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A cocktail for international co-production
Written by Trevor Graham
Doctorate of Creative Arts UTS 2009
Not in Utopia, — subterranean fields, — Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where! But in the very world, which is the world Of all of us, — the place where in the end We find our happiness, or not at all!
William Wordsworth 1770 - 1850
Abstract Acknowledgements Preface 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 In the Wake of Wallis, Bougainville, Cook, King Vidor, Elvis, Gidget & others A Buyer’s Market I Want to See These Sexy Ladies D’ou` venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou` allons-nous? Co-production Blues Researching the Nubile Savage Hollywood’s South Seas Princess Writing Sharpens the Mind We Got 2 or 3 Shots Done Today Keep Your Eyes on the Hands A History Mash Up Conclusions Bibliography Filmography 14 20 36 50 64 75 104 129 151 162 183 201 222 225
This ‘doctoral package’ comprises two parts produced as practice-based research within the DCA program at UTS: (1) the documentary film Hula Girls — Imagining Paradise, a fifty-two minute documentary that I researched, wrote and directed in 2004 & 2005 for broadcasters in Europe and Australia (included in the back of this document); and (2) this document, Making Hula Girls, which is a reflection on the making of the documentary Hula Girls. The latter should be viewed before reading this document, as it is the major creative component of my DCA submission. This document accompanies the film, enhancing and making explicit the research and resultant knowledge that are implicit in the creative work. The aim of this document is to explore the processes I employed in making the documentary and to account for some of the financing and editorial considerations at work in producing an Australian documentary for the international television market. The international market for pre-selling Australian programs is extremely tough and competitive. It’s a buyer’s market. Making Hula Girls demonstrates how and why the program attracted buyers (Commissioning Editors) and reveals the creative processes employed to ensure it had a smooth path through production and engaged audiences particularly locally for SBS-TV. Concurrent with these marketplace considerations this text, like the film, investigates the origins and continuing legacy of the hula girl image, an icon that has captured the imagination of Westerners since Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s voyage to Tahiti in 1768. For over two centuries ‘she’ has been immortalized and exploited by artists, travellers, tourists and film makers. Millions of people across the world identify the image of the beautiful Polynesian woman as an invitation to paradise. But, just how real is she? In completing this ‘doctoral package’, I argue that Australian documentaries can succeed in the international market if producers are mindful of the need to appeal to international
audiences, have a coherent knowledge of broadcaster slots and a familiarity with the tastes of Commissioning Editors they are pitching to. I conclude that there are creative restraints required by these markets and I elaborate on their impact for filmmakers. Additionally, the film and text argue that the enduring hula girl representation is half real, half myth — a product of male fantasies, a by-word for paradise and a creation of the Hollywood Dream Factory.
Context and Acknowledgements
Once I had completed the creative component of my doctorate — the documentary Hula Girls — Imagining Paradise — and I was preparing to write the explicatory text, the hand of fate played its part. In the final stages of the filmmaking process I was invited by Commissioning Editor, Ned Lander, and General Manager, Glenys Rowe, to join the commissioning team at SBS Independent as a documentary Commissioning Editor. Whilst this would prove to have a huge effect on the time-line for completing my doctoral submission, the experience would provide an enormous opportunity and insight into the documentary commissioning process for television and also allow me first hand experience of the international broadcast arena. I cannot thank Ned and Glenys enough for providing me with this break. I enjoyed my time at SBS. We commissioned some outstanding work in the three years that I was employed there. Most importantly we underpinned the documentary sector of the industry at a time when the national broadcaster, the ABC, has not. Then fate dealt a completely opposite hand. Six months after starting at SBS I was diagnosed with cancer. Not only was this personally devastating, but the prospects for long-term recovery were presented as being grim. I largely managed to continue my commissioning work at SBS through the months of treatment, but work on my thesis came to a grinding halt. It has taken a full two years to get over this experience and to feel like I wanted to commence writing again. My wife, Rose Hesp, and daughter, Angelita, provided enormous support throughout this tough period of my life. I have their love and encouragement to thank for the fact that I eventually had the enthusiasm to complete the writing. They have been patient with me 7
as I spent my weekends on the household’s computer. I must thank UTS for also giving me the time and mental space to recover and come back to the thesis writing when I was ready. My supervisor, Ross Gibson, was a great support throughout this time. “Get better and come back to it when you’re ready,” were his words of encouragement for both my healing and writing. When I did eventually have some chapters under my belt Ross provided clear guidance and insight into the shaping of the thesis and my writing style. He encouraged me to ‘find my own voice’ at moments when I was riddled with self doubt about whether I was fulfilling ‘the academic brief’ required to complete my doctorate. With Ross’s support I managed to unshackle myself from that expectation ‘to be academic’, and put words to paper and eventually enjoy myself. Writing is a process, and once the fear of writing is overcome the words can flow and become a steady stream. In 2007 UTS also kindly offered a scholarship as an encouragement to complete my thesis. There is nothing like financial reward to spur one on. My thanks are due to UTS for this generous, unexpected incentive. The person to whom I am most grateful is producer Andrew Ogilvie for asking me to write and direct Hula Girls. Andrew first approached me towards the end of 2002, when I was very reluctant to get involved, and to his credit he continued to pursue me. At the time I was living in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. I was directing a long term observational film set in Yirrkala, Lonely Boy Richard, about a Yolgnu man who was on his way to gaol for sexual assault. Despite being the hardest film I’d ever made it was ultimately fulfilling because of the powerful nature of the story and the open access we’d negotiated with Richard, his community and the NT legal system. The production took 8
over my life in more ways than one. Observational filmmaking was ‘the force’ at the time and when Andrew Ogilvie rang inviting me to direct an historical story about hula girls I could only laugh. Approximately one year later I was visiting Tahiti, LA, London, Chicago, Hawaii and Paris, researching Hula Girls and having a ball. So Andrew deserves my thanks for his persistence and his faith in my ability to deliver a compelling historical tale. Greg Colgan from Electric Pictures did much of the initial research of tracking down South Seas genre pictures, features and archival footage and undertook the onerous task of copyright clearances for hundreds, if not thousands of images. Without Greg’s never take no for an answer attitude, Hula Girls could not have been made with the richness of imagery that is at the heart of the documentary. Directing Hula Girls put me in touch with a vast array of people: film critics and journalists, Pacific historians, art curators, art historians, academics and Polynesian dancers all of whom I am indebted to for sharing their knowledge of Polynesia and Pacific history. In particular special thanks are due to: Anne Salmond, Professor and ProVice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland; Katerina Teaiwa, Assistant Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii; Margaret Jolly, Professor and Head of the Gender Relations Centre in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University; Claude-Louis Stefani, art historian and curator at Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rochefort in France; Neil Rennie, Reader in English at University College London; Stephen Eisenman, Professor of 19th Century Art History at Northwestern University, Illinois; Ed Rampell, raconteur, journalist, film reviewer and South Seas adventurer; Luis Reyes, Hollywood-based film researcher, writer and critic; DeSoto Brown, Manager of Moving Images at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu; Joe O’Neil, an obsessive collector of all things Hawaiian, shirts, hula dolls, calendars, souvenirs, all manner of naked Polynesian kitsch; and Marguerite Lai a professional dancer and director of the Papeete based dance group O Tahite E. All of these people were generous with their time and knowledge and were fabulous participants in the program.
I was also assisted in writing this thesis by Verity Leatherdale, Dr. Jane Roscoe, Dr. Michelle Arrow, Denise Haslem, Augustus Dalgaro, Lucy Milne and Carolyn Johnston. Their interviews shed light on the production, marketing and programming of documentary, Hula Girls in particular. Finally I must thank my good friend Margot Nash who said to me one day, when I was in a fit of despair about my prospects of making a living from filmmaking, “why don’t you do a DCA at UTS?” Thanks Margot!
This text is a reflection on the making of Hula Girls — Imagining Paradise, a fifty-two minute documentary that I researched, wrote and directed in 2004 & 2005. The film is the major creative component of my DCA submission; this document accompanies the film and completes the ‘doctoral package’, making explicit some of the knowledge and research that are implicit to the creative work. In order to elucidate the market place and creative issues behind the making of Hula Girls, I occasionally present biographical and anecdotal information, but I do this to provide context and rationale for decision making and the development of understanding both in myself and the reader. I also present opinions in the form of research interviews from a range of experts who participated in Hula Girls, and also film industry professionals, which offer further illumination. Having spent 18 months creating the program, Making Hula Girls now provides me with an opportunity to explore the processes I employed in making the documentary and some of the financing and editorial considerations at work in producing an Australian documentary for the international television market. Hula Girls was produced by Andrew Ogilvie, from Electric Pictures in Perth, and commissioned as an international co-production by three broadcasters: SBS-TV (Australia), AVRO (The Netherlands) and ZDF-ARTE (Germany-France). It was financed with investment from the Film Finance Corporation Australia and the Western Australian state funding agency, Screenwest. It commenced its relatively smooth pathway through financing, production and broadcast as a 12 page concept outline with the somewhat kitsch title, Island Aphrodite. The documentary’s narrative explores the representations of Polynesian women in Western art, literature and cinema, from the time of ‘first contact’ in the late 18th century, through to Hollywood’s visions of the South Pacific, films like Mutiny on the Bounty (Dir. Lewis Milestone,1962), Bird of Paradise
(Dir. King Vidor, 1932) and Gidget Goes Hawaiian (Dir. Paul Wendkos, 1961). The closure of the program also briefly alludes to the legacy for contemporary Polynesian woman of this persistently idealised sexual imagery. The concept for Hula Girls originated from a book by Michael Sturma, an academic from Murdoch University in Western Australia entitled, South Sea Maidens, Western Fantasy and Sexual Politics in the South Pacific (Greenwood Press, 2002). I was brought onto the production as a ‘hired gun’ to research, write and direct the documentary. With a 20 year track record as a writer/director in the history genre, films about the Pacific, and indigenous culture and politics, I was considered by Andrew Ogilvie and the commissioning broadcasters to be a suitable director. It was also well known that I had a passion for remote island life and the tropics, a perfect fit for a film called Hula Girls. I therefore made sure, as part of this production, that I was going to shoot in various international tropical locations and include interviews from Australia, Tahiti, Hawaii, France, the US, and the UK. The completed program is an eclectic mix of history, art criticism, anthropology and film history — challenging to make, and one hopes it is informative and entertaining for audiences to watch.
Michael Sturma’s book was useful as a research tool and as an originating concept for the television program. But authoring an academic book is one thing, writing a television proposal and directing it, for an international market place another. They are two vastly different beasts. The original Hula Girls pitch outline (attached as an appendix to my thesis), which successfully led to commissioning in 2003, bears the stamp of several authors, Michael Sturma, Andrew Ogilvie and myself. We all helped shape the writing to produce a document which pitched the program to the international film and television market in 2002 & 2003. It’s slick and sexy and deliberately so. Pitch documents often include a one sentence and one paragraph description to facilitate easy and quick discussion at marketbased producer meetings. Our document describes Hula Girls as,
A lush, visual exploration of the origins and evolution of the sexual mythology surrounding the Pacific island woman. 1.
And the one paragraph description follows,
From the first dramatic contacts in the 18th century, arose a powerful and seductive image of Pacific island women that continues to both captivate and provoke us. Drawing on spectacular locations and a rich heritage of art, literature and film, Island Aphrodite is a lush, visual exploration of the origins and evolution of the sexual mythology surrounding the Islander woman.
The pitch document employed words like captivate, seductive, sexual mythology and lush, to entice buyers. On the one hand the outline is offering an historical critique of Western art and cinema by dissecting the fantasy paradise that has been constructed around Polynesian women. But at the same time it uses the comparable language that has
helped shape the Pacific in the Western mind as a place of available, exotic, dark-skinned women and easy sex. The pitch strategy was successful in the short and long term. Hula Girls has been broadcast in each of the commissioning territories where it rated well. It was also well received by television reviewers in Australia and went on to win the prestigious NSW History Award – Audio Visual Prize for 2005. As is revealed in the research and writing of this text, Commissioning Editors, interview participants, programmers, reviewers and audiences have all been captivated by Hula Girls the historical-tale-cum-analysis and entertainment that the program delivers. I have been writing, producing and directing documentaries, largely for television, for more than 20 years. In that time I have directed more than 20 hours of programs for our national broadcasters, SBS and ABC-TV. Before Hula Girls, only 2 have been produced as co-productions with financial backing from international broadcasters, Channel 4 in Britain (Land Bilong Islanders, 1990) and WGBH Boston (Mystique of the Pearl, 1996). This is the blunt reality of the Australian film and television industry, and in particular its documentary sector. The international market for pre-selling programs is extremely tough and competitive. It’s a buyer’s market. On the whole, international commissioning editors care first and foremost about audience share and ratings. Because of its subject matter, Hula Girls clearly had the potential to draw big European audiences to ZDFARTE and AVRO. One of the questions I intend asking and testing in this thesis is ‘why?’ Is there anything significant about the production of Hula Girls in the international documentary market that allows us to understand and reflect upon ‘the market’ and ‘market forces’ particularly for Australian documentary? Are there lessons to be learned from this experience for Australian producers seeking to sell their programs in the international arena? Throughout the making of Hula Girls there were two questions that niggled me continuously about its story and content. These questions gave structure to my creative practice and my research. Firstly, how could I tease apart the historical images of
Polynesian women, explore these representations, from the time of Cook to the present, without myself cashing in on the tits and bums that have been the focus of so much art and cinema over the past two hundred and thirty years? Films like F.W. Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu (1931) and Bird of Paradise (1932) starring Dolores De Rio freely pushed Hollywood’s strict censorship codes with their depictions of scantily clad island women. For their time they exposed a lot of flesh. But producers were allowed to do so under the guise of ethnographic realism. Pacific Island women were known to be bare breasted, so on-screen allusions to that were permissible, although decorum still prevailed. Breasts were mostly only partially exposed; floral leis around Dolores Del Rio always provided a modicum of decency so as not to reveal all. The second question of concern was the expectations of the broadcasters I was working for. Would Hula Girls by force of circumstance be another adventure in exoticism? I also wanted to include something of the story of colonisation and militarisation of French Polynesia and Hawaii in this program. How could I include the saga of French nuclear testing in the South Pacific? Wasn’t this nightmare the flip side of European visions of a Polynesian paradise? My task of structuring a compelling story from my research was, as always, complicated. My investigations showed that I simply couldn’t create a black and white picture of Polynesia and its exploitation by the West. This story is full of nuances and complexity, as Margaret Jolly revealed in a research interview I conducted with her,
These European visions weren’t just fantasies; they weren’t just figments of imagination. They were in many ways responding to cultural forms that were there. There was in a sense a religion of Eros in Tahiti and Hawaii. It’s then a matter of what the Europeans did with that in terms of their own imagining. The indigenous eroticism then got transformed as a spectacle and something that Europeans could use for their own revitalisation. 3.
Clearly I was facing some big challenges in telling this story spanning 250 years of European and Pacific history, in just fifty-two minutes.
Now that the program is finished and broadcast I am in position to re-evaluate and test what I set out to do in making the program. Was I right in assuming that broadcasters wanted titillation for their audiences? Did it succeed in bringing the past to the small screen? Was it successful in terms of audience, market place response and with the critics? And above all, how do I evaluate the program in my own terms? I don’t wish to explore these questions as a purely academic exercise, but to try and understand the thinking behind the international commissioning process. My most important task however is to probe the creative forces at work when crafting a 52-minute television documentary and the compromises that are part of that storytelling process.
Footnotes: 1. Sturma M. & Colgan G. (2002), Island Aphrodite, pitch document, Electric Pictures, Perth, p.1 2. Ibid., p.1 3. Professor Margaret Jolly, Head of the Gender Relations Centre in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National University, research interview by Trevor Graham (2003).
In the Wake of Wallis, Bougainville, Cook, King Vidor, Elvis, Gidget and others.
This island is inhabited by over 200,000 savages. In the event that we find ourselves welcome you’ll discover that these savages have absolutely no conception of ordinary morality. And
you will no doubt take full advantage of their ignorance.1
The Captain Bligh Restaurant and Bar in Papeete encapsulates so many things about Tahiti, its colourful and dramatic history, its contemporary life as a South Pacific tourist Mecca and its reputation for young, beautiful and ‘exotic’ women. The restaurant is decked out as a tropical bungalow, complete with thatched palm leaf ceiling, party lights, cocktails and the obligatory sounds of French/Polynesian love songs, courtesy of the house band. Here you can order a ‘Papeete Orgasm’, a mixture of gin, vodka, coconut milk and pineapple juice. You can make yourself legless with a ‘Bligh Slammer’, a ‘Fletcher Christian Kiss’ or a ‘Drunken Sailor’. The bar is a must see and do event for the 21st century South Seas traveller,
A 19th-century European merchant wrote of the Tahitians, "Their existence was in never-ending merrymaking. In many respects this is still true, for after the sun goes down, Tahitians like to make merry as much today as they did in the 1820s, and Papeete has lots of good choices for visitors who want to join in the fun. 2
Drawing heavily on the tale of the Bounty mutiny and its infamous Captain, portraits of Bligh and the romantic hero of the tale, Fletcher Christian, adorn the walls. And of course there’s the erotic dancing that — legend has it, so beguiled the Bounty’s crew — Polynesian beauties with long flowing hair, ornamented with free flowing pareus (sarongs) and the coconut shell bras made famous by ‘island princess’, Delores Del Rio, in King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise 1932. And that’s why I am here tonight — the women, the gyrating waists, the legends, artists and the movies. I’ve come to film the O Tahiti E dance group and it’s an important sequence in the documentary program I am directing, Hula Girls — Imagining Paradise. This isn’t my first exposure to the charms of Polynesian dancing; I’ve been steeped in Pacific culture and history since I made a television documentary, Dancing in the Moonlight, about the Pacific Arts Festival in Townsville, Australia, in 1988. Since then, like many Western
men, I’ve had an eye for Polynesian women, particularly, ‘the demi’, Tahitian women of mixed French-Polynesian descent. They are the particularly attractive consequence of inter racial romance that dates back to first contact, the exploratory voyages of European mariners, Bougainville, Wallis, Cook and so many more, to these tiny Pacific islands. Since then the allure of Polynesian women and their legendary ‘free sexuality’, has long been a draw card for whalers, traders, colonists, artists, militarists, writers, movie stars and filmmakers like me. And here I am now, filming back stage in the dressing room of O Tahiti E. A dozen, young, twenty-something Tahitian women are undressing and donning their costumes for the evening’s performance. Dance troupe director Marguerite Lei announces in French why we are here, “They are Australian. They are making a film about Tahitian dance and culture and the views of Europeans about our culture in the past and present.” Make up is applied, grass skirts fastened. And I’m gob smacked. The women are so casual and matter of fact about our presence as they strip down and change from their everyday street civvies to grass hula skirts. I’m a 50 year old filmmaker with an all male (50+) film crew. There are furtive glances from us and them as we film our sequence. I can’t help feeling there’s a provocative aspect to this. Or so it seems. Is the legend perhaps true after all? To my mind it does seem like paradise. And I can’t help but recall Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s much used 1771 quote from his Un Account du voyage, autour le monde, a report of his visit to Tahiti in 1768, which helped contrive the legend of Tahiti as an earthly paradise and a place of easy sex,
I ask you, how was one to keep four hundred young French sailors, who hadn’t seen a woman in six months, at their work in the midst of such a spectacle? Despite all the precautions we took, a young girl got on board and stood by one of the hatchways. The girl negligently let fall her robe and stood for all to see, as Venus stood forth before the Phrygian shepherd; and she had the celestial shape of Venus. We managed to restrain these bedevilled men, however, but it was no less difficult to control one self. 3
Standing in the dressing room I also imagine myself as Matahi the young Polynesian lover and hero from the waterfall sequence in F.W. Murnau’s 1931 silent Polynesian love
classic, Tabu — A Story of the South Seas,
Matahi peers through large taro leaves and spies on a group of young and beautiful Polynesian women swimming in a waterfall flowing into a deep water pool. The women pose seductively in the pool decorated with floral leis in their hair. Matahi’s other mates eagerly join him to ‘spy’ on the women. Matahi grabs a ‘young nymph’ in his arms and together they tumble down the waterfall – it’s a lover’s paradise - perfect bodies in the sparkling tropical sunlight. 4
I introduce myself to several of the dancers, stumbling through my inadequate French, “Je m’appelle Trevor Graham. Je suis un realisateur de Australie. Nous tournons un documentaire sur Tahiti et sa culture and dansant traditionelle”. But again I am possessed by images of Hollywood. I had after all spent the last 6 months researching South Seas cinema in preparation for making this program. And I had so many movies rattling around my brain, Pagan Love Song (Dir. Robert Alton, 1950), South of Pago Pago (Dir. Alfred E. Green, 1940), White Shadows of the South Seas (Dir. W.S. Van Dyke, 1928), South Pacific (Dir. Joshua Logan, 1958) and Bird of Paradise. Tahiti it seemed to me, is a place where art, love, legend, movies and life have often been confused and rolled into one. I couldn’t help but recall the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, the scene where Fletcher Christian, played by Marlon Brando, introduces himself for the first time to his island love interest, Maimiti, played by the female lead Tarita Terepaia. The Brando movie exploits the male fantasy of the beautiful island girl who is unworldly, pliant and infantile,
Fletcher and Tarita caress and kiss each other, they are covered in an abundance of tropical flowers. He teaches Tarita how to pronounce his name pointing to himself. Christian: Tarita innocently points to Fletcher. Tarita: Christian: Tarita: Is my name… No, no! Fletcher! No, no! Fletcher. 5 Fletcher Christian is my name.
