Amanda Duthie (ed.), Kin: An extraordinary filmmaking family (#BookReview)

Book coverKin: An extraordinary filmmaking family is the second tribute book I’ve reviewed in Wakefield Press’s Don Dunstan Award series. The first, Margaret & David: 5 stars, was also edited by Amanda Duthie. Like that book, Kin contains short reflections and essays on the contribution made to Australia’s film industry and culture by Freda Glynn, her children Erica Glynn and Warwick Thornton, and her grandchildren Dylan River and Tanith Glynn-Maloney. The book also includes brief biographies of the five individuals involved, and a family tree, all of which help orient the reader.

In my review of Margaret and David, I focused on one aspect of the pieces that interested me, which was the commentary on what I called “the practice of criticism”. That made sense, because Margaret and David are critics. Freda Glynn and family are a very different awardees. They are indigenous Australians from central Australia, and they have championed and practiced Aboriginal screen story-telling for over three decades, their influence reaching way beyond Australia. Freda Glynn helped establish CAAMA (the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association) and Imparja Television. Erica Glynn and Warwick Thornton are internationally renowned filmmakers (and more), with third generation Dylan River and Tanith Glynn-Maloney following in their filmmaking footsteps.

The pieces are written by a wide variety of indigenous and non-indigenous arts people from around the world, such as actor Deborah Mailman, authors Bruce Pascoe (whose Dark emu I’ve reviewed here) and Larissa Behrendt, critics Margaret and David (of course!), arts administrator Kim Williams, and American academic Faye Ginsburg, to name just some of the over 20 contributors.

Most of the pieces comprise personal reflections and heartfelt tributes to the various individuals in the family, but for those wanting a good overview of how it all started, Philip Batty’s longer piece, “Freda Glynn and the evolution of CAAMA: A personal reflection”, is well worth reading. Too few Australians know about our indigenous pioneers – who they are, let alone what they’ve done and the challenges they’ve faced doing it. Having worked, as most of you know by now, in the film archive/library industry most of my career, I became aware of CAAMA early in its existence, but I didn’t know half the story told by Batty – the personal and the political! He tells of CAAMA applying for money in 1988 from the Australian Bicentennial Authority:

Some city-based Aboriginal groups protested again CAAMA accepting the bicentennial ‘blood money’ and, on several occasions, Freda fronted up to these groups to argue that all government funding to Aboriginal organisations could be described as ‘blood money’. Indeed, at a particularly hostile meeting, I remember thinking back to the first time I met Freda when she was confronted by the all-white Citizens for Civilised Living [can you believe such a name!!]. On this occasion it was an all-Aboriginal crowd she confronted with the same bravery.

It’s important to note here that, as Stan Grant and so many others have stated, indigenous people are not united in their responses to how their cause should be progressed – any more than non-indigenous people are about their lives. I’m frequently astonished by how we white Australians seem to expect all other groups to be united in a way that we are not. It denies people the individual agency in their lives that we demand for ourselves.

Anyhow, rant over. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this book. I’m unusually behind in my reviews, and this book is, in one sense, of specialist interest, though in another I’d argue that it would offer something to all Australians interested in our cultural history. It does have a political thread – of course – but that thread is unified by a single foundational idea, the idea that sits at the bottom of all that this impressive family does. I’ll let Bruce Pascoe tell you:

The real history of the country was eliminated from our curriculum, our society, our politics, our morality. If the best-educated people in the land, the mild professors and urbane historians, can fabricate a history of such blinding connivance then another tactic has to be employed if the oppressed are to receive any form of justice. And that tactic is on old one: story.

What Freda Glynn and her family have done – as this book shows – is to set up infrastructures (the CAAMA group supports music, film, television, radio, for example) that facilitate that story being told, to provide training for indigenous people in creating and producing their stories, and of course, to make stories themselves. Warwick Thornton’s films Samson and Delilah and Sweet country are just two examples of a swathe of productions members of this family have made and/or facilitated.

All I can say is may the Glynn family continue to make stories that tell us as it is! Meanwhile, I commend this book to you as an excellent introduction to all that can be done when people put their hearts and souls into something they believe in.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeAmanda Duthie (ed.)
Kin: An extraordinary filmmaking family
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2018
ISBN: 9781743056028

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Amanda Duthie (ed.), Margaret & David: 5 stars (#BookReview)

Amanda Duthie, Margaret and DavidMargaret and David, the subjects of this delightful, eponymously named collection of reminiscences and essays, do not need last names here in Australia. They are just “margaretanddavid”. But, since we have an international readership here, I should formally introduce them. Margaret and David are Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, Australia’s best-known and best-loved film critics who retired from their television movie show in 2014 after 28 years on air! There were to us as Siskel and Ebert were to Americans. Their influence was immense.

