PODCAST: What is a Hybrid Documentary REALLY?
Join us for a conversation with Australian/British filmmaker Gabrielle Brady, who talks about the making of her award-winning hybrid documentary film ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS.
This episode is hosted by Screenwest Factual Executive Franziska Wagenfeld.
Xoe: You’re listening to Screenwest’s In Conversation with Gabrielle Brady.
Gabrielle Brady is an Australian-British filmmaker who currently lives part time in Berlin. For the past 10 years Gabrielle has lived between Cuba, the Australian Central Desert, Mongolia, Indonesia, Mexico, and Europe.
Gabrielle works with hybrid and performative elements in documentary storytelling. Gabrielle has recently completed her first feature film, ISLANDS OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS, set on the remote Christmas Island.
The film has won several awards including Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival 2018, the Buyens-Chagoll award at the Visions du Réel 2018, the Grand Jury Prize at the Mumbai International Film Festival, and the IDFA Human Rights Award.
The film was nominated for a Cinema Eye Spotlight Award and an award for Best Sound and Cinematography at the Australian Academy Awards.
Today on our program Gabrielle talks about her award-winning, feature length film, ISLANDS OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS.
Today’s episode is hosted by factual and documentary executive, Franziska Wagenfeld. From Screenwest, this is In Conversation.
Franziska: Hi Gabrielle, thanks so much for coming in. Very excited to be talking about your film. Now, your film is considered a hybrid documentary, um, here in Australia. Do you wanna talk about what is understood under that term?
Gabrielle: Yeah. Um, I think that term is being, kind of, thrown around a lot at the moment, particularly in the documentary world.
I think hybrid is a way of describing, you know, a film, but particularly a documentary film that moves away from the traditional approach of what we expect from a documentary.
And I think certainly for myself, it helped me to set up an audience expectation of what the film is, so I was able to, kind of, um, have more of an honest relationship with the audience about what they could expect in the film.
Um, so I think hybrid is really that space that sits somewhere between fiction and documentary. And with ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS it was very much that I was using a lot of tools from the fiction world in the approach to the film, but what we have at the end, you know, is really a documentary in that they’re real people, real stories, real settings, but the way that we got there was using some of these forms from the fiction world.
Franziska: I’ve seen the film and I found it very beautiful, and it’s a very poetic film. So, we don’t usually finance these sort of, yeah, trickle, poetic sort of projects, and I know that the financing was quite complex. Do you wanna talk about that?
Gabrielle: Yeah. So, um, it was quite complex and it really is a story that runs over the four years of making the film.
Uh, in the very early stages … in fact the very first investment I would’ve got was a little fundraising that I put to my friends and family, desperately begging them to give me some money so I could return to the island to research.
That was the very, very first little pot of money. Uh, and from there I engaged with, uh, an Australian producer, Alex Kelly, and we were able to find, uh, some funding through the Bertha Foundation and through GetUp.
So, at that time GetUp had- had a fund, I think it was called the Shipping News, uh, and it was funding, kind of, creative projects.
So, we were able to, kind of, allocate some funds so I could get back and do a more in depth research and film some of the material needed to create the teaser and write the treatment.
Uh, and then coming back with that was where we were really looking for the serious money. And at the time I was living in Germany, I am now based in Berlin, uh, so it made sense to kind of look within Germany.
So, we actually were able to then get financing through the VDR television station in Cologne, quite a big sum of money, and some Cologne funding. So, that kinda got our first big investment, and from that first big investment it was the next question, “Okay, well this is great, but we’re not even halfway there.”
And so we actually then turned to the third part of our, uh, three way co-production, to Britain. And I had spent a bit of time in the UK doing a development workshop called Feature Expanded for artists making their first feature, uh, and I had met a producer there.
I’m lucky enough to also have a British passport, so we were able to apply for, uh, the British Film Institute Production Funds, um, which we then secured.
Gabrielle: So, we then had more or less the funding needed, but we were a tiny little bit away and that’s where we, um, spoke to the Guardian about the possibility of doing a short alongside of the feature.
