GEOFFREY SMITH - DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER/ DIRECTOR of the CASTLEMAINE DOCUMENTARY FILM FESTIVAL
I grew up in Ferntree Gully, foot of the Dandenongs. It was all superficially normal, and we had the unbridled freedom to ride our minibikes around the vacant land opposite and even up in the hills, but for reasons I only discovered when I returned to Australia in 2014 after 28 years away, a brewing sense in my teenage years of not feeling connected to the physical and social world around me made me retreat into a world of my own creation. Stories are not just for entertainment, they can be crucial for our survival.
The first film which really made an impact on me was the 1928 silent masterpiece Jeanne d’Arc by Carl Dreyer. I would have seen it when I was 19 or so, and it reduced me to tears within minutes. (It still does today). At its core is a performance that is central to the film, and indeed to cinema history, and it was given by a young theatre actress called Renee Falconetti.
The word 'swoon' is an apt one for how I sat spellbound by Renee and this emotional narrative, but as it is a director’s job to understand how that magic happens to an audience, I plunged into that task and discovered some fascinating things.
Dryer sensed Renee’s inner spiritual conviction about Jeanne, so to heighten this he shot the whole story in chronological order with very stripped-down sets. This created a psychological intensity on set which comes bursting through in every frame, and the film affected Falconetti so much that it is said she later become very religious, if not a novice in retreat.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, witnessing a person undergo real emotion in front of the camera ignited my belief that authenticity is what all great cinema aspires to. Fiction might achieve this once in a thousand films however, but documentary is implicitly authentic and has a huge head start in that way. A 1928 silent feature film is where my love of documentary truly began.
After high school I went to Monash Uni to do a three year Arts Degree, but after three months had one too many existential crises and got a job working at the Arnotts biscuit factory in Burwood. It was simple – “pack this huge truck full of biscuits” - and that suited me just fine. Looking back at it all, why does society expect all of us to know what we want to do at such a ridiculously early age?
I went to Rusden State College out near Monash, and I was very lucky to have an old radical called Graham Cutts as one of our film teachers. He would basically lock us sheltered suburban kids into a room and screen hours of avant garde films on 16mm. What a brilliant cinema, and indeed personal education that was!
One of those films was called Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren, and as I was so intrigued by her world I searched out all her other films, and read one of her books. It was about her time in Haiti, and mirroring her wonderful personal journey of discovery in those pages, I too fell in love with this strange country.
I was shot in Haiti, during the immediate aftermath of an election massacre in 1987. Twenty-three voters had been hacked and shot to death at a voting station, and together with the Haitian filmmakers I was helping at the time, we stumbled across this horror only ten minutes or so after it had happened. The bad guys didn’t like cameras around, so they came back and randomly emptied machine guns up the street. One of them was smiling.
The man in front of me was killed, and just as I was about to make it behind a large stone wall, I felt this red-hot knife go through my calf muscle, then another thud on my shoulder, and lots more whizzing noises. With the slightest hint of a shocked smile on my face, I very clearly remember my first reaction - “No! Your kidding me!! All this empty space, and yet two of these damn things have hit me??!!!”
Lots of drama followed, but endorphins and adrenalin are wonderful things however, and it was only much later in the hospital that I felt real pain. They even allowed me to take a composed photo of my bloodied leg.
I never wanted to leave Haiti as I was just knew in my bones that it was the best place to deal with the trauma of what had happened, but my friends told me it was too dangerous to stay so I left a week later (the “bad guys” had already thrown grenades at the hospital on my first night there to scare survivors like me).
Returning to England on crutches and living in a squat in South London, life dissolved into what I now know was PTSD. But with the classic stiff English upper lip and “keep calm and carry on” attitude all around me (that is why it was wrong to try and get better outside of Haiti), I just soldiered on and locked it all up in my head. Most nights I had this one recurring nightmare, and after four years of it I was a wreck.
One day someone told me about this new BBC series called “Video Diaries” where the filmmaker was also the subject of the film. This happened around the same time that I had read about a UK psychologist who was saying that for many trauma sufferers, telling your own story is the best form of therapy. Finally, a way forward! The next day I went into the BBC and hadn’t even finished saying “I am going back to Haiti to find the man who shot me” before they wanted me to sign something.
As to exactly why I thought I needed to go back to find that man; he was in my recurring nightmares, and he was the only thing I had to hold onto. Yes, it was a very silly, naïve, white male reaction to harbour that as my reason, but it worked as a catalyst, just like starting a story with “Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away….”.
I never found him, but what I did find was how to get better the Haitian way. Still very proud of this film.
I learnt so much about myself. For starters, I discovered that you can actually get better by telling your own story. That was a visceral, emotional and cathartic experience which changed my life, and I said afterwards that if it could do that to me then it could also do that for other people going through difficult times. That has been the basis for many of my 24 films since then, and through being given such privileged access by people who have trusted me to tell their story, I have also come to understand and even accept my own demons and struggles. Life is a sweet thing indeed…
Haiti changed my life entirely, so after coming back to Australia in 2014 I drove up to Olinda in the hope that Graham Cutts might still be alive. I wanted to tell him that that sliding door moment of him screening “Meshes of the Afternoon” had lead to a series of events which had profoundly altered and yet enriched my life. Now that was a good conversation!
