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Respect the moment!
A retrospective of the cinematographic work of Gary Kildea
By Peter I. Crawford1 (Nordic Anthropologic...
First of all, the emergence of this new dynamic ‘trend’ in Australian documentary clearly paralleled
and reflected develop...
with our early work that their language, and the complexity of their thought, their poetry, was
revealed to be exactly the...
fundamentally human and universal, that transgresses such sociological notions. At the time I would
not have put it in the...
Aquino gives hope to a population fed up with the Marcos family. It was partly shot on 16 mm and
Video-8, indicated by the...
I cannot think of more before the deadline of the festival catalogue. Except that Gary told me he
was catholic but I have ...
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Respect the moment! A retrospective of the cinematographic work of Gary Kildea By Peter I. Crawford1 (Nordic Anthropological Film Association, NAFA)Respect the moment gary kildea


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Respect the moment! A retrospective of the cinematographic work of Gary Kildea By Peter I. Crawford1 (Nordic Anthropological Film Association, NAFA)Respect the moment gary kildea

  1. 1. Respect the moment! A retrospective of the cinematographic work of Gary Kildea By Peter I. Crawford1 (Nordic Anthropological Film Association, NAFA) Gary Kildea is a documentary film-maker. He was born in 1948 in Sydney and has worked professionally with film since 1965. Although he at one stage studied fiction directing at the National Film and Television School in the UK he has dedicated most of his time ever since to explore the scope and potential of documentary film and thoroughly explore its concepts. Many of his own documentary films have testified to documentary’s ability to – using the words of Toni de Bromhead2 – provide the viewer with just as much filmic satisfaction – if not ‘filmic pleasure’ – as many fiction films do. Apart from his own films, he has been involved in the production of many documentary films, directed by others, as cameraman, sound recordist or editor. He belongs to a generation of Australian cinematographers who inspired each other and worked closely together on numerous projects. Many of them moved to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in the 1970s and gradually produced a number of outstanding films in the more recent history of documentary film in general and the emerging field of ‘ethnographic film’ in particular. Apart from Gary Kildea’s well-known film, Trobriand Cricket (1974, made with the anthropologist Jerry Leach) the ensuing films included, for example, the Leahy trilogy (1984-1992, First Contact, Joe Leahy’s Neighbours, Black Harvest) made by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, Ileksen (1978, co-directed by Gary Kildea and Dennis O’Rourke), Shark Callers of Kontu (1982) and Cannibal Tours (1987) by Dennis O’Rourke, not to mention the Baruya films made by Ian Dunlop (at that time the grand ‘younger’ man of ethnographic films in Australia), which includes Towards Baruya Manhood (1972, made together with the French anthropologist, Maurice Godelier). Several of these films, as well as Gary Kildea’s later films from the Philippines, Celso and Cora (1983) and Valencia Diary (1992), became some of the most important and popular films in the NAFA ethnographic film archive, which was started in 1975. A retrospective of Gary’s films at this NAFA festival in Tartu in 2004 is therefore very appropriate and can be used to contextualise the position of ethnographic film in the development of visual anthropology in the Nordic countries and elsewhere. The cinematographic environment and period in which Gary Kildea developed as a documentary film-maker was, perhaps uniquely so, extremely dynamic and creative. One can neither ignore the coincidental (?) fact that a large group of very talented film-makers emerged at about the same time in Australia nor that what one could describe as the forces of production of documentary film, including the organisational and institutional infrastructure, perhaps most notably the role played by Film Australia, were conducive for the development of such dynamics and creativity. I would argue, however, that conceptually, the development of new forms of documentary and ethnographic film, of which Gary Kildea’s films are excellent examples, was triggered mainly by two interwoven aspects, the first being linked to certain developments in documentary film and cinema in general, the latter being related to colonial and post-colonial history and the ethno-politics of Australia and the Pacific region. 1 This brief account by no means attempts to fully cover the cinematographic achievements of Gary Kildea but focuses on a couple of his films, especially Celso and Cora, which have had an impact on anthropology and ethnographic film. I am hugely indebted to both Gary himself and David MacDougall for providing me with valuable background information on Celso and Cora and Gary’s concepts of documentary film-making. All mistakes made are mine except, of course, in cases in which I am able to demonstrate that they may be traced back to Gary and David! 2 In her book Looking Two Ways. Documentary Film’s Relationship with Reality and Cinema, Aarhus: Intervention Press, 1996. 1
