This is part one of an in-depth three-part interview with Rebecca Barry, one of the producers behind The Opposition—a Good Pitch²–Australia–2014–supported documentary screening this week at Hot Docs 2016 in Toronto and Call Me Dad which is screening at the Human Rights Arts Film Festival on May 16.
Here: we talk about Rebecca’s film school days and start in film and television, her life changing experience (surviving a tsunami), and what she learned about the importance of communicating with partners when you’re making a film.
Rebecca Barry is a principal, with Madeleine Hetherton, in production company Media Stockade. She is a producer on two 2014 Good Pitch films, Call Me Dad which launched in prime time on ABC1 in November 2015, and The Opposition.
I got together with Rebecca at the Media Stockade offices in Darlington, Sydney on a very hot humid day. We drank water, ate cake and talked about filmmaking, life and social impact.
PJB: Let me jump right in. What is an impact producer?
RB: Impact is change—
PJB: So what does a change producer do or is that too broad a question upfront?
RB: An impact producer does a range of things, depending on the requirements of individual projects. It’s early days but people are beginning to understand that this is a new model: box office, ticket sales, and eyeballs are one way; Impact is something else. It can help commercially but it’s primarily about social change.
So, the first question is: What are you trying to change with your film? That’s the way we look at impact with our films, and this has come from making many mistakes and not really knowing what we were doing when we first started down this road.
PJB: We might unpack that a bit more talking about the documentary you directed and produced (I am a Girl) but tell me about the beginnings of your film career. You’re a 2003 graduate of AFTRS and Madeleine, your business partner, has an architecture degree?
RB: Yes. Madeleine went on to AFTRS after Architecture; she was in the year behind me. We both did an MA in Documentary—writing and directing. The degree was amazing—it completely blew my mind about what a documentary could be.
RB: I had a fantastic teacher—Jane Roscoe [broadcaster and academic, currently Director of The London Film School]; she really opened up the idea of what a documentary could be. Up until that point, I think I had a narrow view of what defined a documentary. She engaged us with the canon of documentary—here’s the history, theory, different styles, different genres. But no one was talking about impact.
PJB: What were the films from the documentary canon that jumped out at you?
RB: Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, Michael Apted’s 7Up, Brian Hill’s Drinking for England. Particularly The Thin Blue Line—the way Morris uses eye-lines and the interrotron [a clever camera-rig design that allows first person intimacy with the audience because the interviewer has continuous direct eye contact with the person being interviewed and vice-versa]. That technique fed into I am a Girl—the way you communicate with eye-lines and people when you’re doing an interview. That year had a huge impact on me; I was able to experiment with form. I came out with four films: I made a film using archive, another using dramatic re-creation, an observational film and then a poetic film to see where I sat with everything.
PJB: Where did you sit with these stylistic strategies in the end?
RB: That my approach is to serve the story—to remove the ego from the process and ask: What is the best mode for this specific story?
Looking back, I’m aware that I started to get frustrated at film school because the distribution was taken out of our hands. There was a small unit at AFTRS and they looked after about 200 student films getting into film festivals but I always found it quite curious that we, as the filmmakers, didn’t get involved, we had no control and didn’t get to learn what a festival release was about.
PB: Traditionally, even in the early 2000s, the release of feature length documentaries, short films and ‘independent’ films were still all about festival releases and reviews—
RB: Yes, and it started to seed then that there was a gap in the knowledge that I had. I never understood why we weren’t involved at AFTRS because as the filmmakers we knew we were the biggest champions of our own work—and we want our work seen. The production company [Rebecca was a partner in prior to Media Stockade] would then outsource the distribution to distributors and that was even more frustrating because often it just sat on a shelf somewhere. We had stuff on SBS at that time—your film would screen, maybe 3 or four times over 5 years (television broadcast) and then that’s it.
PJB: The ‘life of a film’—not much of a life.
RB: And then you’d do the ATOM Study Guide which was great but there was no sense of: What is this film doing? Where is it going? So the impact work we do now was born out of that frustration of being disempowered.
PJB: The fault-line for the business model in independent feature films, over the last several years, has been in the territory of distribution and exhibition because how do you capture audiences in such a splintered digital media landscape, and when cinemas have become all about event blockbusters and spectacle?
RB: Yes, and in a way we’ve taken our power back because in cinemas it is still the traditional—
RB: Distribution model. And it doesn’t work for filmmakers—
PJB: Or funders—
RB: It doesn’t work for anybody.
That model never made sense to me as a documentary filmmaker. You look at how Woolworths treats farmers, for example; the distribution pathway that doesn’t work for the producers of food who are being paid a tiny percentage for their produce. If it doesn’t work for the producer, you’re never going to have a sustainable business.
PB: So what was the point at which you decided you were going to do things differently?
RB: I was working as a freelancer—producing and directing everything from reality television to Home and Away episodes and doing some great stuff with John Edwards at Southern Star; I really enjoyed the work but it was the feeding-the- soul-stuff that was lacking…
PB: Is that how you came to make I am a Girl?
It was I am a Girl that really showed me the potential of this type of Impact model—we weren’t calling it ‘impact’ then but building relationships around the film to fund it and going on a journey with our partners to give the film the best chance.
PJB: Who were your partners at that time?
