By Paul Risker.
“I feel like it was a risk and I feel proud that I pulled it off,” says Jennifer Peedom of her Everest expose Sherpa (2015). The documentarian’s intentions are certainly noble, adopting the medium to capture a view of a world dramatised in fiction, explored in other documentaries, and yet for which our understanding of contemporary Everest remains in the shadows. But as the filmmaker offers: “What’s interesting is that there are a lot of films made on Mount Everest, yet it’s in the filmmaker and the mountaineers interests to continue perpetuating the myth that it is the last frontier.” In the immediacy of this observation, Peedom separates herself from any such act as Sherpa takes us behind the scenes of a once great frontier commercialised. Sherpa captures the peak of the escalating tensions between the foreigners and the native Sherpa, whose efforts to support foreign climbers in their quest to summit Everest had been largely unacknowledged. But it would be in the aftermath of the worst disaster to date in the history of Everest that the catalyst for change through conflict would arrive.
One of the successes of the film is Peedom’s exploration of the joint evolution of the Sherpas alongside Everest. But spiraling out from this she finds opportunity to expand her subject, capturing layers of a complicated environment and the unfolding relationship between not only the native Sherpa and foreigners, but the political and the commercial, individualistic and collective values. What Peedom accomplishes is to offer a complex study of cultures, ideas and values that touches upon morality and interpersonal relationships.
Sherpa is a continuation of Peedom’s interest in adventure spaces and subjects of the extreme. In 2008 she directed Solo, a documentary about kayaker Andrew McAuley’s attempt to kayak solo from Australia to New Zealand across the Tasman sea. If Sherpa represents a continuation alongside her other Everest-set documentaries, she has also tackled other subjects for Australian television that serve to create a separation from these aforementioned subjects that include her intimate exploration of death in Living the End (2011).
In conversation with Film International, Peedom looked back to her beginnings in documentary filmmaking and her enduring interest in individuals and adventure. Meanwhile her reflections on Sherpa led her to address the balancing of the documentary filmmakers objectivity and subjectivity, the relationship between documentary and narrative features, as well as her thoughts on Australian cinema and Aboriginal filmmaking.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
When I finished high school I went off and travelled, and I lived in South America for a year – I did all of that. I went to university, got a proper job and just travelled, travelled, travelled as much as I could. And I always travelled in developing countries. I loved photography, but I went and did a business degree, so I was kind of going down a different path. And then I was lucky to be selected for this filmmaking competition program in Australia called Race Around the World. You had to be an amateur documentary filmmaker and they sent you off to different places. So I received my training from our equivalent of the BBC, and that was a real leg up. It was excellent training and it gave me the skills to then go on and do things. I actually worked in film journalism for a publishing company that produced a filmmaker magazine in Australia for about six years, and while I was doing that I would go off and have these adventures.
A friend took me to the Himalayas once – almost fifteen years ago – and it happens to so many people when you go to Nepal that it just sort of captures you. There is a magic there, and I made a little documentary over a decade ago now about the Sherpas for a program we have here on Australian television called Dateline. But I went off and made other films about other things and situations. I had worked on a big Discovery Channel series on Mount Everest, worked a lot in the Himalayas and then I had kids, and I decided to stop climbing. But I had always had this story in the back of my mind and I just observed the Everest politics from afar for a number of years, and I saw how things really seemed to be changing. I had stayed in touch with the Sherpa friends that I had and the timing just felt right to make this film. So that’s the long answer.
The place Everest as a subject occupies within your filmography, how do you the filmmaker perceive it?
I only made two films on Everest and the last one was in 2006. Actually no, one of the Everest films I made was after that, but it was from a story that happened in 2006. So that was Marathon Everest about an Australian climber. I think that happens because as a young aspiring documentary filmmaker, as I was at the time – I am not so young anymore – you just take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of you, and the skills that you have. I just had the luck of being able to work well at altitude and so that’s where my opportunities were coming from. But I went off and did a whole bunch of other films about subjects other than mountaineering. The most successful was probably a film called Solo (2008), which was commissioned by Storyville that was about kayaking – so still in the adventure space. I have always been really curious about what draws people to such extremes.