Brando did more than star in the remake of Mutiny on the Bounty when he went to Tahiti in 1962. Brando lived out the legend of Fletcher Christian, the character he played, when he fell in love with the beautiful 19-year old Tahitian costar, Tarita Terepaia, who became his wife and the mother of two of his children. Brando’s fascination with the South Pacific apparently began when he was a boy looking at National Geographic photographs of Tahiti. When interviewed on his arrival in Tahiti, Brando said he had illusions of becoming Polynesian and wanted to fuse himself into the culture. Marlon Brando’s story is not uncommon. The South Pacific is littered with tales of love affairs with seductive brown-skinned maidens. Before the invention of the motion picture, captain’s logs, novels, and paintings portrayed the Pacific Islands as a heaven on earth. This ready-made archetypal image was inherited by Hollywood. As one of my interviewees, LA film critic Ed Rampell, explained in his book, Made In Paradise,
More than any other Hollywood genre, South Seas movies deal with the theme of paradise — a romantic native paradise to serve as a setting for adventures enjoyed by white Americans or Europeans, usually males. 6
My job in directing Hula Girls was to untangle and explore that 250-year-old story by investigating the images and words that have graced our screens, books and art galleries; to explore the half real, half myth image of Polynesian women. The obvious questions I wanted to explore in the documentary and this companion text are: what is the Western representation of the hula girl, why is it still so strong and fixed? How did it come about and what are the repercussions both in Polynesia and the West? But a deeper question also plagued me, which I will address in this document: how could I avoid creating yet another western clichéd view of Polynesian women, yet another image? I wanted to engage an audience, essentially entertain them, but also challenge their preconceptions and understandings of the popular images of Polynesians. My intention was to make a really lively film and when I started my research I fell in love with Hollywood footage from Dorothy Lamour films such as Aloma of the South Seas (Dir. Alfred Santell) made in 1941. There are approximately 600 films, documentaries 20
and TV advertisements made about the Pacific or set in the Pacific, and many that I have viewed cash in on the image of the sexy Polynesian woman. Even today ‘she’ features heavily in tourist advertisements for the South Pacific. Although Hollywood has used the image of the hula girl endlessly, I knew the starting point had to be the first Western encounters with Polynesian women. So I began by researching sailors’ journals and reports from explorers about the islands and the women. These stories were reinforced over time by illustrations and paintings, such as Cook’s artists, John Webber and William Hodges, whose 18th century works alluded to a tropical Garden of Eden and sensuality. Hula Girls not only analyses the use of hula images but celebrates them as well. My inclination was also to look to Hollywood to provide humour because many of the films are very corny and clichéd in the way that they portray their island paradises and they provide a host of stereotypical ‘typecast’ images. And humour in a documentary is always a good hook for an audience; it helps disarm them, relaxes them into the subject or character and therefore can provide an entry point into difficult social, historical and political content. As Leslie Nielson the comic star of the Naked Gun series of films testifies,
I think anytime you make anybody feel good there is a social function in what you are doing. When people are feeling good they don't bite each other and hate each other. And usually they are nice to their kids, and they have the groundwork laid for being affectionate and gentle. And that's social. 7
I also found via my research, which I will elucidate in Chapter 7, Hollywood’s South Seas Princess, that films and literature set in the South Pacific could also offer more than escapism and bare bodies. They were also capable of exploring issues of racial and sexual relations — from a discreet distance. Films like Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s South Pacific suggested to audiences the possibilities of interracial and cross-cultural romance. As I delved into researching Hula Girls I discovered deeper themes which sustained my interest and provided a balance to the comic scenes I was imagining as I wrote the
screenplay. My challenge in researching and writing the screenplay was to explore the images that we westerners had created and Oscar Wilde’s notion that,
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. 8
The Captain Bligh restaurant and bar, cocktail in hand, and filming the gyrating dancers of the O Tahiti E dance group, was a good starting point for this story to unfold. Curiously, even though the dancing was tantalisingly sexy, precious little of it made it into the completed program.
Mutiny on the Bounty 1977, feature film, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Captain William Bligh (Trevor Howard) addressing his crew on their arrival in Tahiti. Goodwin, B. Frommer’s Tahiti and French Polynesia Guide, 1st Edition, accessed 9/9/2006, www.frommers.com/destinations/frenchpolynesia. Bougainville, L.A. 1771, Un Account du voyage autour le monde, Saillant & Nyon, Paris. Scene description from Tabu, directors F.W Murnau & Robert J. Flaherty, 1931, transcribed & interpreted for Hula Girls script 2004, by Trevor Graham. Scene description from Mutiny on the Bounty, screen writer Charles Lederer, director Lewis Milestone, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1962, transcribed & interpreted for Hula Girls script, 2004, by Trevor Graham. Rampell, E. & Reyes, L. 1995, Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Sea, Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, p. 33. Totaro, D. Talking Comedy with Leslie Nielsen, Off Screen, Nov 19 1999, accessed 14/8/2008, www.horschamp.qc.ca/new_offscreen/leslie.html. Wilde,O. The Picture of Dorian Gray 1890, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, Philadelphia.
A Buyers Market
Toronto, April 2007. 500 people are crammed into the Senate rooms of Victoria College at the University of Toronto for the annual Toronto Documentary Forum (TDF). There’s a quiet air of expectation. The focus of attention is a panel of 50 Commissioning Editors
(CEs) from around the globe sitting at a long central table. These Commissioning Editors are akin to royalty in the broadcast documentary business. The BBC is here, Channel 4, PBS, The Documentary Channel, The History Channel, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Arte (France) and then there are the smaller players YLE (Finland), Avro (Holland) and SBS (Australia). Every year up to 30 projects are chosen to pitch at the Forum and hopeful producers make the annual pilgrimage seeking the all important presales from broadcasters to green light their documentaries. Pitching at the TDF can be gladiatorial at the best of times. Thumbs up, or thumbs down from the Commissioning Editors, instant death for some projects, or a triumphal march for a lucky few. Sitting at the head of the pitching table is Australian producer-director Simon Nasht. With him is his co-director and editor from France, Ragnar Van Leyden. They are a formidable filmmaking team. Simon has pitched successfully on three previous occasions and funded his projects from the Toronto Forum. Ragnar Van Leyden edited the Academy Award winning feature documentary, Murder on a Sunday Morning. Their pitch today is Rebel With A Cause a two part series and a feature length film version about renegade Australian journalist, Wilfred Burchett, who dared to report the Cold War, including the Korean and Vietnam wars from the ‘other side’. I am sitting at the table too, in support of the Burchett team as their local Commissioning Editor. In 2007 I commissioned Rebel With A Cause for SBS Independent, where I have been working as a CE since I completed Hula Girls in 2005. Simon and Ragnar have cut a trailer and have been allocated seven minutes to convince my colleagues about the merit of their project. In my experience at the TDF, I have made six trips here over the years, there can be a lot of interest on the day from CEs, but there often isn’t much follow up that leads to the all important presale that brings a project to life. But the true value of pitching, is the ‘psyching up’ required to perform it. Pitching is the refinement of a documentary idea into a 7 minute spiel. It’s is a short story unto itself, with themes, characters and narrative distilled into a trailer and a few spoken paragraphs. Pitching is a valuable skill and by necessity helps focus the mind of the storyteller, the writer-director.
Simon’s pitch is confident and comes in on time. It’s well written and rehearsed and brings to life the character and significance of Wilfred Burchett’s journalism. The historical images in the trailer are compelling and it’s a thumbs up from the crowd of CEs. Nick Fraser, who commissions for a feature length strand at BBC 4, Storyville, announces the offer of a presale. This creates murmurings amongst the observing delegates. Nick is a tough nut. He’s been known to ruthlessly assassinate pitches at the TDF and other forums including in Australia. It depends on his mood. But in this instance we had a heads up from Nick. He decided at a private meeting the day before the Forum that he wanted Rebel for Storyville. The project will be the centre piece of a themed season he is planning called Commies, which will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (2009) and the collapse of communism in Central Europe. But his public announcement at TDF creates a roll. Arte France indicate they too are interested in Rebel, there is after all significant French content in this project and there’s also a Parisian co-director. The History Channel in Canada gives the project a nod of interest, “Let’s talk afterwards, the archive you’ve shown is new and fantastic”. YLE (Finland) is in straight away, they like the opening up of the Cold War for historical reexamination. But they offer small money. Thankfully there is enough on offer for the project to attract matching investment from the Film Finance Corporation of Australia. TDF is part of Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival one of several major international documentary festivals and markets that are held each year. It is the largest in North America. In 2007, the festival presented a selection of more than 100 cutting-edge documentaries from Canada and around the globe. Through its industry programs, Hot Docs also provides a full range of professional development, market and networking opportunities for documentary professionals. This year, the festival attracted over 1800 delegates, including documentary filmmakers, buyers, programmers, distributors and commissioning editors from around the world. Other major festivals and market events on the documentary calendar include: the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Leipzig Documentary Film Festival, Sheffield International Documentary Festival, Sunnyside of the Doc in France, and the Australian Documentary Conference (AIDC) which until recently conducted a pitching forum similar to the TDF.
Canadian filmmaker Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent, Cinema Verite – Defining the Moment) described IDFA 2005 in Amsterdam as, ‘the mother of all docfests’,
IDFA was born out of the same sense of social and political commitment, which goes to the very definition of documentary itself. IDFA has grown to be the largest festival of its kind and the most influential. Across IDFA’s history 3,400 films have screened in its various sections….the current edition features 250 documentaries in over 800 screenings. There are about 2,500 professional guests, 150 commissioning editors, and a public attendance which will top 130,000. A third of a million people are visiting the IDFA website. 1
Australian producers in increasing numbers are now attending these all important international documentary markets and festivals. Commissioning Editors from the ABC and SBS, together with project officers from Federal and State film funding agencies also regularly attend. Australian producers use the opportunity of so many gathered international CEs to hold private meetings and pitch (some would say harass) their projects. In 2004 Susan MacKinnon, the Documentary Investment Manager from the Australian Film Finance Corporation, attended the 12th IDFA Forum,
Being present at four days of pitching at IDFA was like being in a giant think tank. One is able to observe what ideas and issues are preoccupying people. The ideas were more international, about global issues — censorship, racism, religious intolerance, the subjugation of women, the responsibility of the press and free trade. Budgets were much higher this year, bringing into question if the market could support them. Many films were feature length. 2
Producer Andrew Ogilvie from Electric Pictures in Perth is a dedicated ‘junkie’ of these market events and as a result has well developed relationships with international broadcasters, distributors and production companies,
Electric Pictures is very market orientated in that I travel a great deal to international market places. I make at least three international trips every year sometimes 4 or 5, international film and televisions markets or conferences, like IDFA or Sunnyside of the Doc in France. In a week’s time I’m going to Cannes to what is called MIP TV, which is one of the world’s biggest and best recognised television markets. There’s anywhere between 10,000 and 14,000 people who are either buying or selling television product. And I’ll go again to the same market, same location but different name, called MIP COM in October. Sometimes I’ll go to Hot Docs, depending on what
I’ve got on offer, but this year (2005) I am going to Sunnyside of the Doc which is again in France. France seems to be, it’s partly geographic and partly cultural, a centre in the world for these sorts of things particularly in Europe. 3
Ogilivie’s producing expertise was fundamental to the financing of Hula Girls. I wish to illuminate his expertise in this narrative and foreground his successful strategy for engaging with the international markets and financing Hula Girls. Electric Pictures was founded in 1992 and specialises in factual programming for the international television market. Since then Andrew has gained a worldwide reputation as a producer of award-winning programs in a range of genres: history, arts, adventure and science. Electric Pictures is always on the lookout for the new idea. Their website (www.electricpictures.com.au) even features a call for the submission of ideas from the general public, ‘strong documentary concepts, with international market potential’. It was via this process that the idea for Hula Girls was first generated,
We have two people who are dedicated to being out there looking for ideas in the community, in the world. There principal task is to generate ideas, ideas that come to them because of something they have read, conversations they’ve had, their own personal life experience. So we decided that at one stage that we’d look to Murdoch University, our local university, and we advertised through the staff press that we were a local production company looking for concepts that might make good international television. And several academics approached us and Hula Girls is one of the ideas that came to us in the form of a person, Michael Sturma, who had written a book about the image of Pacific Island women called, ‘South Sea Maidens’. And there was obviously the germ of an idea. It had history, it had colour, sex, which is always of interest to the human condition and to viewers and it had elements that obviously could appeal to European buyers. It had elements that could work for Australian buyers. I immediately thought of SBS. One of our first steps is to always check what’s been made out there and of course the internet is the most powerful tool for checking that. So we’ll do title searches etc. And you do find often there are films made in a similar area, so we’ll look at how long ago. The very good idea that hasn’t been done before or the very good idea that hasn’t been done for a while, or maybe you can do it in a different way, that also does fit into the needs of broadcasters who have slots or notional genres if you like — if it fits into those strands for them, then we will spend more money and develop it a bit further. 4
When attending a documentary market, either as a producer pitching, or a Commissioning Editor, the first golden rule is, IT’S A BUYERS MARKET. The competition is stiff and the buying power limited. At SBS over the three years that I was commissioning there, I assessed in excess of 500 submissions for presales. We received on average 600 to 700 proposals every year and commissioned barely 5% of these. Most of my job entailed saying ‘No!’ Ideas that I rejected were either not well thought out, poorly conceived, had no sense of story and characters, or were simply irrelevant to SBS and its charter,
The principal function of SBS is to provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and, in doing so, reflect Australia's multicultural society. 5
Programs about blonde, blue-eyed surfies were not going to get a gong with me. And you’d be surprised, maybe not, how many of these proposals I received each year and how many producers had no idea of the Special Broadcasting Service’s social and cultural remit. Every year at conferences I had to spell this out to wannabe producers. Apart from lack of charter content, proposals often don’t fit into any of our published program strands. There are other reasons projects were rejected too. We constantly needed to promote a diversity of themes, stories and ideas. Good ideas seemed to come in batches and we often received similar proposals from different producers and of course, only one is selected. Whilst SBS had a strong commitment to indigenous programming we received many more indigenous stories than we are able to commission. The other important reason for rejection is funds. There is a limited pot of SBS gold each year. In any one financial year we time and again were forward committing to the next financial year to get programs made, such was our thirst for local programs and Australian stories. All public broadcasters around the world operate with similar issues and criteria. And when you attend documentary markets like the TDF, AIDC or IDFA you quickly become aware of the pent up expectations and frustrations that producers have in getting their projects financed. Commissioning Editors are set upon, it’s a feeding
frenzy. On my last trip to Hot Docs in 2007, I came away with dozens of proposals and business cards from international producers. Before I even left Sydney, my SBS email inbox was swamped with approaches from producers wanting to meet in Toronto. Through his attendance at these international television markets Andrew Ogilvie has become familiar with a range of CEs and the strands they commission for,
Commissioning Editors you can divide into two camps. The career bureaucrats who have never made any television, or it was some years ago, or they’ve come from radio. They are bureaucrats who have worked their way through the public institutions where they are now making decisions about what people want to watch. And then there are those other CE’s, thankfully there are quite a few left, who have actually come from a position of making films. They have made many films and they have got to a point where they have a mortgage, they have a family and it’s all getting a bit hard. They really just feel like a stable job and the jobs are often well paid. And these types understand the processes of storytelling using film as the medium. And appreciate that medium. 6
At these global markets Australian producers have what must be described as a modest presence. There are usually only a handful of companies, Electric Pictures amongst them, who have a constant presence and as a result have strong relationships with broadcasters and distributors. The ability of Australians to effectively make documentary for the global market is best revealed via the number of co-production projects which receive investment from the Film Finance Corporation Australia Limited (FFC) in any one year. The FFC stated in its 2005-2006 Annual Report,
The FFC invested in 34 documentaries during the financial year. Of these, 11 were non-accords (international co-productions with international and national broadcasters attached) and 13 were accords (productions with a national broadcaster attached). The demand for Australian documentaries remains strong and producers continue to be able to secure international finance sufficient to trigger FFC participation. Of the 11 non-accords (totalling 22 hours) four were with the ABC, six with SBS and one feature-length production, was with the Ten network. This year was marked by an increasing interest in documentary from the international market place. 7
The FFC documentary investment in international co-productions for 2005-2006 increased, from 9.45 million the previous year, to 12.77 million. But the number of projects fell from 14 to 11. However an analysis of the number of FFC funded projects and their budgets since financial year 1999-2000 reveals a consistency in the number of projects receiving investment from the FFC, and as you would expect over that period, a rise in budgets.
Year 2005-2006 2004-2005 2003-2004 2002-2003 2001- 2002 2001-2000 1999-2000 Projects Total Budgets 11 14 13 11 13 13 17 12.77 million. 9.45 million 10.90 million 10.20 million 6.60 million 8.20 million 10.00 million *
* These figures are not entirely accurate for Australian co-production output. There are a handful of producers who never deal with the FFC and produce entirely from the international presales they gather. These tend to be either bigger commercial entities like Southern Star and Beyond producing large volumes of documentary product, or small producers, working exclusively in wildlife programming.
Whilst it is reassuring that there has been, more or less, a consistent ability to produce internationally over the past seven years, the overall output is modest indeed. The main reasons for this low Australian co-production output are financial, and also culturalgeographic, as Geoffrey Blainey phrased it, ‘the tyranny of distance’. The figures are testament of a local industry that is perhaps still inward looking, naïve and inexperienced in dealing with, the large and highly competitive business of international broadcast. They show that more often than not, our home grown stories and concepts don’t travel. As to the finance, the FFC, SBS and ABC have a limited pot of money each year to spend on documentary. If the volume of co-production increased substantially, due to better access to, and experience in dealing with the international market, it is doubtful whether the FFC, SBS and ABC would have the matching funds to invest and commission. This
has already been experienced at the FFC in 2005 and 2006. The organization ran out of money to invest in documentary in several rounds even though producers had the necessary international market place deals, local presales and distribution attachments. Another huge contributing factor is the willingness of Australian broadcasters to back international co-productions. By and large national broadcasters everywhere favour local stories for their audiences because they rate well. Australian audiences are no different. That’s why the SBS strand ‘Storyline Australia’ was created in 2004 and achieved a consistent audience following, sometimes rating better than the network average, sometimes less. The ‘local stories’ argument is also often quoted as an important raison d’etre to justify continued government subsidy for our national film and television industries. In the co-production business SBS, on the whole, does better than the ABC. This is evident in the FFC’s 2005-2006 Annual Report, ‘four were with the ABC, six with SBS’. Most of the dozen or so Australian international co-productions that I commissioned at SBS were Australian stories, with sufficient global content, like the Wilfred Burchett series that allow them to generate worldwide presales. I have also commissioned several large, big budget, international co-productions that have universal themes such as Attack of the Baby Boomers, about the ever increasing phenomenon of global aging. This was a co-production between SBS and WNET 13 (New York) with FFC investment. But our deal with the Australian producer required a minimum 25% Australian content across the two episodes, Australian stories with Australian characters. Of my dozen commissioned programs only two were what you would call purely international stories, (1) The Choir set in a prison in South Africa and (2) The End of the Rainbow, about a gold mine in Guinea, West Africa. In both cases SBS Independent backed the projects largely because of the substantial deals the producers had from the international market, but our presale offers were half the normal dollar figure SBS usually offers for an international coproduction. Perhaps there is also a problem with the program ideas that Australian producers take to
the international markets? Is ‘the tyranny of distance’ a factor? Anecdotal evidence and my observations at TDF, reveals that only a few Australian producers manage to get their projects accepted into any of the international pitching Forums in any one year. Quite often there are no OZ pitches at all. At our own AIDC the opposite occurs, there’s usually a bias towards Australian programs selected for pitching. But sadly over the years precious few of these have attracted presales from the numerous international commissioners who regularly attend AIDC. The problem of selling Australian documentary, both at the presale stage and on completion, is well known to local marketing agents and distributors. The expertise on which I will now rely, elucidates the complex issues facing Australian documentaries in the global market. Lucy Milne was the Director of Marketing & Distribution at Film Australia along with her colleague, Carolyn Johnston, the International Sales Coordinator. Lucy and Carolyn were responsible for selling the Film Australia catalogue locally and internationally. Augustus Dulgaro was the former Manager of ABC Product & Content Sales at the ABC, the former Director of Marketing at Film Australia and is now VP of Sales, for the Australia and New Zealand region, for Granada International. Lucy, Carolyn and Augustus are all committed advocates of Australian documentary. In their various marketing and distribution capacities they have attended many of the major markets, forums and festivals where documentary ideas and completed programs are pitched and sold. They collectively provide some good tips on the dos and don’ts of pitching and selling Australian programs and ideas. They speak of a market reality that Australian producers must know about and engage with if they are to successfully sell their ideas.
Lucy Milne: Australian documentary is very hard to sell. They are a niche product in a niche market, so many are completely narrow and devoid of worldliness. But even if you have a universal theme that is applied in an Australian context, it’s still reasonably difficult to sell. For instance we’ve got a film about adoption, you’ll go to America and they’ll say great topic but we’ve got our own film about adoption in our country. Carolyn Johnston: About five years ago over in the UK we were having a meeting with Channel 4
and Channel 5 and basically every program we pitched they said great idea, but if we are going to do that, then we’ll do it ourselves. It was very much that whole feeling of being, looking within their community and their whole country rather than looking outwards. But then you still have countries like France, Scandinavia and the Netherlands who are still very interested in looking all around the world and who seem to have this incredible thirst for knowledge in every country. Augustus Dulgaro: The number of times I’ve been told, when I was at Film Australia that a story is ‘too Australian’ I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that. These programs would still sell in a number of territories, but they are minor sales. The major sales that Film Australia achieved were minimal. The reality is that getting a presale or any kind of sale in the UK is near impossible. Getting any kind of presale in the States is nearly impossible. They are producing their own stories. Britain has their own Cunnamullas and the US too. ITV has a huge production output, they produce a hell of a lot of docs. BBC and Channel 5 produce a huge amount of documentaries. They are British stories that can be produced locally and relatively inexpensively and they appeal to a domestic market. It’s same with the ABC here. It is hard to sell them international documentaries produced from the rest of the world. SBS on the other hand takes stories from around the world, especially non English speaking stories, so there is more of a home there. Lucy Milne: By and large, in terms of production values in Australia, we make very good documentaries. And we have very good crews. But the stories, the actual content of what it’s about is often too parochial. The other thing we struggle with enormously is our accents. Particularly somewhere like Canada they find our accent difficult. If you’ve got a lot of characters with strong Australian accents it’s difficult.
While the ‘tyranny of distance’ is an important factor (stories being ‘too Australian’ or lacking ‘universal themes’ in their content) so too is the challenge of where an idea might fit on the broadcast schedule, the need for Australian producers to tailor their ideas to particular broadcaster slots,
Augustus Dulgaro: Trotting out a one hour documentary is difficult. Can it be placed in a strand or a series if they have a got a strand to place it into. Do they have an arts strand, a history strand, an investigative documentary slot. They won’t be interested in an arts idea if they don’t have the slot. But on the other hand if you’ve got an 8 part half hour series, or an 8 part one hour series, that is going to be more attractive, say to cable broadcasters and terrestrials too, because they get more bang for their advertising buck. Once they have that audience hopefully that audience will stay from week to week. So on the whole series ideas are usually more attractive.
Australian documentaries often also rely on talking heads, directors shying away from strongly authored narration, as a story telling device. This was often an issue for me as a Commissioning Editor looking at rough cuts in the cutting room. But it’s even more of an issue for international broadcasters when considering Australia programs, particularly in Europe, where talking heads will need to be revoiced. Unlike SBS in Australia, most broadcasters dislike subtitling their programs. Arte in France is an exception. As a rule of thumb many European broadcasters prefer a minimum of 50% narration in their foreign program acquisitions.
Augustus Dulgaro: Narration is always good. Because narration can provide a separate M&E track and it can be revoiced. Too many talking heads are difficult. If you are going to have experts, get international experts. International experts can give your program a sense of universality and international appeal. It doesn’t pigeon hole it as Australian. Is there a UK angle in the story? You would always highlight a particular national angle if it worked for your story, when pitching to a commissioning editor and a distributor. Lucy Milne: I think it’s more than the issue of revoicing. Stylistically it’s an issue. Twenty years ago we were making documentaries that are not dissimilar from the sort of documentaries that are still being made. It requires a different headspace that says we can make documentaries that are a bit more cutting edge in terms of the style and format that are delivered and not just the content. You talk about talking heads, but look at ‘Touching the Void’, which is nearly all talking heads apart from the re-enactments. But the way the talking heads were shot for example, were different. That added more value to the actual talking heads.
