Sightlines Journal, issue 2, 2017
Name: Herman Van Eyken
Length: 21 minutes
Away (2014) was directed by Herman Van Eyken and is a tribute to his adopted country, Australia, seen through the eyes of its European director. In this poetic film infused with the landscape and characters of urban and rural Australia, Van Eyken pays homage to another European director, Wim Wenders’ and his tribute to America in Paris Texas. Away tells the story of a man who has to make a decision to right the wrongs in his life. Director, Herman Van Eyken notes:
Away is in the first place a reminiscence of Paris, Texas by Wim Wenders, a European director who wanted to make a travelogue in another continent, America. Away … enabled me to discover Australia as a filmmaker. A vast land, where the themes of Wenders’ Paris Texas … filter through the film’s poetics … There’s sometimes more told in the poetry of the absence of things, the disappearance, the unspoken words. Often ‘less is more’ was the driving force – the exploration of my newly adopted country in its visual poetry, its richness of sound, silence and music …
The short fiction film, Away is the result of the creative collaboration between students, staff and industry. It is a shining example of the results of the organic, collaborative and professional processes involved in making a quality short film with deep cultural and social significance in the academy, particularly as it touches on the themes of domestic violence which is a major issue in Australia today.
Away was screened at the Cannes Film Festival Court Metrage (Short Film Corner) in 2015 and the highly regarded ReelDeal Conference. The showing was very successful and the film was received very positively by audiences. The concept of the project around the two individual creative works – the short film, Away, and the documentary, The Making of Away as it enters into and explores unchartered territory in the collaboration between students, staff and professionals in the making of a fiction film and the documentation of the filmmaking process has been taken to wider audiences. In 26 July 2014 McVeigh and Van Eyken presented a keynote address at the ATOM Qld State conference and the creative processes involving the inspiration for the telling of the cinematic story of Away have been published in McVeigh, M. (2015). “It’s All About the Story: ‘The Making of Away’ and the Telling of a Cinematic Story”. In Wirth, R., Serrati, D. and Madedulska, K. (eds) Storying Humanity: Narratives of Culture and Society. Interdisciplinary Press: Oxford UK (pp. 25– 34). At the Sightlines Festival/Conference in November 2016, Van Eyken, McVeigh and Hegedus presented the panel “Making Away and the Making of Away: Filmmaking in the academy: on set and behind the scenes with students and industry from script to screen” and screened both films. In this panel they discussed the process of filmmaking in the academy from a number of perspectives including the collaboration between staff and industry personnel to create the film and mentor students in key creative roles throughout the making of Away.
As a research project, the two films Away and Making of Away should be viewed and considered together. However, for a variety of reasons, they were peer reviewed separately. Readers should be aware that some of the concerns expressed by the reviewers for Away are addressed in the film Making of Away.
Peer Review 1 (Susan Kerrigan)
‘Away’ exhibits professional production values in terms of the script and its adaption, performance, production design, cinematography, sound design, editing and colour grade. Assessment of professional production values for fiction filmmaking is important for this peer-review as the research statement claims that the production of ‘Away’ was a collaboration with Griffith Film School (GFS) Staff and industry personnel who mentored film students in key creative roles. So this points to the film’s unique and original contribution to knowledge, which is the collaborative filmmaking opportunity provided through an educational program at GFS. Evidence of these production values can only be assessed through the on-screen product with further detail provided in the research statement. As a peer-reviewer I am drawing on my 15 years as a Screen Production academic as well as the 13 years I spent working professionally on drama and children’s productions for the ABC, firstly in the role of Continuity (Script Supervisor) on drama productions, and then as a Writer/Director and Producer of Children’s television.
A more detailed assessment of the production values is provided below and this assessment confirmed that the film does meet with professional filmmaking expectations though it is not innovative in its form nor content. The innovation lies in the methodology, that is the filmmaking methods which focused particularly on filmmaking production processes, achieved through an educational and mentoring approach used to conceive, realise and execute ‘Away’. The film achieved social artistic success by being screened at two international festivals in 2015, as explained in the research statement. While it was obvious from the research statement that Van Eyken, Head of GFS directed the film, and obviously in that role mentored the whole crew, there is however, little detail around which other key creative roles were taken by industry professionals and/or GFS staff and which were undertaken by students.
While the written statement describes the aim of the research project, to create a collaborative filmmaking experience for GFS students, the level of these students has not been provided. Are these undergraduate, Honours, Masters or PhD students? Disclosing the skill level of the students is probably an oversight and it would have indicated the types of key creative roles that these students could be expected to carry out. The extent of the mentoring has not been clearly divulged in the film’s credits either with 58 crew members being listed in the credits for the fiction film production. There was one mentor listed, the production designer, and four students who were in training with the camera department. There is no other information provided around the allocation of crew roles even though the research statement claims that students held key creatives roles. Did students occupy the other creative roles of writer, cinematographer, editor, VFX supervisor and sound designer? A number of staff members names appear in the credit list in some of these key creative roles, so how can the claim that students worked in key creative roles be verified? The research statement could have been improved by providing more details around the filmmaking methodology, that is the strategy applied and how key creative or supporting crew roles were allocated to students. Clarification of who did what is required so that it aligns with and verifies the claims made in the research statement, that is the film’s original contribution to filmmaking is through a collaborative crewing process between GFS staff, industry professionals and students.