As individuals we each have a different source from which we draw that adrenaline rush. But the idea of pushing oneself to the extremes is an important consideration, if only because it ties to our human mortality and sense of being. So that push or rush in the adventure space is an integral part of clutching at the essence of life for certain individuals.
It is, and never have we felt so alive than when you nearly died. It’s a very true thing, and like so many things in life there is a spectrum. I understand that there is literally a set of DNA that makes certain people have more of a propensity for the need of those high levels of stimulation, to literally feel alive or to feel anything. And I have certainly observed this and Solo was a story about where the line is between recklessness and responsibility. So I have always been interested in where that line sits. I guess I sit somewhere on the spectrum – we all sit somewhere on it, and that’s part of what makes the human race what it is. There needs to be a certain number of people that are prepared to take risks. There used to be people that needed to discover new frontiers and to take risks in order to progress the human race, and that DNA stuck around. There were other people that needed to sit at home on the home front and keep the home fires burning, and all are the natural order of things. But now that life has changed so much they manifest in different ways, and I do believe the further we become disconnected from nature the more extreme that reaction becomes. You see these young guys taking extreme risks and I think the two things are related. There just isn’t that opportunity in the natural world and in our everyday life to push those boundaries in a way that would normally happen or would have happened more naturally. And so we are creating those artificially.
Sherpa shows the transformation of one of the defining tests of endurance, a challenge that has slowly been commercialised into big business. It seems that this dramatic change has taken place over a short period of time.
It shifted when the Nepalese government stopped issuing one permit per route per season in I think it was 1984. It was literally: Why don’t we issue as many permits as people want? And from that moment on it just escalated. What we saw in 1996 that was just made into the feature film Everest (2015), those are the glory days compared to what Everest is like now. It is remarkable, and I think what’s interesting is that there are a lot of films made on Mount Everest, yet it’s in the filmmaker and the mountaineers interests to continue perpetuating the myth that it is the last frontier. It is still an incredible achievement and it takes a lot of guts and determination to climb Everest, but I just wanted to lift the lid on what else it took.
One of the very experienced foreign guides that works on Everest every year said to me: “It’s kind of embarrassing that it takes six staff members to every one person that gets to the summit.” There are so many staff down there, whether it’s the staff that are bringing the gas to cook the meals or to do this or to do that. Often people will say for example: “I climbed Everest unsupported.” What does that even mean? Yes you may not have had a Sherpa with you on summit day, but who put those ladders down, who fixed those ropes, who carried the oxygen and who put up the tent? For all of those things it actually requires a huge level of support. I knew from the Sherpa’s that I had worked with on three different expeditions over the years that they just get frustrated at the extent to which all of that gets left out, so that the foreigner can look like a hero. I just saw them getting increasingly irritated by that and particularly the younger generation.
On the subject of foreigners, some of who enter the Sherpa’s homeland and fail to respect their spiritual beliefs and culture, would it be fair to say these instances stem from both a disconnect and disrespect?
I would say it’s fair, and I think where it comes from is ignorance. It’s many things, but one of the things that has surprised me working on these projects – and it seems to have become more so because I hadn’t been back for so many years – is the extent to which the Sherpas are kept separate from the foreigners. I feel some empathy for the foreigners, even though some of them came out with some pretty crazy comments. They didn’t really know what was going on. They were off on this other mountain and they just wanted to climb. They come and trek in, and they want to get the job done – to get on a helicopter and get out of there. And so they don’t have time to care. They don’t have time to find out or to really get to know the Sherpa people, unlike some of the foreign guides that work there year in and year out, and who really get to know them. So it’s important that not everyone comes with these disrespecting attitudes. I think there is a line in the film from Jamling Tenzing, one of Tenzing Norgay’s sons who says: “Some people respect that and learn, and other people don’t.” And that’s really true. There are definitely some people on our team and some of those clients that really made efforts to get to know the Sherpas, and then there are others that didn’t. They are just too busy and they just want to come and do the job. I think there are a lot of different kinds of people that climb Everest and so it is easy to sort of tile them all with the same brush, but it is more complex like everything, and in the end I think the film is morally very complex.
