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Dennis K. Smith in profile.

Multi-award winning Dennis K. Smith was most recently in the headlines when Rainbow Bird and Monster Man (2002) were nominated for four AFI awards, including Best Documentary. This challenging work about abuse and murder gained Editor Uri Mizrahi, the Best Editing in a Documentary award. A multi-skilled film-maker and scriptwriter, Dennis K. Smith also teaches documentary, and his acute analysis makes him a fascinating commentator. Brenda Addie and Anitra Nelson interviewed Dennis K. Smith as part of their research for a book on Australian screenwriting craft, and as archive material for Screen Sound Australia The edited extracts from transcripts that follow are sourced from interviews conducted in April 2000 and July 2003 The interviewers' questions have been deleted. The stills photographer for the book project and this article is George Kannava, Jocelyn Preece transcribed the original interviews.


Part of the documentary tradition is to tell the story of our own national mythology and to analyse it at a level deeper than the front page of the newspaper. It's not news. It's not current affairs but a level of analysis which we enter into about who we are as a people. There's a fine tradition of that from the Commonwealth Film Unit onwards. We need to continue to do that creatively and stylistically and not be channeled into telling stories in set ways. Australian documentary makers are writing and putting up stories that are slightly out of the box and we are continually fighting to get those stories realized. That's the task of challenging the national myth.

I read Gary Tippett's article about Tony Lock in The Age and thought it would make a good film. Eighteen months later I approached Tony who told me he had knocked back other documentary film-makers. I told him I'd show him the films I'd made and, 'If I get your trust and you get my trust and we feel that we can go through this together, I'll start thinking about writing it'. I suggested that he check up on me and wondered if he if wanted to embark upon a journey that could be two three years long and which could end up in heartbreak. It could possibly never get funded.

Ultimately Rainbow Bird and Monster Man was fully funded by the AFC when it was virtually on its last legs. The ABC had knocked it back as being too dark. SBS were very interested but were struggling with the idea of dramatic reconstructions because they thought everyone did them badly. But now Australian networks are buying in this sort of stuff. I'm not sure if the trend will continue but it's in my next film and I'm pleased if my films help to loosen up the turf a bit.


I was a closet writer, particularly in the later stages of art school. That was my first experience of tertiary education. At art school I trained as a painter and sculptor. My father was quite a keen hobbyist photographer. I grew up around cameras and darkrooms. I was always interested in ways of using visual space and two-dimensional and three-dimensional visual phenomena. The big thing in those days was what they called 'post object art', beyond and past the object, a bit like concrete poetry. I was a sort of an 'assemblage' sculptor and I tended to make things that had narrative purposes.

I'd had such a disappointing time in my first art school in South Australia that I became an on-the-road hippie. I took off and hitchhiked all over Europe, Japan and Australia. I used to cook in outback pubs and eventually went back to art school in Gippsland. One of the lecturers there was a Polish bloke from the Warsaw academies. He was great because he was outside of the Australian tradition. He and I used to talk. I was predominantly interested in the work the Italians were doing at that time in using found objects and sticks and bits of mud and stuff to make these amazing and beautiful forms. Being a Polish sculptor, he referenced the Holocaust a lot. His stuff was just bizarre and terribly confronting. I mean he would make these beautiful wooden boxes and you'd walk around the other side of them and he'd shoved them full of human hair. All these objects had an extreme presence about them.


Having left art school, I quite accidentally saw a job advertised to edit a student newspaper at some secondary school. It was the mid-seventies I guess and I would have been in my mid-twenties. I was interviewed and didn't get the job. But they rang me the next day and said, 'Oh, you've been to art school. Can you can come back here and teach video? You can have so many hours a week teaching video.'

I'd vaguely worked on a video camera in South Australia. So I rang a friend of mine who was a schoolteacher who did this sort of work. I said to her, 'Can I come down and learn how to use a video camera and player?' I said, 'Look, it's comparatively simple: all I've got to do is remember how to lace up the tape'. The machines that I'd worked on were open-fronted things. And she said, 'No Dennis, the video tape's now on cassette'. And I said, 'You mean like audio tape?' And she said, 'Yes, but bigger'. And I said, 'Oh that's good. That makes it easier'. So she and her husband helped me out on finding focus and stuff on these weird cameras. So, sure enough, within a fortnight I was teaching it!

After that I realized that I could top up my qualifications by going back as a post grad at film school. Even there I did slightly wacky stuff. I got fascinated with talking heads, which was comparatively unfashionable. My work today still concentrates a lot on the talking head. I think it's the genius of television. Just looking at a person's face, I'm still quite fascinated with that. It's something that I keep on trying to grow out of.


In my late twenties--I was still a closet writer, writing comedies and stuff--I won The Australian Writers Guild Monte Miller Award for associate members. It was for a one-hour comedy. I flew up to Sydney and got my photo taken with David Williamson and a whole bunch of other people who'd collected awards. So suddenly all these people around Open Channel and so on picked up copies of Encore with me standing on the front page in my suit. And I think a lot of them thought, 'This is very bloody weird ... I mean Dennis as a writer?'

Anyway, within the year, word had got around and I had some small reputation as a writer. By this stage I was writing documentaries and was trying to get my first documentary made. I was approached to fix up an ABC half hour documentary project that had gone onto the rocks. I was shown the budget and told how much money was left in the kitty. They asked me if I could re-construct this film in some way. Basically they needed a writer/director to come in, write a new documentary, give it some sort of substance and use this archival footage that other people had paid for and were about to lose heaps of money on. So that's what we did. We basically wrote a series of drafts and went back and got more money and resurrected this film. That was my first documentary.