  2. 2. First of all, the emergence of this new dynamic ‘trend’ in Australian documentary clearly paralleled and reflected developments in documentary cinema in other parts of the world, especially in France, North America, and the UK. A new generation of Australian documentary film-makers was being ‘brought up’ during or in the aftermath of the advent of approaches described as cinema verité, direct film and observational film-making. There is no doubt that influences and experiences were being exchanged and that a kind of global cross-pollination was taking place in documentary, partly triggered by technological developments such as sync sound and light-weight equipment. The conceptual developments were profound and marked a leap in cinematography that until then historically had perhaps only been matched by the advent of sound films. The exploration of new ways in documentary took place more or less simultaneously in different parts of the world and it seems more reasonable, therefore, to say that what was happening in Australia paralleled developments elsewhere rather than considering the new trends as ‘imported’ or regarding the new Australian film-makers as ‘copy-cats’. In many ways, one could argue that Gary Kildea’s Celso and Cora, which will be shown full length during this festival, is the quintessential observational documentary, or direct cinema in its purest form (let’s discuss this after the screening!), fully achieving the fundamental objectives of observational documentary and at the same time doing it in a manner which cinematographically, aesthetically, and dramaturgically matches the best fiction films. Actually, Gary Kildea has emphasised that parts of Celso and Cora transcend fiction in the sense that it would be almost impossible to ‘write’ such a ‘story’ 3. Secondly, the ‘exodus’ of the new generation of Australian film-makers to PNG, at a time during which the anti-colonial struggle had led to a re-mapping of the world, was to have a noticeable impact both on the ways that films were made and on the whole discourse surrounding questions of the visual representation of ‘other cultures’. If D. W. Griffiths’ film The Birth of Nation (1915) may be regarded as an important film in the history of cinema when it comes to the distinction between documentary and fiction in the new day and age of ‘narrative film’ and the whole question of a new concept called mise-en-scéne, as well as the ideological undercurrents of all visual representation, Australian documentary film-making in the Pacific and among aboriginal communities in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s may collectively be described as looking at the birth of a post-colonial reality. Because of its subject matter – rather than its cinematographic style – Trobriand Cricket may be regarded as a film that almost epitomizes this aspect, more overtly so if one remembers to add the film title’s subtitle: an ingenious response to colonialism. This was a period during which profound historical changes coincided with substantial changes in the ways that we were able both technically and conceptually to document them, a period charged with politics and ideology. The best documentation and discussion of this period is most probably not in writing but Les McLaren and Annie Stiven’s film – with the expressive title - Taking Pictures (1996). In a publication called ‘Empires of Information’ (by Knight, A. and P. Robertson) quoting sections of Taking Pictures, several film-makers comment on the experiences of the 1970s: “Gary Kildea adds: "We were of a 60s liberal ideology where the idea of the equivalence of all cultures had kind of arrived, learning to make documentary films differently was all tied up with learning to respect other people, the people you’re filming, more." … Ian Dunlop concurs: "They open up their culture to us, and it’s a huge responsibility to treat that material with respect." And [Dennis, pic] O’Rourke remarks: "It was only 3 For example when discussing ‘film geography’ regarding a particular sequence (shot 20) in the cramped space of Celso and Cora’s house. Gary says: “Imagine if one was clever enough to write such stuff!”, indicating that the filmic moment itself brought out the ‘authenticity’ of the scene and it is this moment that a documentary film-maker must respect. Taken from a transcription of recorded discussions between Gary Kildea and David MacDougall on Celso and Cora (May-October, 2001, unpubl.). 2
  3. 3. with our early work that their language, and the complexity of their thought, their poetry, was revealed to be exactly the same as ours."” Trobriand Cricket (TC) may be the most well-known of Gary Kildea’s films and has been widely used in teaching anthropology and other subjects (I have used it frequently in Sports Studies over the past three years). It was the third film he made in PNG following a film on a pig festival (Bugla Yunggu, 1972) and a film about the social situation in a state reaching self-government (Bilong Living Bilong Ol, 1973). TC’s popularity is undoubtedly due to the fantastic imagery of a game, cricket, one of the noblest games of the colonial masters, and the transformations it has undergone in Trobriand society. The juxtaposition of archival footage from colonial times with the colourful entrance and exit dances of the current Trobriand players works very well, giving the viewer all the connotations needed to understand why we are, indeed, witnessing an ingenious response to colonialism. Cinematographically and when it comes to film style, TC is perhaps less interesting despite all its merits regarding camera work and editing. The film is a bit of a hybrid with a first part establishing the context needed through narration and the subtitling of the ‘informant’ (actually a representative of the political movement that ‘sponsored’ the film) talking to village elders about their particular way of playing cricket. This subtitling of ‘indigenous’ voices follows a new ‘invention’ used by Timothy Asch in South America, the MacDougalls in East Africa and John Marshall in southern Africa and was, of course, immediately applauded by anthropologists because it facilitated the ‘native’s point of view’, to use the oft-quoted words of Malinowski (whose book on Coral Gardens is actually literally quoted in TC), and opened up the possibility of cross-cultural film. The first part of the film thus seems very didactic and informational while the second part then is made in a more observational style in which events more or less unfold