RB: It was really fantastic timing because DAF (Documentary Australia Foundation) was in its early stages; I was really excited but didn’t understand how it worked. We got our first grant in 2009 and this coincided with a life-changing moment that made me completely re-evaluate everything.
PJB: What was that? If you don’t mind me asking—
RB: My partner John, and I survived a tsunami in Samoa… I was thinking, this morning, about how it affected me—it’s an evolving thought process…
PJB: That I could be dead, what am I doing with my life?
RB: Yes. Being whacked down by Mother Nature can do that to you…I had post traumatic stress (PTSD) and it took a while to work out that I had been living this quite arrogant life and I was really quite put out that something like that would happen to me… I realized I was consuming the world; it was always: What’s in it for me? Being an ethical and ‘nice’ person but asking, Where’s the benefit—for me? I’m still working it out but where I got to was: the work has to be about more than ego, and more than about me.
PB: So the grant from DAF, and the tsunami? How did they connect in relation to the film?
RB: The film I am a Girl had been sitting on my shoulder for years; my partner John said, “Why aren’t you making that film?” I’d blow it off, “Oh, I don’t know I’m too busy doing Home and Away and whatever”. After the tsunami, my focus became sharp; I knew I had to make I am a Girl. The commitment from me was there, and then it’s the laws of attraction—it started to happen. We got the DAF grant—Intrepid Travel came on board first; we did our first development shoot in 2010 and that funding also enabled us to create a website and the trailer. Then I began to look closely at the tools of analytics and they were telling me things about my audience—at that time, a very small community of about 200 people. I was able to articulate who my audience was and what was working and what wasn’t working, really drilling down into those analytics and I thought: we can use this information to improve our connection with this community and how we engage them. That was exciting because without knowing what it would become, I had started the evaluation process quite early. Then other partners became involved: Women’s Plans Foundation, ThyneReid Foundation, Plan Australia, the Weir Anderson Foundation.
PJB: Did you make those connections through DAF?
RB: Some of them; I met Deanne Weir who I introduced to DAF and she’s become a huge supporter of documentary. The partners and I went on a journey together and we were learning—how to manage partnerships and communication, and I’m happy to say that a lot of those partnerships have lasted, we’ve made other films together; I’ve got a couple of mentors out of the process too.
PJB: You must have done a lot right because that doesn’t happen as a matter of course—a lot of people blow relationships in filmmaking and don’t think long term. Was there anything that went wrong?
RB: One thing I learned: If something is going not quite right with the film—sometimes films stall—you have to let people know what’s going on, and continue to communicate. That was something we had to learn. I feel a very deep sense of responsibility about other peoples money and wanting to make them feel good about the investment in me and the film. Films take time to produce and there are periods when realistically not much happens, and for good reasons, but people want to know what’s happening, even if it’s not exciting news. These people run businesses and organisations—they’re highly intelligent and experienced and they understand but you need to keep talking.
It is always a huge responsibility but there’s something very personal about philanthropic money.
PB: And it’s different from a bottom line, commercial investment, an organization or a funding body meeting guidelines—
RB: Yes, because it’s about values. And I understood, retrospectively, that these people are resourcing the film—whether that’s production or impact—but a big part of that is you. They’re investing in you, and how you behave, so how you communicate is crucial. And then there’s learning about managing expectations. We had some difficult times with I am a Girl. One of those was that we were running to get the film finished because one of our partners wanted a particular deadline; and there’s the problem with me that I have “the disease to please”—
PJB: (Laughs) I used to have that disease…think I need to get it back…
RB: It’s an additional pressure—
PJB: Sure is. So what happened?
RB: I am a Girl is about gender equality—we have six girls in the film, one of them was a girl from Afghanistan, Aziza, who was very vocal about her right to an education. Her father was killed by the Taliban and around that time, Malala Yousafzai [later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize] from Pakistan had publically expressed the same views—and she was shot by the Taliban. We were about to release this film, and we realized that Aziza could be in danger. With the help of Mitzi [Goldman] at DAF we wanted to tell our partners what was going on. We got all our partners in a room and it was an amazing experience for me because it brought everyone together to help solve the problem. These were great minds—of course you’d use that resource. We said, ‘We need your help here: you’re successful, you run great companies, NGOs, and you know how to deal with high level problems.’ There was a diverse range of views about how we might solve the problem but we did a risk assessment and, together, came up with a coherent plan. We got a copy of the film on a UN flight to Aziza in Afghanistan. She watched it with her family and we asked her if she was still happy to be in the film. Her response was extraordinary: we explained the risk, she understood and still wanted to be in the film. It was humbling. Bringing those partners in at that high stress time, and when there was a serious problem, was so valuable.
PJB: It’s lonely and often counter-productive navigating anxiety-making problem solving alone—it’s significant to have professionals of that calibre on your side.
RB: Yes! And ultimately, all we lost was an opening celebratory party. Then we released the next year, and we had extra time for planning and the remarkable impact so it played into our favor.
Part 2: We talk about hyper-sensitivity and filmmaking, the remarkable things that happened with I am a Girl and the differences a film can make when guided smartly into the world. To read, click here.
For the third and final part of this interview with Rebecca Barry click here.Tags: AFTRS, Errol Morris, I am a girl, Impact, Malala Yousafzai, media stockade, rebecca barry, the opposition