A lot of my early clients came courtesy of Open Channel. In those days it reflected old hippie, left wing, Fitzroy and Labour, armchair socialists. Open Channel had a reputation for covering a lot of the low-end low budget and comparatively unfashionable topics. So we ended up doing a lot of films on disability, you know, hard-to-do films. I think a lot of my attraction for the documentary form came from then. You can give other people a voice, people who the society deprives of a voice. Obviously you get the flag-fall at the end of the day for being the clever bugger who figured it all out. But there's someone else in it as well and that way you're giving back to society.

I'm not a very good nationalist therefore I don't tend to look at things within national archetypes. One wonders if globalization is akin to Americanization and just how much that is going to impact on our culture and what happens to the authenticity of the Australian national identity. But I think it's a more humanist perspective that I've got on the story of the outsider. Maybe the outsider is a western tradition.

The story archetype that I'm predominantly interested in is that story of the outsider. It's something that recurs in my work. Sometimes I choose it or I get given it or I layer it on the top anyway. It's a story type that I like. I like the underdog. I like the slight absurdity of that moment of making the small person big. Anyway, some outsiders can embody in their life journey something that's very grand about the human spirit. It often goes unnoticed because that person is not Princess Diana.

There's that lovely feeling about documentary, because you're using all of the given elements of the real, in essence, you're not really fabricating anything. All you're doing is putting it in some sort of order to construct the narrative. In the feature or larger story format, the audience expects some sort of final resolution. In the documentary form that's not so necessary. You can take the audience on a journey and allow them to make up their own mind to a certain extent. There's a certain amount of ego involved in wanting to tell stories. I think all writers want to influence other people. People don't necessarily agree with your point of view, but they're forced to listen to it. So you can take them on a social journey or a political journey or an emotional journey or a spiritual journey.

I'm very fond of the Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1995) documentary. A good documentary could be made out of Crumb himself. It would be about a good cartoonist. But the dream of any documentary maker is that the character transcends the person that they really are. The lovely thing about Crumb is that, for all of his craziness, when you put him next to his two brothers, you illustrate a fundamental truth about creativity and craziness. This is what the film-maker has discovered and reveals in his juxtaposition of the materials.

Of the three brothers, all geniuses in their own right, one will be celebrated, one will be institutionalized and the other will take his life. I mean, when you get to the final frames of that film and you realize that one of the brothers has taken his own life during the process of making the film, you realize that three people have suffered in many ways for their art and two didn't make it. They're blood brothers. It's a marvellous metaphor about creativity. It's a universal theme forged out of a grand metaphor that started with a single character, but by wedding these materials together, the documentary maker actually made this thing work.


I've had to work at shooting and sound recording as well as at a writer, director and script editor. Even in getting my own projects up I'm still hopping on a plane with a DV camera in my hand and shooting the background material, the research footage, not necessarily with the intention of constructing the documentary from that, but at least for demo reels and material for future web sites.

In my work habits I'm sort of anal-retentive. I can't do anything too radical. I tend to get up early and I do all of my writing before midday. Then I go for lunch. I tend to read, do book work, company business, phone calls and appointments in the afternoon. But writing normally takes place between seven and twelve o'clock. I did have a room to work in but now the baby's got my office. Everybody tends to trounce through the room. Rut the advantage I find of getting older is that you're so entrenched with your work practices that somebody could actually start a battle outside my window and I could probably still write through it.

I think there's something very mechanical about writing. You get past the point of waiting for inspiration and realize that it's not much different from working in a garage. You just look at the clock and start your work, do your work, hang out for your tea breaks. You have your tea, say 'bugger' and go back to the computer and do it again and then hang out for your lunch break.

Maybe I'm just ill read, but I haven't seen any good documentary texts. I think there's a lack of them in Australia. David Tiley keeps on promising us that he'll start one. There are writers out there capable of turning out some good stuff on Australian documentary but as yet I haven't seen anything on the craft. There are plenty of good practitioners around the country. But I don't think the big skill-base has found its way into the texts yet. I'm not convinced the feature film screenwriting craft is directly transferable. In documentary you've got to think on your feet because ultimately you're dealing with given realities. You can construct the narrative in front of you when you're shooting because you understand the narrative that you've written on the desk and you know what the possibilities might be. That's not true of drama,


I'm currently in pre-production for a documentary film about Dr John Cade, who returned to Australia after being a POW and discovered the use of Lithium for manic depression in 1948. He is the father of the psycho-pharmacological revolution and a maverick. Fortunately I was given carte-blanche by the producer, John Lewis, and the way that I chose to do it was a carry over from Rainbow Bird and Monster Man--interview backed up by dramatic reconstructions. The project has been thoroughly researched by Margot Knight and Clare Jager, but there is little archival footage. It was a natural case for dramatic reconstruction. Cade was an Australian of a previous generation. He is a uniquely Australian model of the hero.

The only thing that allows us to have any Australian product whatsoever is protectionism. Without it the Australian industry doesn't exist, we'd be swamped. And I don't know about the Free Trade Agreement, but we can't do it at the price of our national voice. I don't trust this government to argue that point of view. I don't trust the Australian people to argue that point of view. If it comes to lamb chops and sugar cane and the Australian voice I think they'll take the Australian voice out into the back paddock and shoot it in the head. And it's happening in other countries and this is the global village we always wanted.

Anitra Nelson and Brenda Addle formed their first collaboration at RMIT while studying documentary film making. The Metro series of articles emerged from their investigation of the role of the hero in Australian cinema. Currently Anitra is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at RMIT University while Brenda develops film projects for Music Arts Dance films. They are working together on further screen writing and film-making projects.
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Title Annotation:Documentary
Author:Nelson, Anitra; Addie, Brenda
Publication:Metro Magazine
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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