This book, Margaret & David: 5 stars, is essentially a tribute book produced on the occasion of their being awarded the 2017 Don Dunstan Award, an award established in 2003 to commemorate the late South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan, who was a major champion of the arts, including film. The book contains mostly short reflections, but also an extended essay, on Margaret and David’s contribution to Australia’s film industry and culture, and, in fact, to world film culture. The pieces are written by a wide variety of industry people, from producers like Jan Chapman, through actors like Geoffrey Rush, and directors like Cate Shortland and Gillian Armstrong, to film business people, journalists, film festival directors, and even, Margaret’s son, Josh. It’s a delightful read – but a provocative one at times too.

Of course, I enjoyed the insights into Margaret and David’s personas and working relationship – and won’t go into these. If you’re looking for gossip you won’t get it here because Margaret and David were professionals, and were, and are, we are told, good friends. Sure, they disagreed, sometimes vociferously – we all remember Margaret’s “Oh, David!” exclamations – but these arguments always teased out ideas about film. Gillian Armstrong says, “they formed a lively, fiery, passionate, laughter-filled relationship.” If, on the other hand, you’re looking for insights into the history of the Australian film industry, you will get some here. This is not an academic work, but many of the reflections on these two can’t help but comment on the Australian industry and on film culture more broadly, from the mid 1980s when they started on television to the mid 2010s when they finished. Their contribution – and impact – was not only qualitative but, in some respects, quantifiable.

This all interested me, but what I want to focus on in the rest of this post is what the book offered me regarding …

The practice of criticism

… because, fundamentally, criticism is criticism, whether you are discussing film or books, drama or ballet. I enjoyed some of the commentary on this.

Director Gillian Armstrong, while teasing (and forgiving) David about his poor review of her Oscar and Lucinda film, describes perfectly the art of the critic, when she says

It is important to have serious discussions that actually discuss the craft of the director. They shared a real appreciation of the vision behind the camera angles, the lighting, editing, music and casting. But most importantly, their reviewing was about the very heart of those films, the content and ethics.

Leaving aside the terms “review” and “criticism” which tend to be used somewhat interchangeably in the book, I think this statement contains the guts of what criticism or, shall we say, serious reviewing is about: marrying analysis of technique with exploration of content (and ethics). Journalist Sandy George, in her extended essay, puts in this way:

They actively engage in talking about the narrative, the history of the production, what the filmmaker was trying to achieve, and how the film affected them; they don’t engage in reductive talk such as “this is good”, “this is bad”, “see this”, “don’t see that”.

There’s one memorable review they did which several writers commented on: their review of the violent R-rated movie Romper Stomper. Margaret gave it 4.5 stars and David refused to rate it. This review is now famous – and part of this is for the way their discussion was conducted. It was respectful, and considered. You can see the review here.

Other practical issues are teased out – such as reviewing works you don’t like, and reviewing works by friends. On the former, Sandy George quotes David Stratton on writing reviews for “the extremely influential” Variety:

‘I never gave a glowing review to something that didn’t deserve it … but knowing how important a Variety review is, I sometimes went out of my way not to review a film.’

A valid decision I think, though purists would probably say that you should review such films regardless.

George also quotes Margaret about reviewing works by friends. They tried, she said, “not to be friends with filmmakers, but it’s impossible”. She also says:

“I’ve always been kind to Australian films because I’m such a wimp … “

Indeed, one person said that because of this, a good review from David carried more weight!

George goes on to report one distributor’s comment that

one way the pair went above and beyond for Australian films was how carefully they chose their words when one fell short.

Notwithstanding my above comment about not reviewing at times, I also like this approach. Honest reviews are important, but there are ways of being honest. The arts are tough enough, without demoralising those working hard within it, don’t you think?

Anyhow, I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read but not a frivolous one. I’ll close with a comment made by current SA Premier, Jay Weatherill:

Their love of cinema is real, undiminished and contagious, and they have helped me and countless other Australians to understand the critical role can play in telling our nation’s stories and presenting our values.

AWW Badge 2018Amanda Duthie (ed.)
Margaret & David: 5 stars
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781743055137

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)