The Australian - feature article


The playmaker

by Michael Bodey

TEN years ago, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson stood on stage at the Sydney Film Festival accepting plaudits for their latest award-winning documentary, Facing The Music.
It was another stunning collaboration in a partnership that began in the late 1970s and subsequently produced a swag of seminal Australian documentaries, including their Papua New Guinea "trilogy" (First Contact, Joe Leahy's Neighbours and Black Harvest) and the delicious fly-on-the-wall account of local government infighting in inner-west Sydney, Rats In The Ranks.
The couple earned almost every accolade imaginable in the documentary field, leading up to their being feted at the 2001 Sydney festival. Not all was as smooth as it seemed, however: two days before the Sydney premiere, Anderson had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died in 2002.
Connolly gulps when asked if it was difficult to return to filmmaking. "Yeah it was," he says. "I had two kids to raise and I really couldn't leave them, not after they lost their mother. Bit of a tough time all round but you get through these things -- you have to."
Connolly contemplated returning to PNG but couldn't do that to his daughters. Besides, he didn't have a collaborator and he argues the makers of observational narrative feature films are "almost always" duos (The War Room's D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus are a prime example).
He wasn't consciously looking for a collaborator but he met an animator with a sociology degree, Sophie Raymond, while at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. Raymond was there with her animated documentary It's Like That. They didn't particularly hit it off at the time; Raymond wasn't familiar with his work. Connolly laughs that Raymond studied his New Guinea films during university, but was asleep through most of them.
"That's not fair. My friend claims she did that, not me," Raymond protests. "But of course I was asleep beside her, so I don't remember!" Two years later, however, the pair were living together and two years after that they were making a film. "And we're still living together," says Connolly, appreciating the test filmmaking places on relationships.
As it was, his daughters were the entree back into filmmaking. They attended the Sydney private girls' school, MLC, in the western suburb of Burwood, where students present a major concert at the Sydney Opera House every two years. The head of music, Karen Carey, asked Connolly and Raymond to film the concert in 2007. Connolly was intrigued by the hit of the night, soloist Doretta Balkizas, who played a Brahms violin concerto despite not having been able to front the orchestra a fortnight beforehand, wracked as she was by nerves and underconfidence.
Carey told Connolly the concert was a journey, a test in which students were given tasks apparently beyond their capabilities but which, generally to a girl, they met. Carey explained her philosophy: "She's not ready now but in a year she will be."
That intrigued Connolly. Surely the MLC music program environment offered great storytelling possibilities, even if in documentary-making, you never quite know. Raymond, as a musician, also saw possibilities. She says one of the most rewarding and magical aspects of musicianship is playing beside other musicians during the development process, something not shared with an audience.
"I enjoyed having the opportunity to document that process and try to tell the story of what goes into getting a performance together and the whole idea of performance [and] how much of yourself you put on the line," she says.
To be sure, some of the most satisfying moments in the film that emerged from their initial curiosity, Mrs Carey's Concert, are the quiet expressions of joy or surprise from teachers and the students after performing beautifully -- sometimes alone.
Raymond adds there was also something compelling about young people making quite sophisticated sounds. She thought focusing the lens on them, learning their back stories and seeing them concentrate so hard, might be of some value.
Carey hadn't been so sure. She baulked when Connolly suggested the journey towards the concert could be worth documenting. "I thought long and hard about it," says "Mrs Carey" (she is not referred to by any other name in the film). "My first reaction was no, but then I thought, 'Well, what we do is a very positive thing and I didn't think anything would come out that would be horrific or negative.' "
After the first week of Connolly and Raymond following her around, Carey admits she barely thought about their presence, although "I couldn't imagine they'd be interested watching us for so long".
"When they finished filming, I actually missed them because they were such nice people," she laughs. Connolly has a similar recollection, noting Carey came to school "dressed to the nines" for the first two weeks of filming. "But after a while even she forgot to comb her hair and started wearing her daggy clothes again!"
Carey still vacillates in her thoughts on the film and all the attention it involved. "It's truthful," she says. "Whether I like it or not I don't know. I'm not going to say I glow with pride; I sit there and think that's what it is. It is really confronting seeing yourself on screen."
Yet she hasn't resiled from her decision to put her school through the experience. Raymond contends that is because the school is "pretty confident in their [teaching] process. They weren't afraid."
Carey backs her up. She says the school could only hope for a truthful film and that is what it got. She describes it as a "perfect example of the school's theme: transforming learning".