When I do Q&As lots of people ask: “So was Russell lying or not?” And we left it like that deliberately in order to let people decide for themselves, because he is in a really difficult situation. On one side he is trying to run a business that employs a lot of Sherpas, and the Sherpas that work for him he does look after really well. And so he’s getting frustrated with these other Sherpas who he calls more “militant”, but I wouldn’t use that word. There is a natural order of things and they are moving towards self-determination, and that’s a natural progression. Russell and I have had this conversation and he and I just see it differently. He’s been going there a very long time, but he’s getting on and he’s tired. He says: “I’m getting too old for this.” So I just laid it out for people to make their own judgement, although I think it’s pretty clear what’s going on.
It is clear that Russell twists the truth, and to your credit you avoid creating a moral simplification. As you say it is clear that Russell cares about his Sherpa team, but then he finds himself stuck inside of this commercial machine in which he has to avoid a financial loss. What you capture is that pull between individualistic desire and communal responsibility, and how the two are never in synch with one another.
And that’s definitely one of the themes of the film. It is that east versus west; communal versus individualistic, and the clash of those two ideas is very much what the central conflict in the film is all about. And we very deliberately set it up that Russell has a history of really looking after his Sherpas, and we created an empathy for him because it would have been easy with the material that I had to paint him as the bad guy. But I didn’t want to do that and I think the audience is more intelligent than that, and he deserves more because it is a very morally complex situation. If he goes under a lot of Sherpas will lose their jobs and their livelihood, and so it isn’t as simple as saying: We’ll let the Sherpas run the show. So that’s why we carefully massaged all of that stuff, and it was a very long edit.
As a documentarian you are trying to present the story objectively, yet when you observe the story unfold your own life experiences, moral views and subjectivity must present a challenge to creating that objective–subjective separation? Even with the best of intentions is there a shadow of subjectivity that the audience are unaware of, but which you as the filmmaker can sense when you watch the film?
You definitely use subjectivity and I definitely bring my opinions to the table – there’s no denying that. But just by virtue of the fact that I was making a film from the Sherpa’s point of view in the first place shows where my point of view lies. But I think for what I do, then part of it is having a really good team around me, as well as good checks and balances. I found this to be probably the most satisfying collaborative experience of my career. I had an amazing editor who edited both the Happy Feet (2006 and 2011) movies as well as other dramas. He has worked with George Miller and he’s an amazing storyteller. I had John Smithson, the UK producer who did Touching the Void (2003), and so again an excellent and highly experienced storyteller who knows quite a lot about this part of the world, as well as another wonderful Australian producer. I also had Ed Douglas, a British guy who’s in the film and who’s really the foremost expert in the world I would say on Sherpa and Everest politics. He writes extensively about this and he was always going: “Oh you can’t say that.” I would run stuff by him and we’d have these discussions. So I had all of that around me, but most of all when we were looking at a scene which was complex such as this it was to say: “Are we representing the true essence of what went down here?” And often, in order to really understand what the true essence was, I would talk to Sherpas, I would talk to foreigners, I would talk to guides. I spent a lot of time with my translator and he would say: “Well it’s kind of like this, but not quite.” So I was in contact with quite a few Sherpas after the events to clarify things, and we spent a lot of time on the translations making sure we got that absolutely right. The translations took months and it was a big job, but it was really taking care of all if that stuff so as to not make these grandiose sweeping statements that were just inaccurate.