However even when a program is beautifully realised and is stylistically unusual, as in Touching the Void (Dir. Kevin Mc Donald 2003) Australian talking heads can still burden program sales,
Carolyn Johnston: I find that a lot of buyers will turn away from programs, even beautifully made programs. We have ‘Wildness’ that was set down in Tasmania with fantastic imagery, but there were a lot of talking heads that really detracted from it, particularly for buyers in Asia. It just makes something that they might consider buying into something that they won’t even touch.
Most broadcasters when considering international program ideas look for stories with universal themes that resonate beyond national frontiers. Stories that their local audiences can engage with or characters they can relate to.
Augustus Dulgaro: For the international market it’s important to not have content that will quickly date it. Avoid the kind of colloquialisms that are going to move over from charm and idiosyncratic to alienating. You have got to have something there that people will hold onto. It has to have issues and themes that are universal. Anything that will really marginalize your product from the outset, you need to really think about that. But a local story will work internationally if it’s unique. Like a ‘Cane Toads’. Or if it’s exploitable like a ‘Cunnamulla’. Even “Facing the Music” which is an Australian story with strong universal appeal is going to have trouble selling because it’s a 90 minute documentary and there are so few slots that can run it. When you are talking about personal stories and social justice documentaries, whether it’s going to work internationally is going to depend on whether the themes or the story is going to have any relevance to an international audience. Lucy Milne: I guess if I we are looking at the documentary industry, I’d say that there are only a few documentary filmmakers here that have a concept in their heads of an international market and that filmmaking is not just something they feel really strongly about, it’s really a story that they have to get out there because ‘everyone in Australia must know about it’. Or even not knowing that if they shoot it in this particular way or they use this particular format or they keep it this parochial or they use too many talking heads that it will have no appeal in the broader market. They don’t even know that necessarily. There’s only a few key documentary filmmakers who know the market place and they are people who have travelled. Therein lies the rub, it’s a catch 22, documentary filmmakers are starving to death and can hardly get the bus into town let alone get the plane to see whoever.
Commissioning editors see themselves as the first audience for a program they buy. Because they see hundreds of proposals every year, if the first page, the synopsis, doesn’t appeal you are usually dead in the water. It’s same with distributors and program buyers considering finished films.
Lucy Milne: One of the ways I measure a documentary that I am viewing in terms of acquisition, is if I can watch the whole documentary without fast forwarding then that’s a good documentary and one that I will take on. And that’s the principal, if I am not hooked in the first 5 minutes. If it
doesn’t engage with you on the way through and doesn’t keep your interest, and 55 minutes is a long time to keep your interest, we are a very ‘satisfy now’ kind of society, and an hour is a long time to sacrifice to anything that doesn’t engage you and doesn’t keep you going. Augustus Dulgaro: A commissioning editor when they are considering something will put themselves in their audience’s shoes. They may personally like an idea, but if it’s not going to work for their audience for the demographic that watches at 8.30pm on a Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night, they are not going to buy it. You are not going to get through the door if you are an unknown and if you don’t have runs on the board. So if you have a program that has been successfully broadcast on that channel before then of course they are going to want to see you.
Then, just to add a note of contradiction, there are Australian programs, which by sheer force of character and story break all the golden rules,
Carolyn Johnston: One program that we still get interest in that we have just licensed to Channel 4 in the UK, is ‘Rats In The Ranks’. That’s just a classic Australian documentary. It couldn’t be more Australian in terms of its sense of humour, the portrayal of the main characters involved and it still keeps selling itself. Lucy Milne: And it’s so localised, a very specific part of Australian, Sydney life and unlike anywhere else. So it’s a good case in point. It’s done generally well across the board, not in Asia of course, but in Europe definitely, it’s done quite well.
Rats In the Ranks (Dirs. Bob Connolly & Robin Anderson 1996) was a Film Australia and Arundel Films co-production in association with broadcaster partners the ABC Channel Four and La Sept ARTE,
Politics is a bruising business. The best policies in the world mean nothing unless you've got the numbers. This film takes a behind-locked-doors look at how politicians get the numbers. Every September Sydney's Leichhardt Council elects its mayor. Incumbent Larry Hand is popular with the citizenry but they don't vote for mayor, the 12 councilors do and after three years of Larry some of them are after his job. 8
Rats In The Ranks, from a sales perspective, proves that strong character-driven 35
Australian stories, with universal themes, can be attractive to international audiences.
Carolyn Johnston: It’s the main character Larry Hand. He’s such a character. No matter what country you come from you would still be enthralled by everything that goes on around him and what all the other councillors are doing. Lucy Milne: High drama, huge drama, it’s a thriller, what the hell is going to happen next? It’s that kind of incredulity. So it’s an engaging piece. Carolyn Johnston: And that makes it timeless in its own way.
What’s not timeless is the international television market place. It’s a constantly changing and complex beast, subject to changes in fashion, taste and personnel. Regional TV cultural interests and tastes also come into play,
Lucy Milne: It’s very hard to talk in terms of an ‘international market’. What is an international market? You can either talk of an American market, an English market, an Asian market, a European market. But there is no such thing as a general international market. And you have to know them all to work them. There are sectors more than an international market. No two of them will take the same program on the same basis or pitched in the same way. So I think that’s an important distinction to make. Even though England and America are English-speaking, they might not take the same program for slightly different reasons or they may take the same program for slightly different reasons. There are a whole lot of cultural reasons behind that, not just language. Carolyn Johnston: If you wanted to make something that would sell in Asia, you’d be looking at wildlife, the environment, science, but you wouldn’t be looking at anything that is social issues. But European buyers love social issues. They will take other types of programming, but a lot of the time they are seeking social issues documentaries too. So you really have to work out which markets that your program will appeal to. Augustus Dulgaro: The market is too dynamic and cyclical to have any lasting impact. We face this all the time in marketing. “How is this going to sell?” The tastes of the market place are changing every six months. What you pitch at MIPTV is not going to have the same currency later in the year at MIPCOM. And it also depends on what is happening in the world. You have to go back to why you want to make the documentary. Fashion changes every 6 months but you can’t
produce to second guess the market. If you go to broadcasters with an idea then you have to turn it around quickly because they may not be interested in 6 months time. And you can be stuck in a rut. For instance three years ago every one wanted ‘Surfing the Menu’, cooking shows. That worked for a while and then it petered out. People wanted different things.
And Augustus Dulgaro has one important golden rule about pitching to international Commissioning Editors,
Augustus Dulgaro: Don’t try and second guess the buyer, because once you start doing that you lose sight of the story you set out to tell. You have to have a really definite idea of the story you want to tell. And if the market place is telling you they don’t want it, then do something else basically. You have to go out there with ten or twelve or fifteen ideas and that way something will get some traction. So you need to be true to the idea you want to make and work out the appropriate way to fund it. It may not be in the international market place.
It was in these specific and competitive market contexts that Andrew Ogilvie planned to pitch Hula Girls to European broadcasters in 2002. His pitching skills, together with his knowledge of markets and broadcasters, had been honed from his attendance at forums and festivals. He knew the Commissioning Editors and the program strands he wished to target. He knew the sort of money they would pay. But what were the elements of his pitch that attracted buyers? And why did it transcend the usual marketplace difficulties for Australian product outlined by Augustus Dulgaro, Lucy Milne and Carolyn Johnson? Was it the international historical content? The promise of scantily clad hula girls? Entertainment? Hula dancing? The Elvis movies it would feature? What we do know is that Andrew Ogilvie wrote a clever and sexy synopsis targeting Hula Girls to male, European, Commissioning Editors. He boarded a plane to France and the rest of the story is largely his to tell.
The interviews with Augustus Dalgaro, Lucy Milne and Carolyn Johnston were conducted by Trevor Graham in 2006 and 2007.
1. Wintonick, P. 2005, Welcome to IDFA Land, POV The Art and Business of Indie Docs and
Culture, Issue 60, Winter, p.22.
2. MacKinnon, S. 2004, Report on the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam 2004. Film
Finance Corporation Limited, accessed 12/12/07, www.ffc.gov.au.
3. Andrew Ogilvie, producer Hula Girls, interviewed by Trevor Graham March, 2004. 4. Ibid. 5. Principal 1. SBS Charter, contained in Section 6 of the Special Broadcasting Services Act 1991,
accessed 12/12/07, www.sbs.com.au.
6. Andrew Ogilvie, producer Hula Girls, interviewed by Trevor Graham, 2005. 7. An Exceptional Year in Pictures, Annual Report, Film Finance Corporation Australia Limited
(2005-2006), accessed 12/12/07, www.ffc.gov.au.
8. Rats In the Ranks program synopsis, Film Australia website, accessed 8/1/2008,
I Want To See These Sexy Ladies.
Pagan Love Song. Mimi (Esther Williams) and Andy (Howard Keel) stand arm in arm in Tahiti’s bright ‘romantic’ moonlight. Andy wears a lolly pink floral lei around his neck. Mimi: Who is to say where truth ends and fantasy begins, we take our legends very seriously. As a matter of fact we have even put them to music. Mimi sings, The Sea of the Moon, while Andy holds her in his arms. Lyrics: Come with me to the sea of the moon, To the sea that was made for the moon, Over the waves of morning bloom, Into the evening let me stay with you. When islands are happy and gay, In a world that’s forgotten its laughter, Come and day dream with me Close your eyes and you’ll be By the beautiful sea of the moon. Andy kisses Mimi in the glow of Tahitian moonlight.
The concrete bunker which is the Palais des Festivals et des Congres, on the Boulevard de la Croisette Cannes, is a far cry from the romanticised 1950s Polynesian dream world of MGM’s, Pagan Love Song, starring Esther Williams and Howard Keel. But it was here at MIPCOM, amidst the hustle and fast talk of the world’s largest television market that Andrew Ogilvie commenced the process of financing Hula Girls in 2002. That year Andrew was one of 10,000 international delegates attending MIPCOM, an event where
television product is bought and sold en masse. MIPCOM’s 2007 website aptly promotes the significance of the annual TV event,
MIPCOM is the global content event for co-producing, buying, selling, financing and distributing entertainment content across all platforms. It provides the key decision-makers in the TV, film, digital and audiovisual content, production and distribution industry with the only market conference and networking forum to discover future trends and trade content rights on a global level. 2
And the 2007 website states the following reasons why MIPCOM is a must do event for international TV producers of all formats and genres,
Think global — Reach over 12,500 TV, mobile and internet professionals, 4,216 companies from 98 countries. Meet more sectors — Access the broadest range of broadcasters, producers and distributors, discuss the latest trends with exciting new advertisers, advertising agencies and character licensers. Plan ahead — Use the conferences and networking opportunities to think about your content in a whole new way. Enjoy extra value — A concentrated and productive 5 days. 3
Ogilvie arrived, as he usually does, with a briefcase full of documentary proposals, 30 to 40 one-pagers; concepts that he and his team had worked up. He’d arranged appointments with CEs in advance and written the Hula Girls pitch to specifically catch the eye of the Europeans. It was the right time of the year, with the European winter approaching, to be selling a television program set in the South Pacific. The charm and allure of the tropics was an immense part of his sell in the pitch document titled, Island Aphrodite,
She has lustrous, flowing hair decorated with a fragrant garland of flowers, or perhaps a bright hibiscus behind her ear. She wears a grass skirt or a brightly coloured pareu tightly wrapped around her hips. In male fantasies, she is bare-breasted, her voluptuous figure partly concealed by a floral lei. Welcome to the myth of the Pacific Island woman……… ……. Drawing on spectacular locations and a rich heritage of art, literature and moving pictures,
Island Aphrodite is a lush, visual exploration of the origins and evolution of the sexual mythology that surrounds the Pacific Island woman. 4
With pitch in hand the money chase began and Ogilvie well remembers the first responses from broadcasters he received and ‘the flavour’ of the dialogue that ensued,
One of the nice things about Hula Girls, when I did take it to a market, it immediately appealed, people could immediately see it. Very easy to pitch it in one line and they immediately get it, which is so important because so often people can’t summarise their ideas so succinctly or it’s a complex issue which is hard to summarise so simply. Commissioners are people who have very short attention spans, who get 100s of submissions a week, if not sometimes a day. They are incredibly stressed out and over worked. And they learn to deal with this by making very, very quick decisions about whether they may be interested on the basis of their very first impression. So if you can convey it in a very simple way that they immediately get, then you are on the way. And it was easy with Hula Girls, very easy. 5.
My initial assumptions about broadcasters wanting ‘Polynesian titillation and or exotica for their audiences’, seemed to hit the mark gauging by the tenor of the responses Ogilvie received at MIPCOM. The early rejoinders were reminiscent of Mimi’s song for Andy in Pagan Love Song, ‘Come and day dream with me, Close your eyes and you’ll be, By the beautiful sea of the moon’,
The first impressions from broadcasters were, “Oh exotic! Great winter viewing, on a cold snowy winter’s night”. You know in Germany or France when there’s four feet of snow on the ground and your days are six hours long and it’s all miserable and grey, you can sit back and watch something that comes from an exotic part of the world, for them. The whole area of French Polynesia, being associated with the exotic, the film’s about that, and it’s true. It’s a holiday destination for many, a place that they romanticise, the blue skies and so on. 6
And sex was an important part of Ogilvie’s discussions with broadcaster’s right from the start,
It’s also sexy. That’s always good viewing. So Hula Girls had history, it had colour, and
obviously it could be very colourful in that way, sex, which is always of interest to the human condition and to viewers and it had elements that obviously could appeal to European buyers. The first interest was a small Dutch broadcaster specialising in arts programming called AVRO, who look quite aggressively for ideas that they can help finance and therefore be the first to show in Holland and have an editorial input, and therefore help craft ideas to fit their audience’s needs. 7
AVRO (Algemene Vereniging Radio Omroep) is the oldest of 23 public broadcaster organisations in The Netherlands, a niche broadcaster specialising in arts documentary, information, culture, along with soaps and light entertainment. AVRO commissions programs across a wide spectrum of arts activity with the exception of music. Some of their programming highlights since 2000 include the documentary titles: Robert Capa: The Man Who Believes His Own Legend (Dir. Patrick Jeudy, 2004), David Hockney: The Colors of Music (Dirs. Maryte Kavaliauskas & Seth Schneidman 2004), L’Héroïque cinématographe (Dirs. Véray Laurent, Agnès de Sacy, 2003), Mamadrama: The Jewish Mother in Cinema (Monique Schwarz, 2001) and Great Performances - Making 'The Misfits (Dir. Gail Levin, 2002). One of the main goals of this Dutch broadcaster, according to Willemijn Meuse, Head of AVRO TV, is,
making popular culture accessible to the public. 8
Ogilvie met with Wolter Braamhorst, Head of Art and Culture at AVRO. Braamhorst was the commissioning editor for Close Up, a visual arts strand, broadcasting one off arts documentaries 52 weeks of the year. In 2006 Braamhorst described AVRO’s visual arts strand for the Sheffield International Festival website,
We have been broadcasting since 1994 and it is the most successful arts program on Dutch television. We interpret visual arts to include photography, architecture, painters, sculptors, movies, design, fashion, popular icons and ancient archaeology. 9
Ogilvie had met Braamhorst at previous markets, knew the criteria of his Close Up strand and also that Wolter had a professional background as a cultural historian. Importantly the pitch for Island Aphrodite encompassed the breadth of art forms that Braamhorst’s strand focussed on, painting, photography and cinema history. And just to confound my thesis about the sexual appeal of Hula Girls to broadcasters, Braamhorst’s interest according to Ogilvie, wasn’t focused on the sexuality. He had other more rigorous demands to make of the program,
Well it’s interesting because it wasn’t the sex, because he is gay, openly gay. He won’t mind me saying that. It wasn’t the women. It’s the art, it’s the image, it’s the representation. And his only caveat was, “I don’t want an ethnography! Because we don’t do ethnography. We do arts programming”. Defined very broadly, anything defined as an arts program he will have a look at. But he didn’t want us to go and tell a story about, the way the Polynesian’s really live, and spend all the time in the village watching them cooking yams or whatever. He wanted something full of images that are luxurious, that are going to entertain through the image, an audience that is interested in painting and in art, and films. He would be also aware that being sexy it would appeal to his male audience. But it wasn’t the primary motivation. And never has been. 10
Braamhorst also stressed what he didn’t want a contemporary ‘feminist political’ analysis of the hula girl image. It wouldn’t fit the ethos of Close Up,
Wolter also said he didn’t want a raving feminist critique! He didn’t have a problem that there may be some, at times, a feminist perspective that comes through. But he didn’t want it to become a feminist essay. And neither did the Germans. Not that they were denying it. They wanted it to be balanced rather than be very gender specific. And me being a male I don’t think that they were too worried that would seriously be the case. That may have been more of a concern if a female producer had brought it along ironically. 11
Braamhorst made a commitment to the project straight away, but he first needed to discuss it with his colleagues in Amsterdam and seek their views.
It was easy for AVRO because they don’t offer that much money. It’s still better than selling it when the program is finished, but it’s not 8 times better or 10 times better as it sometimes can be with a presale.
Next to take an interest in Island Aphrodite at MIPCOM was Olaf Grunert a Senior Commissioning Editor for documentaries and Thema ‘theme nights’ at ARTE, a network that sells itself as Europe’s ‘Cultural Channel’. ARTE is a bi-national French-German network that broadcasts into France, Germany and other European nations 24 hours a day, seven days a week,
Europe is at the heart of ARTE’s vision. Look to the future with ARTE for a more exciting, entertaining and, above all, brighter outlook on life. 13
ARTE’s social and cultural objectives are not dissimilar to those of SBS in Australia. There is in fact an informal ‘sister network’ relationship and in the past few years ARTE and SBS have co-commissioned numerous documentary projects. Like SBS, ARTE broadcasts in up to 200 different languages and dialects across the thousands of programs broadcast in any one year. The similarities with SBS are also evident in the low rating, but niche audiences, attracted to the network in both France and Germany,
In 2006, 4.2 million viewers in Germany watched ARTE at least once a week for 15 minutes continuously, thus clearly outperforming record year 2005. In France, weekly audience figures reached 9.4 million. ARTE is ‘the’ cultural channel and enjoys special status within the German and French media industries. In both countries, ARTE has become a synonym for high quality and creative television. French and German audiences hold the channel in high esteem due to its credibility and the special attention which ARTE gives to different issues, as difficult as they may be. Foreign films are usually broadcast in the original version with French subtitles. Around twenty-five percent of the films broadcast are co-productions. Since its inception, ARTE has been financially committed to supporting talented filmmakers.
One of the hallmarks of ARTE’s programming strategy is Thema or theme evenings every Monday, Thursday and Sunday nights. They aim to enrich the audience viewing experience by combining different genres, feature film, documentary, current affairs and TV drama around a particular topic or theme on any one night and have proven to be very popular with audiences. Ogilvie knew about theme evenings, he’d viewed them on various trips to France, and he also knew that Grunert’s commissioning included, Discovering the Great Legends of Our Time, Thema on Sunday 8:45 pm,
Usually built around a major feature film screened early evening, Thema on Sunday is aimed at a family audience, preferring entertaining subjects that combine dreams and excitement. 15
Grunert was also familiar with the Australian documentary scene, having attended the Australian International Documentary conference in Perth,
I decided to take it to one person on the German side and one person on the French side. So I targeted them both. Anyway I met Olaf Grunert from ARTE, on the German side. He’s well known, he gets around a lot, he likes to travel. He’s been to Australia, came to the local Documentary Conference we had in Perth. He loves the sun. He loves the beaches. But he’s not young. He would be one of the older Commissioning Editors, he would be in his late 50s. He’s an interesting character because I find him, as indeed many Commissioning Editors are, it goes with the territory, they’ve got to be pretty well educated and usually pretty smart. But he is I think particularly well educated and he knows his film history very well. One of the things ARTE does which defines the kind of Commissioning Editors they choose, is that they do themed evenings where on two or three nights of the week they’ll have two or three hours of television programming around a loose theme. And they will commission, put major money into one documentary and then they will acquire the rights to screen a feature film or maybe another documentary to make up the two or three hours of themed programming. 16
If Hula Girls was to be successfully financed, Olaf Grunert’s interest was essential. ARTE offer larger presales than AVRO, and Ogilvie knew the topic would appeal to Grunert’s combined commissioning and personal cinema history tastes.
Olaf’s also known as ‘the King’ of sexy programs. Not sex as in porn, but sexy programs, the exotic, things to do with male and female and gender. He doesn’t have a huge slice of the ARTE pie. He only has a small percentage of the money to spend and those are the type of programs he tends to go for. But he’s a lovely bloke, because he’ll, he’s also very….. “I want to see these sexy ladies” as he calls them. Because he’s of that generation, he’s an older generation, very respectful, very hetro, but respectful of the opposite gender in the way that that particular generation would express themselves. He basically got the idea right away. He liked it. He read the ten or fifteen pages that we originally submitted. And he liked it and was immediately saying “Oh I think I can get this up!” 17
I pursued this pitch conversation with Andrew Ogilvie further when I interviewed him towards the end of the Hula Girls post-production in January 2005. To my great
satisfaction it seemed that my thesis paradigm, commissioners wanting a sexy program with “sexy ladies”, was bearing fruit. Andrew and I had many discussions throughout the entire writing, production and post-production phases of the program, about what the three broadcasters wanted, as you do. But here was the opportunity to drill down further and test my assumptions. At this late stage in the production cycle the interview also revealed something of my producer’s attitude to the content of the program.