In a broader sense, the school aims to develop its students in all sorts of ways they might not believe possible. "Nobody's left out of the picture, everyone matters," she says. "The school is open in showing what's there and how we help all kids and in the end they come out with a positive experience."
As for the film's subjects, so too for its viewers; the experience is a positive one.
Connolly was rapt with the initial response after it premiered to a standing ovation at the Adelaide Film Festival opening night this year. He admits that audience was primed to like the film, but subsequent screenings have convinced him Mrs Carey's Concert evokes a better reaction than any of his other films.
"Although it is very hard to do well out of a theatrical release documentary, something in my bones tells me people are going to go to this one," he enthuses. "The key to the film is people come out in tears. They're actually moved by it and it seems to affect people in the cinema."
It is surprising in that respect, because it focuses on two girls who initially come across as unattractive characters. Emily Sun, the Australian-born daughter of mainland Chinese parents, is a reticent prodigy, unwillingly accepting the job to lead the school in its next concert. Early in the film she seems uncommunicative and unlikely to win an audience's attention, let alone make it to the Sydney Opera House. The other star is the brattish Iris Shi, who has the fire of a rebel but little of obvious benefit to bring to the concert or the school.
Connolly sighs. Emily's lack of empathy was a consequence of not being able to predict where observational documentaries will take you, he says. Within two weeks of beginning shooting, Emily was in serious trouble and was nearly expelled. For obvious reasons, the camera couldn't follow her through these travails, so she appears simply as surly trouble. Similarly, her bitter rival, another talented violinist, left the school "in high dudgeon for various reasons".
"But Emily obviously became very interesting because here were the beginnings of the same kind of journey Doretta [Balkizas, the solo violinist from the 2007 concert who first piqued the filmmakers' interest] had been on," Connolly says. "Here's Emily being offered the head of the orchestra and saying, 'No, I'm too immature.' So you're thinking, here's a trajectory you're probably going to be able to follow."
And follow they do, with seeming impunity. Going by the old chestnut about the effect of a camera on a subject's behaviour, one might expect impressionable teenage girls to be among the first to adapt their behaviour when in its gaze. Not so in Mrs Carey's Concert, to such charming effect that viewers can see younger versions of themselves in the mischief, camaraderie and conflict on screen.
Connolly says the key, as always in documentary filmmaking, is the amount of time you spend documenting the subjects. A three-month shoot will deliver a different film to an 18-month shoot, as this one was. He "honestly doesn't know" if the students played up to the camera but he believes key scenes were not much influenced by his and Raymond's presence.
"If I get paid for anything, it's for rapidly getting to a situation where kids are going to relax in front of us," he says. "It's part of the technique of the whole thing and I've been doing it for 30 years. Basically it's a bit tougher with kids and it's a bit tougher in this situation because unlike all the other films where you basically sit in the office with them eight hours a day, five days a week, these kids only come to the music department twice a week. [They're] only there for 35 to 40 minutes, so the transition period took a bit longer before they started to relax."
Carey agrees. "That's part of [Connolly's and Raymond's] skill because you felt quite comfortable in front of them," she says. "That's what I found extraordinary; the kids were entirely themselves."
They had differing notions of what the result might be though, Connolly says. The school's staff had seen Connolly's and Anderson's 2001 Facing The Music, which documented the clumsy politicisation of the University of Sydney's music department (and which features one MLC teacher).
But the students had no idea their journey could be described without narration or by "telling the story the way we did", Raymond says. In their world, Big Brother or Brat Camp is a documentary, Connolly notes.
"I don't think any of them had ever seen that sort of filmmaking before," he says. Besides, he adds, the students knew in the two years it would take to make the film, most of them would be long gone.
Nor could Carey quite predict what sort of documentary would be produced. She trusted Connolly and Raymond wouldn't do anything to hurt the students. "There was a huge element of trust that they were reporting what they saw," she says.
While she still wrestles with the result -- not on grounds of aesthetics or reputation, but rather for the shock of seeing herself in action on screen -- she appreciates there is a greater good.
It is an elegant and involving document about music and teaching. Carey says she was happy enough to capture one concert that would ensure the "concerts go [on] long after I've gone from MLC".
An encounter with an arts bureaucrat after the Adelaide Film Festival premiere, who knew many teachers like Carey, was telling.
"She said the film represented to her the many unsung heroes of music education," Carey says. "I thought, wow, if our school and this film can represent a lot of people doing great things, then that's great. That's enough."

Mrs Carey's Concert opens on April 28.