It screened at the Katmandu Film Festival and apparently had an amazing reception, and by then it had already been screened for the Sherpas in their community. The feedback from them has been that we really got it right and then likewise, even Russell Brice thinks that we did a good job of encapsulating the issues that went on. He thinks it’s tough, but fair. And so I think on balance now however many months out from completing the film, enough people have seen it and there has been no one saying that it is absolutely factually inaccurate. In particular the Sherpa community have embraced it and a number of the clients who were in the film have seen it. I think their response has more been that they were surprised to the extent to which they didn’t really know what was going on, and they feel a little embarrassed about that.
As the foreigners are not always privy to all of the information, one could argue that if there is a disconnect then it is not their fault. It is not necessarily the case that the ignorance stems from a malicious or bad place, but rather from a lack of information that therein creates a misunderstanding. And the feedback you’ve received suggests Sherpa is a testament to this.
When you go to Everest you are on a program, and as you saw in the film they went up to this other mountain where they were acclimatizing, and so for most of it they were away. They were away for the avalanche and they were away for the next five days. They came back in dribs and drabs and because of what had happened the year before with the fight, there was a lot of grumblings about Sherpa violence. And so the expedition leaders kind of said: “Don’t go out there, it’s too dangerous. Some of them might throw rocks at you…” I was running around base camp every day and I was supposed to go and acclimatize myself, but I had hung back for a day because I wasn’t ready. I had some more stuff to film at base camp and then the Avalanche happened, and so then I just didn’t go at all. And all of the time they were away, some of my crew were up there with them. I was at base camp with my Sherpa, camera team and translator, and one of the crew members who eventually came back down to join me. We were just going from camp to camp to camp talking to and interviewing people, and trying to find out what was going on, while filming all of those big meetings. My entire agenda was to document the unfolding story and so I knew more than most people about what was actually going on. But no one knew what was going on, and so it was a lot of hard work and after a few days towards the end of that week, Sherpas started turning up to our camp because I had put the word out there. Sherpas are notoriously shy and not outspoken, and so a lot of them were too shy to speak. But as time went on more and more of them started popping into our camp saying: “Oh Jen, Jen, we’ve found someone who’s willing to talk.” And so I’d go: “Great, great… Okay where are the camera crew, quick.” We would shoot an interview and in some of those meetings it was great because the Sherpas would be pushing people out of the way and pushing me up, and holding my camera so that I could get a better position. There were heaps of people there with cameras – all those meetings were being filmed by lots more people than just us. So that was a really nice feeling to know that by the end, word had spread around base camp that we were the Sherpa film crew – that we were making this film and that they appreciated it.
The shyness of the Sherpa people combined with their spiritual beliefs and dislike of violence means that when you hear the account of the fight from the previous year, you can perceive how their patience and belief systems were being tested as tensions escalated. It strikes a powerful chord that ties to your earlier point of “moving towards self-determination”, specifically how the fight for equality and rights can bring us frighteningly close to sacrificing our identity.
That’s really spot on and I’m glad you got that from the film because it just seemed to me from afar – and like I said I had been away for a number of years – that things were really building momentum and hitting a limit. Everyone hits a limit and it seemed to me that the fight in 2013, which in the end all it really was, was a testosterone fueled fight between a couple of guys because someone insulted them, and who wouldn’t be angry. But I think it was a symptom of a much bigger problem, and it indicated that things had really reached a head. We knew that we were making the film at that point, but we weren’t fully financed. We were actually cutting together a pitch trailer the week that fight happened and we thought: Wow, now we really have to make that film. And I think probably because it became an international incident, it helped financiers who realised that now was a good time to be looking at what the hell was happening on Everest. Six years ago there was a spirit of cooperation and teamwork, and here we were trading blows at seven thousand meters.
So many months out of the film, how do you now compare and contrast your expectations versus the realities?
