Comment, Think, Analyse, Experience and Learn:
The thirty-minute Ibrahim (1985) by Ivan Gaal (born 1938) is a special film in the history of Australian cinema. It unfolds, in a clear, frank, unsentimental but finally very moving way, the story of a young boy having problems in school. His family has fled a country (Beirut) in political turmoil, torn apart by war; and now, suddenly, this youngster is in the middle of a new culture, new language, new customs. Could anyone blame him for being sullen, withdrawn, uncommunicative, and making no evident effort to ‘fit in’?
The path that the film traces is, eventually, a hopeful one: through carefully tailored educational opportunities, Ibrahim is slowly able to come out of his shell. Nothing is solved easily, but Gaal shows that change, and even progress, are indeed possible. And Ibrahim itself, as a cultural event, had a concrete impact on the educational policies in our school system.
Like many of Gaal’s productions over two fruitful decades, Ibrahim was produced via the education system – specifically, the Victorian Department of Education’s Film Unit, also known as its Audio-Visual Resources Branch (AVRB), or earlier the Audio-Visual Education Centre (AVEC). This was the road that opened up for Gaal as a filmmaker – himself arrived as a Hungarian refugee in Australia in 1957 – and the opportunity he took from the late 1970s onwards. As a result, scarcely any film of the many he has signed extends past the thirty-minute mark.
Gaal, although he has often been recognised and awarded in particular festival and pedagogic contexts, is not the typical example of the ‘fringe’ or independent filmmaker, making isolated, maverick movies through artistic subsidies or bold ventures. And nor does his work count, for most people (including many academic specialists and commentators), as mainstream cinema fare – even when it was seen by enormous numbers of people in schools or on television, as well as on the film festival circuit here and abroad. This is why, sadly, Gaal’s career has been somewhat overlooked in the grand, synoptic histories of Australian film.
Gaal was, in the context of this unique educational adventure, not a lone wolf. He worked in collaboration with others, some of whom were also directors: Barbara Boyd-Anderson (who later made a youth-oriented feature drama, The Still Point, 1985, and is now a respected poet), Alex Milsky, David Hughes, Peter Dodds, Ross Campbell and Robert Francis among them. Other talented individuals, who were closely associated with ATOM and Metro, served as associates, consultants, researchers and interviewers – such as Helen Kon and Lee Burton. All these people constitute a specific hothouse of Australian film production and cultural activism that has yet to receive its full due. Yet, while Gaal himself made the point during the ‘80s that “a Film Unit means a group of people, not just one individual”, the time has come, today, to render special tribute to Gaal himself, as an individual artist, for his long, varied and highly expressive career.
In a strongly-worded letter sent to Cinema Papers magazine (and duly published there) in 1983, Gaal made the point that educational documentaries are rarely considered to be even part of the documentary genre:
Educational documentary filmmaking has always been regarded as a ‘poor relation’ or as outside the mainstream of serious and entertaining documentary films. Filmmakers used it as the first stepping stone and, once confident, went into bigger and more lucrative filmmaking. Not many people took it seriously; only a few with dedication and altruism stayed and produced/directed films for this very important purpose.
Gaal is clearly a thoughtful filmmaker who has reflected long and hard, over his lifetime, on the ways and means of educational cinema. It is its own form, with its own challenges: aesthetic challenges, as well as practical, ‘client based’ ones. ‘Films educate differently to the written word’, he once proclaimed. As he tells it, it is a delicate matter of maintaining a balance: too many ‘distracting film techniques’ or too much ‘pretentious editing’, and the attention of kids in a classroom is lost; but too little attention to form, coupled with a dry presentation of ‘facts and figures’, will always come off second best to the snappy types of televisual entertainment (and news/current affairs) on which the young audience has grown up. Plus, it is demeaning to children – to spectators in general – to serve up uninspired, second-rate work
If the meaning of the word education is to ‘draw out’, then a good educational documentary film should do exactly that. First, it should draw the subject matter into your consciousness, make you aware of your ignorance or knowledge of it; and then it should motivate you to get up and start your learning process by yourself or in a group. While watching it, you should comment, think, analyse, experience and learn.
Despite the general neglect that has kept his work shrouded in invisibility, Ivan Gaal has managed to be quite prolific – a true craftsman of the film, video and now digital media. Where other talented filmmakers have languished for long years between financed projects, Gaal has kept working, perfecting his mastery of the forms he has used: observational documentaries, fictional re-enactments of reality, lyrical collage or montage pieces carefully set to music, audiovisual portraits and essays. The time-capsule value of his work – the way he has captured the feelings, sensibilities, trends and customs of whatever time and place he filmed – is inestimable.