Q. So how much do you think the scantily clad, titillating image of the hula girl had to do with generating presale interest from Olaf at ARTE? For Olaf personally it probably was. He had the image of the swaying hips and the scantily clad body, which we all have. They are sex, they are beautiful. Yes they are a turn on to guys. So I’m sure that’s part of it. But at the same time if we were to make a film which was totally sensationalised and exploitative of those images and for no other reason than to show lots of tits and bums, then they wouldn’t like that at all. No, the sex has to be packaged within something that is more considered and which is stimulating intellectually, which is telling something about themselves as Europeans and about their history, which is educational. 18
So they wanted a program that was intellectually stimulating and sexy! As I was to discover throughout the making of Hula Girls and the writing of this thesis, my bald assumptions about broadcasters wanting ‘high class smut’ had a ring of truth about it. But as I was to find time and again, broadcaster expectations were far more subtle than my blunt fears. My producer Andrew Ogilvie fulfilled an important role in this respect and constantly reassured me throughout all phases of the production that the ‘sexy’ content had to be seriously massaged and packaged within a documentary tradition and provide ‘quality television’. These were also akin to my own interests in making the program, to explore the sexualised representations of Polynesian women that had endured since the time of first contact in the late 18th century. With confirmed interest from AVRO and ARTE Ogilvie’s trip to MIPCOM was clearly already successful. They weren’t however at this stage firm offers, nor were sale prices discussed. But at least Ogilvie could confidently start talking to Australian broadcasters with the knowledge that the Europeans were interested in commissioning Island Aphrodite. Local broadcaster support was crucial, without them the documentary would 46
not be eligible for production investment from the Australian Film Finance Corporation. So the next step was to get SBS over the line. Ogilvie considered the program content more appropriate for the local ‘multi-cultural broadcaster’ than the ABC. One month after MIPCOM Ogilvie attended the International Documentary Forum Amsterdam (IDFA), with a modified two page pitch document,
I went to IDFA in Amsterdam. I hadn’t been to that market before and that’s where Ned Lander, Commissioning Editor from SBS got interested. I think it was only a couple of pages at that stage that I showed him and he thought it was immediately of interest, not a high priority for SBS, because perhaps the priority at SBS would be a little bit more political. And their arts strand is not the highest rating area of their programs. But he was interested in Polynesia. I put it to him that Polynesia which is part of our region had been seriously underplayed on SBS, which he agreed about. And one thing I enjoyed about that relationship and it’s what you would expect from your domestic broadcaster, is that they think, “if this works for us and Andrew can get together the funds to make a film out of it then we would probably want to screen it” . 19
At this point in time (2002) part of SBS Independent’s mandate was to provide industry support for Australian producers. General Manager, Glenys Rowe and Ned Lander came from producing backgrounds, in both drama and documentary. They were active deal brokers when it came to commissioning,
Hula Girls was definitely more deal led than other commissions I have made. I am clear about that. It was a strong budget $800,000 or thereabouts, we were supporting an Australian production. At that point in time I was two years into my time at SBS as a CE, and I still had a lot of independent filmmaker characteristics coming out, and that was one of the things about SBSi, it lent towards the independent filmmaker as well as to the broadcaster and there was seen to be a value in terms of supporting the industry and strengthening the industry. Andrew felt he could bring Walter (Braamhorst) and Olaf (Grunert) on board. The difference between someone like Andrew and a lot of other producers is, most producers feel they can’t go out to the rest of the world’s market until they know if they have a local broadcaster on board, whereas Andrew will seek the deals from any broadcasters and then build on that. I think it’s a very good strategy. When someone is coming to you with an idea and potentially two foreign broadcasters on board, and you coming on board can complete it with the FFC, you get focused and really look at it when it’s being presented to you. I spoke with Walter and he confirmed that he was interested. I then started to think well what would this film be? 20
When I interviewed Lander for this thesis in 2007, I was surprised to hear that he had his own concerns about the expectations of the two European Commissioning Editors. Whilst mine were focused on sexuality and exoticism, his apprehensions were about the European fixation on the ‘noble savage’, a theme that I also dealt with in the content of the program,
To be totally honest, I tend to feel that often the Europeans still have a residual ‘noble savage’ streak in their thinking that they haven’t fully dealt with, even though they intellectually might question it. For instance my experience of trying to sell programs about indigenous Australians was that people (Europeans) tended to have problems with a ceremony if the women had bras on, even though intellectually they had processed a whole lot of post modern thought about this stuff, on another level they wanted it to look nice and ‘natural’. So there was this little part of me that had the warning bells out about how Hula Girls would go and whether or not it could really both draw an audience because of the subject matter and bring a greater understanding of that mythology. 21
Like Grunert and Braamhorst, Lander too could see the potential audience appeal of Hula Girls. He saw the program as an essay documentary exploring the historical images and the sexual mythology based in the images.
And also most importantly I wanted a director who could find the humour, the pleasure and the fun in it whilst still exploring the subject in a thoughtful way. The notion of something that was fundamentally going to be an essay film, but also to enjoy, of looking at ourselves and looking at the history of the images and the myths we’ve created and why we created them, sustained them. I was interested in the myth and the way that reflected Western consciousness as much as it reflected anything about the Pacific, that reflexivity was something important to the program. 22
I further explored with Lander his notions of audience appeal when he commissioned Hula Girls in 2003. I asked him why he thought Hula Girls was a good idea for SBS?
There are so many different elements to that. One is the pleasure factor, the notion of the joyful, beautiful, sexual subject matter that would attract people. Then there is the role of popular culture in that and the way in which the image of Polynesian women has been represented in popular culture, archival footage. Not only is it fun to look at and reflect on, but it also opens up those
questions straight away, who is the viewer? Who has created these images and for what market and what relationship does it have to actual life experience in this region? So you are getting this enjoyable journey through popular culture and then also through the higher end of the art spectrum. And you’re being led through periods of history that we know our audience is interested in, the period around the 2nd World War, it absolutely wins every time with our older audience, we know that statistically, and we know it anecdotally. And I assume that interest would be true in Europe as well. There were big things about Hula Girls that were going to succeed with the audience and there were these pleasurable elements too. 23
Lander also had the SBS charter in mind: increasing the awareness of diversity of cultures. He offered a sophisticated view of his commissioning role and SBS’s broadcaster to broadcaster relationship in choosing to work with AVRO and ARTE on this project,
It is interesting the notion of Australians mediating a position between Europe and the Pacific. We are not Europeans and we are not really of the Pacific. Here was a program that could broker that history, made by Australians but essentially about Europeans, of our region but analysing a European mindset. There was also quite a clear intention in my mind to try and commission more work about Australia’s relationship to the Pacific and this reflected what came up in the Keating era, about where we are situated and who we really are, Europeans in the outpost — thanks to the White Australia Policy, a European nation in the middle of Asia and also next to the Pacific. So that interested me a lot and in my view was completely on charter. 24
Lander’s commissioning raison d’etre wasn’t in the end just deal-based. He had a well conceived set of commissioning priorities that he was acting on. He saw a bigger picture of an Australian program ‘mediating’ and critiquing a European vision of the South Pacific. Like the European commissioners he too wanted an intelligent program that would rate well with audiences. The sexy image of Polynesian women was the potential source of that audience appeal and engagement. But scantily clad Polynesian women were not sufficient reasons to commission the program for any of the CEs. The images required history and analysis to underpin them – a deconstruction with humour, pleasure and rigour which would in the end speak about Europeans and their historical relationship with the South Pacific.
Ten months after Ogilvie first started pitching it, Lander recommended Hula Girls to the SBSi Board of Management on the 20th of August 2003. His board paper further elaborated his reasons for commissioning,
Hula Girls is a lush, visual exploration of the origins and evolution of the sexual mythology that surrounds the Pacific Island woman. From Gauguin to Once Were Warriors, Hula Girls explores how representation says as much about the author as it does about the subject. While the documentary will be playful the subject is serious — the inter-relationship of art and utopianism, sexuality, colonialism and the post-colonial landscape. This is a high budget one-off hour with international partners ZDF/ARTE, AVRO, FFC and Screenwest. 25
It took many more months of emails and phone calls for the European broadcasters to finally confirm their presales. By the time I commenced research and writing in August 2003 the deal with Arte was still being negotiated and Grunert had yet to decide what feature film they would program with Hula Girls for their Thema Sunday night schedule. He made preliminary inquiries about the European broadcast rights for all three Bounty films, versions made in 1935, 1962 and 1984. Grunert eventually settled on the 1935 MGM adaptation Mutiny on the Bounty (Dir. Frank Lloyd) starring Clarke Gable and Charles Laughton, based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman, which according to Ogilvie was Olaf’s favourite version. Once the Bounty film was decided upon, Hula Girls was finally commissioned by Arte. Presale prices were then agreed with all three broadcasters and deal memos offered. Electric Pictures (Ogilvie’s company) then made investment funding submissions to the Australian Film Finance Corporation and Screenwest (the West Australian state funding agency) for a budget of $767,968 comprised of the following breakdown:
ScreenWest SBSi AVRO ARTE Beyond Distribution FFC Amount $110,976 Amount $110,000 Amount $ 23,729 Amount $106,780 Amount $ 25,000 Amount $391,483
When I launched into researching and writing Hula Girls I was doggedly suspicious and concerned about the deal I was entering into. My thesis research and the exposition of broadcaster requirements still lay months, and as it turned out, years ahead of me. With the benefit of hindsight I could have been more trusting of what Andrew Ogilvie relayed to me of his conversations with the three broadcasters. But at that stage I barely knew him. My director’s brief was entirely based on the program pitch used to sell the program. And beyond that I was to find my own way with the story, the themes and the subject matter. This for me was the exciting part of this project which enticed me into directing it. I was virtually given an open research book. I had to find the characters, locations, archive materials, Hollywood footage, paintings, prints and drawings that would comprise the program. At that point I decided to discard the Hula Girls concept document and start from scratch. It would take many months of viewing B Grade Hollywood movies, visiting art galleries, libraries and traveling the world to find people, places and images. I was on my own grand historical tour. The challenge was to explore the history and make from it an engaging piece of television.
Footnotes 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. Scene description from Pagan Love Son, director Robert Alton, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1950, transcribed & interpreted for Hula Girls script, by Trevor Graham, 2004. MIPCOM The World’s Audiovisual Content Market 8-12 October 2007, accessed 6/6/07, www.mipcom.com Ibid. Sturma, M. & Colgan, G. 2002, Island Aphrodite, pitch document, Electric Pictures, Perth. Andrew Ogilvie, producer Hula Girls, interviewed by Trevor Graham 2005. Ibid. Ibid. Holland first to buy Maria format from BBC Worldwide, BBC Worldwide Press Releases, 04.12.06. accessed 7/6/07, www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/bbcworldwide/worldwidestories/pressreleases. 9. Wolter Braamhorst, Head of Art and Culture at AVRO, Close Up profile, Sheffield Documentary Film Festival website, 2006, accessed /6/07/07, www.sheffdocfest.com. 10. Andrew Ogilvie, producer Hula Girls, interviewed by Trevor Graham, 2005. 11. Ibid. 12. Ibid.
13. Dr. Christophe Hauser Programme Director , 2006, ARTE Annual Report 2006, Paris, p. 10. 14. Image and Audience Ratings, 2006 ARTE Annual Report 2006, p. 24. 15. Thema – Discovering and Understanding the World, ARTE Annual Report 2006, p 9. 16. Andrew Ogilvie, producer Hula Girls, interviewed by Trevor Graham, 2005) 17. Ibid. 18. Ibid. 19. Ibid. 20. Ned Lander, Commissioning Editor SBS TV, interviewed by Trevor Graham, 2007. 21. Ibid. 22. Ibid. 23. Ibid. 24. Ibid. 25. Ned Lander, 2003, SBSI Board paper, 20th August 2003.
D’ou venons-nous? Que sommesnous? Ou allons-nous?
…. images make history as much as they are made by it…. 1 From the caves of Lascaux to the next Harry Potter, man has been a storytelling animal. Narrative is part of our DNA. 2
In early December 1897, the French Painter Paul Gauguin had his second heart attack and thought his death was imminent. His heart condition was brought on by advanced syphilis which he’d contracted some years earlier. Despite his poor condition, Gauguin desired to paint one last great Tahitian canvas. As on previous occasions, his health crisis soon passed and he began to paint. But this was to be no ordinary canvas. He imagined a painting epic in scale and theme, reflecting his state of mind and his belief that he would soon die. The intention was to depict his version of a Polynesian ‘Genesis’, a manifesto embracing many philosophies and world religions, a landscape filled with things that, in his own words, “grow nowhere on earth and are only to be found in paradise”. D’ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous Ou allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?) would be more than 4 metres long, and decidedly rooted (Gauguin believed) in Tahitian life, customs and culture.
His title was nothing less than the ultimate, impossible riddle all sentient beings at some point ask themselves, but from which most recoil in confused despair: D’ou venons-nous? Que sommesnous? Ou allons-nous? (Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?) 3
On completion, Gauguin was well aware of the significance of the work and its place within his Polynesian oeuvre. It drew together and visualised on rough hewn canvas many of the philosophical threads, images, ideas and texts he’d been contemplating since his early days as a painter at Pont Aven in Brittany. Writing from Tahiti, Gauguin described the painting and hinted at its meaning in a letter to his friend, Daniel de
Monfried, in Paris.
The two upper corners are chrome yellow, with an inscription on the left and my name on the right, like a fresco whose corners are spoiled with age, and which is appliquéd on a golden wall. To the right at the lower end, a sleeping child and three crouching women. Two figures dressed in purple confide their thoughts to one another. An enormous crouching figure, out of all proportion, and intentionally so, raises its arms and stares in astonishment upon these two, who dare to think of their destiny. A figure in the centre is picking fruit. Two cats near a child. A white goat. An idol, its arms mysteriously raised in a sort of rhythm, seems to indicate the beyond. Then lastly, an old woman nearing death seems to accept everything, to resign herself to her thoughts. She completes the story! At her feet a strange white bird, on the bank of a river in the woods. In the background the ocean, then the mountains of a neighbouring island. Despite changes of tone , the colouring of the landscape is constant, either blue or Veronese green. The naked figures stand out on it in bold orange. If anyone should tell Beaux-Arts pupils for the Rome competitions: “The picture you must paint is to represent, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? what would they do? So I have finished a philosophical work on a theme comparable to that of the gospel” 4
I first became aware of this momentous image when I was studying HSC art in 1972. I was 17 years old and found the canvas immensely moving. I have gone back to the image time and again since then, and it continues to fascinate. I have had the good fortune to see the work in the flesh on two occasions, once in Paris at the huge Gauguin Retrospective at the Grand Palais in 2003, when I was researching Hula Girls. I subsequently filmed the painting when the same exhibition was mounted at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2004. Why does it have such a hold on me? And why am I citing the canvas here when I am writing about history, hula girls and television? Well … it’s a beautiful canvas and beauty is captivating unto itself. But the work resonates more deeply than that. Gauguin’s painting unfolds a grand historical narrative. His ‘Polynesian’ figures are timeless. They occupy a space simultaneously that is the past, present and future. We spectators are asked to contemplate and enter that space where we too are timeless, akin to his figures. Like the best television history, the canvas implores us to enter its space to identify and empathise with the people depicted, times gone by, their story. Whilst Tahiti, its people, culture and landscape resonate in the imagery, the figures are also universal. It’s a Polynesian ‘Garden of Eden’. But unlike Adam and Eve, Gauguin’s figures are neither 54
man nor woman; he paints for the most part androgynous figures, gender is irrelevant. We are simply human.
If … you want to be someone, to find happiness solely in your independence and your conscience … you must regard yourself as Androyne, without sex. By that I mean that heart and soul, in short all that is divine, must not be the slave of matter, that is, of the body. 5
The spectator of D’ou venons-nous? is asked ‘to be’ and ‘to search’ for the answers to the painting’s title, and in that sense it can be considered an ‘interactive’ viewing experience. The painting provides a narrative link, engaging us simultaneously with ancestors, the living, and with future generations. I cite this here because contemporary television history programs can and should provide a similar moment of narrative engagement for their audience if they are to make their mark on the nightly TV schedule,
….. it must be about good narrative. Many historians might part company here, saying that history is not about narrative, it is about evaluation, it is about evidence, it is about interpretation. But from Herodotus onwards history has always been about storytelling and that the best historians have always been those who can communicate well, not just with other historians but with the broader community around them. 6
Many years after first studying D’ou venons-nous? I still find Gauguin’s approach to historical painting and narrative compelling. The canvas informed the making of Hula Girls and also the motivation I have in making history programs for a television audience. It’s an often quoted cliché, but to understand the present, we need to understand our past. Gauguin stated the position more gracefully, D’ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous? As a filmmaker I believe that stories, historical or contemporary, are important in our lives. They are a way that we communicate our experience as human beings. They help us appreciate and understand the world we live in, and what happens to us, as we journey through our lives. We can even think of our own life as a story. From the beginning, to the middle, to the end, it’s the journey that you go on and the most important (hi)story you will ever know. In Australia, as in the rest of the world, it seems we can’t get enough history programming on television, or even within the broader electronic and print media. Just 55
this year (2007) the Film Australia 3 part series Constructing Australia attracted million plus viewers to the ABC per episode. SBS has screened Who Do You think You Are, The Glamour Game and numerous one-off Australian historical documentaries. The annual Anzac Day dawn service at Gallipoli attracts a greater following every year as young Australians seek to identify with that Australian tragedy. The so called ‘History and Culture Wars’ have put historical debates on the front pages of our national newspapers as left and right in Australia battle for ‘truth’ and historical supremacy over our past. This reflects a world wide trend, a growing interest in knowing about the past, wanting to discern, ‘Where do we come from?’
In Britain, the late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed what was widely regarded as an unprecedented interest in history: among publishers, in the newspapers, on radio and on film, and especially on television: and from the general public who, it seemed, could not get enough of it. 7
SBS TV has a popular documentary history strand (for which I commissioned) As It Happened, which runs 52 weeks of the year. War stories, particularly from the 2nd World War, rate consistently well and SBS commissioners jokingly call the strand ‘the Hitler slot’. A program with ‘Hitler’ in the title always rated far higher than average with our audiences and SBS programmers can’t get enough of them. I too am a Hitler aficionado. Like many people of my generation, my first real taste of television history came with the British 26 part series, The World at War, produced by Jeremy Issacs for Thames Television between 1969 and 1973. The series took four years to research and produce and was largely composed of recently released archives, interviews with wartime participants, and compelling narration delivered by Lawrence Olivier. It premiered on ITV in the UK in 1973, at a cost of £4 million, a record at the time for a British television program,
The World at War is the definitive television work on the Second World War. It set out to tell the story of the war through the testimony of key participants — from civilians to ordinary soldiers, from statesmen to generals. First broadcast in 1973, the result was a unique and irreplaceable record since many of the eyewitnesses captured on film did not have long to live. 8
I remember watching much of this weighty series with my aging father who was a WW2 veteran from the Middle East campaign. Viewing it with him gave me insights into his wartime experience and created empathy between us. I began to understand the momentous events he lived through, his search for solace in alcohol, the arguments and emotional tension that were a constant in our family life. And so this mutual viewing experience provided me with both a taste for TV history and the opportunity to explore the psychology of my family history, or, where I had come from. It helped me appreciate and understand my father enormously. Given that the average SBS audience is of my age, 50 plus, it’s perhaps easy to understand why ‘Hitler’ programs rate well with baby boomers. Later on in the 1980s when I began making documentaries this interest in history, story telling and psychology gelled with documentaries that I produced and directed, films like; Red Matildas (1985) about the experiences of communist women in Australia in the 1930s, or Painting The Town (1987) which focused on Yosl Bergner, the social realists and Angry Penguins in wartime Melbourne, or even a later film, Mabo — Life of an Island Man (1997) which told the biographical (hi)story of native title campaigner, Eddie ‘Koiki’ Mabo. In my programs I can trace a line back to that seminal TV viewing experience of watching World War 2 come to life with my father. Kenneth Clarke’s, Civilisation: A Personal View (1969) and Jacob Bronowski’s, The Ascent of Man (1973) were similarly groundbreaking documentary series that attracted wide audiences for television history. I found them gripping to watch, not to be missed on a Sunday night.
Television history has become very fashionable in recent years. It has been called the ‘new rock and roll’, the ‘new gardening’, and even, by Dawn Airely the departing Chief Executive of Channel 5, ‘the new sex’. Last week I counted 18 history programs in prime time on the five UK terrestrial channels. 9
In Australia in the last few years ‘living history’ programs such as The Colony (SBS
2005) and Outback House (ABC 2005) have created a local thirst for history programs, creating large new audiences. ‘Living history’ shuns the archival/interview approach to story telling and instead throws contemporary characters into the living circumstances of our ancestors to see how they cope. And unlike the past, cameras are there every step of the way to record their character’s journey through time, the displacement and difficulties encountered. This approach to history television sometimes borders on the worst intentions of reality TV, to create drama by immersing people in extreme circumstances and removing them from their daily comfort zone. The Colony was successful for SBS greatly increasing the network’s Sunday night ratings. The ‘Living history’ style works particularly well for stories that are located beyond the era of documentation provided by the moving picture. Similarly, the use of historical re-enactment in Film Australia’s docudrama series Constructing Australia (2007) or the BBC’s Seven Wonders of the Industrial World (2003) has increased here and internationally, as a way of circumventing the absence of cinematographic records.
For me, the use of reconstructions has freed up history on television from the tyranny of the archive image. Television can now evoke periods of history outside the 20th century, and we can explore topics that no one bothered to film or was able to film at the time. And we can convey historical detail in an immediate and relevant way. 10
But making compelling and high rating TV history is not always dependent on dramatic recreation or ‘Living History’. The British biopic and social history format, Who Do You Think You Are? has reinvented ‘traditional archive’ methods of program making and proven to be popular with BBC and SBS audiences. Each episode is a personal detective story format that follows a celebrity as they trace their family origins back three or four generation, or as far as genealogical records can go,
Who Do You Think You Are? is a BBC television documentary series, made by Wall to Wall that started in 2004. In each episode, a celebrity goes on a journey, in order to try and trace their family tree. Four series have currently aired and a fifth series will air in 2008. A sixth series has also been commissioned for broadcast in 2009. The first two series were broadcast on BBC2, and the first series was the highest-rating program of 2004 on BBC2. Due to the show's popularity, from the third series onwards episodes were aired on BBC1. The first series was nominated for ‘Best
Factual Series or Strand’ in the 2005 BAFTAs. 11
Local screenings of the UK Who have doubled SBS’s usual ratings for the Sunday night 7.30pm slot attracting over 600,000 viewers and an audience ratings share of 15%. The SBS ratings Daily Overview for Sunday 2/12/07 clearly shows the audience potential for clever historical formats such as Who. The figures include the 5 City Metro and Aggregate Regional,
- Evening metro share of people 16+ was 8.8%, the second highest Sun night share result for the year, well above last week (5.1%) and the YTD average (5.7%). - Top programs were Who Do You Think You Are? and Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice for All Creation Rpt. - Who Do You Think You Are? had an incredible debut with 601,000 viewers (15.8% Metro) (13.8%) Reg) — the highest rating program on a Sunday night in 5 years. It is also the best-rating SBS program across all nights of the week in the past 2 months. Who Do You Think You Are? appealed to a broad audience of People 40+. Viewing was evenly split between men and women.