Well obviously things changed dramatically when the avalanche happened. But it’s funny because people say – and I’ve seen it in a couple of reviews – that it is not clear what the film would have been if the avalanche hadn’t have happened. I find that really surprising because what would have happened is there would have been an Everest ascent. And having worked on a couple of films that have had Everest ascents I know how much drama that entails – it is chaos. When things get to the pointy end then it gets really messy, and particularly on summit day and on the descent. What we were trying to show was what really happens on an Everest expedition and the disproportionate risk that Sherpas have to take. And who knows what other drama there may have been, but there would have been drama because there is drama every year. Maybe there would have been an avalanche five days later… You don’t know, and that was the punt that we were taking. But we had a clear outline for a story and we did follow the Tenzing Norgay story through, but probably to a lesser extent in the finished film because the unfolding events were so dramatic and took a higher priority. I think it just shifted the balance and there still would have been drama, but it would have just been drama on a different scale. The fact that it was the worst disaster in the history of the mountain at the time meant that it became impossible not to make that the focus. But we didn’t know, and as you can see in the film it wasn’t clear that the expedition was going to be cancelled. To me in retrospect it is obvious that it always was going to be cancelled, but for five or six days it was: will we or won’t we? And I just wasn’t sure which one would be better for the film.
But then at a certain point I realised that actually this was by far the best outcome, although I didn’t know I had a film until we got back into the edit suite. I knew that we had a more dramatic film, but Universal were concerned that because we didn’t get the summit that maybe there wasn’t a film, and so they weren’t quite sure what we had. So we had to rewrite all the treatments and resubmit the film to them, and the moment I felt like we probably had a fully realised film was when Phurba Tashi went home. To my total surprise he said in an interview “That’s it, I’m quitting. I am not going to climb anymore.” And he has kept that promise to his family. I thought: Okay, I think I have a complete character arc now, I have transformation, I have a story. The cancellation was a big deal, but for him personally it needed to impact him more. If he had just turned back and said: “Oh well, next year”, then I don’t think it would have had the same impact. For me that is the emotional arc – his story going from his wife at the beginning talking about how he loves the mountain more than he loves his family, to being so shocked and devastated by what happened that he was going to give up that world record, give the game away because he realised what was more important. So for me that’s what gives the film its emotional arc more than anything else.
There was a time when narrative features and documentaries were discussed independently of one another. It appears that this divide has now been bridged, allowing both to be discussed as storytelling forms. Obviously the nature of the story for each is fundamentally different, but how do you view the relationship between narrative feature and documentary?
I am sure narrative feature directors may disagree with me, but I think that we very deliberately set out to make a feature film. We had the sound design and the commitment to story, scripting, cinematography and music, of which all of those things were absolutely feature film standard. The storytelling and the rigor that went into the storytelling was again feature film standard. People ask me if I would like to or whether I think I could direct drama? I have done a bunch of reenactment stuff over the years, but I think getting performance out of real people in a highly emotional situation is harder than working with trained actors – I really do. You have to behave completely differently with each one of those characters, like with Phurba Tashi who just wanted to leave. He just couldn’t wait to go out and be with his yaks – he didn’t want to be interviewed. And his wife was something totally different again and then his parents as well as Russell Brice and the clients. You have to work really hard to get performance out of every one of those people, and that’s no mistake. It’s not just sticking the camera in their face and seeing what happens – it’s very deliberate.
The other thing I would say is that your script is unfolding in front of you. You are not right on top of it. I was sitting in my tent writing a shot list the morning the avalanche happened. Every day you are thinking and you have to say: “Okay well this happened yesterday, which changes this.” You just can’t relax and play out the script and wait for the first AD to tell you what’s going on. You have to do all of that yourself and so that means constantly communicating with your crew. There was no producer on set – it was just me, and so you have to keep them motivated. There were three cinematographers and a sound recorder, plus two Sherpa cameraman. I was just constantly communicating with them twice a day, every day: “This is what the story is, this is what we are looking for, here are the kind of shots I think might help tell that story, and if you happen to run into anyone who knows so and so can you also grab them.” You are just communicating with them endlessly about what the story is because you can’t be everywhere at once. So it’s multi-faceted and it is much more of a democratised process, and you have to have really good people skills for sure.
It is a purely collaborative process?
