encouraged to do whatever they saw fit.

And, the film does hang together. This has a lot to do with Hope’s performance. He is in almost every single frame. Bad Boy Bubby became a big hit in Norway, second only to Forrest Gump, and Hope an actor in demand there.

Source: Google Images

From the first scenes of mise-en-abyme of neglect, abuse and sexual exploitation, Hope’s performance and that of Claire Benito, as his mother, still stand as very brave, 24 years later.

And the cockroach scene … It’s real. According to  Hope, de Heer showed him how to swallow a cockroach by coating it in chocolate sauce. The filmmaker never refuted this.

It was in Italy that Rolf first had impact internationally. Bad Boy Bubby shared the FIPRESCI critics’ prize with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts at the Venice Film Festival.

It is intriguing that more of de Heer’s films have screened in Italy than in any other country, including the Netherlands.

Britain liked it too.

The Economist described BBB as the real triumph of the Venice festival. The esteemed critic at The Guardian, Derek Malcolm, described it as ‘the biggest surprise…astonishingly audacious and original’, while France – Le Soir reported that many considered it a ’revelation’.

Around this point, as a result of the critical acclaim, de Heer allowed himself and his team to believe that they actually ‘had something’.

Although he took out best director and best original screenplay—and the late Suresh Ayyar won best editor and Nicholas Hope won best actor—Bad Boy Bubby missed out on best film to Muriel’s Wedding at the Australian Film Institute awards back  home.

Nonetheless, the film was the game changer for de Heer. It began the career-long pattern of refusing to accept the limits imposed by a low budget. Going ‘all out’ every time.

Consider the bold and innovative concepts he has pursued to develop his films:

  • An in-country shoot for Ten Canoes. Actors not learning their lines, the main actor going walkabout, crocodiles in the swamp.
  • Using child actors too shy to act in The Quiet Room.
  • Using new motion control technology in Epsilon.
  • Interpellating paintings of atrocities against indigenous people—moments of still contemplation—into the live action of in The Tracker. Using buried history of the frontier wars.
  • Bringing Dr Plonk, a black and white silent comedy, into being.
  • Assigning the lead role in Dance Me to My Song to a non-actor, a woman with cerebral palsy confined to a wheelchair
  • Collaborating inside prison while Charlie’s Country was in development.

The challenges that de Heer has taken on as a filmmaker since Bad Boy Bubby would sink the less determined, less skilful, less creative director.

It was with this film that de Heer began the praxis that makes his work distinctive.

It is as though he has forced himself each time to weave a new and different challenge into every new film. De Heer, the filmmaker, has never been one to make life easy for himself: the pattern that began with Bad Boy Bubby is what has defined him throughout his career.

His editor, the late Suresh Ayyar, called it an additional challenge, something ‘extra-textual’, in addition to the creative challenge of the film in development.

The innovative, creative solutions that de Heer has eventually found in his work, the way they work seamlessly within the film text, have become defining features, integral to the films themselves.

And he is living proof for the view that constraint works in the interests of creativity. Tell that to Hollywood.

Despite the controversy it generated, it is my understanding that Bad Boy Bubby was never censored in Australia.

Source: Google Images

One of the surprises of my research, however, was that the film was cut in Britain. Not for scenes of incest or matricide and patricide, but for the scenes that appeared to show animal cruelty.

Most at issue was the scene of the tabby cat tied to a chair with string, and clearly distressed. Excision of the scene even removed crucial dialogue confirming that there was an ‘outside’ where life could exist.

Animal welfare activists in Italy were also outraged and even campaigned for a ban on Australian products at the time of the film’s release.

When the DVD version of Bad Boy Bubby was released in Britain around ten years ago it was advertised as ‘completely uncut’.  In other words, the bit with the cat was back in. Nothing more: a clever bit of marketing.

Over the course of time, Bad Boy Bubby and Rolf de Heer’s other early films revealed traits that have become familiar throughout all his work:

  • Lean, unambiguous, direct visual language
  • Highly subjective soundtrack (established in Bad Boy Bubby with binaural microphones hidden in Bubby’s wig)
  • Narrative resolution that establishes a new order
  • Outsider or marginalised individuals in an intense personal or interpersonal struggle
  • Often a child or child-like protagonist, with a life lesson to learn
  • Quest for mastery over language (including female protagonists in Dance Me to My Song, and Alexandra’s Project) that leads to giving voice to the voiceless.
  • Deep concern for the planet, the environment.

These have marked his work from the beginning.

Curiously, there has been nothing about the migrant experience. Not as yet, anyway.

So Bad Boy Bubby is strong stuff, even today. It is de Heer’s riposte to the sweet Australian coming-of-age film.

I mean, there had been a lot of Australian films in the 1970s-1980s about coming of age that Rolf would have been very familiar with: think My Brilliant Career, The Year My Voice Broke, Puberty Blues…and we’re still making them.

And yet Bad Boy Bubby is not solely aimed at the Australian coming-of-age drama.

Those scenes in which Bubby learns how to become a successful Aussie male, are some of the funniest in the film.

As one of the most effective satires of Australian society ever made, Bad Boy Bubby makes a very rude finger at us all.

******

 

Interview With Writer/Director Rolf de Heer

Credits include Charlie’s Country; Ten Canoes; The Tracker; and Bad Boy Bubby

It is a surprise, and no less so for Rolf de Heer himself, that he has made another film with David Gulpilil. The filmmaker and the Indigenous performer have now collaborated for a third time, which naturally leads to talk of a trilogy. An ‘accidental trilogy’ at best, if it is one at all, observes de Heer whose restless creative energies have led to his reputation in the media as a bit of a maverick, an esteemed but elusive auteur with a body of work that is tricky to define.