The Who format shrewdly merges celebrity biography, genealogy and social history. The series shuns re-enactment relying entirely on archival records, birth certificates, family photographs, engravings and moving picture records as it travels back in time to discover the family origins of their celebrity characters, such as sporting hero Cathy Freeman, or actor Jack Thompson, in the Australian series. The popularity of Who Do You think You Are? in the UK has also sparked an interest in genealogy amongst the general public. The format’s success testifies to a hunger for history programs that have an entertainment edge, strong narrative arcs, elements of discovery for an audience and emotion. It makes for accessible TV and engagement with social history,
I believe passionately that part of what television history should be doing is providing a bridge between the academy and the mass television audience. We should be helping to bring some of the new understandings, the new insights, the new interpretations, the new narratives, that professional historians are working on, into the public domain, where they can be taken in and
debated by millions of people. 13
However history television can and does come with issues and limitations. David Cannadines’s book of essays History and the Media (Palgrave MacMillan, 2004) with contributions from television historians such as Simon Schama, amply elaborates the fact that sections of academia frown upon populist TV history. At the centre of the criticism is television’s need for historical certainty, particularly its need to tell a story that is linear in nature, with all historical threads neatly packaged into a neat 52 minute television hour. History programs don’t easily provide a forum for debate or expose historical ambiguity or doubt or contradiction. Moving the story along, ‘next story point’ ‘next turning point’ is more important in the 52 minute format than counterpoint or contradiction. The need for narrative, emotion and drama is both the strength and weakness of history program making. Story, emotion and empathy draw the audiences but they can also be too simplistic when the history requires depth and complexity. Can history in fact be packaged as a story? Or is this yet another construction by a class of producers and commissioning editors? This debate has also been articulated in Australia by historian Michelle Arrow from Monash University. Michelle also has television experience as a presenter on the ABC’s ‘history detective’ series Rewind (2004),
History is often about debate and ambiguity. A lot of the time historical issues can not be answered, it cannot be resolved. But what happens in television is that it tends to, producers want to tie it up in a bow, and ‘This is what we think. This is the answer!’ ‘This skull is really Ned Kelly’s skull’. But the way I as an historian would approach it would be to ask, ‘Well here is one interpretation, and here is another. What do you think?’ But that doesn’t tend to happen in television, because there is a need for a definitive story. And that’s why historians sometimes get a bit antsy about television, because the approach is, ‘Can you just give it to us in three sentences’ and they are usually not very good at doing things in three sentences and that is sometimes a problem. I don’t think all historical documentaries should be full of ambiguity. But I do think that in some programs there should be more gaps for the audience to fill in things or make up there own mind. 14
Occasionally in the Australian TV landscape documentary programs that explore historical ambiguity, that allow for more open ended interpretation, pop up in the nightly TV schedule. They however tend to be more personal or biographical in focus, allowing 60
for psychological exploration of the characters and their historical positioning within their given epoch and society. In 1999, Tony Ayes Sadness (Film Australia), won numerous national and international festival awards. Ayres’s film explores issues of grief, family and identity through an adaptation of a stage play (of the same name) by acclaimed Sydney photographer William Yang. The narrative of Yang’s Chinese Australian family unfolds through a mesmerizing and poetic use of rear projection. Parallel with this family narrative is the time frame of another epoch, and Yang’s sense of personal loss, during the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s. The two narratives counterpoint each other creating an interior view Yang’s family, friends and the evolution of Australian society over the span of the photographer’s life. The imaginative style of the film also eschews the historical certainty of more traditional history programs. The playful use of rear projection to depict ‘the past’, combined with Yang’s Sydney ‘gay society’ photographs creates a space for an audience to ponder and search through the narrative layers to find meaning. This style strongly encourages emotional identification with Yang, his non Anglo background and the high emotion of the AIDS epidemic. The issues of narrative, empathy and the ‘novelisation’ of history are also hotly debated topics amongst academic historians in Australia. In 2006, author Kate Grenville and her novel The Secret River became the focus of scrutiny and attack by academic historians particularly Melbourne-based Inga Clendinnen. Grenville’s novel depicts early 19th century frontier life and conflict on the Hawkesbury River which was then a frontier land in the newly established colony of New South Wales. The central character, William Thornhill, is a freed convict who ‘settles’ on prime river front acreage, the home of the Darug clan who have occupied their land for thousands of years and the Darug refuse to give up their land without a fight. The novel, the ensuing conflict and its characters are a fusion of researched historical accounts by Grenville with her own narrative ‘imagined’ writings about frontier life. Clendinnen in her 2006 Quarterly Essay The History Question: Who Owns The Past? took Grenville to task particularly the novelist’s claim that she could create empathy in her writing to enter the ‘mindset’ of historical figures and inhabit their experience,
So here we have it: Grenville’s secret method of penetrating British minds — although not aboriginal ones, which must remain forever closed to us — is Applied Empathy: the peculiar talent of the novelist to penetrate other minds through exercising her imagination upon fragmentary, ambiguous, sometimes contradictory evidence …….. We cannot post ourselves back in time. People really did think differently then — or at least we must proceed on that assumption. 15
Grenville defended her approach to writing The Secret River by arguing for a space in which novelists can employ their narrative skills and imagination to create empathy with historical incidents, characters and thereby draw readers in, or engage them with the past,
It was important to me that the incidents and characters were solidly based on history, but as a novelist I drew on these historical sources loosely, as a starting-point for the work of the imagination. The final events and characters meld many historical references together - they're fiction, but they're based on fact …….. The historians are doing their thing, but let me as a novelist come to it in a different way, which is the way of empathising and imaginative understanding of those difficult events. 16
Similar claims and arguments can be made about television’s use of documentary history programs, particularly the recent fashion for dramatized history employing dialogue. Unless it is based on documented records how can we know what Prime Minister Harold Holt said to his house keeper moments before he took his fateful swim at Cheviot Beach in 1967. Where did this dialogue come from in the ABC’s The Prime Minister is Missing? We will never know for sure, but one assumes these words are what the filmmaker imagined was spoken. Artistic license is employed to create a ‘real’ sense of the sequence of events. But how ‘real’ is it? Audiences are left to deal with these issues on their own. There are no footnotes on television. But a different type of ‘historical space’ can be argued for television documentary that employs archival materials, film photographs, documents and eyewitness participants. In these programs there is ‘documentary evidence’ to build the narrative and the claim to represent the ‘real’. What television history in these instances does best is to create drama, emotion and empathy — engagement that is grounded in ‘reality’ via the ‘archive’
and the ‘witness’. For instance a bond was created with my father when we watched the World at War together. The archival/interview series appealed across the age gap creating compassion for the World War 2 generation on both sides of the conflict. When I was directing Mabo — Life of an Island Man in 1996, my main task was to create audience empathy with Eddie Mabo his family and the people of Murray Island, by personalising Mabo’s story and his historic land rights struggle. I wanted an audience to identify with Mabo’s notion of owning a pocket of land which had been handed down to him since time immemorial. The film’s success in Australia and abroad indicates that there is a need and willingness amongst all people to embrace reconciliation and social justice, if stories touch them personally. Dr. Michelle Arrow as both historian and TV presenter puts forward a view that empathy and identification are not only important for television audiences, but also fundamental for history students and the search for historical meaning and complexity,
There has to be a place for emotion in history story telling television, because otherwise how are you developing empathy for history if you have no emotion. Empathy is that thing. The syllabus emphasises it now, and students must develop the skill of empathy to think about how it must have been in the past. Identification is important for historical film and television and are also important for written history too. The whole debate about the ‘History Wars’, about Keith Windschuttle was, the thing that most people were surprised or disapproving about his work was its lack of empathy. It doesn’t have to be full of compassion, you don’t have to write sympathy letters to the past, but his lack of sense of you know, ‘Only 112 people were killed in this period so that’s OK’. Oh my God. He used the word ‘only’. This sense that it doesn’t matter and so that lack of compassion. Empathy is part of being ethical it’s reading the sources sensitively and presenting them in a way that doesn’t distort their meaning and allows you to read the emotion and the complexity in that. The past is different to the present it’s not something you can recapture. But empathy is one way of making people feel they have some understanding of what happened in the past and why it matters now. 17
The desire to create empathy also lay at the heart of Gauguin’s D’ou venons-nous? Gauguin was asking Europeans of the day to accommodate Tahitian customs, culture, history and beliefs within the heritage of European art traditions and values. He was stating to Parisian and European art worlds that Polynesian culture is of equal value, 63
worthy of consideration and to be admired. Equating D’ou venons-nous? with the Gospel, as Gauguin did in his 1898 letter to Daniel de Monfried, was radical if not heretical for the time,
Gauguin’s partial success in prising open the closed gate of race was to be one of his major achievements during his years in Polynesia. On the one hand Gauguin is bringing Tahiti and Tahitian women into the fold of Europe and the French empire. But on the other he is saying to the French and to Europe, these people and their cultural traditions and beliefs have power and value in their own right. 18
D’ou venons-nous? also neatly fits Simon Schama’s view that,
images make history as much as they are made by it. 19
Hula Girls too is about that historical paradigm. My brief was to explore the images of Polynesian women created by Europeans, how and why she has been depicted since the first contact by navigators Bougainville and Cook in the late 18th century. The program was based in drawing together the historical images, creating a narrative about images and how they have perpetuated themselves and made history in their own right. Unlike much recent television history biased towards historical re-enactment, this was a program firmly rooted in archival imagery, prints, paintings, cinema records and Hollywood’s representations. The images themselves are the story — an account of the past and present of colonialism, sex, fantasy and myth making — a fable of the European mind. However before I plunged too deeply into researching and writing Hula Girls there were two major hurdles to overcome, one was my own fear of making the program. Linked to that was my director’s contract and signing up to work for three international broadcasters. Prior experience was saying ‘beware!’
1. Schama, S. 2004, Television and the Trouble with History, History and the Media, edited by
Cannadine, D. Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, Chpt 2, p. 25.
2. Robert McCrum The Observer, quoted in Bringing the Past to the Small Screen, Taylor Downing 64
2004, History and the Media, edited by Cannadine, D. Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, Chpt 1, p. 19.
3. Sweetman D. 1995, Paul Gauguin – A Complete Life, Hodder & Stoughton, London, p. 454. 4. Letter to Daniel de Monfried, from Paul Gauguin, February 1898, quoted in Gauguin’s Skirt,
Eisenman S. 1997, Thames & Hudson, New York, p. 137.
5. Paul Gauguin: Letters to his Wife and Friends, Malingue, M. ed., Steening, H. tr., 1946 Saturn
Press, London, p.103.
6. Downing T. 2004, Bringing the Past to the Small Screen, History and the Media, edited by
Cannadine, D. Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, Chpt 1, p. 19.
7. Cannadine, D. ed. 2004, History and the Media, Introduction, Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, p.
8. The World At War, accessed 10/12/2007, www.randomhouse.co.uk/worldatwar 9. Downing, T.2004, Bringing the Past to the Small Screen, History and the Media, edited by
Cannadine, D. Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, Chpt 1, p. 7.
10. Ibid P. 7. 11. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopaedia, accessed 12/12/07,
12. Daily Overview (SBS ratings) Sunday 2/12/07. 13. Downing, T. 2004, Bringing the Past to the Small Screen, History and the Media, edited by
Cannadine, D. Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, Chpt 1, P. 16.
14. Dr. Michelle Arrow, Associate Lecturer, Department of Modern History, Macquarie University,
interviewed by Trevor Graham , 2006.
15. Clendinnen, I. 2006, The History Question – Who Owns the Past? , Quarterly Essay, Issue 23, p.7. 16. Grenville, K. The Secret River, accessed 25/10/08,
http://www.users.bigpond.com/kgrenville/TSR/TSR.html. 17. Dr. Michelle Arrow, Associate Lecturer, Department of Modern History, Macquarie University, interviewed by Trevor Graham 2006.
18. Stephen Eisenman, Professor of Art History, Northwestern University Illinois, interviewed by
Trevor Graham, Hula Girls transcripts 2004.
19. Schama, S. 2004, Television and the Trouble with History, History and the Media, edited by
Cannadine, D. Palgrave MacMillan, Hampshire, Chpt 2, p. 25.
To elucidate the difficulties of Australian producers working on co-productions in the international arena and to contrast the relatively smooth path of Hula Girls, it’s necessary to look back to some of the recent developments of co-production in this country. I also wish to examine a prior co-production experience that provides a personal framework for my initial concerns and reticence about writing and directing Hula Girls. When the Australian Documentary Conference (as it was then known) was launched in 1987, one of its principal aims was to promote Australian Documentary and documentary filmmakers in the international arena. The founding board of directors, I was one of them, decided to invite a range of international guests, filmmakers, commissioning editors and distributors. The ADC board felt that Australian documentary makers were not sufficiently engaged with the growing international market for documentary. There was an increasing range of broadcasters, such as Channel 4 in the UK (founded in 1982) hiring Commissioning Editors and opening their doors to independent producers to make quality programs for them. The BBC was also starting to commission independent work. In Australia too the ABC had commissioned a tiny number of independent documentaries in the mid 80s and at the time of the first conference they were in the throes of establishing a documentary commissioning unit headed by Jonathon Holmes and Harry Bardwell. SBS Independent was yet to be established, but the multi-cultural broadcaster was occasionally working with a number of outside producers. Since the inaugural conference in 1987 much has changed, the independent documentary community has grown immeasurably. SBS has abolished all internal production, with the exception of sport and news, and now commissions all its local documentary production from the independent sector. The ABC likewise has moved towards what they call ‘outsourcing’ and gradually dismantled its internal documentary producing units, with the exception of their religion and ethics strand, Compass and their flagship Indigenous strand Message Stick. Throughout this same period AIDC has become grander and more 67
‘international’, having changed its name to the Australian International Documentary Conference. Each conference since the first has pursued the cause of fostering Australian producer participation in worldwide co-production by inviting overseas commissioning editors and delegations of filmmakers. Each year a forum along the lines IDFA and Hot Docs provides an opportunity for local producers to pitch their ideas to invited Commissioning Editor guests. This ‘international push’ also extends to the Conference promoting schemes for national broadcasters to work with their foreign counter parts. At the 2005 Conference TV 2 (Denmark) and SBSi held a pitching competition, ‘Pitch and Punt’ calling for documentary proposals with relevance to ‘Danish and Australian audiences which focused on hard hitting controversial and compelling international stories dealing with topical social, political and ethical issues’. This followed on from a similar pitching format presented by AIDC in 2004, where the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Arte France agreed to jointly finance the development of a documentary project, to the value of AUD $10,000. As well as these pitching competitions AIDC has held numerous panel discussions aimed at developing co-production, Common Ground — New Horizons (2005), French kiss (2007), International Co-productions (2007) and United Nations (2008) ‘a strand for those who are active in the international market and keen to discuss issues and problems that arise in the world of co-productions’. Whilst this push to expand co-production possibilities for Australian producers is to be lauded, AIDC has also acknowledged through its panels that it’s a business fraught with pitfalls as was evident at a session in 2006 titled, Versioning for the International Market,
More facts! No, more emotion! More pace! No, more local insight! Oh and more Americans! In TV, can one size fit all? Not if you intend to produce for the international market it can't. So come and hear how to squeeze the budget, tighten the schedule, re-cut the rushes and generally negotiate your way through several versions of your own beloved film. The nitty-gritty will be revealed by a team who together recently turned-out four versions of the ambitious feature doc Bom Bali to satisfy the demands of Network Ten, Sky (UK), Discovery USA and Discovery Asia. 1
It’s generally acknowledged that co-productions bring bigger budgets, provide an opportunity to tell international stories, reach large global audiences and are a necessary 68
means by which Australian producers can grow and sustain their businesses. Co-pros also provide documentary producers, directors and writers the opportunity to expand their skill set as they must think about an ‘international audience’ and how they can engage them in the narrative, to be ‘international’ in their story telling. Success on the global stage with broadcasters can also lead to greater receptivity by Commissioning Editors to a producer’s ideas as relationships build. There is also the possibility of developing coproduction business partnerships with international producers who have close contact with their own local broadcasters. Treaty arrangements have been established between the Australian Film Commission and France, Germany, Canada and the UK to facilitate these international co-productions. There is a lot to be gained by an Australian producer who can successfully operate worldwide. But there is also a down side to this market place. Bigger budgets can be eaten up by the need to produce different versions, there can be lengthy delays in getting approvals for rough and fine cuts and most importantly there are often different editorial considerations, regarding both content and style. International broadcasters on the whole prefer programs to be narrated and for narration to comprise at least 50% of the completed program. This is particularly important in Europe and other non-English speaking markets where a narration track can be revoiced into a local language and also where dubbing talking heads is preferred to subtitling. Some broadcasters particularly, cable networks, ask that expert interviewees are not supered with graphics, to tell audiences who they are, and prefer instead the information to be relayed via narration. This requires a substantially different approach to writing narration and also has a flow on affect for program length. Broadcasters have different ‘TV Hour’ standards too, varying from anything between 45 and 52 minutes. Then there are cultural differences. ‘Parochialism’, as Lucy Milne pointed out in Chapter 2, can be an issue. Information or ‘exposition’ in a story about Australia may work for an Australian audience but not internationally for an audience that knows little, or nothing about Australia or for that matter South East Asia and the Pacific. Geography needs to be spelt out very clearly for US audiences. American broadcasters also tend to want a narration style that tells an audience everything, ‘tell the audience you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell
them what you’ve told them’ is the oft quoted cliché about writing factual programs for US and cable television. As a Commissioning Editor at SBS I was involved in commissioning several large international co-productions. One of them, a three part science series, Cracking the Colour Code (Dir. Hugh Piper, 2008) brought together 11 international broadcast partners to finance the series, potentially an editorial nightmare. Fortunately most of these broadcasters had a minor financial input and therefore no editorial rights which would otherwise prove too impractical. Co-productions can come unstuck if there isn’t sufficient dialogue between the broadcaster, the producer and the director to ensure that the production team are aware of the broadcaster’s needs and expectations. I put this down to a failure by the producer ‘to lead’ the production team and ensure that the commissioned program is delivered to the required editorial standards. Co-productions have also proven difficult because the broadcasters can’t agree about the totality of the editorial content in a program therefore requiring radically different versions to be produced, at a cost often not budgeted for. I have also witnessed a high degree of intervention by a US Commissioning Editor over story issues in a rough cut, including the writing skills of the director, the focus of the story and the amount of talking heads employed. After a failure of the director to meet the US broadcaster’s requirements the director was sacked from the production and the program was completed by the producer. I have seen potential directors knocked back because they are considered too risky and or lacking the necessary experience OR, their prior work was viewed as ‘boring’. Clearly co-production work is a tricky business for producers. But it is equally fraught for writer/directors such as I was on Hula Girls. I was terribly apprehensive about directing the program because of a prior co-production experience. In 1996 I wrote and directed a program for Film Australia, Mystique of the Pearl. The documentary was commissioned locally by the ABC and also by the prestigious PBS (USA) science strand Nova based in Boston, the local network known as WGBH,
Here at NOVA, we believe that science is neither sacred lore nor secret ritual, but rather curious people exploring interesting questions. NOVA's approach, developed over more than a quarter century, is to select a topic of great interest to viewers and then produce a film that is as entertaining as it is informative, using the tools of good pacing, clear writing, and crisp editing. Equally important, NOVA shows the human story behind the science story. Whether exploring a galaxy or an atom, the series delves into the personalities responsible for the discoveries, and the social consequences of events in the lab. Our success is also a tribute to our viewers (more than six million per week, on average, in the U.S. alone), who have always shown themselves hungry for uninterrupted, hour-long programs on a single topic, presented without the sensationalism of commercial TV. 2
Nova commissioned ‘Mystique’ for $US150,000 which in 1996, with a low Australian dollar, was a serious amount of money. It was difficult and rare in those days to get a commitment from a US broadcaster at all. Still is. The program was pitched to Nova and the ABC by a Film Australia executive producer, as a ‘hybrid science program’ incorporating, technology, history and fashion,
Few fashion tends have endured like pearls. For centuries, humans puzzled over the mystery of how one of nature’s most lowly creatures — the oyster — could produce the most beautiful and perfect on nature’s creations. Mystique of the Pearl tells the intriguing story of how the oyster’s scret was discovered — from the early success of the Chinese who learnt how to grow pearly Bhuddas within a mussel shell, to the breakthrough pearl-culturing experiments of Kokichi Mikimoto at the turn of the century, and the sophisticated aquaculture techniques of today’s pearl producers. Today’s cultured pearls are bigger, better and just as elegant as their natural forebears. The world’s largest and finest cultured pearls are produced in the warm waters stretching from north west Australia to Tahiti. A necklace of large, perfect South Sea pearls recently sold for more than two million dollars. 3
The original idea was mine. I’d first pitched it to Film Australia as a fusion of science, science history, high fashion, art, social history and technology. The fashion angle which was to be shot along New York’s Fifth Avenue, in fine jewelers such as Tiffany and Harry Winston, was of equal interest to me as the science of Australian pearl culturing. Australian pearl producers like Paspaley, operating in the Kimberly in West Australia, manufacture the best, most perfect and expensive pearls in the world. I wanted to know why, and then how these gems were transformed in New York into million dollar plus
necklaces, to adorn Hollywood stars and the likes of Ivana Trump. A script was produced for the two broadcasters and together with the Film Australia EP, I travelled to New York to meet with the Nova Commissioning Editors at the Plaza Hotel in New York. After more than 10 years in the industry I was working internationally at last, on a big budget, blue chip documentary. The discussions went well, though the Nova CEs soon began to pull apart my script. ‘How and why’ was the basis of most of their criticism. There wasn’t enough science or information about the process of natural pearl formation within an oyster. They wanted ‘hard science’, less history and definitely less fashion. They made it very clear that Nova was ‘a prestigious and serious science strand.’ After a rewrite taking several weeks to complete the new draft was approved by the ABC and Nova. Months later I was in production shooting at Tiffany, along 5th Avenue, in Toba, Japan and the Kimberley. I was experiencing the highs, I thought, of international co-production. Then my joy came seriously unstuck. On the completion of the rough cut Nova were sent a time-coded VHS tape. So too were the ABC, who were quick to respond. Overall the ABC was happy. The program needed greater focus on the story and themes (a common critique of most rough cuts) extra information here and there. But overall the ABC felt the story had too much science. They wanted a ‘sexier’ program; fashion, jewellery and history were the CE’s main interests. Finally just over two weeks later, Nova responded and my nightmare began. A fourteen page fax arrived from Boston with time codes listed and a scene by scene, blow by blow critique of the program. For Nova there was way too much fashion, an over emphasis on pearling history and too little science, ‘real’ science explaining ‘How and Why’. Talking heads were also an issue, there were too many of them in the program. According to Nova the story displayed a commercial bias towards Australian pearl producers. We were accused of denigrating the Japanese because we had shown how their industry and the quality of their product were in decline, due to over farming and poor environmental management. And to boot Nova were concerned that some of the fashion scenes were ‘sexist’. In one scene we had beautiful 1920s archive
footage of Josephine Baker, a well known pearl wearer, sporting a string of pearls and nothing else. In another scene, via narration, we had equated a woman wearing pearls with ‘sex appeal’. This theme in our edit was backed up in interviews with the Fashion Editor of Harpers Bazaar and a fashion historian. Our equation of sex appeal and pearls was way too much for these politically correct Bostonians. Twin set and pearls were the order of the day! My producer, Megan Mc Murchy, a well known ‘feminist’ filmmaker, who produced the ground breaking 1980s documentary, For Love or Money (Dirs. Megan Mc Murchy, Jenni Thornley, Margot Nash & Margot Oliver, 1983) a history of women and work in Australia, took this criticism with clenched teeth and gnarled her way back to the cutting room to discuss the fax with myself and editor Denise Haslem. Our bottom lips trembled as we waded through Nova’s rough cut comments. Whilst we were devastated, we eventually took it in our stride, as one must, and produced rough cut number two with Nova’s needs in mind. At that stage Film Australia should have decided to produce two versions of the program as the broadcasters’ needs were so divergent. ‘It wasn’t budgeted for. Do another cut for Nova and we will convince the ABC to cop it’, was Film Australia’s response. So we set about making further changes, including CGI scenes (unbudgeted for) that showed the formation and growth of a natural peal within an oyster’s body. We thought this would surely appease and enhance the American’s need for science. After three more weeks of editing, we were now seriously over schedule, we delivered rough cut number two with more science, more information, fewer talking heads and the ‘sexy scenes’ altered and in some instances deleted. We even brought in a writer to compose a Nova style narration, ‘tell the audience you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you’ve told them’. The ABC however was aghast at rough cut number two! ‘This was not the program we commissioned’. Nova remained unhappy too, there was still insufficient science for them and they were not prepared to accommodate the ABC’s different expectations. This further devastating news was again delivered several weeks after the tape was sent to Boston, thus causing further blowouts in our schedule and budget. We were now six
weeks over schedule. I was on a fixed contract, a finite amount of money and contracted to produce one version only for both broadcasters. With the ABC unwilling to approve this rough cut Film Australia were now forced to face the reality of producing two versions and paying fully for them. This provided some relief and was an acknowledgement of what I had been canvassing since Nova’s rejection of our first rough cut. Denise Haslem and I now went back to rough cut number one and produced a fine cut of that for the ABC. I then pulled out of the project with Film Australia’s agreement. I had commenced making another Film Australia project, Mabo —Life of an Island Man, to which the ABC had also committed a presale. My producer Megan McMurchy undertook to complete the Nova version of Mystique of the Pearl in consultation with myself. Several more weeks went by with more faxes arriving over night from Boston. The impasse continued. Eventually, Nova decided to accept a cut and also asked for a complete copy of the rushes. They then completed their own edit, wrote their own narration, changed the program to suit their requirements, editorially and stylistically. The ABC were in the end happy with the version that we completed for them and so too were Nova with their program, which they called, The Perfect Pearl. The show rated well in the US and was last screened by Nova in March 2007. It has had a broadcast life on PBS of more than ten years. I was still credited as the director, even though I can barely recognise the Nova version of my own program. I have a huge publicity booklet from the program’s screenings on PBS across all 52 American states. Nova today has fortunately changed their commissioning modus operandi. They now prefer to take a rough cut and delivery of copies of the camera tape originals, and from these two elements edit their own completed program. Given their strict and perhaps unique ‘science’ requirements, it is a much simpler mode of commissioning, ensuring the end product is what they want and how they want it. This first experience of international co-production was a baptism by fire, as it can be for many Australian producers.