And this would really help us to be able to make the feature, it would push us over the line. Um, but of course, as a director, it also meant that I had the chance to make two films to two very different audiences in two very different forms. So, it was a really, kind of, interesting process.
So, it was a- a long story with the funding, um, even until the distribution there’s still been small pockets of money from different places. But in the end it meant having the experience of this three way co-production and seeing the way that it works, you know, in the UK, in Germany, and in Australia and their three very different … um, three different … very different ways of- of approaching, um, finance.
Franziska: Because you got funding through the Northern Territory, isn’t that…?
Gabrielle: That’s right. We got a small fund, uh, through the Northern Territory, through, um, the producer Alex Kelly who was based there at the time.
Um, so I believe, you know, due to her being based in Norther Territory we were able to unlock that finance. It was a smaller fund, but at that time everything was helping, so it was great to have that support.
Franziska: Just to be realistic, it sounds so glamorous what you say, but I believe that it was quite hard and that it wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds, that- that you were living, literally off the smell of an oily rag. Is that right?
Gabrielle: Yes, I was living off the smell of an oily rag (laughs). Um, so at the time when, uh, my partner and I first moved to Germany, um, Florian, he’s also a filmmaker, uh, we were living in Cologne.
And Florian’s also a director, he was also developing his first feature project, so we were both in the same boat at the same time. Um, so we ended up making the decision to live in a caravan park where we then lived, um, over two years. We would move out in the wintertime. And- And to be totally honest with you, I loved it.
Um, I think a lot of people were feeling very sorry for us at the time. It was an incredibly experience and actually, we started filming with the- the people that- that are there and we- we have a filming project to finish, um, in the caravan park. But this was the reality, this was what we were facing. Um, it really was living on eating beans and living in a caravan park for two years.
Um, so I wouldn’t call it glamorous, but it was an experience and I think for me there was no option of not making the film and not making the film on my terms in the creative sphere.
So, if that meant that it would take longer or we didn’t get finance from that path or that path, it had to be that way. That was the compromise I wasn’t willing to make. I was willing to sleep on this mattress in this caravan park for two years (laughs), but not on the creative entity of the project. So, it came at a cost, but, um, it did work out in the end.
Franziska: It certainly did. It certainly did. Distribution. Do you wanna talk a bit about distribution? Because it has gone to a lot of festivals now. VDR, I understand, is a television network, so I assume that they’ll also have a television broadcast. So, did you cut two versions of it? Did you … Do you have a theatrical and a television feature? And how is that gonna be distributed?
Gabrielle: Yeah. So- So we came out with the Guardian, I guess that’s kinda the first stage, um, of the project, which was a 20 minute format, which is still up on the Guardian now.
That was cut in a way that was much more for an online audience in that there was a lot more context, the pace was a lot faster, so it was a really, kind of, different beast to the feature project.
And then when the feature film was finished, really the idea was to have a very lengthy festival release and then see where it … where it went from there, which is really kind of an indication of the film. It’s really a film to be seen in the cinema, so we wanted to try to give it as much life as possible.
So, we engaged with our international sales team who are called Outlook. So, they’re the overall distributors. Um, they’re a really incredible team of women actually, it’s an all women team. And so, they started … you know, they started the process of putting it into festivals and getting that motion going, and it premiered in April last year at the Tribeca Film Festival.
At the same time it premiered at Visions du Réel, so it had its international premiere and its worldwide premiere at the … at the same time in New York and- and Switzerland. And then it- it did, it had a really strong festival life.
I don’t know how many festivals, um, but it went to Mumbai, as was mentioned before, um, you know, around Europe, around Australia, the U.S. Um, so it had a very strong festival life and from there is now going- hitting the cinemas.
Gabrielle: And we have a cinema release here in Australia through an Australian distributor; we had, uh, a UK distribution release in January where it went around England Island, Scotland, Wales; and we’ve got the U.S., uh, release now at the same time.
It just premiered this weekend at the Museum of Moving Image in New York, um, where it will have a- a two week run, um, before going around, um, many other states in the U.S. and Germany.
