Dutch-born Australian director Rolf de Heer is at the opposite end of the spectrum of film-makers from, say, Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, who work with huge budgets and require huge audiences to stay in the business, or at least that part of it they ply their trade in. De Heer, on the other hand, though not naive about funding, seems to have found in small budgets the freedom to be himself. And, in being so, he has given filmgoers reason to be grateful to him for what is in many ways a remarkable body of work.
Is Jane Freebury’s book perhaps the best yet to chronicle the career of an Australian film-maker? The thoroughness of its research is allied to a sharpness of insight, and both are articulated in a prose style that is both scholarly and reader-friendly. One cannot always say as much about serious-minded accounts of film and film-makers. She has a remarkably comprehensive grasp and clear understanding of de Heer’s oeuvre and of how it has come to be the way it is. Structurally, the book follows a pattern in which Freebury charts carefully the production history of each film, followed by an insightful textual analysis and an account of its critical and commercial reception. If I’ve made this sound unduly schematic I’m sorry, because this isn’t how the book reads.
Each chapter makes a compelling, low-key drama out of the problems involved in setting up the production, how de Heer’s personal views interact with wider cultural resonances, and especially the way the films were received. This latter is so often little more than a list of snippets from this and that review, whereas here Freebury manages to infuse it with a sense of sometimes conflicting attitudes, when none of these is necessarily clear-cut. As well as giving a clear sense of each film – and, in doing so, she makes me want to see those I’ve missed – the author is knowledgeable and sometimes provocative in placing de Heer and his work in the context of Australian cinema at large and in relation to other directors and films (not all of them Australian).
So what makes Rolf de Heer’s film output worthy of the research and effort that has gone into this book? Freebury characterises him as having been “resolutely unpredictable” throughout his thirty-year career. Perhaps this is what I had in mind when I facetiously wrote, in my review of his Dr Plonk (2007), “I hear it is rumoured that Rolf de Heer’s next project is a nudist musical set in Antarctica.” (Freebury quotes this, to my undying discredit, as an epigraph for her Chapter 14.) There have certainly been recurring patterns of thematic interest – for example, outsiders of various kinds looking for a toe-hold in family or community – but there is no sense of de Heer’s ever committing himself to a recognisable genre. In fact, he simply cuts across genres as it suits his purpose. “It seemed to him when starting out,” Freebury reveals, “that Australian director Bruce Beresford’s avoidance of a signature style allowed him to remain versatile and make ‘anything.’”
When one reconsiders some of the key elements of the new Australian cinema of the 1970s and 80s, de Heer can’t but seem more venturesome than most. Whereas most of the films that laid the basis for “the revival” tended to be either literary adaptations or historical dramas usually in realist mode, it would have been difficult to accommodate the director of, say, Ten Canoes (2006) or Dr Plonk in such an aesthetic. He was as far from the ethos of My Brilliant Career (1979) as from the outback realism of Sunday Too Far Away (1975) or the historical conflict of Gallipoli (1981): he was, in a word (and a not too original word at that), a maverick. As director, producer and screenwriter of his films, he might seem to justify more than most the label of “auteur,” but as Freebury quotes him as saying, “You don’t impose your style on a project: what you do is work out how a project ought to be made… [It is a question of] picking a style for a film rather than choosing to have a style for oneself.” His name on a film may signify that it is clearly “authored” but, despite some modesty in his depicting himself simply as a man who makes “some films,” Freebury is right to claim that this “fails to account for the iconoclastic stamp that marks his work and his auteur profile.” Nor does it account for the degree of control over each film that his trio of key functions allows – or, even, enjoins. These are essentially his films: it’s impossible to imagine him under contract to a studio or a large production company.
So, what recurring patterns does Freebury locate in both the finished films and the processes by which they came to be that way? As suggested above, de Heer is fascinated by how outsiders may or may not come to terms with their circumstances. Such protagonists include the adult son virtually imprisoned by his hyper-controlling mother in Bad Boy Bubby (1994), the child who stops speaking to her parents, who she fears are going to separate, in The Quiet Room (1996), and the eponymous Old Man Who Read Love Stories (2001) in his Amazon jungle seclusion. There are others too, but the most significant is probably that of the Indigenous characters who inhabit
the “accidental trilogy,” inadvertent and unplanned, of films with David Gulpilil [that] traces a kind of progression from righteous indignation in the portrait of the omnipotent Aboriginal man in The Tracker , and Dreamtime immersion in the tranquillity of a pre-contact past in Ten Canoes, to a clear-eyed vision [in Charlie’s Country (2013)] of the contemporary social reality for many Indigenous people living in traditional communities in contemporary Australia.
I quote that passage partly to draw attention to one of de Heer’s ongoing preoccupations, partly to draw attention to his capacity to gather round him a reliable band of creative collaborators – and partly to exemplify Freebury’s sure command of her material. The attitudes to the Indigenous population, past and present, that he reveals in the three named films and the stylistic resources he brings to bear on them mean that, distinctive as each is, they are together, in the author’s evocative phrasing, “greater than their sum, like the panels of a triptych.” As well as Gulpilil, de Heer had an imposing bunch of creative talents, including cinematographer Ian Jones and sound designer James Currie, both crucial to the films’ aesthetic potency.
Freebury’s account of how each film works, as individual production and as part of an ongoing filmography, is marked by careful attention to how each unfolds, dramatically and visually. She understands the technical aspects of film-making and writes about them with quiet authority. As well, she has a sure grasp of the intricacies of funding and distribution, of how the films were set up, and of how they fared commercially, both in Australia and elsewhere.
The man who made such diversely memorable films as Ten Canoes (using Indigenous cast and language) and Dr Plonk (invoking the story-telling habits of the silent screen) is one who stands out from the crowd. He is lucky to have found so eloquent a chronicler who, without gush and with critical rigour, so firmly fixes his achievement in the reader’s mind.
Brian McFarlane is an Adjunct Professor in the Swinburne Institute for Social Research. His latest books are Double-Act: The Remarkable Lives and Careers of Googie Withers and John McCallum and Twenty British Films: A Guided Tour.