So when Andrew Ogilvie rang me to check my interest and availability for directing Hula Girls my alarm bells rang loudly. He pitched to me, a history essay piece, for three broadcasters, only one version planned and budgeted for. As outlined in earlier chapters I had huge reservations about the intentions of the commissioning broadcasters, believing they wanted a program focused on ‘sex and exoticism’. And those fears were matched equally with concerns about the number of versions that I could be required to direct to complete my contract. Ogilvie however was emphatic. Based on his conversations with the broadcasters one version would fit all requirements. ‘At least, I thought after speaking with him, ‘they want the same program length, 52 minutes’. Whilst I was reluctant to take on the project I was very much at a loose end at the time. I hadn’t worked for 5 months, I’d applied for several high profile industry jobs and not been successful. Money and self-esteem were becoming an issue. So after several more weeks of phone conversations with Ogilvie, I finally agreed to accept the project. At least I now had a potential income to accompany my co-production blues. The next crucial stage involved negotiating a contract that would give me adequate protection if the versioning nightmare erupted again. However in good faith, perhaps I was fool hardy, I had already commenced researching the project before my contract was finally negotiated. My bargaining position was therefore not strong and it took several more weeks to work through my contractual concerns. I sent Ogilive an email in response to the writer/director’s contract he’d sent me:
Andrew, I would like an additional two clauses stated in my contract, something like the following. Please let’s discuss: a. The Director is engaged by the production company to produce one version of the film only, based on the treatment, consultations with the Producer and co-production broadcasters at rough cut and fine cut stages of editing. In the event of more than one broadcast version of the film being required and major changes to the edit, storyline and narration, the Producer agrees to pay an additional weekly fee of $AUS 1,500 for extra work and time required to produce other broadcast versions. Minor changes to the narration script are excluded.
b. If international broadcaster approval delays occur at rough cut and fine cut stages, and the delays
amount to more than two consecutive weeks, the Producer agrees to pay a ‘holding fee’ to the director of $AUS 750 per week. 4
I was trying to protect myself and ensure that I wouldn’t be working extra weeks without some form of compensation. I also wanted all the potential versioning elements spelt out in the contract in detail. Ogilvie’s come back to me was centered on trust regarding his management style, judgment, broadcaster relationship and his view that one version of the picture cut would be satisfactory, given his discussions with broadcasters about the program’s content. He acknowledged there may need to be amendments, not substantial, to the narration track, but this would not affect us too greatly as the program would be revoiced in France and the Netherlands anyway and the broadcasters could look after any changes. Ogilvie would also ensure that there weren’t significant approval delays at rough cut and fine cut, he would keep in constant contact with the three Commissioning Editors as to our progress and post-production schedule. He seemed and proved to be genuine about this aspect of the schedule. My position was also somewhat untenable. I had to be honest with myself, I was taking up this negative position purely because of my bad Nova experience. Eight years had passed since then, it was time to move on and get over it. And then Ogilvie, to his credit, cut me some slack and a financial inducement to sign. He offered a higher fee if I would let go of the clauses that I’d asked for in the contract. He also agreed to hire a writer to co-write the narration track if at rough and fine cut I thought this was needed. To my mind if three different narration versions were required by the broadcasters, this would take the pressure off, at a time in the production cycle where you can start to feel exhausted. We also then settled on the following contractual clauses that further helped to massage my fears,
5. c. Prior to commencement of production of the Film, the production company will inform the Company (my company) and the Director as to the following in relation to the Film: (i) any rights of approval contractually reserved to any person other than the Production
Company; (ii) the proposed below-the-line budget of the Film and any limitations thereof; and program duration and versions that are required, together with versioning requirements of any broadcaster, distributor and/or investors involved in the Film, to the extent that any of the above are within the reasonable knowledge of the Production Company at that particular stage of production. 5
Trying to spell out the elements of versioning in advance was important, rather than having it all come up at the backend of post production. I also agreed in the contract to allow for versioning as a result of: censorship requirements, credit duration, use of graphics to explain locations and ‘introductory narration in lieu of superimposition of interviewee names and titles’. With the exception of the last point, which could cause quite large writing and duration complications, I considered these to be minor and also a necessary part of dealing with all broadcasters. We finally arrived at a point in our negotiations where I felt comfortable with the way in which Ogilvie had set up the production and I could sign the contract. It had taken many months of discussion to achieve this. Whilst I was now emotionally and contractually committed to the project, demon doubts still lingered about the project, the broadcasters, and working with a new producer. Was I embarking again on a Nova style nightmare? The first test would come after I delivered a script to Ogilvie, fulfilling my first contractual obligation. But just how would it be received?
Footnotes: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. AIDC Program, 2006, Australian International Documentary Conference. Nova's Approach, accessed 12/1/08, www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova. Mystique of the Pearl, 1996, synopsis VHS cover, Film Australia. Email Trevor Graham to Andrew Ogilvie, 29/9/2003. Hula Girls Directors Contract, Electric Pictures, October 2003.
Searching for the Nubile Savage
She was to all intent my little wife; I loved her truly. And yet there was a great gulf between us – a gate forever shut. She was a little savage; between us two who were one flesh there was a radical difference of race and utter divergence of views on the first elements of things. If my ideas and conceptions were often impenetrably dark to her, so were hers to me …. 1
Hula Girls was not an idea that sprang from my imagination, or my desire to explore this particular aspect of South Pacific and Polynesian history. It was an idea brought to me by a producer who had picked up the idea from an academic book by Michael Sturma, South Sea Maidens, Western Fantasy and Sexual Politics in the South Pacific. I was a ‘hired gun’, a writer-director coming to a film that was essentially a producer-broadcaster and deal lead project. However, once I accepted the gig I launched myself into it and I was speedily hooked on the topic of hula and Polynesian women. The image of the hula girl has evolved through time to be centre stage in contemporary tourism. It’s an image that resonates broadly in our consciousness, whether by way of the many Elvis and other movies that has exploited her image, or her presence in popular music, post cards, tourist kitsch and advertising. The image of the scantily clad, beautiful, lei-wearing Polynesian women is intensely associated with the South Pacific as an ‘invitation to paradise’. The quest of my research for the program, was to find the origins of this sexualised representation of the Polynesian woman; to ask was, ‘she’ ‘real’ or ‘myth’ and to explore ‘her’ enduring allure, throughout two hundred and fifty years of history, Inga Clendinnen’s notion that,
A successful myth only grows more potent with exploitation. 2
The companion challenge for researching this document was to make clear the allure of the hula girl representation as a motivation for commissioning and attract audience ratings for co-production broadcaster partners. I commenced working on this project in my usual fashion, by asking myself these questions, ‘What’s the story?’ and ‘What’s the style?’ But I could only meaningfully begin to find the answers to these fundamental questions in my research. To make the Hula Girls story, to hopefully thrill an audience, to present them with new ideas about the Pacific, to draw the threads of history together, to create empathy - this is what documentary filmmaking is all about.
Andrew Ogilvie and I decided at this stage to change the name of the project to Hula Girls. It was more catchy, had the prerequisite sexiness which the broadcasters wanted and most importantly in my mind it relied on a ‘popular culture’ icon as a draw card for the program. I was initially concerned about the new title being used to cover story content in Tahiti and French Polynesia where the hula has never been part of traditional culture. However I let go of this concern as my thoughts about the program evolved in the research and I increasingly focused on the representation of Hawaiian women in Hollywood and popular culture.
I often say that researching a film is the best part of filmmaking, because at this moment I meet new people, I visit places and find fresh ideas about the film I want to make. It’s a process of discovery that is invigorating. Via the research I begin to test my ideas, gain insights and begin to see a story and scenes emerging from an idea. The research stage is also the least costly component of film production so I take my time and cast the net widely. I won’t rush it! I keep exploring and asking myself, ‘What’s the story I want to tell and how can I make it? What will I need? Who will I need and where must I go to make my film?’ I know when I’ve completed my research because I am confident about answering these questions for myself. At that point I can confidently and enthusiastically discuss the story, why I am making it, what the underlying themes are, the subtext, where
it will be filmed and most importantly who the characters are. Only when I feel I have arrived at this point can I say, ‘I’ve done enough research!’
I also have what I call my ‘Documentary Idea Check List’ which I test myself with. They are the most frequently asked questions by Commissioning Editors and Executive Producers from television networks, when they evaluate story ideas presented to them.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.
Is the idea strangely compelling? Beyond mere entertainment and diversion? Is there something important at stake? Hopes and dreams to be fulfilled or lost? Danger to be confronted or averted? A wrong to be righted? Will we meet interesting characters, truly memorable people who stand for something, who are doing something? Is there a strong story line? Is it a witnessed story? A told story? Does it have a beginning, middle and closure, an end? Do we care about the people in the story? Do we feel happiness, sadness, anger, empathy, and solidarity? Do we share in the humour and pathos? Is it agenda setting? Will people talk about it and the issues that it raises after it has been broadcast? Does the program have a sense of authorship? Do we hear/see the voice of the filmmaker coming through? Who is the target audience? Will it rate well with them? Will it be accessible? Will it avoid elitism? Will it speak to those who don’t agree, or merely annoy them? Is it an easy idea which anyone could make (and probably has made)? Is it something special, which needs dedication, intelligence, integrity, effort, sympathy and special access to make?
10. Is the idea imaginative, novel, a new look? Does it work against expectations? Or is it safe? 3
Researching Hula Girls was a mammoth undertaking that took six months. The program I was planning to make would be an eclectic mix of Pacific and European history, travel and art history, cinema and photographic history, anthropology and popular culture. So I had to develop a degree of expertise across a broad field of disciplines to navigate my way through and chart a map for the script. Finding the story for the film and the interview talent who would appear was uppermost 80
in my mind. So I started with the first European records of Polynesian women to be found in the dairies and journals of navigators, and historical texts written about Captains Wallis, Bougainville and Cook. This led me to many potential ‘expert’ interviewees: academics, historians, journalists and writers who had studied and written extensively on Pacific history, popular culture, South Seas cinema and tourism. Among them was Neil Rennie, Reader in English at University College London, who answered my question about the historical origins of the hula girl image at the heart of my story,
The fundamental beginning of the idea of the South Sea maiden, I call her the nubile savage, is Bougainville, the boarding of his ship, La Boudeuse, by a young beautiful Tahitian girl whom he described as being like a nouvelle Venus, a new Venus. And as the sailors are letting down their anchor, she lets fall her pareu in front of them. And Bougainville in his journal uses imagery of a classical kind about Venus and the Phrygian Shepard. He’s imposing his knowledge of the classics and philosophy upon what he’s encountering. And so this was the discovery for the French of the idea of the nubile young woman unveiling herself to the sailors on board the ship. It seems to be a combination of 18th century sensibilities and the islands that produced the fundamental idea of an island that was really a female and was welcoming — the necessity of basing your relationship to a place around a woman is part of the mythology and the vast collection of stories centred around the South Seas. And Tahiti is the symbolic centre of that. 4
Ever since Bougainville’s account of Venus boarding his ship in his, Un Account du voyage autour le monde (1771) the mythology of the Tahitian maiden has depended not only on publicizing her physical attributes, but the mystique of the South Sea welcome — canoes full of nubile and bare-breasted women eagerly greeting European ships. These romanticised accounts, which neglect the violence of early European contact, are formulaic scenes for South Seas literature and later flaunted by Hollywood. Film critic Ed Rampell continued Rennie’s line of thinking about the ‘nubile savage’, and her place in Hollywood, when I met and interviewed him for my research in Los Angeles,
No South Seas movie would be worth its salt without a flotilla of native outrigger canoes rushing off to meet and greet the arrival of the white man’s ship. Often the sails of the tall ships are glanced from on high – perhaps by a lookout in a palm tree, a cry of a conch shell and or shark skin drum are heard; Islanders drop what they are doing dash to their canoes and paddle or swim
out to the Western vessel, laughing along the way. And often there’s topless girls coming to delight the sailors who have been out at sea with just male companions for months at a time. This scenario is repeated in many South Seas pictures. More than any other Hollywood genre, South Seas movies deal with the theme of paradise - a romantic native paradise to serve as a setting for adventures enjoyed by white Americans or Europeans, usually males. 5
Between Rennie’s account of ‘Venus’ boarding Bougainville’s ship, La Boudeuse in 1768, and Rampell’s account of the South Seas welcome in latter day 20th century Hollywood, I found time and again in my research a clear line of images of the ‘nubile savage’ manifesting herself in different art forms and guises, painting, literature, photography, sculpture, tourist kitsch and filmmaking. Whilst I was looking for participants who understood and could expand on the history of these images, I was also seeking participants who could either provide a counterpoint and/or bring alternative layers of meaning and interpretation, Michelle Arrow’s ‘ambiguity’ to that paradigm. I wanted greater layers of complexity in the story than was suggested in the pitch document which had sold the program. I was also determined to look beyond Australia for my cast of players and avoid parochialism in my selection of interviewees. This was an international co-production, so why not look to the world’s leading experts and those with talent in front of the camera to tell this story. Fortunately I had the budget and the support of my producer to achieve this. I expanded my initial research list of authors and historians to include actors, directors, Polynesian dancers, a former government minister in Papeete, artists, French archivists and art curators and set off on a voyage that took me to New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Chicago, Paris, London, Rochefort on the Atlantic coast in France, and Canberra. I travelled for 23 days and met with 26 people whom I identified from my reading as possible interview candidates. I was looking for ‘good talent’, interviewees: who have instant recall of the knowledge they need to impart in response to an interview question, who are concise and able to summarise information, who can relate anecdotes of stories and incidents that create mental pictures for an audience, and finally I was looking for the all important ingredient, humour that would engage an audience in the story I was telling, believing that,
Humour is, by its nature, more truthful than factual. 6
My DAT recorder is an important accomplice when I am researching a film. I rely on my research interviews for my writing. The interviews also help me judge how I think a candidate will perform in front of camera. If they’re not great talent at this stage, move on, find someone else. Ideas also come out of the interviews, images, historical anecdotes that I haven’t considered. I recorded most people I met on the ‘grand research tour’. Some of them however I met with just to ‘meet and greet’ such as, Professors Anne Salmond in Auckland and Stephen F. Eisenman in Chicago, whose books I’d read. I met with them, to chat and assess their ‘talent’. I would paraphrase extracts from their books for inclusion in my shooting script if I thought they were suitable. When Andrew Ogilvie presented me with the Hula Girls concept document it came with an attached suggested list of expert interviewees. To my dismay it included only one female historian, there were no Polynesian women, and the suggested men (respected historians & academics) were in their mid to late 60s and beyond. It was inconceivable to me that I could write and direct a program called Hula Girls, about the representation of Polynesian women, and not have either women, and/or preferably Pacific Island women to inform that story. Finding Polynesians was of utmost importance. So in Papeete I arranged to meet and interview two members of the Territorial Assembly. Louise Peltzer a former Minister of Culture in the conservative, Rassemblement pour la Republique (RPR — Rally for the Republic) party and government studied anthropology in metropolitan France. She is an expert on the history of the Tahitian language and also one of Tahiti’s most published poets. Tea Hirshon is an outspoken representative for Oscar Temaru's pro-independence progressive coalition Tavini Huiraatira (Polynesian Liberation Front) and was intimately involved as an activist in the local anti-nuclear struggle. I had high expectations of including both women in the program. I also arranged to meet Marguerite Lai, a professional dancer and director of the Papeete based dance group, O Tahite E.