So, it’s having a really strong cinema life, which is so exciting, I think, for this film, because it really does belong in the cinema. And then yeah, beyond there we have the- the German TV and then some other possible TV deals.
I think the challenge for this kind of film is that it has been constructed for the cinema and so it needs a re-edit to be able to be shown on the television, so some say.
I mean, I think it could go on as it is now, but, um, it’s a really hard sell, of course, when you’re bringing a very, kind of, cinematic and what people would say, you know, slower moving piece to the small screen.
So, um, yeah, we’re looking at some smaller cuts, a 70-minute cut and possibly a 50-minute cut that’s still being discussed, um, that would help to open up the audience again.
Franziska: The project is, um, quite political, but the politics come out in a very poetic form. Um, I believe that you spent quite some time in the edit. Do you wanna talk about that?
Gabrielle: Actually it wasn’t as long as- as some.
I know my partner Florian, just having finished his first feature, was editing for 12 months non-stop, uh, a co-edit. Um, so ours was relatively short. It ended up at being about five months quite intensive.
Um, I worked with a German editor called Katharina Fiedler, uh, who’s incredibly thorough, so her, kinda, first rule of thumb was we need to watch every moment of material. There’s a lot of material when you’re shooting a documentary, um, on a remote location with a lot of repeating scenes and moments.
And so, I think by the, kind of, second hour of watching, you know, tracking shots of mushroom in jungle, I was kind of really starting to regret the amount of material that I had shot. But it’s a really good exercise for directors to be forced to watch everything that they’ve shot and really have to justify it.
So, we watched everything from start to end. Um, and I had told Katharina very little about what the film was about at the beginning, so as she was watching it she was making meaning of what she was seeing without me saying, “This is what’s meant to be there. This is what it’s meant to be about. These are the politics that are going on,” or, “This is the context.” So that was really helpful, because we were really seeing what was actually in the material and not what I’d hoped would be there.
So, in terms of the political situation, it was that she would read what had been shot and she wasn’t reading any of the background information. So, that was really helpful for us to, kind of, build kind of enough of a sense of giving the audience what was happening without overloading them with information. And this was really helpful, this was how we constructed the edit.
Franziska: You mentioned your partner a few times, Florian Kunert, who’s also a filmmaker. How does it work, two directors working together? Has that actually helped you with constructing your project, or has it … do you feel it’s been a hindrance?
Gabrielle: Um, I mean, I don’t think it’s been a hindrance.
We- We started working together on this project actually, um, so Flo was the researcher. And we went off together to the island, two naïve directors thinking we could co-direct together our first feature. Absolutely not.
I think it takes such a particular chemistry to co-direct with someone and- and maybe maturity, but it certainly wasn’t something we were ready for and there was many- many, kinda, moments of, like, “Who’s the director here?” (laughs) “This is the way you do it.” “No, this is the way you do it.”
And so, it was really … it was really kinda nice to get that early on and realise that, yeah, this particular story was my story to follow because of my connection with Poh Lin and my connection to the place. And then Flo, you know, went off on his journey to make his first feature.
Gabrielle: So, I think in a lot of ways it’s that we have so much understanding for each other’s work.
Um, we … you know, when we don’t hear from each other in five days or (laughs) even on the island unfortunately, uh, it got to the stage where it had been so long that I had contacted Flo that my first AD came to me and said, “I’ve had a call from Florian that we need to schedule in a- a time for you to talk to him (laughs).”
Um, so I think … You know, and then we spoke and everything was fine, but we’re so forgiving of that because we do go into our tunnels and we’re both so, uh, obsessed and, you know, also kinda very moved by our work as well.
So, I think there’s that common respect, it’s just that we sometimes disappear into our little worlds and then we come back. But for now I think we’re both exploring quite different styles of work. You know, I- I don’t know if there will be … ever be a cross section. At the moment we’re in our two very different, um worlds.