Eight years before Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and its ilk, Gaal’s Camberwell Junction (1974) experimented with motion techniques, montage and electronic music to show us the pattern of daily life at a busy intersection. It ends with the stark warning of a ‘future … indefinite’: a sign, which would become characteristic of his oeuvre, of a marriage between lyrical technique and social conscience. Concerto for Ads and Heads (1979) is, in a simple but witty way, a literal time-capsule: an entire day and night of TV broadcast on Channel 7 pulverised into fleeting (but frequently all too recognisable) frame grabs.
Two films that Gaal made are based around the Melbourne newspaper The Age, and they vividly illustrate this time-capsule aspect, as well as the filmmaker’s favoured techniques. Tandberg on Page One (1982) is about the popular (and still active) cartoonist, Ron Tandberg. The subject of this documentary stresses the importance of a sense of humour, his connection to real, everyday people, and his own, contented, rural lifestyle, as opposed to the ‘neurosis’ of city living. But when Tandberg self-deprecatingly declares that his cartoons have ‘no meaning’, Gaal immediately cuts to the most biting commentaries on unemployment, the British Monarchy or our major political parties that this artist has etched in ink for the newspaper’s front page. In a sense, Tandberg’s professional aim – to be sunny and entertaining (and hence optimistic), while at the same time provocative and critical – is very similar to Gaal’s own aesthetic credo. But entertainment is not an end in itself in Gaal’s filmmaking practice.
Where Tandberg on Page One offers insight into the day-to-day running of a large newspaper – with its editorial conflicts, time constraints, and the uneasy holding of a balanced ‘middle ground’ of opinion – The Age of Change (1983) is a fascinating, fine-grain reportage on technological evolution. There had already been an indication of this theme in The Punter (1978), a charming tribute to his father-in-law which constituted his graduating assignment for Swinburne Film School – where a bet at the local TAB triggers a montage of machines, in various locations, relaying and processing the transaction. In The Age of Change, Gaal tackled his subject head-on at an opportune, even historic moment: the beginning of the changeover to computers. His film visually (and sonically) compares the old and new machines – imposing typewriters and print-setters (now a source of nostalgia) versus the new wave of digital apparatuses, which look charmingly clunky from our vantage point today – and allows us access to the thought processes of journalists who rationalise their attachment to one ‘medium’ or another. A current wave of theory, in the academic world, is devoted to what is known as media archaeology; a media archaeologist could do no better than to study this rich document of technology in flux.
Gaal began his filmmaking in the context of Melbourne counterculture of the ‘70s – in particular, the vibrant theatrical community that experimented with new forms at the La Mama and Pram Factory theatres, as well as the ferment in independent cinema at the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-Operative. But, as it happened, he did not follow any of the standard paths of development that sprang from this point of origin: neither populist storytelling (of the David Williamson variety), nor avant-garde experimentation (such as that vigorously pursued by James Clayden across several media). Gaal may have been wary of conforming to the cultural mainstream, and he certainly has a well-developed critique of those aspects of Western capitalism that irk him; by the same token, he resists the fanatical, leftist rhetoric of much progressive Australian art and media, having lived through the worst excesses of communist/socialist state propaganda during his youth in Hungary.
Gaal has mixed feelings about some of his earliest films, such as the popular Soft Soap (1976), starring Max Gillies, a satire of mass media advertising and consumerist culture. Applause Please (1974), also featuring Gillies, was made in a production partnership with actors Bob Thorneycroft and Joe Bolza of the Pram Factory, and supported by the Experimental Film Fund. It is, once again, a broad send-up of TV as a brainwashing medium (a very ‘70s theme), but interesting for the way it captures an extremely physical, burlesque, circus-based style of acting that chimes in with contemporaneous experiments in other countries, such as the films of William Klein, Vera Chytilová or Jacques Rivette – a style that never made the transition into feature-length cinema in Australia, as it did elsewhere.
The earliest of Gaal’s films I have seen is All for the Love of It (1971), a disquieting short fiction that resonates, intriguingly, with the contemporaneous feature Wake in Fright (as well as the later Long Weekend, 1978) and demonstrates Gaal’s immersion in traditions of European, East European and Latin American art cinemas. An alarm rings and a man, snoozing at a bare table, awakes. He begins loading his gun, and is joined by a male companion. Neither of them speak for the entire nine minutes of the film: this is a grim portrait of Aussie masculinity. Our suspicion that they are hunters is soon confirmed. Gaal’s rendering of their duck shooting spree is perfectly ethical: no blood or guts is shown or realistically recreated, no dead birds; simply a montage of image and sound that evokes the violation of nature, ecology and the world’s living creatures. But the hunt backfires, and one of the men suddenly falls dead. A blackly comic, on-screen title – mark of the filmmaker’s mordantly gleeful sense of humour – dedicates the movie to all those ‘patriots who died within the first minute of the hunt’!