by themselves. The reason why it is popular in social anthropology and other social sciences is most probably because it in many ways does what they do, try to explain and convey an understanding of another culture and society. It does so by ‘telling’ the story about Trobriand cricket, albeit at a time when story-telling was not quite comme-il-faut in academia (twenty to thirty years on, that’s what anthropology seems to be about!). The film thus ‘documents’ something by ‘telling’ a story. In Gary’s later films, more purely observational in film style (if not necessarily in camera style), it is perhaps more a question of ‘finding’ a story. Gary Kildea made and was involved in the making of several other films in PNG, including Ileksen (1978, co-directed with Dennis O’Rourke), about the first national elections to be held in the new post-colonial independent country of Papua New Guinea. It was in PNG that Gary first came into contact with a Filipino community and even started to learn Tagalog, not knowing that he would eventually end up in the Philippines making films. Celso and Cora (C&C) is regarded by many film critics and reviewers as one of the best examples of direct cinema or observational documentary ever made. All the basics of observational cinema that one can find traces of in Gary’s earlier work come together in a film which has won worldwide acclaim and many prizes and awards. It follows the lives of a young couple with two small children in Manila’s slum area over a period of eight weeks. It would be unfair to the film (which will be shown full length) to reveal more of the story, something that one often sees written in reviews of fiction films (!), but it may be relevant to comment on a few aspects of the film. What struck me the first time I saw the film, which was probably shortly after it was released in 1983, was the fact that it did not appear sensationalist at all, a characteristic that one had increasingly become accustomed to in programmes about ‘slum’ made for television. Actually, what really struck me was that this was not a film about ‘slum’ but a film about something 3
  4. 4. fundamentally human and universal, that transgresses such sociological notions. At the time I would not have put it in these words but the film to me revealed a story saying something universal about the human condition rather than ‘told’ me a story about a young couple living in a slum area. I think the film more than most films I can think of – even ‘pure’ observational films – is an example of what Gary himself has called ‘unforced story-telling’, i.e. the unfolding of a story in front of the camera or what Gary again, this time quoting Kracauer 4, calls the ‘redemption of reality’. It has the directness of the home movie that Gary refers to in one of the quotes above introducing this brief appreciation of his work. It is a film in which Dai Vaughan’s distinction between ‘film as record’ and ‘film as language’5 is reduced to what it was always intended to be, an analytical abstraction concerning the epistemology of film. Celso and Cora are not ‘explained’ to us but their story is uncovered in a way which enables the viewer to get a sensuous understanding of their lives. It is a ‘natural’ story not a constructed story. One could discuss the individual shots of the film at length (which Gary and David MacDougall have actually done) and find interesting examples of why the film achieves what it definitely does achieve. We may raise some of these issues after seeing the film but some of the conventions employed in the film, which have been discussed by film critics, film-makers and visual anthropologists, include the long shot (there are whole scenes consisting of a single shot) and the grey blanks inserted between scenes to indicate the move from one to the other (and to indicate the ‘space between shots’). To me, probably the greatest achievement of the film is covered by a word often used in discussions about the ‘new’ ways in which Gary and his contemporary Australian film ‘mates’ were developing concepts of documentary film: respect. Anyone seeing the film will probably agree that it is a matter of respect in different senses and at different levels. There is the question of the respect that the film-maker has for his subjects, the respect that the subjects obviously have for him (or, rather, them, as we should include Rowena who helped make the film), the respect that Celso and Cora have for life that enables them to live in a dignified way against all odds, the respect that the film-maker has for the viewer, and, finally and perhaps most importantly, what I (stealing Gary’s expression) would describe as ‘respect for the moment.’ Respecting the moment is what enables the film to let the story ‘become told’. Without that respect one would have to try other ways of telling the (same, although it could never actually be the same) story and one would either risk making a didactic film on life in the slums, in which someone tells the story while we watch not necessarily connected images, or one would have to write a story and then film it, i.e. make a fiction film. My main point is that neither can achieve what the ‘respect for the moment’ achieves when the moment is actually there, as it is in C&C. The respect is obtained and revealed through the gentleness of the camera, which in some instances is almost like a ‘caressing’ of the subject matter. We are here talking about film-making that requires not only an understanding of the people and culture being filmed, and of the so-called pro-filmic events, but requires a quality in the film-maker which for the moment I can find no better word for than affection. The tremendous success of C&C – and I am here talking about the way it was received by the audience and film festivals rather than in a box office sense (for that: please ask Gary!) – may be one reason why Gary Kildea’s next film, also from the Philippines, Valencia Diary (1992), did not receive quite as much attention. In many ways the film uses the same recipe in its portrayal of events and lives in a Mindanao village during the time of the national election in which Cory 4 In the transcription of recorded discussions between Gary Kildea and David MacDougall on Celso and Cora (MayOctober, 2001, unpubl.). 5 In his ’The aesthetics of ambiguity’, in Crawford, P.I. & D. Turton (Eds.), 1992, Film as ethnography, Manchester University Press. 4