Yeah, and for that reason I was at pains to choose the crew, particularly the crew who were on the mountain with me. One of them I had worked with on Everest before, and one I had worked with on many projects back in Australia. One of them was this amazing American climber [Renan Ozturk] who is, I don’t know if you know the film Meru (2015), but he’s actually a subject in that. He’s an amazing climber and he’s a North Face sponsored athlete. He speaks fluent Nepali and is just an incredible cinematographer, and because he’s such an accomplished climber it is much easier to function at that altitude. I’ve seen a lot of Everest and all the bad camerawork in the movie was mine. It’s hard to shoot beautiful images at that altitude and in that environment because everything’s an effort – it is very hard work. So we were really lucky to have those people, and it was about getting people with the right attitude that really wanted to be there as well because it’s not a fun place to be.
Taking us behind the scenes, what are the unique challenges you encounter with shooting at altitude?
Mainly it is the altitude, which just means on a physical level everything is much more physically difficult. And then you have the remoteness, which means you just can’t plug in your cameras to charge. So you are dealing with all sorts of power issues. We mostly used solar when we could, but when we couldn’t and there wasn’t enough solar we’d use generators. And then it’s just the cold. So the problems exasperate the higher you go, and on this trip we never ended up going particularly high. But it’s just all about conserving battery life and keeping your fingers warm when you are changing cards and batteries. But that’s usually a problem higher up on the mountain. But Renan and Ken Sauls, the other American cinematographer were traipsing around setting up time lapses in the middle of the night with freezing fingers. It is always stuff like that and preserving batteries. We had a data wrangler with us who was basically full time – eight hours a day. He’d take the computers into his sleeping bag at night to keep them warm, and then he would work all day downloading cards and charging batteries. It was a full time person job – non-stop charging because we had a lot of cameras out there.
Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” How do you view the way in which Sherpa has shaped you both personally and professionally, and how do you think it has informed you moving forward?
Well I do believe that, and I am not sure that I can articulate how it has impacted me because it’s still unfolding. The big reward for me has been to see how incredibly warmly it has been embraced by the Sherpa community. When I was in LA a lot of Sherpas turned up for a screening. The Sherpa grapevine is quite an incredible thing, and in New York there were apparently hundreds of Sherpas turning up to the screenings. Tenzing Norgay’s family have just completely embraced it and they have said: “Whatever we can do to support this film we will.” It has given people a voice and it has all been very, very rewarding – just being around that level of trauma and grief, but making some good of it. I feel like it was a risk and I feel proud that I pulled it off. It was a very traumatic experience on some levels, but knowing that in the face of all of that you’ve got the whatever it is to pick up and keep on-going teaches you that you’ve got the strength to do it. I’m still learning, but it was an amazing experience. And the other rewarding part of it was definitely just like I said earlier – the collaborative nature of this project. Often on film projects you get craziness and nastiness and such, but on this project it has been a beautiful collaboration on every level from every one in the team. And so it has always had a really beautiful feeling about it, which is great.
Moving away from Sherpa, I’d like to hear your thoughts on Australian cinema. As good a starting question as any, how do you view the place of Australian cinema both domestically and on the international stage?
Australian cinema had its biggest box office by a country mile in 2015, and so it’s feeling quite buoyant after a number of really rough years. So it’s finding itself again and so too with feature documentaries. There have been four or five big and successful feature docs, which have done well at the big festivals. This hasn’t happened in a long time and so that’s been positive. But on the whole it seems to be having a little bit of a renaissance, and I hope it continues.
The big issue in Australian cinema at the moment, which is probably no different to in the UK or Hollywood is the gender issue. It is a big talking point here at the moment and obviously being female it is something that’s on my radar. For whatever reason I think we have less barriers to entry in documentary, which is probably to do with the size of the budgets and the fact that many of the projects are self-initiated. You just go and make them, and no one can tell you that some other guy could probably make it better than you. And in my case I tend to on the whole in my films work in this extreme, which often involves males. But I think I bring more of a female point of view to it, which is the more sensitive and spiritual, and which is why this film probably turned out the way that it did, instead of following the foreigners up the mountain.