Circus Nomads (1975), like Ibrahim, is among Gaal’s very best films. The rich, peculiar, patently anachronistic and other-worldly culture of the travelling circus – whether sublime or tawdry, spectacular or suburban – has always held a particular fascination for filmmakers, including Wim Wenders, Federico Fellini and Rivette. Gaal’s documenting eye and ear here recall the early non-fiction shorts of Krzysztof Kieślowski: what goes on before and after the show, the mundane activities involving the nurturing of children, the cleaning, the packing up and moving on, are just as important – perhaps more so – than the high-wire thrills and animal stunts in front of an eager, local public. The opening (and also closing) series of shots – a truck driving through a normal suburban street, then casually revealed to be pulling a platform of huge elephants – sets the droll, quizzical tone. And there is a pleasing overlap, in Gaal’s career, between this portrait of the slick Royale and Ashtons circuses, on the one hand, and the rawer, more politicised Pram Factory culture of Circus Oz and similar experiments with populist show-forms in which he was once so immersed.
Jubilee and Beyond (1977) straddles the ‘observational’ tradition in Australian documentary (the work of Curtis Levy, for instance, comes to mind) and what Gaal would later perfect in educational formats. With a touch of Jacques Tati, Gaal records and splice together the entire circus of activities around the Queen’s 1977 visit to Melbourne: media, parades, brass bands, dancers, ships and floats, people dressed as cartoon characters, scouts, soldiers, police, and so on. It is itself an ‘embedded’ piece of reportage, in the way that we speak of journalists embedded in war zones under military protection: Gaal and his team clearly had some privileged access to good filming positions, and the final credits boast: ‘Produced with the assistance of Physical Education Branch’! However, critical commentary – in the questioning, combative way it will often appear in his subsequent work – comes in the form of earnest debates between teenagers in school uniform (“If we get rid of the monarchy, there’ll be anarchy!” is a typical remark). The fact that, historically, we are still not ‘beyond’ this state of monarchy gives, in retrospect, an extra layer of insight and pointed humour to the piece. But Gaal’s own attitude to this material, although not hard to gauge, remains strategically indirect, understated: ‘drawing out’ viewers also implies giving them the space and the option to either agree or disagree with what they see and hear, to draw their own conclusions.
Gaal is also a true citizen of Australia’s – and the world’s – film culture, with many colourful stories to tell of trends and personalities. He has been closely involved with various film festivals, and the ATOM Awards judging committees. He eagerly follows and supports younger filmmakers working in the independent sphere, such as Bill Mousoulis with his self-funded fistful of low-key, narrative features. Gaal has always been unafraid to speak his mind, and sometimes rock the boat. His goal – for his own work and for Australian filmmakers in general – has remained consistent and firm: to make cinema that is truly cinematic, and at the same time inspired, animated and informed by a social, humanist and historical consciousness. His own taste in cinema is open-minded and eclectic, ranging from the art-house classics of yesteryear (such as the best films of István Szabó) to, recently, Leos Carax’s delirious Holy Motors (2012). Gaal appreciates well that cinema is where you find it: it cannot be prescribed, defined or regulated in any strict, limiting way. Films often find ways of surprising us, overturning our expectations – and we need to remain open to the new techniques and styles that allow this development.
Ultimately, I would contend that Ivan Gaal is not just a notable craftsman, not just a canny documentarian with an admirable social conscience – but also, and perhaps above all, a poet of image and sound. Time and again, we are struck by the lyrical, expressive rightness of the way he films, cuts, places music or guides a ‘non professional’ performance on screen. From the start of his career, he has avoided the ponderous, distant, ‘voice of God’, third-person narration of the traditional documentary form; there are certainly pertinent ‘talking head’ experts in his films, but their words are not privileged: their voices are blended into the flow, cueing images and scenes, becoming part of a profoundly democratic view of human and social experience – where the drawings of a little boy have as much value as the discourse of any Professor.
Whether dealing with autism (Autism, Who Cares?, 1979), the changing culture of journalism in the ‘80s (as in Tandberg on Page One and The Age of Change), educational programs for gifted students (Children with Special Abilities, 1984), the role of artists in schools (‘I See Trees Differently Now’, 1990) or, more recently, the biography of an Asian-Australian chef and his teacher (Icing on the Cake, 2009), Gaal’s vision is always lucid, humanistic, politically astute and poetically apt.
I hope that, in the years to come, Gaal’s complete range of work will be screened and recognised for its place in Australian cultural history. ACMI has recently taken the commendable step of showcasing several of his titles in its Mediatheque. Equally, I hope that opportunities for production will continue into the future – for Gaal is still, at 75, a fully alive, joyful, robust ‘man with a movie camera’, never short of creative projects. A man with a gift for cinema, and also with something always relevant and urgent to say. Australian cinema culture is poorer for not yet having sufficiently recognised his unique contribution.
My thanks to Ivan Gaal for making his remarkable body of work available to me.