Franziska: Yeah. I understand his film has also gone to the Berlinale where it’s received very positive reviews, so … With- With your film, coming back to your film, um, it’s been incredibly successful throughout and we’ve mentioned all the places where it’s been successful, the festivals. What do you attribute that success to? Were you expecting it to engage the, um, audience the way that it actually does?
Gabrielle: I don’t think you can every expect anything.
No, I didn’t. Um, I just didn’t have any expectations, because I was too … I mean, I think I was kind of too afraid to have expectations, because as soon as you do, disappointment is the only thing that kinda comes from that.
So, I mean, if I’m to really, kind of, think back, I think the expectation was that of course people would see it. You know, and this is something … there was so much on the line for this film. I had worked with my closest friend, uh, who, you know, had made the film under this Draconic law that could see her in jail for two years.
You know, we’d engaged with people who were in really vulnerable situations in terms of their visa status. You know, we all worked for free for a lot of the time. You know, so many of the- the crew had put in so many hours of free work and it was such a labor of love and dedication.
So, probably the expectation was that if … yeah, if it didn’t get seen by a wide range of audience, probably there would’ve been quite a bit of disappointment. But I think how that looked, we hadn’t considered it.
So, I hadn’t thought about what festival or, um, what kind of, you know, recognition or what kind of discussion. I just hoped that it would be seen and in that way that the people that had taken part in the film and given so much of themselves were seen and their stories were heard. Um, I think that would’ve been really disappointing if it felt that that fell flat.
So, every step has exceeded those expectations, which has been a pretty incredible situation for all of us, you know?
Showing the film last year at the Melbourne Film Festival with, uh, most of the people in the film, most of the asylum seekers, in attendance and watching themselves and their stories and the way people were so moved, profoundly moved by them, that’s- that was so electric. You know? And I think it’s moments like that that have … yeah, that have really kind of stayed with me and will stay with me.
Franziska: Well, it was a wonderful film and, um, yeah, I- I loved seeing it and congratulations. Um, you mentioned Poh Lin, who, for those of … who haven’t seen the film yet, is one of the key … well, central character of the film. Do you wanna talk about your relationship to Poh Lin and how- how she came to be in the film?
Gabrielle: Actually, in a way it’s … Poh Lin is how I came to the story in the first place.
So, Poh, um, is actually a very good friend of mine and we’ve been friends for- for over 10 years. At the time that she was living on Christmas Island I was living in Indonesia, so it was really natural for her to say, “Come across, you know, I really wanna meet your partner actually, Florian, and let’s have a holiday.”
So, we went across and, you know, in that time things were getting a lot more difficult for Poh in her work, and so, you know, we’d made a, kind of, agreement that we weren’t there to talk about the work, you know, that instead we would spend this time really as tourists.
Franziska: Do you wanna just quickly what the work is?
Gabrielle: Oh yeah, sure. So, um, her work at the time, and as we see in the film, is as a torture trauma counsellor for people being detained in the Christmas Island Detention Center.
So, um, at that time that I arrived she’d been there for around three years doing the work, uh, and had seen many changes, and things by that stage were getting really difficult. So, those two or three weeks that I was there was really a time of enjoying and … you know, we went diving with the dolphins and snorkelling and we went discovering in the jungles, and it’s a very … you know, it’s a beautiful paradise, Christmas Island, at the same time as being, you know, many other things.
Uh, so at the end of the time Poh Lin said to me, “There’s something I need to show you.” And we took a machete, um, in the car, which you really have to take on Christmas Island because everything’s completely overgrown, and we went out to a lookout point and we cut our way through until we arrived at- at the end of that lookout point, and down below was a view of the Christmas Island Detention Center.
Gabrielle: And when you see that view, and people that have seen the film will see that image in the film, it’s quite a stark and it’s quite a startling view.
It really does feel like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Like, it’s been built to not be seen, really like it’s been built to be hidden.
And that was a really, kinda, confronting moment, you know, that for two or three weeks I’d been kind of enjoying this place and, you know … because at that time there were no boats arriving, nothing was visible to make me remember that there were people being detained in this place.