The three films that carry Indigenous stories have each emerged from a different time and space. The Tracker (2002) came into being after de Heer read about the brutal hidden history of the Australian frontier. Ten Canoes (2006) came about when he saw the possibilities of making a film in-language in and in-country with the Ramingining community in Arnhem Land. Charlie’s Country has come about ‘because David was in gaol’.

The news that Gulpilil had been sent to prison for a drunken episode of domestic violence was distressing yet also something of a relief: ‘Towards the end of 2011 I learnt that David was in gaol. My first thought was tragedy averted. Whatever the rights or wrongs of his imprisonment, whatever the reason, I was grateful for it because it probably saved David’s life.’
The circumstances of each film is vastly different and it can be argued that there isn’t a clear connection between the films, were it not for the towering presence of David Gulpilil. Even though he did not appear as planned in Ten Canoes, the unmistakable voice of his mischievous narrator guides us through in voiceover.

It was one of those intense bright Canberra winter mornings when I met de Heer for our interview. It is at least the 30th occasion that we have talked, mostly over the phone, about his work. He had been in Canberra to introduce Charlie’s Country at a screening at Parliament House. It was very well received.

So why had he made this new film with Gulpilil? ‘The exercise was to make a film that helps him find his way but that also gives him a chance to get on with what he wants to do. And a film that would really celebrate, probably for the first time, his extraordinary talent because it’s not yet been seen to best effect, not even in The Tracker.’

Gulpilil did not to wish to accompany de Heer to the Cannes film festival for the screening of Charlie’s Country in official selection in May. Where is the actor now? Back in his traditional lands and so far away from the red carpet that it took five days for de Heer to reach him by phone to tell him he’d won Best Actor in Un Certain Regard.

Charlie’s Country is the fourth film of de Heer’s to screen in the official selection at Cannes. The Quiet Room (1996) and Dance Me to My Song (1998) were screened in competition, while Ten Canoes won the special jury prize in Un Certain Regard in 2006.

The internationally-recognised Indigenous actor has long been held in great affection with the Australian public. He first appeared in a haunting role in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout at the dawn of the revival of the local film industry, has received many accolades particularly in recent times, and was the subject of a prize winning portrait. Yet Gulpilil has long had trouble with substance abuse and alcohol, to which he had been introduced by certain hell-raiser actors from day one. De Heer has for some years been concerned for his friend, and written articles about how he perceives his predicament, caught between cultures and comfortable in neither.

Gulpilil was instrumental in persuading de Heer to at least consider making a film in his homelands, it was not possible to follow through. ‘David had left his community of Ramingining in 2004, because of a tribal dispute I was never quite allowed to know the details of. From that time on, David lived largely in the long grass in Darwin’. They saw less and less of each other. From time to time there was news of his friend: ‘None of it sounded very good’.

For Charlie’s Country, de Heer determined that Gulpilil had to be front and centre, and dominate the screen. He would anyway: ‘It was something I was sort of aware from the beginning: just put the camera on David, and it works’. The strength of Gulpilil’s presence was the starting point, ‘a long, unwavering close-up’ of the actor, taking in the dignity and grace of his bearing and close-ups of the face that conveys so much, wordlessly. Even after the prison barber has had his way with Gulpilil, shaving off his wild greying locks and beard, transforming him into a prison inmate, the well-loved face radiates presence.

When de Heer first met Gulpilil he recalls that his reaction was ‘F**k, I have to direct this bloke!’ He didn’t know quite what to say to him, and felt there was nothing he could say. But that was 14 years ago, when Gulpilil was cast to appear in The Tracker.

So, does the fact that you continue to work together mean that you get on very well? Something I have discovered over the years while researching my book on de Heer’s work is that he remains unpredictable: ‘No, we don’t get on very well,’ he returns. ‘It’s hard work being with David. I love him, he loves me, but it’s hard work being with him. It’s the cultural gulf, it’s David’s mercurial character…’ Of course there are things they share. ‘No doubt about that’.

Prior to the shoot for The Tracker, the two went bush together in Gulpilil’s homelands, and spent a few days camping out, hunting, fishing and talking. In very different circumstances, they went bush again before Charlie’s Country, visits that proved ‘powerfully restorative’ for Gulpilil.

Charlie’s Country was shot by Ian Jones, the cinematographer who worked with de Heer on both The Tracker and Ten Canoes, and the rest of the crew is largely the regular group of compatible co-creatives. Peter Djiggir, who co-directed Ten Canoes, co-produces and performs again and some members of the Ramingining community are also represented.

The cast has a teasing hint of familiarity about it, with many actors returning from past de Heer films, even in bit parts. There is an appearance by Gary Sweet the infamous ‘fanatic’ character in The Tracker, selling alcohol—over the counter, one should quickly add, Damon Gameau who was the ‘follower’ in the same film is seen side-on as a hospital nurse. Jamie Gulpilil who was the lead in Ten Canoes appears briefly as a trainee constable. Like many auteurs, de Heer has built a singular cinema that maps a country all its own.

It is a guessing game wondering with de Heer. What will he do next? Ten Canoes was preceded by a drama about marriage breakdown, followed by a black and white silent comedy, which was followed by a surprising comedic foray into feuding neighbours. Is there something down the track for de Heer and Gulpilil? ‘In the phone calls we have, once every two days or so, he still talks about other projects. He’s got a number of them.’ Time will tell, and all bets are off.