submitted by George Poulos on 23.05.2004
A review of the special ASE screening, by Helen Martin
40,000 Years of Dreaming was written and directed by George Miller and edited by Margaret Sixel. This documentary was one of a series commissioned by the BFI. Prominent film makers including Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci and George Miller, were asked to take a personalised look at their respective country's National Cinema. Both George Miller and Margaret Sixel were present during the ASE special screening (June 1st) to discuss the processes that led to the final structure of this documentary.
40,000 Years of Dreaming opened with Miller speaking directly to camera about his own introduction to the world of film as a child and his subsequent career. It is here, in this preamble, that he postulated his central thesis that we share a communality with aboriginal people in our storytelling; myths and archetypes emerge from a shared landscape and a common human psyche. He proposed that 'Movies are white men's songlines that sing us into being' and that cinema is a kind of public dreaming. From this introduction, the documentary launched into a survey of the sort of archetypes and stories that this dreaming brings into view.
This documentary does well in reflecting the central concerns of our unfolding popular culture. Though it develops along a thematic line, there is a rough correlation between time and theme, as various archetypes and characteristics were frequently focused upon in a particular era. From the 'landscape' emerges the 'bushmen' who were natural successors to the 'convicts', who shared the same sort of anti-authoritarianism with the 'mates' and city 'larrikins. These 'larrikins' then go off to war and become 'diggers'. This structure indicated that our culture's central narrative is primarily based on Anglo-Saxon males. 'Sheilas', 'wogs' and 'aborigines' are dealt with later on in the documentary and seem to take the same place outside the central narrative, as they do in our culture.
Carmen Galan, Helen Martin and Imelda Cooney after the screening
All major themes were announced by the use of title cards, betraying a nervousness that an audience might miss the point.
Editor Margaret Sixel achieved wonderful thematic transitions in cutting the material and the existing narration combined with greater use of such transitions should be enough to convey to an audience the intentions of the documentary.
The process which led to the final form of the documentary emerged during question time. The thesis behind the film came first. Chief researcher Graham Shirley and George Miller talked exhaustively about ideas, themes and possible clips for the documentary. Graham then went off and selected masses of material, according to Margaret, possibly 30 to 40 hours of clips. A major selection criterion was whether the film had impacted on culture in any way. With Graham's extensive knowledge of Australian film, there could hardly be a better person to be involved in such a process, and the film is full of wonderful gems.
Margaret Sixel was then faced with cutting this material into a film which was both entertaining and best reflected the central thesis. During the editing some of the themes had to be modified. Margaret used the section on women as an example;
"the emphasis initially was going to be on feisty Aussie girls, but it changed slightly in the cutting room. There is a tradition in our early cinema of the strong outback girl ... but with a nineties perspective it did seem that ultimately they were always being rescued by some bloke ".
A review of a nation's cinema within the space of a television hour (the original BFI brief) is a tough one. During the editing process it became obvious that George's ambitions for the documentary had to be scaled down. There were too many ideas to fit into 55 minutes. (The final cut is 70 mins) The initial thesis had to be simplified and reduced to fit time requirements, impacting on the sophistication of what was to be said. Important themes and concepts had to be omitted. Margaret stated;
"There was much discussion in the cutting room about what to lose, what to include ... if we had to use too much narration to explain or justify a clip it invariably hit the cutting room floor."
Apart from fulfilling the requirements for a personal look at one's national cinema, George's personal appearances served very practical purposes. According to Margaret, he never wanted to appear in person, but they found it solved a lot of problems.
Of interest to all editors present was the discussion dealing with time and resources available to the editor during the cutting of this film. Margaret felt very lucky to share the Avid with Babe which gave her access to 40 gigabytes of storage. With this type of film where there is a myriad of possibilities regarding selection and placement of material, such capacities gave a freedom to store a lot of footage and possible cuts, and try many things. Margaret pointed out that this was also was one of the Avids "hazards" Since Babe was still taking up a lot of George's time this meant that the post production time was extended. Margaret felt this was both a problem and a bonus because although it allowed for more thinking time, the delays also led to breaks in the thought processes, where old ground had to be revisited before continuing on. At this point George brought up the general issue of post production schedules, arguing that his most successful features allowed a reasonable time for the editing process; that time must be properly allotted for editing in order to get the best out of any film. I don't think there were many in the room who would have disagreed with that sentiment.
I'm sure that 40,000 Years will trigger a lot of discussion. One may not agree with all of Millers interpretations of Australian culture and film history. I would, for example, question statements such as "Australia in the 90's is the land of the long weekend". I think that attitude started to disappear in the 1970's. But this film is an interesting one, and George's personal inter-pretation will be sure to generate debate on what our culture is, and what is represented and reflected in our films.
It's ironic that this documentary, comprised of so much archival footage and completed 9 months ago (pre Hanson) already is rapidly becoming an archival document. Confidence about our 'easy going pluralism' seems reminiscent of an earlier naïveté shared by many of us at the time. But the release of 40,000 Years is also timely. At this stage in our history, where racists seem to be taking centre stage in our national debates, and any opinions contrary to theirs feels uncomfortably like a minority viewpoint, it's heartening to see a filmmaker with the popular credibility of George Miller try to bring to the centre of a discussion about the stories we tell ourselves, a motif central to aboriginal culture.
Miller's endeavour to make a connection between aboriginal dreaming and songlines and Australian cinema will be a contentious one. Issues relating to cultural misunderstanding and ap-propriation, the place of indigenous filmmakers within this thesis about white men's songlines, and whether the thesis actually works in filmic terms are bound to arise, but I respect his attempt to bring to the forefront what has been marginalised. George criticises the degree to which we have attempted to demean and exclude all things aboriginal from our central narratives and concludes that we are all spiritually diminished by this. Hopefully 40,000 Years will at least add some food for thought for those whose attitudes are currently wandering down a very unpleasant path.
Teacher, journalist, poet and author, Sydney NSW Australia
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