After exploring Bush administration-era torture practices and treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq with the acclaimed Taxi to the Darkside, LA based Australian filmmaker/producer Eva Orner is preparing to shine light on a humanitarian issue closer to home – Australia’s asylum seeker policies and treatment of those who have set sail for its shores in need of help.
ACMI Film Programmer Kristy Matheson talks with Orner about the motivation for the project, the potential impact of documentary film making and the responses to its current crowd funding campaign.
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In the international documentary landscape, Australian filmmaker Eva Orner (The Network, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson) has a commanding track record. An Oscar and an Emmy grace her mantlepiece for her work as Producer on Taxi to the Dark Side; her films have screened globally from Cannes to Sundance and now she has her sights set on tackling an issue much closer to home. The asylum seeker debate that is foremost in our 24 hour news cycle has also been front of mind for Orner whose latest film project, Bloody UnAustralian will unpack this complex and emotionally charged issue.
For the last decade Eva Orner has resided in the United States but keeps a close eye on Australian news from her Los Angeles base. “I read the Australian papers regularly, I’ve been watching what happens and I’m the child of immigrants (Orner’s parents fled post-Holocaust Europe in 1958). This has been going on for a long time and it’s becoming a huge world issue, especially with what’s just imploding in the Middle East – two weeks ago there were 43million refugees in the world and I’m sure next week there will be 44 or 45.”
A still from The Network (2012)
“One of the reasons I wanted to make this is to try and get a global audience for the film. There’s been coverage of this issue internationally, but it doesn’t seem to penetrate. When I tell friends or they see the teaser trailer for Bloody UnAustralian they are stunned, and I think, guys this has been going on for over a decade. They can not get their head around it.” At the end of the day it’s not about Labor or Liberal it’s about what is going on in our country, what is going on with our population – a third of our population, myself included, are first generation children of migrants. It’s ridiculous, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Many documentary filmmakers rely on government or broadcaster funds to turn ideas into reality but for Bloody UnAustralian, the heightened politics combined with the immediacy of the subject have meant that Orner has taken a purely independent road. “We have large equity investors, tax deductible donations through the Australian Documentary Fund and (in a first for her 20 plus year career) a crowd funding campaign.”
We discuss how the crowd fund has changed the filmmaking process, “It’s definitely been a weird thing to talk about a film without having made it. That said we have this great community of people that have donated. Around 97 percent of people are complete strangers and every time you get an email notification – whether its a dollar or something more, it gives you a lot of faith in humanity. I’ve had so many beautiful messages and donations from all over the world – Panama, Israel, Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, it’s amazing how the word gets out.”
Orner is cautiously optimistic when asked if documentary films have the power to exert change. “I think you have to be careful when you say what documentaries can achieve, but for me it’s about just trying to change the dialogue, trying to get people talking, trying to educate people. We made Taxi to the Dark Side in the middle of the Bush administration when there was no end in sight. The film looked at the administration’s post 9-11 torture policies and it did have an impact, a lot of people saw it. On my first night in Afghanistan (while shooting The Network) I met an Admiral who was in charge of detainees in Afghanistan (since 2001), he thought the film was wildly important and had helped change policy. It’s currently shown in JAG (military training) schools in America.
A still from Taxi to the Darkside (2008)
Orner will return to Australia in August to start production on Bloody UnAustralian. She plans to shoot the film with a skeleton crew, just her and a cinematographer travelling to hotspots across the region including Indonesia, Iran, Afghanistan to name but a few. The long haul is yet to start but for the Producer turned Director, the issue is paramount. “I just feel like there are very few countries dealing with this in an acceptable way and I think Australia is really leading the way in how not to do it, for an educated wealthy Western country. I just thought it was time to explore this issue that’s very important to me. I’ve been gone a while but it feels like a personal story.”
When asked if there is a narrative filmmaker lurking within her documentary skin, Orner says “the stories I’m interested in tend mostly to be real, even feature films that I love like The Lives of Others, are always very heavily rooted in real stories”. Orner is currently working on a book project in her elusive spare time and says with a chuckle that “if someone is crazy enough to give her the money to make a narrative film, then perhaps one day she will”. But for the moment, the award-winning filmmaker has her head firmly in the land of reality, steeling herself to tell a tale more dramatic, moving and heroic than any Hollywood scriptwriter could imagine.
To donate to the crowd funding campaign (until July 11th!):
To make a tax-deductible donation via Documentary Australia Foundation
Eva Orner on location in Afghanistan (whilst shooting The Network)
By Kristy Matheson