It began with a meeting at St Andrews Hotel with community art workers Mahony and Stef who were coordinating and producing the annual Into The Light festival. They were keen to see what I could contribute by way of projections and videos. Two projects emerged and in doing so introduced me to a part of Melbourne’s north east I’d only known vaguely through the Black Saturday bushfires – The City of Whittlesea.
Video portraits of Whittlesea
The first of the two projects was a series of video portraits comprised of school kids and members of the Whittlesea Community Choir. We also added local Aboriginal Elder Ian Hunter, who I’d met on a scar tree tour of Bundoora, to the compile. I’d spent a day at two different schools in Whittlesea where kids were mostly enthusiastic about being involved, though some took it as a chance to out stare the camera. And they did! I was eager for folks to blink as that’s where I’d tend to cut from one face to next face in the sequence. Using a blink as an edit point is a common tool of the editors trade.
The video portraits are created from an initial 30 seconds of the subject looking directly into the centre of the lens, in fact, I have them imagine looking straight through it. They can smile, tilt their heads and gesture in any way they wish, but above all they need to blink. These 30 second takes are then slowed down by approx 30% or more. I would then select a good 10-15 sec block and assemble the entire collection by locking individual faces to each others eyes, preferably fading / morphing from one face to the next as one pair of eye lids close on one and opens on the next. That’s the premise anyway.
After I’d assembled the edit, and got to know all those faces, those eyes and unique expressions, the entire 10 minute block turned out to be much more mesmerizing than some of the other video portraits I’d created in the past. I took to watching it and I did several times over. At some stage I might add some background chatter, particularly that of the kids who were by and large hilarious in their antics and sub-text commentary.
Must say it was also encouraging to meet so many kids who were enthusiastic and supportive of each other and I was amazed, truly amazed at this one girl who broad smile and braces! Unashamedly! She appeared confident and proud. Way to go!
We’re Creating a Tree – a collaborative micro-doc
The second of these projects was based on a proposal I’d put to The Tree Project, a forged gum tree, a huge public artwork / memorial “to the people who lost their lives in the 7 Feb  bushfires, to honour the tireless people who defended others and to stand as a symbol of regeneration for the community.” The end result, a very much distilled version of the original proposal, resulted in a beautiful community project co-produced with a small team of young aspiring filmmakers.
Weekly workshops took place at the Whittlesea Community House with a core group of 8 kids aged from 11 to 15, some from Whittlesea Secondary College, a local primary school and one from Eltham High. Not only were they totally into the idea of making a short documentary about The Tree Project they encouraged and supported each other throughout the entire process. I’d not met kids like these in recent times. Sure they mucked around and terms like “settle down” were pretty much meaningless, and yet I found their general demeanor totally inspiring. I left every workshop uplifted.
The entire project resulted in a single days shoot, two and a half days post and round-the-clock screening at Into The Light where Hans, my youth worker buddy who had mobilised these kids to work with me, ran a micro cinema space.
We used three cameras, two for an afternoon shoot at The Factory where the tree is being assembled, and a third that evening when interviews were shot. We workshopped interview questions in advance and once on location I ran a very quick, hands-on camera tutorial. We’d also created a dolly out of a chair placed onto a trolley.
The following week the kids looked over all the rushes and left me with shot lists of preferred material from which I edited the entire finished piece from. We had limited funds and resources to have them edit the video themselves, however, they could input into the process at any stage and they did. On our last day together we worked up the name We’re Creating A Tree. This was an exercise in determining what they knew the Tree Project was about, how they understood the core themes that grew from the interviews and what it was we were doing together. Hence “We’re” represents the community. “Creating” represents all the skills harnessed in realising such a complex project and of course “A Tree” being the final artwork itself. It took some teasing out, but they pretty much came to these realisations themselves.
Here’s some feedback from folks who have seen the micro-doc thus far:
“Thanks guys, some great footage there!” Amanda
“Outstanding!!! Congratulations to all involved !!!” Jenny
“How amazing is this tribute to Black Saturday! A small group of Whittlesea Secondary Students produced this documentary! Great work from Andrew Garton, the facilitator.” Jenny
Pulling it all together
Sunday, 15 September 2013. Night fell at the Whittlesea Showgrounds. The community choir had just completed their set of stirring accapella style of tunes. Marimba, flute and xylophone music shimmered through the warm air and anticipation was mounting for the appearance of the lanterns, all of which had been made across the shire over recent weeks, if not months. And then they came…
They emerged first from my right, then more further down the showgrounds. To my surprise another line of lanterns appeared to my left and yet more again. Where and how had they stored? It was incredible. I grabbed my camera and ran into the throng of spiraling lanterns amazed to find so many designs, some so large two or more people had to carry them. And to my delight every single face came with a smile. I can’t recall seeing a single grimace. Everyone was just enthralled by what they were contributing too. It was huge! It was fun! It was enchanting…
As the lanterns entered the showgrounds they formed inter-locking spirals, almost like a double-helix, and all to original music performed by Invention In Time. Before the lanterns became bunched in the centre a large bird puppet emerged and flew out through an ocean of lanterns. Ian Hunter then shared a creation story during which time my portraits were cued. A live star map was superimposed over the portraits via a second projector, and courtesy of loaned and net connected tablet. Many folks who had participated in the portraits project happened to be in the audience and they were just delighted to see how they were being weaved into the entire experience. It was a wonderful moment.
As the program came to an end the lanterns and their bearers all but disappeared! I started packing up, coiling cables and cooling down projectors. Someone handed me a cup of pumpkin and roast peppers soup. It was the only food I’d had that day and man was it good!
- Whittlesea Video Portraits – a ten minute single channel projection;
- We’re Creating A Tree – a six minute collaborative micro-doc produced with a team of young, 11 – 15 year old aspirant filmmakers;
- Integration of the video portraits with the Into The Light lantern parade;
- Use of a live sky map super-imposed over the video portraits;
- Two public screenings to date of We’re Creating A Tree at Into The Light and The Tree Project Open Day;
- The team of young filmmakers were so enthusiastic about our project together they offered to help raise money to bring me back for another;
- Every day spent on this project was an uplifting experience.
There are many outcomes, intangible ones that are difficult to write about. The ripple effect such projects have within communities can be deep, widespread and hard to quantify. However, given the damage the bushfires wrought on this community, that the process of healing is still very much underway, that so many gathered in a spirit of cooperation, to create something truly beautiful is not only testament to community workers, the artists and counselors working at the coal face, it’s a demonstration of how much people really do just want to get along with each other.
How about Into The Light 2014? I’d highly recommend it.