With Universal supporting Sherpa, how important are co-productions? Is it an important route forward or does that need to be offset with purely financed and supported Australian films, versus international collaborations and productions?
This film wouldn’t have ben made if we had not had some kind of international support, just because it’s expensive to shoot on Everest. Just to get to base camp is expensive and then to ask experienced cameramen to risk their lives for you is expensive, and rightly so. So it always needed it, but not every documentary needs to have that budget level, and it’s certainly the biggest budgeted project I have worked on. We were almost financed when Universal came in with a pre-sale that got us over the line.
I think documentaries are being financed in really innovative ways. Most of the finance comes from television and most of my career has been spent making television documentaries. I am making another project at the moment with the Australian Chamber Orchestra called Mountain that explores the history of our fascination with mountains, and for that I’m collaborating with a wonderful British writer called Robert Macfarlane. The money for this project is mainly all coming from Australia, with a couple of distribution deals coming from international territories. So each project has its particular… It just depends. With Mountain it was a commission by the Australian Chamber Orchestra who do these interesting collaborations, and so that’s where a bunch of the money is coming from. With Sherpa we wanted it to punch above its weight. We wanted it to be big because otherwise it is just sort of a small little thing. We wanted it to look great and we wanted it to look as amazing as it could be. We wanted it to be a mainstream documentary that would get noticed and get some attention, otherwise what was the point if it was just a little art house… I mean you just can’t do Everest art house anyway or if you do it looks terrible and no one wants to watch it because of the camerawork. So it was a deliberate thing and the money from Universal at the outset really helped. In the end they were really supportive in the editorial process and were a good partner.
Does the geography of Australia, specifically its states create any patterns within Australian film production?
It is more just where the filmmakers live to be honest. So in New South Wales you get the majority of the film industry and here in Victoria where Melbourne is you get a bunch, as well as in South Australia and Western Australia. The Northern Territory and Central Australia have more indigenous content and focus. But each of those branches have an indigenous unit and indigenous consultation is a really big thing here in Australia. You can’t just go and make films about Aboriginal people without their consultation. And there’s been some incredible indigenous filmmakers produced and most, but not all of the work – there’s a lot in Sydney – comes out of those regional areas. So the State bodies are just where the filmmakers happen to live. It is kind of arbitrary and the majority of everything is made in New South Wales where Sydney is anyway.
In the UK and U.S. foreign language drama struggles to find an audience, although the positive reception of foreign television dramas here in the UK in recent years points to a positive change. I would imagine you can extrapolate this point to incorporate fringe cinema or what could at least be considered fringe cinema such as Aboriginal filmmaking, which can find it also difficult to find an audience. Of course film is fundamentally a business that has to sustain itself, but could indigenous cinema be in a better position on the international stage to offer a more rounded sense of Australian culture?
Well there have been some really successful indigenous Australian filmmakers. Warwick Thornton was one who made a film called Samson and Delilah (2009) that won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But you are right, on the whole it is hard enough to get anyone to watch it on Australian television. But we have various government initiatives that work to support that because it is important – it’s art. It’s an important form of self-expression with a particular topic and indigenous groups really need that capacity because they have a lot to express. There’s a lot that’s going on in this country and so it’s really important. It needs government support and it does have it, but whether it has enough I don’t know. But there is never enough money for the arts, which just keep getting cut in this country. It is a liberal government at the moment that is keen to cut funding to the Australian Book Council, the Arts Council and to Screen Australia, and so it’s a tough environment at the moment. We are a very small market – I think we are only ten, twelve million people in the whole country, and so we are relatively small.
As much as governments seem to be over enthusiastic about cutting funding to the arts, it remains one of the most important treasures we have as a civilisation.
Yeah, and didn’t Winston Churchill say something like: Well what are we fighting a war for? That’s everything.
Sherpa was nominated for a Best Documentary BAFTA and is currently in cinemas. It will broadcast globally on the Discovery Channel in 2016.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.