The dawn of a new millennium signalled, in many respects, dark days for Australian documentary filmmakers. Schemes for funding became concentrated almost solely in television. Production resources dwindled, favouring quick and easy documentaries over the kind that take years to make. And opportunities for screening the finished results in cinemas became, for a time, very scarce.
In this climate, the team of Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson are a singular success story. From First Contact (1982) to Rats in the Ranks (1996), they have approached the documentary form as self-styled "novelists", searching out "complex, contradictory, flawed figures in a crisis situation".
For Facing the Music, they could not have found a better subject than Professor Anne Boyd. Composer and (when the film begins) Head of the Music Department at the University of Sydney, Boyd finds herself once again confronted with savage budget cuts that entail a curtailing of the curriculum.
At the start of this chronicle, Boyd is, like some of her colleagues, essentially apolitical. The history of high art music seems like a refuge for her in a dirty, incomprehensible world of economic rationalism and power games. Boyd takes on an impossible teaching load – and, in a rather blinkered fashion, expects her staff to do the same, solely in the name of the students and their future.
Some viewers will suspect, at these early stages of the tale, that the film supports her Romantic, individualistic viewpoint. But we see a striking evolution in Boyd: while she will clearly never be a great fundraiser or the smartest political animal in university chambers, she comes around to the need for collective, industrial action. Facing the Music is a stirring record of her coming to consciousness in this regard.
The most enthralling aspect of the film is the way it shows a sore and irreconcilable conflict between public and private realms. The fresh-faced innocence of incoming music students seems a universe away from the brutal actions of bureaucracies and government. The strain on individuals in such a situation is immense and impossible – leading to an unforgettable scene where Boyd takes out her frustrations on one of her best students by yelling at her that "too many people want to be composers these days". (An uncanny, real-life echo here of Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher !)
Connolly and Anderson provide, within the rich and often contested realm of documentary filmmaking, an intriguing mixture of old and new approaches. On the one hand, they push to the limit their novelistic aspiration, insisting on their freedom to shape their material in ways that will make it as exciting, intriguing, involving and intellectually stimulating as any fiction film.
On the other hand, they avoid the preciousness of so much documentary cinema that today proceeds in a highly self-conscious, essay mode. Connolly and Anderson absent themselves from the screen; they like their material to speak for themselves, without pointed voice-over commentary. Yet what they provide is not some naïve window upon reality; their viewpoint is felt in every editing decision and musical selection.
There are some over-obvious moments of irony (particularly in the insertions of excerpts from Boyd's increasingly politicised lectures about music history), and one can regret the necessity for even these honoured filmmakers to use the rather muddy and indistinct medium of digital video, which seems in this case quite unsuitable for cinema projection. But these are small flaws in an otherwise captivating and highly thought provoking documentary.
© Adrian Martin August 2001