Marguerite proved to be terrific talent. A large, loud, energetic woman, with a wonderful sense of ‘Polynesian humour’, of mixed Polynesian and Chinese descent, she defied the Polynesian ‘petite’ female stereotype. Marguerite allowed me to accompany her to dance rehearsals where I met with her young dancers and she also promised I could film a performance of the heiva when I returned for the shoot. Tea Hirshon too was great talent, passionate and articulate about politics, particularly the independence and anti nuclear issues and the militarisation of her country by France,
The image of this passive, sensuous, quiet woman, submissive Polynesian woman is kept up because it fulfils a need. We have tourists come here, that’s what they want. Tahiti has also been a military base for 30 years, so it influences the economy. Near naked women dancing sells, so people provide the image that tourists and the French military want to have. So we give you what you want but it is not necessarily what we are. 7
And I loved the following quote from my interview with Tea at the Territorial Assembly. It was a story essentially about Tea’s father and mother. Her Jewish father came from Vienna. On a trip around the world had a stop over in Tahiti where he met Tea’s Polynesian mother. They became lovers and he ventured no further. Their ‘classic’ story had to be part of my script,
There are many many love stories, European men come here fall totally in love with a beautiful Polynesian woman. But then end up being completely dominated by their wife and the wife gets fat. The image of this passive, sensuous, quite submissive woman is not really the case. I have seen women here fight, fight their men too. Polynesian women are strong willed. You often find European men let their wives rule the roost, to avoid confrontation at home. 8
Sadly though, and to my great disappointment, these three prominent and educated Papeete women were largely unaware of the rich European visual history of the Pacific and the depictions of Polynesian women which was the basis of my brief. With the benefit of hindsight however, it’s not that surprising. As I was to uncover time and again the history largely belongs to the colonisers. This ‘European vision’ of the compliant and sexually available Polynesian woman is of our making. We painted the pictures, we
wrote the novels, we perpetrated the sailor’s yarns, we wrote and directed the movies depicting ‘her’ as the ever willing play girl for white adventurers. Whilst Peltzer, Lai and Hirshon knew little of that history, they believed that this sexualised image has had a profound impact on their present-day society. Each of them expressed concerns about the influence of tourism on Tahitian life and culture, in which the figure of the beautiful ‘vahine’ has a central place. But also, as if to disagree with these concerns, they were equally worried about the recent decline in tourism to Tahiti and the economic consequence that was bringing on the local economy and jobs. ‘Such are the ambiguities of life, I thought to myself. ‘Could I deal with this too in the context of the history and the documentary’s story?’ The artist amongst the three, Marguerite Lai, had a strong opinion about the influence of the Tahitian ‘beauty myth’ on her dancers, which I thought would be invaluable for my story,
The young people are terribly influenced by the exterior, the body. They consider themselves to be Polynesian, they are proud of that. But it is very superficial, it’s about how beautiful you are, the way your skin is, how you look, it’s not inside. You can’t say I’m Polynesian because your parents were born here. You have to live it. The young people here say that we are Tahitian we have the blood of Tahiti, then we are Tahitian. But it’s not true. If you don’t put water on it every day, it dies. The influence of the west is so big. When you say I have everything in my blood you will lose it. It’s like a tree you have to put water on it. 9
Later in my research trip I met Katerina Teaiwa, Assistant Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. Meeting Katerina did solve my desire to include at least one young Pacific Island woman in the program who had a solid grasp of the ‘coloniser’s history’. Katerina is often mistaken for being Polynesian, but is in fact of Micronesian and African American descent. ‘Bingo’, I thought when I walked into her office. ‘Great to have a character with her long black hair, dark skin and gorgeous Pacific Islander features, who can provide a critique of the history and at the same time look the part’. She was ‘the mythical image critiquing herself’ and her ‘hula girl looks’ would help audiences hook into the story. My secret thoughts were also influenced by what I imagined were broadcaster expectations, ‘One or two of the commissioning editors will
like her!’ I thought to myself. Katerina is also a talented dancer and, up until I met her in 2003, performed the hula in tourist hotels in Honolulu. Of course my first question to her was, “Can we film you dancing the hula?” Sadly she declined as she had now moved on and was performing jazz ballet. “Okay, lets’ film that instead!” I requested. Katerina proved to be invaluable to my research. At our first meeting she spoke of the central religious functions of the hula in traditional Hawaiian culture,
Dance is always a reflection of the environment, the landscape that you live on, the types of animals, birds, creatures that inhabit where you live. And then dancing will also be a reflection of spirituality, appealing to whatever gods exist whether they be oceanic, or in the forests or in the sky. And sexuality was deeply interwoven into those realms. Dancing in Pacific communities is not erotic, not in the sense that you are trying to titillate or entice somebody to bed with you. 10
Did it matter that Katerina was not Polynesian? No. To my mind her potential presence on camera, her knowledge of Polynesian and Pacific history were far more important. The fact that she’s a young and beautiful Pacific Island woman was simply a bonus. Being a fan of the Hawaiian steel guitar I was also very keen to explore the rich history of the hula girl in popular music. Hula dancing became so fashionable in the US in the 1920s that handfuls of entrepreneurs began touring the American mainland with troupes of dancers. At the same time there was the development in America of Hapa haole music, which is played with Hawaiian instruments but the melodic structure of the music is western in style. Popular songs were written like, Hawaiian Paradise, Hawaiian Dreamboat, Lovely Hula Hands, My Little Grass Shack, and A Song of Old Hawaii. A craze for Hawaiian music also swept Europe in the 1930s, further popularizing the image of beautiful island women. There was also a huge cross over between popular music and Hollywood films, with writers and directors featuring Hawaiian music and love songs as a fundamental part of their stories set in the South Pacific. In Hawaii I found Desoto Brown, from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, who had a vast knowledge and collection of Hapa haole music,
This music becomes very popular, it’s composed by Hawaiians and Caucasians and then modern Hula dancing was adapted to fit the words and the music. That kicked off a huge fad for songs about Hawaii and you had song writers in New York, who had never been to Hawaii, churning out these songs, in the Hapa haole style about Hawaii. So you get people in London or Germany singing these songs, have never been to Hawaii, know nothing about the real thing but are hooked on the mystique through the music and want to imitate it as best they can. At the very heart of the music is the concept of the willing, compliant Polynesian woman who is welcoming and you can have sex with her. Many, many song lyrics imply that. In other words, ‘I went to Hawaii, I met her, we fell in love and I had to go home and now we are separated’. 11
Music was not part of the original broadcaster pitch, nor were: hula girls kitsch, hula shirts, hula dolls, post cards, ash trays, lampshades, wall calendars and posters, sexy trinkets and comic books. I found that the image of the hula girl was, and still is, all pervasive. ‘She’ has been the centre of the sales pitch for Hawaiian tourism for more that a century. ‘She’ is also one of the main lures for American armed forces’ personnel based on Oahu since the islands were annexed by the US in 1896. I wanted to cover in my research this aspect of hula and Hawaiian history. In downtown Honolulu I found Joe O’Neil’s Hawaiian Antiquity Centre. Joe sells flash trash and expensive objets d’art of semi naked Polynesian women: souvenirs, memorabilia and wiggling hula dolls. He took me on a tour of his store to show me the hula girl phone, hula girl sheet music, the giant hula girl, the surfboard hula girl, hula girl naked calendars, and in the process picked up a porcelain ash tray of a naked hula girl,
See what it says, ‘The Best Lei in Hawaii’. It’s one of my favourite pieces. This was the 20 year old sailor’s dream. It’s 1954, there would have been 1000s of these made and sold, they’d take them back home to Philadelphia as their memory of Hawaii. Mostly made in Japan. None of this stuff was made in Hawaii. Look at this photograph of a topless Tahitian woman. This one here, beautiful photograph, perfect symbol of the Polynesian girl …. no silicone implants here … it’s a good example of give ‘em what they expect. The image of the Hula girl, the tropics, simple life, sitting on a porch playing a ukulele … everyone wants to relax in their heart and that’s what Hawaii represents. 12
Joe was perfect talent, loud and talkative. He and his shop played out numerous scenes in my thinking. I wanted to include the militarisation of the South Pacific in the 20th century and the hula girl’s part in that. I was heading towards a story about the image of the hula girl and her implicit involvement in the colonisation of the South Pacific. France too was a necessary part of my research agenda. Bougainville, the French voyages of discovery in the western Pacific, the artist Paul Gauguin, French colonialism and Club Med style promotion of Tahiti as a tourist Mecca, are all fundamental to the sexualised images of Pacific Island women. Bougainville stayed in Tahiti for only nine days after his arrival in 1768, but his tales of an island Eden and free love in the South Pacific created a sensation upon his return to Europe. The French philosopher and chemist, Denis Diderot, was so impressed by Bougainville’s discovery of ‘Arcadia’ that in 1772 he wrote a pamphlet celebrating the voyage, Supplement au voyage de Bougainville. In this widely read work Diderot praised the nobility of Tahiti’s savages, their sexual pleasures and freedoms. He argued that ‘savages’ are freer than ‘civilised’ men, who suffer from an unjust social order and brutalising forms of work. For Diderot, Tahiti and her people were proof that European civilisation was excessive and corrupt and they soon became a ‘cause celebre’ in pre-revolutionary France. By 1804 the idyllic images of Bougainville were so much a part of French popular thinking that a Parisian wallpaper manufacturer, des freres Dufour, produced a brand of wall paper for their wealthy clients, called Les Savages de la Mer Pacifique . To explain the French connection to the hula girl image, I met in Rochefort on the French Atlantic coast, a curator and archivist from the Musee de l’homme, Claude-Louis Stefani, who continued Neil Rennie’s line of thinking about the influence of Bougainville,
The publication of the travels of Bougainville happened very shortly after the voyage was completed. And very quickly it was being read by the intellectuals in the high society salons of Paris, it was very fashionable. In fact it was more than fashion. It became an intellectual problem. The myth of the women of the Pacific spread in Europe very quickly from the time of Bougainville. The French Revolution was fermenting. France was one of the best examples of an absolutist monarchy in Europe. So Tahiti could be used as an argument against the regime as it
was in France, to say elsewhere there is an egalitarian society. 13
Claude-Louis was fabulous talent, a larger than life ‘Monsieur Hulot’ character straight out of Jacques Tati central casting. He was eloquent, spoke excellent English (although I would later interview him in French) humorous, bumptious and very happy to be interviewed for the program as he had recently been ‘banished’ from Paris to the provinces (as he himself described it) in order to classify and re-catalogue the Musee de l’homme Rochefort collection. This ‘trial’ for Claude Louis was a bonus for me, as he was in the throes of working on the manuscripts and journals of the French voyages of Pacific discovery, led by the navigators, La Perouse, d’Entrecasteaux, Baudin and Durmot d’ Urville. These French navigators like the British before them, wished to discover new lands, establish commercial trade and claim future colonies. Like Cook, the French took with them professionally trained scientists and artists to record and analyse all that they ventured upon. Claude-Louis stopped here and there as he made his way through the Rochefort archive, grabbing large old volumes from the shelves and eventually sat at a large desk carefully opening the delicate and fragile pages of LouisHenri de Freycinet’s voyage en Les Corvettes L’Oceanie et La Physicenne 1817-20,
And here we have a young woman from the Sandwich Islands dancing, an early depiction of the Hula girl and she strikes an extremely languid, extremely charming pose. The Pacific woman is a siren, she is a Circe, a kind of enchantress, she is a real jezebel. It is everything life can produce as a picture of the dangerous woman. The perverted women. She depraves men because she represents precisely physical love. Turpitude! The South Seas woman is a symbol of the noble savage that the 18th century liked to imagine. 14
Claude-Louis then showed me a key image from the Freycinet voyage Iles Sandwich: Femme de l’ Isle Mowi Dansant, showing a naked tattooed Maui woman dancing from a sitting position on the ground,
We are in Hawaii now. This is one of the oldest images of the hula girl, she is dancing, she is naked. She is not specifically pretty, but she is not too bad! The breasts are very strange, so far apart. She is fully tattooed. But they wanted to depict a nice women from the islands and this is an old prototype of the hula girl. The physical aspects of the figures are often very European and
what is culturally different is any clothing, the skin colour and the tattoo. Otherwise it could be a European woman dancing. She belongs also to the islands of paradise. And that’s what the people now are going to Tahiti and expecting it’s the island of Bora Bora. If you say this name in France people say, “Oh it would be wonderful to live there, for once in my life to see paradise”. So you can say that people in the 18th century and 21st century have the same thoughts about images like these of the Pacific islands. 15
I loved the experience of meeting and dining with Claude-Louis and his colleague Roger Boulay from the Musee des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie. In 2000 Boulay curated, Kannibals and Vahinés : images from the South Seas, an exhibition shown at the JeanMarie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Nouméa. The aim of the exhibition was to explore through literature and popular pictures the stereotypical (and often racist) representations of,
the fantastical couple of our South Seas dreams, the vahine and the cannibal. 16
Via Boulay and Stefani, I could explore another aspect of Pacific imagery that I wished to include in Hula Girls, the conflicting versions of Pacific heaven or hell, paradise or purgatory, as depicted in the contrasting late 18th and early 19th century European images of the peoples of Polynesia and Melanesia. In 1776 William Hodges, on Cook’s second tour of the Pacific, painted, The Landing at Erramanga, one the of the New Hebrides (National Maritime Museum London). The canvas depicts Cook’s landing party under attack by islanders. The Europeans in the row boat are shown heroically attempting to escape from the mysterious mass of dark skinned, islanders wielding spears. Unlike Bougainville’s ‘welcoming natives’, these dark skinned peoples of Melanesia are represented as war like and threatening. When Melanesians boarded the ‘tall ships’ and climbed the rigging, chattering to each other, the British likened them to monkeys. French navigators offered similar opinions of the Melanesians they encountered as Claude Louis explained when he showed me, Naturels de la Nouvelle Guinee, Voyage autour du monds sur la Corvette de sa Majeste la Coquille (1826) a coloured engraving illustrating three Papua New Guinean men with ‘wild hair styles’ and Sauvage de la Nouvelle Caledonie, Atlas pour server a la relation du voyage a la recherché de la Perouse (1799) a depiction of a Melanesian man wearing a penis wrapper with spear in hand and a club in the other, 90
The French sailors were quite disappointed. They were waiting to find ‘paradise islands’ and welcoming women in the Pacific and what they discovered was the black side, the dark side of the Pacific. In Melanesia the people are depicted as nasty, they are cannibals, also they are diseased, for example the leper here. So they say in the texts that this paradise is not a paradise. In paradise there is something rotten. 17
What emerged from these early European voyages of discovery was a hierarchy of aesthetics in the Pacific, where the Polynesian women were at the top of the chain and Melanesian woman at the bottom. The Polynesians were more beautiful, more desirable and noble, closer to the Europeans. Femmes Mafors, Voyage en Nouvell-Guinee, by M. Achille Raffray (1879) an engraving depicting two women with ‘fat’ noses, ‘frizzy’ hair and long sagging ‘pendulous’ breasts is a pertinent example of what Katerina Teaiwa describes as the ‘Melanesian other’,
The Melanesian woman is the most ‘other’ to the European. It’s a racist typifying of Pacific peoples centred around, skin colour, height, facial characteristics, bigger noses not being seen as attractive and totally imagining that all Melanesian people look the same, they are short and black with fuzzy hair. And similarly imagining that all Polynesians as being either statuesque or fine featured and beautiful. 18
I returned to Australia after three whirlwind weeks with a wealth of research materials and transcribed my interviews. I had greatly expanded the basic research to include topics such as Katerina Teaiwa’s ‘Melanesian other’ and the French 19th century voyages of discovery as a way of adding greater purpose, meaning and depth to the program I wished to make. After listening to the research tapes I chose who I thought were the best candidates and set about editing their interviews and book extracts for my shooting script. The profiles of the final selected interviewees were included as character notes in the script,
Margaret Jolly is Professor and Head of the Gender Relations Centre in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. She has written extensively on gender and sexuality in the Pacific, on indigenous and foreign representations in the contexts of exploratory voyages, travel writing, cinema and the visual arts.
Neil Rennie is the author of Far Fetched Facts: The Literature of Travel and the Idea of the South Seas and also editor of Robert Louis Stevenson's In the South Seas. He is a Reader in English at University College London. Anne Salmond is Professor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor at the University of Auckland. She is one of New Zealand’s most prominent anthropologists and historians and recently published the acclaimed, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog — Captain Cook in the South Seas. Katerina Teaiwa is an Assistant Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. She is a contemporary dancer, who practices an eclectic mix of modern jazz and Polynesian hip-hop. She brings a social anthropologist’s eye to dance and many other elements of contemporary Pacific culture. Claude-Louis Stefani is an art historian and curator at Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rochefort in France. He organised the recent exhibition, Kannibals et Vahines Les sources de l’imaginaire. He brings humour and insight to French perceptions of the South Seas. Stephen Eisenman is Professor of 19th Century Art History at Northwestern University, Illinois. He is a specialist in the work of Paul Gauguin and is the author of Gauguin’s Skirt.
Luis Reyes is a Hollywood based film researcher, writer and critic. He authored Made in Paradise: Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas.
Ed Rampell is a raconteur, journalist, film reviewer and South Seas adventurer. He lived and worked in the Pacific for more than 20 years and is a founding member of the South Seas Cinema Society in Hawaii. Rampell was a major contributor to Made in Paradise: Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas. He writes extensively about the South Pacific from his base in Los Angeles.
DeSoto Brown is the Manager of Moving Images at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu. He was born in Hawaii and has written four books on the 20th-century history of the islands. He is a collector of ephemera relating to this field including Hollywood posters and stills.
Joe O’Neil is a loud and obsessive collector of all things Hawaiian; shirts, Hula dolls, calendars,
souvenirs, all manner of naked Polynesian kitsch. He runs a shop in downtown Honolulu, the Hawaii Antique Center. Marguerite Lai is a professional dancer and director of the Papeete based dance group O Tahite E. She is an international performer, a humorous and passionate dancer and a social critic of contemporary life in Tahiti. 19
The original Hula Girls pitch to broadcasters also included a suggested self reflexive moment at the end of the program, an epilogue that explored contemporary Polynesian artists, writers and filmmakers and their take on the ‘nubile savage’ image,
Increasingly though, islander writers, artists and film makers are turning ‘the gaze’ and taking on the world. And they’re making use of the tools that spread the mythology in the first place. Many indigenous-produced films directly challenge the clichéd romantic images that have dominated Hollywood cinema, and offer alternative images of Polynesian women to those formed ever since the first Western contact. In Velvet Dreams (1998), Samoan director Sima Urale, satirised the once thriving enterprise of painting the Pacific Islands woman on black velvet. Once Were Warriors (1994), adapted from Maori writer Alan Duff’s novel, became the most successful film in New Zealand’s history. The film’s stark realism and complex characterisation proved controversial both within and outside the Maori community. 20
I was initially unsure about how this epilogue would work story-wise. I was concerned that it would appear tokenistic to include no more than five minutes of this content at the end of the program. I was concerned about ‘story point of view’. The bulk of the narrative would explore the populist image of the hula girl as a European creation from the time of Bougainville. To turn this viewpoint around, at the 47-minute mark of the story, and introduce new characters and narrative elements to my mind would lead to confusion and be unsatisfying for an audience. At this point in a documentary, all the story threads should be drawn together, the ‘narrative arc’ should be reaching closure and the program wrapped and into the final credits. I put my case to Ogilvie, who agreed it may be difficult. However I also decided to include this content in my research and writing — I could be wrong and why not give it a go! I was after all a huge fan of the Polynesian/Maori produced film, Once Were Warriors (Dir. Lee Tamahori, 1994), and
this would provide the opportunity to meet one of its stars Rena Owen. Subsequent interviews with Rena along with the Samoan director of Velvet Dreams (1997) Sima Urale and Auckland based artist Shigeyuki Kihara were transcribed and edited for inclusion in the shooting script,
Rena Owen based in Hollywood, is one of New Zealand’s most successful actors after her performance as Beth Heke in Once Were Warriors. Rena has extensively toured the International Film Festival circuit to promote various films, and also to serve on the Jury of the Montreal, Manila, Hawaii, Santa Barbara, and the USA Film Festivals. She has also served as a consultant for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and the Sundance Selection Panel. Shigeyuki Kihara is an Auckland based contemporary performance and photographic artist. She is of Samoan and Japanese descent and is a fa'a fafine, a man who lives as a woman. Her artworks parody and mimic the Hula dancer and South Seas maiden stereotype. Sima Urale is Samoa's first female film director and lives and works in Wellington. In 1997 she directed the acclaimed documentary Velvet Dreams, about the history of black velvet painting. 21
With this selection of interviewees, I thought I had all my required story content covered. In my judgment, they were all knowledgeable about their area of expertise, talented, and could relay information with ease. Raconteur and journalist, Ed Rampell, was particularly good talent, humorous in the way he could spin a yarn about Hollywood and the South Seas. ‘South Sea cinema, without sex is like Aunt Jemima’s pancakes without the syrup’ was one memorable Rampell line of dialogue. His depth of knowledge about Pacific history and cinema was formidable. Professor Anne Salmond was remarkable in the way she could visualise events on board the Dolphin in 1768, as Wallis cruised into Matavia Bay, or later Cook on the Resolution entering into Kealakekua Bay in 1778, where he and his crew were greeted like gods,
As the Resolution sailed into Kealakekua Bay they swam out, they came out on canoes. They came on surfboards parents bringing their children. And they just swarmed on board the ships. Just swarmed all over them. In fact, at one point there were so many people hanging on to the side of the Discovery that it was sort of keeling over. And there they
were making love with the sailors. Just all over, below decks, on decks, presumably not in the water but who knows. There was joy, people were calling out. There was just this huge sense of celebration and excitement.