The research statement sections titled Background and Contribution are repetitive, they over emphasise the directors vision and superficially explain the contribution to filmmaking as research. They could have been improved by teasing out if this was the first instance that GFS had taken on such a large-scale production with this unique crewing arrangement. The significance of the research is the saving grace of the written statement as it provides more details around where the film has been internationally screened, it also highlights a documentary ‘The Making of Away’ which has not been seen as part of this reviewing process. Perhaps that documentary answers many of these questions but it was not provided to me as part of this review, perhaps that was intentional to see if the film itself and the research statement could be assessed in isolation. Given the number of questions I am seeking answers to, I feel that the research statement was a missed opportunity and it could provide many more details around how the production was conceived as a learning and mentoring experience for GFS students.
Assessing the quality of the filmmaking by watching a film and reviewing the filmmaking attributes as being at the student or professional level was a challenging task. The research statement only highlights the director as GFS staff, the film’s credits point to 5 other students working on the production. Clarifying the roles of other GFS staff, industry professionals and students is important so that the claim that this film contributes to filmmaking as research by using a unique filmmaking methodology can be verified. Hopefully these issues can be addressed in the rejoinder.
More Detailed Comments
The Film Synopsis
Away is a short dramatic film that shows a broken man’s struggle to protect the women in his life, his daughter and his ex-partner. It begins with a quote from Paris Texas (1984), and it is situated in the present day in a small Australian country town. Robert Coleby plays the lead a father who is paralysed by his current emotional distress, separated from the mother of his daughter who now resides with his best friend. His best friend regularly beats his ex. The father has another deep regret that is revealed through flashback, showing how helpless he once was as he was unable to save a drowning hitchhiker. The realisation that the father is facing another critical life moment allows him to take control. Taking strength from remembering the helplessness of his past, the father ignores his lover’s advice and decides to realise his dreams. He finishes restoring a car, collects his daughter and rescues his ex from a violent domestic situation.
Assessment of the Production Values
The opening titles hint of the drowning that is to come. The Art Direction is sophisticated with characteristic locations and vehicles being used to reveal elements of the protagonist’s story. The use of colour in the garage and at the brothel highlight blues, reds and greens, and little sprinkles of backstory are nicely revealed through the set dressing. It shows a discerning eye and meticulous attention to detail. The credits confirm that the production designer was mentored by a professional.
The cinematography is appropriate, beginning simply with tripod shots and available light and moving to more sophisticated set-ups in the garage, which is lit and uses hand held techniques. The moving frame shows good depth and allows for interesting focus pulls. A range of cinematic apparatus like cranes, underwater cameras, low loaders, dolly shots and hand held is evident in the film. There are some clever visual cinematic techniques used like throwing the tarp over the camera that show the craft of a director who choreographs on screen action with visual flair. The credits show two cameras were used and that there were 4 Assistant Camera operators in training. It is unclear if this was A and B camera rolled simultaneously or was ‘B’ camera used in second unit mode? I suspect the former from some of the scenes. This detail is important as it explains the scale and approach to the production of ‘Away’. Such detail could have been pointed out in the supporting statement given that it indicates the Griffith Film School students were being mentored by industry and staff.
The audio recording has clarity and perspective, the music nicely supports the scene and is completely appropriate to the dramatic story.
The script has a predictable structure with most of the dialogue having been nicely crafted. The credits show that the script was adapted from a story which is only important in that it offers a slightly different approach to scripting the film. The script uses silence and this allows the actors their moments to embody the emotion but there are occasional lines of dialogue that are redundant, appearing to overstate the scenes dramatic beat that has just passed. One weakness that is evident on screen is the fear that the hitchhiker faces from the reckless driving of the young protagonist, this is a completely contrived moment, as the shots do not show this recklessness at all. While the director and editor are probably aware of this, it does raise the question of how the scene was prepared for filming, and why some simple cut-aways of a foot on the accelerator or external shots of the car wizzing by were not used. Maybe they were not even shot? Which is usually the case when scenes feel contrived. The hitchhikers seductive performance and how she dissuades the young man from kicking her out of the car is engaging and perfectly performed. The lead, Robert Coleby performs each of the character’s moments very well displaying excellent emotional turmoil through his performance that is nicely exploited by the editing. Occasionally the dramatic beats are over edited, and the effect of holding a moment too long illustrates the difference between watchable drama and soap. (I acknowledge that these comments on overwritten scenes and edit of performance are my personal point of view and others may beg to differ). The drama that arises from the mid-point scene, the flashback of the girl diving into a rock pool is well placed in the film and the lived trauma of the memory is nicely performed by the lead at the brothel. The failure to find the young girl is eloquently shown through the evening scene of the young naked man sitting on the car bonnet. The emotional torture suffered by the protagonist and his argument with his lover subsequently forces him to make a decision and motivates him to act. The lighting VFX is a well placed dramatic effect that is well executed in the wide shot outside the brothel as the narrative moves into the third act.
