Big screen docos: what makes a documentary theatrical?

15 March, 2013 by Sandy George

This article first appeared in IF Magazine issue #150

Producer Lizzette Atkins justifies the theatrical nature of Aim High In Creation! on several levels: the scale and scope of the ideas; its experimental style; the broad interest in the closed society of North Korea; and director Anna Broinowski’s cinematic eye.


“And Anna has proven she can sustain a story for 90 minutes,” says Atkins, referring to the bold Forbidden Lie$. 

If the various threads can be woven neatly together, this intriguing project could be a pearler. Cinematic propaganda is the key theme and the film follows Broinowski as she travels to North Korea to meet with that industry’s leading lights and examine former leader Kim Jong-il’s passion for cinema and the filmmaking manifesto he published. Back in Australia, applying the advice she got on a script she took with her, Broinowski makes a short about a community overcoming gas frackers – after all, North Korean films always have upbeat endings.

Aim High! represents a step forward in the continually evolving world of drama/documentary hybrids,” says Atkins. “Its closest cousins amongst the recent ranks of increasingly seamless hybrids are Exit through the Gift Shop, Man on Wire and Catfish.”

The film is funded through Screen Australia’s feature door, Film Victoria and the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Premiere Fund. Supporters are sales agent Highpoint, distributor Antidote and ABC TV, which has licensed the film at 90 minutes. 

Red Obsession was supported, from its earliest days, by the considerably bigger distributor, Roadshow, although filmmaker and vigneron Warwick Ross was nonplussed when wine auctioneer and writer Andrew Caillard first suggested he make a film about wine. Nevertheless Ross’s attitude changed when he accompanied his friend to France’s Bordeaux region. 

“The place is steeped in history and makes incredibly fantastic and finite wine, but I did not understand until then how the rise and fall of the nations that buy the wine determines the rise and fall of the success of this wine,” says Ross. 

He also learned that China replaced the US as Bordeaux’s best customer after the GFC: “In 2011 prices were pushed up to an astronomical all-time high, horrifying traditional clients. The hubris was palpable but a year later top-end prices collapsed.”

Being there during the most volatile 12 months in Bordeaux’s recent history wiped out all thoughts of making a television documentary: Red Obsession, about a love affair that sours between wealthy voracious China and traditional Bordeaux, demanded a big screen. 

Ross and David Roach co-wrote and co-directed the film. Underpinning every decision, says Ross, who also produced, was giving audiences atheatrical experience. They delved deeper into story, a three-act structure was applied, helicopter and tracking shots added spectacle to Bordeaux’s beauty, France was visited five times and China four, while narration by Russell Crowe was added.

Fifteen wine lovers contributing two-thirds of the budget alongside Ross’s own investments.

Some 1960s Hollywood glamour is also heading for Australian cinemas. Writer/director Lawrence Johnston’s Fallout, produced by Peter Kaufmann, explores the writing of Nevil Shute’s end-of-the-world war novel On The Beach, written and set in Australia, and the making of the film adaptation starring Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck in Victoria.

A theatrical release always requires a combination of factors, says Johnston. His tells an untold story of Shute and his ideas – many flowing from his parallel career as an aeronautical engineer – and the deterioration of his relationship with director Stanley Kramer. Without recreations and excess budget, Johnston’s emphasis has been on the solidity of the historical narrative.

There’s also important contemporary resonance: the book’s context when published was the Cold War but now it’s nuclear proliferation in the world today.

Johnston’s Eternity, Life and Night were released theatrically. Screen Australia’s Signature Fund door and Film Victoria are funding Fallout. The sales agent is Melimedias and the distributor Antidote.

As usual, several longer versions without distributors are being made of one-hour ABC documentaries. The Sunnyboy, funded by Screen Australia and Screen NSW, is one. 

Writer/director/cinematographer Kaye Harrison explores the musical career of Sunnyboys lead singer Jeremy Oxley and his battle with mental illness.

She says her focus was to be true to the film on every level, including choosing the best story and approach – and that means seeking out a theatrical release.

“It’s the strength of the storytelling: the engaging structure, the tension and drama, humour and sadness, all told within an unfolding narrative. Because he’s a musician, the opportunities to get immersed in the soundtrack give the story room to breathe. And my background as a cinematographer brings a visual language to my directing.” 

She believes that having someone as engaging, likeable and complex as Oxley, talking openly of his experiences will create empathy. “For people with serious mental illness, surviving on a daily basis is heroic. I want people to feel inspired by that and the power of unconditional love.”

Audiences have to go on a journey in observational documentaries and experience transformational moments and turning points with the characters, says The Sunnyboy’s producer Tom Zubrycki. Questions around whether the band would reform with Oxley as front man provides particularly strong forward momentum.

“It is a journey of the mind, the rebuilding of past relationships with family and the band, and the development of a new one, with Oxley’s wife Mary,” he says. The availability of stills from the band’s heyday and home movie footage was a bonus. 

“It will be a feel-good film with teary moments and that’s always good.”

Whereas the ABC welcomed a film about mental illness, Zubrycki did not approach distributors early on. “They need to have certainty: a dramatic arc and story resolution. But you can’t deliver certainty in an observational film where you can only guess the ending.” His confidence about securing their interest is driven by the sensitivity with which Harrison has captured the story.

“She has the kind of dedication documentary makers need; she is totally obsessed.”