The most difficult film I have made: “A Father’s Story” - the Ralph Bulger story. Ralph was the father of two-year-old James Bulger who was killed by two ten-year-old Liverpool boys back in 1993. He had never been given the space to heal as the 'Bulger case' was always in the newspapers, and so after ten years he was still a man consumed by hate and self-loathing. His brother came to us and said Ralph so needed to tell his story, otherwise he really feared for his mental health.
So began a very challenging twelve month process- I didn’t even get the camera out until six months in. Ralph was the most honest of contributors, but on several occasions it all got too much for him and he pulled out. That was scary for me, and it was also very tough emotionally as I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it given I had put all of the budget into my time with Ralph, rather than having a crew or even a researcher. But what I came to see at those moments was that the power of telling his own narrative brought him back to it, regardless of me or even the film. This healing connection to our story has since been researched by professional psychotherapists, and there is a growing body of evidence which supports how cathartic it can be. Again, this is a film I am very proud of given the change it brought about in Ralph’s life.
The English Surgeon (about neurosurgeon Henry Marsh) isn’t about a shortage of equipment, but rather the bigger more moral question of 'one’s man struggle to do good things'. Documentary doesn’t just have to document things in the literal sense or champion some right on cause or activity. It can work like the best of narrative films and take is into a moral universe where we the audience have to ask ourselves, "What would I do if I was there?" To that end it had a much greater impact with audiences right across the globe, but it also did raise quite a lot of money and awareness for Igor’s new hospital.
What was going through my mind while filming brain surgery for this film? One is thankfully grounded in the logistics of the job - is this shot in focus, do we have enough batteries, am I getting everything I need to tell the story of these three people who have graciously let me into their lives? With all that stuff going on you don’t have any time to really process the extreme emotional things that might be happening in front of you (that comes later in the edit), and in that sense it is just like when the Police or the Fire Brigade turn up at some emergency. They have a real job to do and that shields them from being too involved, and besides, it wouldn’t be very professional if either they or I broke down into tears!
There is no doubt that winning an Emmy (for The English Surgeon and Presumed Guilty) helps in some ways, but this so-called business of independent documentary is so inherently dysfunctional that it is best described as philanthropy without the trust fund. Of all the people who make one independent documentary only about one third go onto to make a second, and then a third of these might finish another one. From a position of sustainability it is laughable, and I have only survived as I worked for the BBC in London for 12 years and built up a body of work.
Film makers I admire: Many of the usual suspects, but over and above that, most documentary directors. Why? Film making in the independent documentary sector is like trying to achieve cinema magic on the catering budget of your average drama film. We are very under- resourced, but just like Cinderella, we get to have the best gig in town!
Limited resources can work for you however, as a) our sector doesn’t attract people who are just in it for the money (given there isn’t none), and b), we have to get very good at believing in our stories and inspiring others to do the same. (This is why it is jokingly said that a bunch of international documentary directors could solve the Palestinian Israeli conflict within a day!)
In the bigger scheme of things any story teller is a vital part of a society’s psychic health, and in today’s increasingly virtual world people are seeking out authenticity wherever they can find it. This is where documentary has risen to prominence in the film world, and firmly believe it has now taken its rightful place as an art form par excellence.
I ended up in Castlemaine because my dear mum wasn’t well in 2014, and so I stopped being the selfish prodigal son and came home finally. Best thing I have ever done.
Having lived in huge urban centres all my adult life – London, LA, and Mexico City, being able to see the horizon every day was sublime. I think it is about scale, and being humbled by the place we live in is a very good thing. I have only continued to fall in love with this very special area and town since I arrived, and I have absolutely NO desire to be anywhere else at all.
Given I needed to stay in town for my Mum rather than leave on some film shoot, starting the Castlemaine Documentary Film Festival was a release for the creative energy that couldn’t find its usual outlet. And now, four years later it has become something of a habit. How do I choose the films? For the first couple of years it was more like wanting to show great documentaries that had not really been seen here (distribution is still our biggest challenge with docs), but of late it has morphed into being more about special events that we can pull off with my contacts within the global Doc world. I watch hundreds of hours of films to end up with thirteen gems.
Advice for aspiring documentary makers: Film is a language just like French or Japanese, and just as the best way to learn a language is to listen to those who speak it very well and then try and use it yourself as much as possible, so too is film. Watch as much as you can from your favourite directors (particularly narrative cinema), and then get out with your phone and make your own little films.. Any subject will do – seriously, because you will learn more from cutting together your own footage than you will EVER learn from any other person or institution. That is a promise. Period.
Favourite things to do in the area: I love Yapeen (I'm building a house there), coffee in the Origini courtyard, this incredible community of ours, driving around the countryside up and around Mt Alexander, and McShanag’s pie and cake shop.
Tips for people thinking of moving out here: Castlemaine? Terrible place! Don’t come! Go to Daylesford, much nicer!
The Castlemaine Documentary Film Festival kicks off July 20 at The Theatre Royal.