And seeing it, it just … it all came back and I … just imagining these people, the people that Poh Lin had been working with, had been there for two years, three years, five years, was so unimaginable and it just … it really started to, um, yeah, to haunt me I guess. It was really something that stayed around.
So, when Poh and I did then start having conversations about her work … you know, and- and at that time she was really playing with the idea of not being able to stay, you know, we started having conversations about what would it be like to- to make a film.
And that was really where the idea started to, um, to come about, was in those conversations.
Franziska: I imagine that there was a considerable risk for Poh Lin to speak about the situation.
Gabrielle: Yeah, absolutely.
And I think really one of the challenges at the beginning was that there was this, uh, legislation in place that would see any health professional or any professional working in the detention system, off-shore detention system, you know, if they were speaking out about what they saw, could face, you know, up to two years imprisonment.
So, that was something, even in our beginning conversations, that was in place. So, we knew about that, that always sat there. Poh Lin and her colleagues were being monitored in various ways, so it really wasn’t a safe space to- to have these discussions, and the risk always felt very present.
So, you know, when a- … when you say, kind of, the film is being made over four years, a lot of that was these stages of time to consider what this would mean or to consider legal representation, to consider the current politics.
You know, so a lot of the time is also connected to that. So, there was a huge risk and by the time we were filming there was also a huge risk. There’s a risk now, you now. This is a really, kind of, uncertain and- and changing situation that was there when we were filming and is still there now. But this was … Yeah, so this was the, kind of, the climate that we were working under.
Franziska: Have there been any repercussions? Have- Has- Has anybody from the government spoken to you about-
Gabrielle: No, there hasn’t been any repercussions about the film.
No. And at the moment we’re showing a version of the film that actually doesn’t disclose, um, two of- of the people seeking asylum’s identity due to, you know, keeping their safety, um, in that they- they’re not in a stable situation at the moment.
Gabrielle: We did have an instance at one of the Q&A’s when we premiered the film last year in Melbourne where we had some older gentleman, uh, put his hand up very angrily asking, you know, did we receive permission from the department.
So, I kind of answered, “Well, we …” You know, “If you mean the Department of Parks and Wildlife on the island, yes we did receive, uh, permission.”
And he put his hand back up, “I mean the Department of Immigration. The department in which you need to seek permission.”
Um, and it was very, kind of, harsh and terse and everything. The room kind of went very quiet.
And at that moment Poh Lin took the microphone from me and she just said very succinctly, “In this film we did not seek to get permission from structures or systems, we were seeking permission from individuals.”
And there was just a, kind of, a pause in the room. It was a very tense but emotional moment.
Um, and it’s true. Really, we spent four years on this project getting real permission from the people that took part, um, and that meant rolling permission. We had permission until the very last moment of the edit, considering where they were at in the situation and what they wanted and what their legal team said and a whole, kind of, range of measures.
But we weren’t seeking permission from the very system that had put them in that situation.
Franziska: Well, it’s a very, very brave project. It’s beautiful, it’s poetic, and it’s incredibly brave. So, congratulations.
Gabrielle: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me on the podcast.
Xoe: This has been Screenwest’s In Conversation with Gabrielle Brady and Franziska Wagenfeld.
This podcast was brought to you by Screenwest. Screenwest wished to thank Lotterywest for their continuing support of the WA screen industry.
This episode was edited by XB Studios with music by Andrew Wright and produced by Eva Di Blasio for Screenwest.
About In Conversation
In Conversation with Screenwest brings you conversations with world-class film, television, documentary and digital media practitioners.
Get a behind the scenes look at the world of screen production as these industry insiders share their experiences, insight and expertise.
New episodes are released each month.
Listen now at www.screenwest.com.au/podcast.
T: +61 8 6169 2100
Listen to our podcast – In Conversation with Screenwest for a behind the scenes look at the world of screen production as world-class film, television, documentary and digital media practitioners share their experiences, insight and expertise.
View the WA Screen Industry Calendar to see what’s happening in the screen industry in Western Australia.