Artist interview with documentary filmmaker Belinda Mason
I spoke to Belinda Mason about making the documentary Constance on the Edge. This searching and very personal observational documentary is all about Constance and her family as they bring their hopes for a new, safe life to a country town in Australia.
Walk in the shoes of a Sudanese refugee as her resilience is tested to the limit striving for a settled life in rural Wagga Wagga, NSW. Constance on the Edge tells the story of feisty and charismatic Constance leading by example as she guides her family away from their painful pasts.
Will she make it?
Is Wagga Wagga ready for Constance?
I get the impression that you had a relatively large team working with you for the documentary. How did you bring that team together?
It was actually a tiny core crew – just three of us for the shoot over a number of years. Producer, Marguerite Grey; Cameraperson/sound, Joanne Parker; and me. The majority of the time it was just Jo and me driving from Sydney to Wagga and filming for a few days. I think we did 12-15 trips to Wagga.
The other key contributors to the doco were Susan Danta, who came on before we started shooting so we could plan the style of the rotoscoped animation; Denise Haslem, our editor; and Antony Partos, composer.
The animated flashbacks are a striking feature of the film. What role did they play for you in telling the story?
Where no film footage existed to represent what Constance or Mary were speaking about we decided to use animation sequences to tell the story. This allowed us to weave the film with a rich seam of dreams and memories. Animation can evoke feelings and emotions that can’t be spoken, allowing the audience to see beneath the surface.
The cinematography is beautifully constructed. The lighting, composition, movement – all work together to build compassion for Constance and her family. Were the subjects understanding of the requirements of a film shoot and the patience needed to build the right feel?
Constance was incredibly understanding and patient with us. We’d worked together before on a documentary called ‘I’ll Call Australia Home’ so she was very comfortable in front of the camera. She’d had an experience in Kakuma Refugee Camp (in Kenya), where she spent 10 years---it was here she came to understand the power of film while volunteering as an interpreter for FilmAid. FilmAid is an NGO that trucks in massive mobile screens to camps and screens a variety of films – anything from Charlie Chaplin to HIV-AIDS awareness films. Often they have audiences of over 10,000 people. Constance says, “when you’re watching a film you forget that you haven’t eaten for days”.
I’m sure you had a lot of footage that ended up on the cutting room floor. How did you go about finding the story in all the footage you collected?
Like most observational documentaries we really ‘wrote the script’ in the editing room. Working with editor Denise Haslem, a master storyteller was a joy.
When you started filming Constance over ten years ago, did you have any idea where you were going with the story?
I directed Constance 10 years ago in ‘I’ll Call Australia Home’ - a story about a refugee family arriving in Australia. It was a film full of hope. Then Constance contacted me a few years down the track and said things weren’t working out for her in Australia. Seeing Constance at a point when she was in great emotional pain was shocking. She asked me to collaborate with her to share her experience of what it takes to belong in a new land far from home. What emerged as we filmed was that welcoming people from refugee backgrounds – even the smallest of gestures can make a difference - can promote or impede their ability to contribute successfully over the long term.
Did you get funding for post-production?
We were funded through Screen Australia, Screen NSW but the majority of our funding came through Good Pitch. Constance on the Edge was one of seven documentary films selected for the 2014 philanthropic Good Pitch2 Australia initiative. Good Pitch brings together filmmakers with foundations, not-for-profits, campaigners, philanthropists, policy-makers, brands, educators, broadcasters and media to forge powerful alliances around documentary films that will have a significant impact in relation to issues of social importance.
At what stage did you develop a marketing strategy? Did that strategy pan out in the way you expected?
We developed an Impact Strategy in tandem with our distribution plan as we recognised that this was not a big cinema release film and we needed to find a successful model to market the film. We’ve been working with our partners in the refugee space to ensure a broad national audience sees the film. We sell screening licenses through our website and downloadable digital resources to ensure a brilliant screening. One or two people from the team often attend screenings and have a Q&A afterwards. We’ve had over 100 community screenings around the country. Often organisations or individuals buy a screening license, hire a cinema and make it a big event – even a fundraiser. From feedback, we’re finding it’s starting conversations in country towns and helping to foster more welcoming communities for people from refugee backgrounds.
A documentary like this wears its heart on its sleeve and seeks to contribute positively to conversations about refugees in Australia. Do you build other resources into the distribution package to help facilitate that conversation?
Educational resources have been created for schools, and the team is working with police, torture and trauma services, local government and community services to build greater awareness amongst “first responders” – people who regularly interact with refugees and humanitarian entrants in their work, but do not necessarily understand refugee trauma and how it manifests.
You mentioned that you work alongside refugee partners and that community screenings are an important part of your distribution model, what does that look like on the ground?
The Refugee Council of Australia have chosen Constance on the Edge as the film to celebrate Refugee Week 2017 in June – this means we will have hundreds of screenings in libraries, councils, schools, community groups and individuals. We encourage people to hold a screening – you can purchase a special discounted screening license for Refugee Week: constanceontheedge.com
After working with the footage for so long you must know it inside and out. Have you found that as audiences come to the story with fresh eyes they respond to things in the film that you didn’t anticipate?
Many people have come up to us after the film, very emotional, and said something like, “that was my mother or father up there on the screen” - they explain that their parent was a Holocaust survivor; or a refugee from Vietnam; or a European migrant – and say, “but my father/mother was never able to talk about their experiences or feelings”.
When we screen it to school kids – they adore Constance and start thumping their feet and cheering for her!
Finally, what are you working on now?
I’m in Israel now working on a film about the impact of trauma on societies.
Constance on the Edge is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Find out more about the festival here… www.mdff.org.au
To delve further into Constance on the Edge, hit the film website here… constanceontheedge.com
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