The Research Statement
The Research Background explains the motivation of the film’s European director Herman Van Eyken, who holds the position as Head of the Film School. Van Eyken claimed his authorship through the making of ‘Away’, he achieved this by paying homage to Australia much like Wim Wenders, achieved the same through his tribute to America in Paris Texas. While the research background explains the director’s vision it is a repetitive description and the precious word count could have been used more effectively to describe the aims of the project and the roles that other GFS staff took on the production.
The Research Contributions could have been better shaped to support the significance of the production approach where a large number of the production crew were students. The full crew of 58 was discerned by counting the credits, beside the one person named as mentor and the 4 students training in the Camera Department, it is unclear who else listed in the credits is staff, industry mentors or students. Some explanation of the strategy around selection of key creative roles that student or staff took on and more details around production timeframes, shooting day length, logistics and post-production workflow could have really helped tease out how this production approach makes a contribution to filmmaking as research. Addressing how a highly skilled director mobilises a team that has varying skill levels, and how that director encourages them to create a shared vision for a film might have provided another option that could have improved and strengthened the background to the research and the contribution that the research claims to have achieved.
The last section of the research statement, ‘Research Significance’ provided important details relating to the films contribution to new knowledge and it mentions a documentary made about the ‘Making of Away’ but that film has not been viewed as part of this review process. It is hoped that some points raised here can be addressed in the filmmaker’s response to this review.
Peer Review 2 (Alison Wotherspoon)
Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?
Consider the submission’s subject matter, its methods, outcomes or any other aspect that you deem important
I struggled with the representation of some of the female characters in this film, especially the Asian prostitute with a heart of gold. Although I am aware of it being a tribute to Paris Texas I felt uncomfortable with the gender politics within it and found them somewhat dated and too stereotyped.
Given that a key element in the making of Away was the collaborative process between staff and students I was unable to get a sense of where staff / professionals and students stopped or started. In the credits it is called a film by Herman Van Eyken which I found to imply a different filmmaking process to a creative collaboration with students as is described in the supporting statement. Was the film directed by Herman? I have assumed it was and if so was there a mentoring of an emerging student director as part of the collaboration? It is unclear from the credits if this was the case and if not it seems a missed opportunity.
Does the submission live up to its potential?
Please reflect on the potential of the submission and the way it is realised. How might the submission be improved to better match its potential? This potential may directly relate to the artist’s own statement, but does not have to. Note: We would like to further the debate around where research resides and how to make it more explicit so that it can be evaluated as such.
I found the supporting text of the submission and the context of the making of the film did not give me a clear sense of how best to view the film and consider it as an example of creative practice research. Given the stated aims within the submission I do not think the film conveyed or significantly explored the theme of Australia / Queensland as a vast land. The film takes place in a number of urban locations and the additional shots of a car travelling through a forest doesn’t really explore the vastness of Australia. I feel therefore that there is very little exploration of Herman’s ‘newly adopted country in its visual poetry, its richness of sound, silence and music’. This is not to say that there are not very pleasing shots, scenes and performances within the film. I found that it was more a case of the accompanying statement not really matching the content of the film or conveying the research underpinning it.
How does the submission expose practice as research?
You may like to consider the following:
– Is there evidence of a particular question, issue or problem that is explored?
– Is there evidence of innovation (in form or content for example)?
– Is the work contextualised within specific social/artistic theoretical fields?
– Is there evidence of new knowledge, interpretation, insights or experiences?
Note: we acknowledge the use of ‘evidence’ may be contentious, likewise the notion of evidence of ‘experience’.
We encourage a debate around such issues.
If a submission omits any of the above, please state whether this omission matters. Ultimately, a submission may successfully expose practice as research despite disappointing conventional academic criteria for the assessment of research. If applicable, please state where the breaching of such criteria is detrimental to the submission, and where it gains power from such subversion.
If this film’s research contribution is the ‘creative collaboration between students, staff and industry’ it would have been helpful to have had this discussed in the research background. Is the research underpinning this work based on a model of work integrated learning or is it an exploration of adapting themes / images of the work of Wim Wenders within a contemporary and Australian context? Either is fine but I was not clear about how to best view the research components based on the written document. It would have been useful, either in the document or in the credits to have a clearer understanding of what the students contributed, how this was facilitated, assessed, what they gained from it and how they were mentored by industry professionals and the director?
Consequently I found it difficult to assess the research underpinning this film without being able to view the accompanying making of documentary. I also found myself struggling with the ethics of using a student crew to help make a film without the full context of how it was done, and how the issues of coercion and the power imbalance between staff and students was managed