Storytelling is the most effective way to generate empathy

Artist interview with independent documentary filmmaker Bessie Byrne.

Bessie Byrne is the Producer of Tunnel Vision.

The filmmakers describe Tunnel Vision as a documentary about urban environmental activism and social justice. It's a gripping story about universal issues that inspires people to engage with democracy. We've had overwhelmingly positive feedback.

Tunnel Vision is a documentation of the activists and citizen groups that came together to fight an $18 billion toll road that would have significantly changed Australia, the East West Link. It was the most pervasive news story out of Melbourne in around 10 years and the outcome has had implications across Australia.

The campaign was a multi-faceted fight for transparency and more equitable, progressive and environmentally friendly outcomes. The management was corrupt, the business plan was flawed and there have been numerous calls for an inquiry into how the project got so close to being built.

The film looks at the themes of sustainability, urban planning, healthy cities, environment outcomes, economics, passion, community activism and much more.

Ultimately, it's a global heartfelt story of people power and mass mobilisation. Against all odds, the people won.

The film, which is directed by Ivan Hexter, is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival and this interview is part of a series about the making and marketing of documentary film.

I started by asking Bessie, at what stage did you get involved in Tunnel Vision?

While studying my Masters of Journalist at Melbourne University I was volunteering as a breakfast radio host on Melbourne's radical Radio station 3CR. Journalists are not supposed to have affiliations so I was reporting on the East West Link on a regular basis but not directly involved with the campaign. I was introduced to Ivan Hexter, who had already been gathering footage of the movement for about 2 years when he contacted the radio station about getting help crowdfunding to make a documentary on the campaign.

Protest sign

What is it that first attracted you to the project?

The East West Link has been the biggest media story in Melbourne in at least a decade. It's still mentioned in the papers most days and despite ongoing opposition, the Liberal Party still want to complete the road. When I began helping Ivan it was looking like the people were going to win the campaign. It's not every day that the people stand up to big business and corrupt governments and actually win. I thought it was too important not to make sure this story was told. The energy in the community was really strong. I really wanted to make sure that the people’s version of events was properly recorded because thousands of individual citizens had put time and energy into the campaign for years. People have been fighting for a train to Doncaster for over 40 years!


What drew you to filmmaking originally?

I first started making films when I was in high school and I've always loved how video can capture emotion and share multiple levels of information rapidly. I'm a conservationist at heart and after working in communications for charities for years I wanted to step outside of the capitalist system and look at life from a more removed perspective. The 24-hour media cycle is problematic and is becoming more shallow all the time. I see documentaries as a way to communicate a whole issue and engage an audience to interact and fully comprehend a situation. I'm critical of the current power systems that are in place around the world but optimistic that if people realise their individual power we can stand together and create a more equitable word. Storytelling is the most effective way to generate empathy and create change. Our society is becoming more polarized every day, but as watching a film is quite an accessible task, I believe documentaries can reach a wide audience and generate in-depth discussions.


As Producer on Tunnel Vision, what do you do?

We are a small team with Ivan as the Director/Producer and me as the Producer. We have worked very closely on everything and I've been involved in all aspects of the film’s production. (Interviewing, fundraising, supervising the edit, working with other designers and film people, ensuring we tell the story in an honest and informative way, organising screenings, festivals, interviews....)


Are you involved in the marketing strategy for Tunnel Vision?

Yes, at the moment the Documentary is screening at festivals around the world and we are hoping to attract attention from international distributors.

The main distribution hurdle is that we have used news footage from broadcast media to show the Government's side of the story. As the campaign to stop the massive infrastructure project became a big media and political issue we felt it was important to show the media’s coverage of this issue.

We are still fundraising to pay for the rights to screen the news clips and archival footage included in the film which we feel is fundamental to fully telling the East West story. We have just begun another fundraising drive to cover the remaining $19,000 in rights fees.

We have successfully negotiated and paid for the rights to screen at festivals and the film has been receiving acclaim. Tunnel Vision premiered at the Environmental Film Festival Australia and has been accepted into festivals in Barcelona and Slovakia. We have a few more Australian festivals to announce soon too.

There is also a great deal of interest from the education sector who see this film as a useful resource. We have a large social media following and there is a huge community of people eagerly awaiting the release of the film.

East West Project protest

Tunnel Vision is currently doing the festival circuit, do you have any tips for filmmakers wanting to get into festivals?

Make a human interest story, not a political one!

It's been very hard for us to get interest in the film as it is a very political work and it strongly criticises the government. We believe that the nature of the film has meant many media organisations don't want to screen it.

While the film is about the universal issue of people power, the case study is hyper local.

My advice would be to not think about it and just make something real and important and hope for the best. If it doesn't get picked up you'll still feel good about it and have learned from the process.


The story that Tunnel Vision tells is one of broad community activism. Has the documentary found an audience within the activist community?

We have received ongoing support from the numerous people and community groups that fought to stop the East West link. We are also working closely with the stop West Connex groups in Sydney who have been using the film to demonstrate how people can work together to seek more sustainable transport options.

As the film focuses on the themes of urban planning, environmental stability, education, activism, social justice, air pollution etc there is a wide range of people who are interested in the film.

We've received interest from environmental and activist focused festivals around the world. 


Are you also marketing to people beyond those that were involved in the protest movement?

Yes, we feel that the key message is one of universal importance, and our film’s tagline 'Stand up. Be heard. Make History.' is what it's really about. There are similar projects happening all over the world and there are many people at home who feel like they don't have a voice. We hope to inspire the next generation of activists to realise their power and help make the world a more sustainable, equal and just place.

Struggle with police

Do you look to other activist documentaries like Frackman or Embrace to see how they have attracted an audience?

Both of those films were government funded. So we have had to take a very different route.


There were a huge number of community groups involved in the campaign to stop the East West Link, have they been involved in community screenings or other film events?

Yes, many groups have held their own fundraiser screenings. We help support each other and keep the issue on the agenda.


You have a solid social media following, can you tell us how you’ve grown that following?

We are very connected to the community of people who fight for social justice in Melbourne. People want our documentation, of the momentous community win, to be publicly available. And have continued to support us every step of the way. We continue to post on Facebook regularly because we understand that while the East West link was stopped we still have long way to go before we can trust the government to provide healthy and equitable transport options. There are many equally as problematic projects happening and we need to draw on the energy of the Anti East West Link movement to ensure there is systematic change.  


What is the most important social media platform to you and why?

Most of our core followers are on Facebook. We have infrequently updated Twitter and Instagram but I feel like the most genuine interactions come from Facebook. I believe the Facebook community is a more broad and diverse group of people. There is also more space on Facebook to write something significant and add links and media. It kind of works as a directory too.


Do you see documentaries like Tunnel Vision as performing an important social function? And if so, what is that function?

Independent documentaries play an extremely important role in highlighting controversial issues that mainstream media outlets won’t touch. Tunnel Vision is a blueprint for activism and encourages people to engage with democracy.

The East West Link is still topical and urban planning is becoming a popular issue. It was great to hear that Roe 8 in Perth has been cancelled and the battle to stop Westconnex in Sydney is heating up. Work on the new Melbourne Metro train line has begun and the government seems slightly more cautious about ramming big roads projects on us. There is, however, a long way to go before we can be sure that Australia will prioritise sustainable transport options.


What are your plans for Tunnel Vision once its festival run is finished?

We're planning to distribute via a video on demand platform. Which we currently think will be the easiest and cheapest way to get the film out there.

Find out more about the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival here…

To take a look at all things Tunnel Vision hit the film website here…