  5. 5. Aquino gives hope to a population fed up with the Marcos family. It was partly shot on 16 mm and Video-8, indicated by the film’s mixture of black-and-white and colour sequences. This may have confused the viewer (it certainly did on several occasions where I was present at a screening) and distracted the audience from the ‘moments’ of the film. I have no doubt that the ‘respect for the moments’ was just as important to the film-maker in this film but perhaps it is simply a matter of the moments being so different from those of Celso and Cora? Gary Kildea’s most recent film, Man of Strings (1998), which I believe we shall also see full-length, brings together two forms of expression that are very closely linked in Gary’s conceptualisation of film, film and music. Although Gary Kildea can hardly be described as a prolific writer 6, one cannot accuse him of lacking words and concepts in discussions concerning cinema and documentary film. The analogy with music, particularly jazz music, often comes out in discussions and particularly refers to his style of shooting in which improvisation (and intuition?, pic) plays an important role. Man of Strings is not about a jazz musician but about Jan Sedivka a violinist and music pedagogue of Czech origin living in Australia (Tasmania). As with C&C, it is a film with a lot of affection, sentiment and emotion involved, in this case underlined by the sensuous propensities of music. While it may be the film that – referring to its subject matter – is of least importance to anthropology, I would venture to argue that one then misses the point of much of visual anthropology and ethnographic film. We may not ‘learn’ a lot about ‘kinship’, ‘ethnicity’ or ‘political systems’ in a film such as Man of Strings, but anthropologists could learn a lot from the way in which film is used to ‘explore’ and ‘analyse’ rather than ‘document’ and ‘describe’. This latter point in a sense summarises why the work of Gary Kildea is relevant in the context of social anthropology. Gary’s work has always had a sense of direction in which he seems to be exploring the full potential of a medium that is just over a hundred years old, cinema and particularly documentary film. One of the opening shots of Celso and Cora (the train shot) carries almost an intertextual (to use a word that Gary might use!) reference to one of the first films in history, Lumiére’s The Arrival of the Train at the Gare de Lyon (1895). Despite the quite substantial differences on the surface between some of his early work in PNG, through his two major feature-length documentaries from the Philippines, to his film about a violinist, there seems to be a constant search for ways in which film is used in an exploratory way to understand a phenomenon rather than in a ‘documentary’ way to explain something to us. I believe that this is what documentary is all about, enabling us to understand rather than explaining something to us. This may be one of the reasons why film has only reluctantly been admitted into anthropology departments. With the growing significance of phenomenological approaches in anthropological research it may be that film will find other uses than those it has traditionally been given in academic anthropology. Maybe we can start to realise that the potential of film reaches far beyond simple description and ‘record.’ In which case the films of Gary Kildea are a good place to start. In NAFA we have been very fortunate to have access to his films and have shown them at many of our festivals, just as many of us use them regularly in academic teaching. It seems appropriate to end with a quote from one of the great Nordic cinematographers: When a film is not a document, it is a dream … Film as dream, film as music. No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul. (Ingmar Bergman, here quoted from Toni de Bromhead, 1996, p. 117) 6 When I asked him whether he had any articles he could send me for this exercise, he replied that as far as he could remember he had not written any but he had written a couple of e-mails! 5
  6. 6. I cannot think of more before the deadline of the festival catalogue. Except that Gary told me he was catholic but I have forgotten the significance of that. So there is an obvious question for Gary served to a member of the audience! Selected films of Gary Kildea (as Director) 1972 BUGLA YUNGGU (50 mins) The Great Chimbu Pig Festival (Papua New Guinea) 1973 BILONG LIVING BILONG OL (54 mins) "Concerning the Lives of the People" A social overview at the time of self-government. (Papua New Guinea) 1974 TROBRIAND CRICKET (54 mins) An Ingenious Response to Colonialism (Anthropologist: Jerry Leach) 1976 WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? (48 mins) An Arts Festival and Cultural Dilemma in Papua New Guinea 1978 ILEKSEN (58 mins) The first post-independence national election in Papua New Guinea (co-director: Dennis O'Rourke) 1983 CELSO AND CORA (109 mins) A Manila Story A portrait of a young couple. 1992 VALENCIA DIARY (108 mins) A small Mindanao farming community galvanised by a Presidential election 1998 MAN OF STRINGS (57mins / 90 mins) A portrait of violinist and pedagogue Jan Sedivka (A Film Australia / Ronin Films production) 2003 KORIAM’S LAW (In progress) (Co-director / Cinematographer/editor) A Television documentary about “The Kivung”, a political and religious movement in the East New Britain province of Papua New Guinea. [Co-directed by Andrea Simon Arcadia Pictures NYC.] 6