I had also found characters who could provide the counter point and layering to the story that I was seeking. Margaret Jolly and Katerina Teaiwa could flesh out the meaning and importance of sexuality in customary Polynesian culture providing some logic for why Polynesian women were ‘welcoming’ and thereby contrasting the views of Neil Rennie and Claude-Louis Stefani. Jolly provided some clues to the research question at the heart of the story, was ‘she’ ‘real’ or ‘myth’,
Polynesian eroticism was not a figment of the European imagination. In the ancestral cultures of the islands of Hawaii and Tahiti, sexuality was not so much ‘free’ as celebrated and sacred. Sexual intercourse was a desirable and crucial sign of adulthood for both males and females. It was a great insult to impute that a Tahitian was immature and or a virgin. Vigorous sexual expression was expected of women of all classes, high ranking as well as a commoner. Islander myths, poetry, chants and dances are all, blatant celebrations of the act of sex and the fertility of the world.” The Europeans were surprised and entranced by the islander’s sexuality, infuriated by their attitudes to property, and shocked by human sacrifice and cannibalism. The drama of these first contacts was huge on both sides. 23
Katerina Teaiwa elaborated further on the meaning of Polynesian sexuality when I interviewed her in Honolulu,
For the women there would have been an association between the Europeans, I am not going to say they were gods, but they had status, particularly the officers on board. For a woman of lower status having relations with someone of higher status, that was a way for her to secure some sort of moving up through the system. If she has a child from that union that also was a way of increasing one’s own sacred power in terms of the cosmological systems that Polynesians were operating with. And there would have been a lot of children coming out of those unions from the ships. If say somebody else had set up the union, say a father or a brother, then it would have been as a service to your family. 24
Meeting author and Professor of Art History, Stephen Eisenman, in Chicago provided a further opportunity for counterpoint in the program through the story and paintings of the 95
Frenchman Paul Gauguin in Polynesia. I had read his book, Gauguin’s Skirt (1997), and was impressed by his writings on the post-impressionist painter. By 1891, Gauguin was already a well established artist in Paris, but he was possessed with the idea of seeking out primitive and exotic cultures and left for Tahiti that year. Gauguin imagined establishing a studio of the tropics where he could take advantage of bright light, brilliant colours and maintain a cheap lifestyle with unlimited access to beautiful exotic women, as both models and lovers. Instead of paradise and noble savages Gauguin found on his arrival in Papeete, a colony of missionaries, demoralised natives, prostitution, beach bums and Western riff raff. The paradise Gauguin longed to paint had all but disappeared. Undoubtedly women and sex were part of French Polynesia’s appeal for Gauguin. He had read the immensely popular novel, Le Marriage de Loti, by Julien Viaud (published in 1880) which tells the tale of a torrid love affair between a French naval officer, Loti, and a 14 year old Tahitian ‘vahine’ Rarahu. In the story, Loti wants to make a life with Rarahu, but he believes that because he’s a Frenchman, a man of the city and metropolitan France, that this relationship can never really be made complete and permanent. Loti deems the racial gap between he and Rarahu too great and that their love is ultimately doomed. In the narrative Loti lives out an exoticist paradigm, a desire to go somewhere, to experience difference, but to never make that difference complete, to always have the need and the understanding that he will have to return to the metropolis in order to resume his regular life. Eisenman spoke extensively about the influence of Le Marriage de Loti, on both Gauguin and the 19th century French perception of indigenous peoples when I interviewed him,
Viaud’s characterization of Rarahu displays widely held beliefs of the era that Pacific peoples will never excel to the level of Europeans. They are attractive, affectionate, people, with whom Europeans can mate with, but they will never rise above a simple level of understanding. As the story of the Marriage of Loti ends, Loti must return home and Raharu must die in Tahiti. 25
As if wanting ‘life to imitate art’ in Tahiti, Gauguin mirrored the Loti story and married a young 14 year old girl, Teha’amana, at a time when he was suffering from acute syphilis. It’s very easy to only characterise Gauguin in the mould of Loti and so many other 96
European sailors, writers, adventurers or ‘riff-raff’ who ventured to the South Seas in search of young beautiful natives and torrid love affairs. The original pitch to ARTE, AVRO and SBS did exactly that, portraying the artist as an exploitative, sex crazed morphine addict, a line of thinking designed to reinforce the ‘one dimensional’ hypothesis of the pitch. The writers cared not to find any merit or praise for Gauguin or his work,
More than any other single individual, Paul Gauguin is responsible for the enduring association between the Pacific Islands and bare breasts. At times, almost comically, Gauguin juxtaposed bare-breasted islanders with flowers and ripe fruit. His images alluded to an idyllic, imagined past. In contrast to these pictures of paradise, Gauguin’s own life was a wreck. Finding Tahiti insufficiently ‘savage’, he moved to the more remote Marquesas Islands. There he tried to seduce young women with his collection of pornographic photos and strolled around with a walking stick, the handle carved into an erect penis. He sometimes signed his paintings Pego, sailor’s slang for penis. When he died in 1903, aged 54, he was suffering from advanced syphilis and morphine addiction. 26
There is ample evidence in Gauguin’s own writings, his letters to friends or his wife Mette, and also the text of his Tahitian journal, Noa Noa, to confirm and caricature his amorous misadventures in French Polynesia. Paradoxically however, Gauguin’s close involvement and relationships with Tahitian men and women and their culture, had a profound impact on his work and his beliefs. Towards the end of his life he began to promote and defend indigenous rights against violations by French colonial officials and the Catholic Church. He took Polynesian people seriously, found merit and beauty in their history, cosmology and material culture at a time when Europeans considered them to be a dying race. Stephen Eisenman provided the depth and complexity on Gauguin that I was looking for when I interviewed him for Hula Girls in Boston,
There are paintings by Gauguin that conform to stereotypes, the exoticist stereotypes that he confronted in The Marriage of Loti. There is a picture in the Metropolitan Museum of two Tahitian women in which the woman is seen half length holding fruit in a bowl in front of them, that equation between breasts and fruit is a longstanding one in European art and I think those pictures probably do not go very far in moving from the exoticist myth. But there are other works
where the bodies are often broad and thick and somewhat coarse limbed, heavy thighs and wide calves. In Te Nave Nave Fenua or Delicious Land you have a figure who is standing and when we look down at her feet we see that she has 7 toes, polydactylism, a kind of birth defect. To include something like that in a painting is bizarre. It’s strange. She also has pubic hair very rare for European painters, for French painters to include public hair because to do so is to acknowledge that women have their own independent sexuality. They have actually an organ there that is an organ of pleasure and not merely something to please the man. To include that is to violate the depiction of female sexuality in the salons and the exhibitions of painting in France. So in that picture and in a number of others Gauguin really represents a different kind of Tahitian woman, a different kind of Tahitian sexuality than would be expected according to the exoticist myth. 27
It’s no co-incidence that the protagonist of Le Marriage de Loti is a French naval officer, as the author, Julien Viaud, was also a naval officer. When Tahiti was annexed by France in 1842 the islands provided a strategic port for its naval fleet and ever since then the military has played a vital role in sustaining the local economy of what is now French Polynesia. Margaret Jolly connected the militarisation of the South Pacific, particularly Tahiti and Hawaii with the sexualisation of Polynesian women and tourism. Joe O’Neill had playfully alluded to this with his ‘Best Lei in Hawaii’ ashtray for sailors, but Jolly’s correlation was more sinister,
You can ask the question, ‘Is there a connection between the hyper sexualisation, the eroticisation of the Pacific, through the historical depictions of women’s bodies and the facts of power; in the expansionary colonial period and up to the military, imperial power of the US across the Pacific?’ The American link to Hawaii is a complicity between the US military and tourism, but the idyllic fantasy of Hawaii masks that. If you spend any time in Hawaii you look at the map of Oahu and two thirds of the island is American military bases. And there is this very important connection between this military occupation and we all know that GIs generate a sex industry in its wake. So that’s linked with mass tourism and vacationing and Hawaii as the big place that Americans go for a holiday. 28
Ed Rampell, a former Honolulu based editor of the Pacific Islands Monthly, broadened the impact of popular culture, tourism and Hollywood to include the decline of indigenous land rights,
The popular image of Hawaii has been a form of entertainment, to peddle tickets, to make money by selling this phoney image. And at the same time that this is happening the indigenous people were becoming more and more disenfranchised in their own homeland. The drawcard of the happy go lucky ‘native’ in the movies was in ‘real life’ rapidly disappearing. 29
I thought my research for the program by this stage was well rounded. I could now begin to speak confidently about the history of the hula girl. I’d fleshed out the original concept, added potential new characters and dimensions to the story. At the same time as seeking and finalising my international cast, I commenced the other all-consuming strand of my research, the seemingly endless task of finding the appropriate archival images: the thousands of art works, photographs, historical films and Hollywood features that portrayed Neil Rennie’s ‘nubile savage’. This involved exhaustive research much of it on-line at: the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, the National Library of Australia, international footage libraries, art galleries, museums, publishers, movie distributors and production companies. With the assistance of a highly experienced researcher provided by Electric Pictures, thousands of images and hundreds of films were trawled through. I will deal more extensively with Hollywood’s depiction of the ‘South Seas Princess’ in the next chapter. There are so many films, themes and issues arising out of what Ed Rampell calls South Seas cinema, that this history demands a chapter unto itself. My early viewing of Hollywood silent films like Willard Van Dykes romance, White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and Bird of Paradise (1932) starring Delores Del Rio, were to have a great influence on the way I would write the Hula Girls script. The first visual depictions of Polynesian women I found were 18th century copperplate engravings in An account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere by Dr. John Hawkesworth, published in London in 1773. When Cook returned from his first Pacific voyage in 1771, the British Admiralty were so anxious to establish their supremacy in the South Seas they commissioned Hawkesworth, a London literary figure, to re-write and publish the travel journals of both Cook and Wallis. The book, with illustrations to accompany the text, included a vivid description by Cook of a public sexual act he and his crew witnessed in
Tahiti, where a 12 year old girl copulated with an adult man in front of a gathering of spectators. Hawkesworth’s detailed account of the incident caused great controversy when it was published in London. However, according to Neil Rennie, Hawkesworth rewrote Cook’s factual day to day journal written in his Yorkshire layman’s style, into the style of a literary bot boiler,
Hawkesworth used the Cook and Wallis journals to cook up his own version of events in Tahiti. His account of the voyages is where Homer’s Odyssey meets the boys own adventure, Captain Hornblower. He treats the work as though it’s a novel, characterising and providing comedy. There were people who wrote to the newspapers saying that Hawkesworth’s Account was worse than Fanny Hill, because there were all these indecent scenes of copulation. There was a constant tirade saying Hawkesworth’s voyages were more titillating than the most awful French novel. 30
Hawkesworth’s embellishments paid a dividend for the British Admiralty, matching their imperial ambitions. His book was a runaway success in London, later published in America and then translated into French, German and Italian. Cook, as I was to discover, was crucial in many other ways to the early image of the Polynesian ‘nubile savage’. His three voyages of discovery to the Pacific are the source of all the early recorded images of Polynesia, its landscape, its customs and its people. His missions were to explore and chart the Pacific and to document the people he encountered, describing and illustrating their nature, their physical features, customary life and government. To accomplish this he took with him artists who produced 3,000 original depictions of plants, animals, landscapes and Pacific peoples, never before seen by Europeans. Everything was new for Cook’s artists: the light, the profusion of fruit, the rich perfumes of the flowers, the sea, the beautiful Polynesian faces and bodies. The most romantic Pacific image of the three Cook voyages was Poedua, Daughter of Oree, Chief of Ra’iatea on of the Society Islands, a portrait of a young beautiful Polynesian woman painted from memory by John Webber after he returned to London in 1780. Margaret Jolly described the alluring appeal of Poedua for the painting’s spectator,
Her hair is dark and flowing, she has flowers behind her ears, her features are delicate, her breasts firm. She stands exposed to the artist and viewer, suggesting that this is the Pacific itself, as young
feminine, desirable and vulnerable, an ocean of desire. 31
For the next two hundred years Webber’s painting was a template for Western images of Polynesian women, reproduced in paintings, engravings and eventually mass produced via photographic and printing technologies. I amassed an enormous collection of these images, post cards, paintings, engravings, studio portraits, photographs, Hollywood production publicity stills and posters. Their origins needed to be sourced, dated and copyright cleared. My other main task on my research trip to Tahiti and Hawaii was connected to the paintings of British artist William Hodges, who accompanied Cook on his second tour of the Pacific in the Resolution 1772-5. Hodges was the first artist to capture on canvas the full effect of South Seas tropical atmosphere and light. I wanted to locate what I eventually described in my shooting script as, ‘Picture post card scenes of the islands of Moorea, Tahiti and Oahu; palm trees, sandy beaches, blue lagoons — clichéd but real images of the ‘idyllic’ south Pacific’. I was looking for ‘virgin’ pictorial views, tropical landscapes that would replicate the scenes viewed by Wallis, Bougainville and Cook and painted by artists such as Hodges in his 1776 canvas Tahiti Revisited (National Maritime Museum London). The first Europeans in Polynesia were over whelmed by the beauty of the foliage, the atmospheric light, the warmth and sensuality of the night air, the large open sky, the fruit on the trees. They saw Tahiti as an ‘Arcadia’, a land of abundance where work and toil were not the essence of survival. Margaret Jolly connected the significance of the Tahitian landscape to the representation of Polynesian women in Hodges work when I interviewed her, and it was this connection that I wished to visually explore and evoke by filming these landscapes,
The visual representations of women’s beautiful classically proportioned bodies as much as the rapturous rendering of landscape evoke an image of Tahiti as Arcadia with an abundance of sexual pleasure. William Hodges’ Tahiti Revisited is drenched in rosy luminosity, where women’s naked-nymph like bodies merge with the water, and bare buttocks are displayed, exposed to the viewer. These are bodies that created rhapsody on the part of sailors and officers. But the allure is also dangerous, the woman’s buttocks are tattooed, a sacred statue stands over her and in the distance there is a funeral bier. The sexuality here is potentially threatening. 32
The other point about finding these locations was largely market driven on my part rather than creative. The European broadcasters were keen on ‘exotic…. winter viewing, on a cold snowy winter’s night’ for their audiences. So I would find these locations, film them and give it to them in spades. They were after all places I wanted to visit too! I also needed to find suitable locations in Paris and London, as a huge part of this history is centred there. There was an all important budgetary reason for this too. If the archive royalty budget for the enormous amount of paintings, stills and Hollywood feature footage required for the story blew out, then we would have this location footage to fall back on as a substitute, albeit a poor one. So a small amount of research travel was allocated to finding locations in London and Paris, touring the large island of Tahiti, its outlying companion island Moorea, which is much less developed, and a trip around Oahu, the main Hawaiian island. Andrew Ogilvie’s pitch to broadcasters also covered 19th and early 20th century Pacific literature and the way this too had simultaneously reflected and promoted the European view of Polynesian women as ‘sex queens’. Herman Melville, the one time sailor best known for Moby Dick, is often considered the first writer of substance to popularize the South Pacific with his 1846 autobiographical novel, Typee — A Peep at Polynesian Life. Melville went to sea at the age of 16 and later jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands, where his story is set. It was Melville’s first and most popular novel until the 1930s, the book’s success was attributed to the author’s creation of the island dream girl, Fayaway. I chose to focus on Melville’s first novel because in 1958 it was versioned and produced by Warner Bros. as the feature film, Enchanted Island (Dir. Allan Dwan 1958) starring Jane Powell, as Fayaway, and Dana Andrews, as Tom, the Melville character. Luckily, amongst the numerous Hollywood cinema trailers I was researching, I found a stunning promotion for this South Seas cinema classic which I transcribed for my script. Authors Luis Reyes and Ed Rampell revealed the influence of 19th century novelists on Hollywood in their encyclopaedic book on South Seas cinema, Made in Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas,
These seductive islands have been a potent font of literary inspiration for countless authors for more than 200 years. During the late Victorian era, Robert Louis Stevenson fashioned novellas and short stories for a British public smitten with the romance of the South Seas. Mark Twain presented his Pacific based works to American audiences in the mid 1800s, followed by Jack London in 1893. These and other writers produced a charming though sometimes confusing portrait of seduction using images steeped in stereotype. Hollywood movies and later television perpetuated this mythology that combined fact with fiction to form a conflation of Pacific cultures.
Researching a film like this, based almost entirely on archival images, is a complicated business determined entirely by the archive royalty line in one’s budget. The selection of the final images and footage for inclusion in the program would depend first on gaining copyright clearances and then negotiating the price demanded by the rights holders. Tracking down the copyright owner could take weeks if not months and only then could the financial negotiations start once the owner agreed to the granting of a license. So it was impossible to completely nail down what images I could use until this process had occurred. On numerous occasions I selected a key image that I desperately wanted to use, only to then find that the copyright fee for that one painting could buy five others of lesser historical weight to the story. In some instances the owners refused to grant licenses at all. By the final stages of research I was watching on average 20 feature films a week and furiously transcribing selected scenes that illustrated key moments or themes. I was completely hooked on Hollywood’s B Grade vision of the South Seas and began to adore Dolores Del Rio in The Bird of Paradise (1932) and the numerous island themed films of Dorothy Lamour, John Ford’s Hurricane (1937) and The Jungle Princess (Dir. Wilhelm Thiele1936) where Lamour plays the role of Ulah, the female ‘Tarzan’ character that made her a star. I was hooked because I was being entertained. I was laughing and engaged with the characters and storylines that shamelessly exploited the celluloid version of Neil Rennie’s ‘nubile savage’ or Claude-Louis Stefani’s ‘jezebel’. Meeting Ed Rampell in Los Angeles, with his extraordinary knowledge of Pacific island movie history, combined with my growing appetite for 1930s and 40s South Seas cinema began
to greatly influence how I would direct the Hula Girls story. The big question for myself, and my producer , was about copyright fees and whether we could afford vast amounts of Hollywood footage. And would companies like Paramount, MGM and Fox release this footage?
1. Pierre Loti, P. (Julien Viaud), 1880, Le Marriage de Loti, originally published as, Rarahu: idylle
polynesienne, 1879, trs Clara Bell, T. Werner Laurie Ltd, London 1925 p.126.
2. Clendinnen, I. 2006, The History Question – Who Owns the Past, , Quarterly Essay, Issue 23 p.7. 3. Graham, T. 2001, AFTRS Documentary Course Notes. 4. Neil Rennie, author & Reader in English at University College London, research interview by
Trevor Graham, 2003. 5. Ed Rampell, journalist & film critic interview by Trevor Graham (2003).
6. Parliament of Whores, 1991, by P.J.O’Rourke, quoted in The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous
Quotations, Sherrin N. 2005, 3rd Edition, Oxford University Press, New York, p.166.
7. Tea Hirshon, member Asemblee de la Polynesie Francaise, research interview by Trevor Graham
Papeete , 2003. 8. Ibid.
9. Marguerite Lai, Directrice O Tahiti E dance troupe, research interview by Trevor Graham, 2003. 10. Katerina Teaiwa, Assistant Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii, research
interview by Trevor Graham, 2003.
11. Desoto Brown, Manager of Moving Images at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, research interview
by Trevor Graham, 2003.
12. Joe O’Neil, owner Hawaii Antique Center, research interview by Trevor Graham November 2003. 13. Claude-Louis Stefani, curator Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rochefort research interview by Trevor
Graham , 2003. 14. Ibid. 15. Ibid.
16. Boulay, R. 2002, Kannibals & Vahines Imagerie des mers du Sud, catalogue, Musee National des
Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie, Paris, p.24.
17. Claude-Louis Stefani, curator Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rochefort research interview by Trevor
18. Katerina Teaiwa, Assistant Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii, research
interview by Trevor Graham, 2003.
19. Graham, T. 2004, Hula Girls – Imagining Paradise, Character Notes, Electric Pictures, Perth, p.4. 20. Sturma, M. & Colgan, G. 2002, Island Aphrodite, pitch document, Electric Pictures, Perth p.5. 21. Graham, T. Hula Girls – Imagining Paradise, Character Notes, Electric Pictures, Perth, p.4. 22. Anne Salmond, Professor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor University of Auckland interviewed by Trevor
Graham for Hula Girls, 2004.
23. Margaret Jolly, Professor & Head of the Gender Relations Centre in the Research School of
Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University research interview by Trevor Graham, 2003.
24. Katerina Teaiwa, Assistant Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii, research
interview by Trevor Graham, 2003.
25. Stephen Eisenman, Professor Art History Northwestern University Illinois, interviewed by Trevor
Graham for Hula Girls April 2004.
26. Sturma, M. & Colgan, G. Island Aphrodite, pitch document, Electric Pictures, Perth p.5.p.4. 27. Stephen Eisenman, Professor Art History Northwestern University Illinois, interviewed by Trevor
Graham for Hula Girls April, 2004.
28. Margaret Jolly, Professor & Head of the Gender Relations Centre in the Research School of
Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University research interview by Trevor Graham, 2003.
29. Ed Rampell, journalist & film critic, research interview by Trevor Graham, November 2003. 30. Neil Rennie, author & Reader in English at University College London, research interview by
Trevor Graham, 2003.
31. Margaret Jolly, Professor & Head of the Gender Relations Centre in the Research School of
Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University interviewed by Trevor Graham for Hula Girls, May 2004.
32. Margaret Jolly, Professor & Head of the Gender Relations Centre in the Research School of
Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University, research interview by Trevor Graham September 2003.
33. Rampell E. & Reyes, L. 1995, Made in Paradise, Hollywood's Films of Hawai'i and the South
Seas, Mutual Publishing, Honolulu, p. 34.
Hollywood’s South Seas Princess
Do you remember the first movie you ever saw? The first movie I ever saw was South Pacific. And I said to myself when I was 4 or 5 years old, I said, ‘self, when you grow up, you’re going to go to the South Pacific and you’re going to get an island girl like Liat’.
When I was a small boy I too was greatly influenced by the movies and what I saw on the small screen in the corner of our family’s living room. I consumed a lot of television when I was young, particularly on school holidays in the middle of a cold Melbourne winter. Holiday TV at that time regurgitated a lot of Hollywood black and white B-grade, as well as the works of funny men, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Bud Abbot and Lou Costello. I would enthusiastically watch these films with my father day in day out. He loved Abbott and Costello and I remember one school holiday watching with him their screwball comedy set in the South Pacific, Pardon My Sarong (Dir. Erle C. Kenton, 1942). In the story Bud and Lou play a couple of bus drivers who join the crew of a yacht bound for Hawaii. On the voyage they are blown off course by a hurricane and land on a mysterious tropical island. Costello is mistaken for a legendary god by the island ‘natives’ and is ‘forced’ to marry their beautiful princess, Luana. The ‘natives’ then enlist Costello to fight and defeat the evil spirit of the island’s volcano which has cruelly ruled their lives. Pardon My Sarong commenced production not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of America’s involvement in World War II. The Pacific War severely impacted on Hollywood’s ability to continue producing South Sea ‘island’ stories,
In pre-war days, Hollywood producers would have thought nothing of sending a camera crew to Honolulu, Bali, Java or to the ends of the world to get proper background for a film. With World
War II, studio technicians were put to the test to devise authentic backgrounds within the confines of the back lot. In creating a tropical background for Pardon My Sarong Universal technicians created a set that at first glance resembled a Garden of Eden. More than 20,000 individual plants, many of them rare species, were arranged and placed to form a jungle. 2
Pardon My Sarong was an early taste in my life of what Ed Rampell and Luis Reyes have defined as an under recognised Hollywood movie genre, ‘South Seas cinema’. Even though South Seas stories hark back to the birth of filmmaking and have often involved major Hollywood stars, production companies and directors, the authors claim in their encyclopedic book, Made in Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas, that the film worlds’ critics, film historians and academics have failed to recognise, ‘the island movie as a motion picture genre with its own distinguishing attributes’. They go on to define those attributes by writing about the complete range of feature films, documentaries, television series and early actuality films, more than 600 in total, that have been shot and or have story lines set in the South Pacific,
Loosely defining South Seas cinemas as films made in and/or about Hawaii and other islands of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia (three geographical areas sometimes referred to as Oceania), its most distinguishing feature is that, more than any other Hollywood genre, it deals with the theme of PARADISE. This utopian quality, often portraying the isles as earthly Edens, sets South Seas cinema apart from other film genres. Hawaii is no longer categorised as being in the South Seas, but more films have been shot in Hawaii than on any other Pacific island and with the possible exception of Tahiti, no other place has been so projected onto the popular imagination as an earthly paradise. 3
In his introduction Rampell goes on to further explore the defining attributes of South Seas cinema and also the genre’s relevance to this document, Making Hula Girls,
The happy-go-lucky settings-and sets-for these equatorial raptures are often languid lagoons where beautiful brown-skinned girls inhabit a natural native nirvana. Underwater shots, as well as scantily clad vahine (women) and tane (men) in sarongs, loin cloths, and grass skirts are a staple of these scenes, which often include partial nudity, in and out of the water. 4
Meeting Ed Rampell and his co-author Luis Reyes in Los Angeles, combined with
reading their book, greatly influenced the way I began to conceive telling the story of Hula Girls in the latter stages of my research, and Hawaii became central to the story as ‘more films have been shot in Hawaii than on any other Pacific island’. There were so many films to potentially draw on (but only if we could afford the copyright) that encompassed the notions of free love and unashamed sexuality which had evolved in the Western mind since Bougainville’s visit to Tahiti in 1768. My movie history research began to both challenge and broaden my thinking about sexuality and the historical representation of Polynesian women. I realised that I too had a one-dimensional, politically correct view of the role of sexuality in South Seas cinema, seeing it solely as a means of peddling cinema tickets and exploitative of Pacific island life, custom and history and particularly island women. Rampell and Reyes opened up new ways of seeing and experiencing the South Seas genre and provided my story with the potential twists and turns in the narrative that I was seeking. Whilst still maintaining a critical eye for the ‘south seas stereotype’, I came to appreciate sex in Hollywood as a universal language of filmmaking, one that most of us have an interest in and therefore engaging to watch. Moreover, South Seas stories and characters, even though they maybe stereotypes, were employed by Hollywood writers and directors as a means of resisting the strict censorship codes of the 1930s and 40s. Films like Bird of Paradise, South of Pago Pago and South Pacific also confronted the taboo subject of interracial relationships and sex in a time when race lines were strictly drawn in the USA. So I delved deeper into this cinematic vision of the South Seas, which commenced in Hawaii at the end of the 19th century. Just as Paul Gauguin was putting the finishing touches to his grand canvas D’ou Sommes Nous? and shipping it to Paris, a new picture making technology, the motion picture camera, was about to drastically transform and ‘colonise’ the image of Hawaii and her people forever. In 1898, after winning the Spanish American war in the Philippines, the Hawaiian Islands took on a new strategic importance for the United States, being midway between mainland America and its newly acquired Pacific territory. After two attempted coup
d’etats to overthrow the Hawaiian Monarchy and government and years of political turmoil in Honolulu, the US Congress succumbed to US sugar and business interests in Honolulu and decided to annex Hawaii in July 1898. A large military garrison was soon established on the main island Oahu and the US armed forces quickly became the leading sector of Hawaii’s economy. The Hawaiian language was soon banned in all public schools and children who spoke ‘olelo’, the language of their parents, were punished. Indigenous Hawaiians slowly but progressively became a minority in their own land as immigrant labour from Asia and Europe were brought in to harvest sugar cane on Hawaiian plantations. Unlike their men folk, Hawaii’s indigenous women were viewed as exotic beauties and encouraged to marry freely with other races. In this rapidly changing social and political environment the first moving picture images of Hawaii were shot by a Thomas Edison camera crew in Honolulu just weeks before the American takeover. Kanakas Diving For Money (Thomas A. Edison No. 2. June 22nd 1898) shows a group of young indigenous Hawaiians diving for coins in the Honolulu harbour. Behind them is a newly arrived tourist ship from a trans-Pacific voyage. These scenes shot by Edison’s crew were to become a recurring motif in later day Hollywood features such as MGM’s Pagan Love Song (1950) where Howard Keel, playing a newly arrived tourist (in this film arriving in Tahiti) throws coins to the ‘happy go-lucky natives’ from the ship’s deck for entertainment. Another Edison Company film archived in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii Footage 1906, documents aspects of Hawaii’s new life after the US annexation: soldiers on parade in Honolulu, marching, marking time and performing bayonet and rifle drills. The 20 minute film also depicts the first moving picture footage of Neil Rennie’s ‘South Seas welcome’ where Hawaiian canoes, race towards a camera stationed on the harbour shore, a scene replicated time again by Hollywood, most famously in the three Hollywood ‘Bounty’ films, Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clark Gable (1935), Marlon Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), and The Bounty with Mel Gibson (Dir. Roger Donaldson, 1984).
Despite hula dancing having been banned by missionaries in Hawaii since the 1820s, it underwent a rapid cultural revival in the 1890s along with a general resurgence in interest in indigenous culture and traditions, including the Hawaiian sport of surfing. By happenstance this cultural renaissance coincided in Hawaii with the arrival of studio photography, the movie camera and tourism. Hula, along with surfing quickly became a source of inspiration for post card and souvenir manufacturers, travelogue and adventure filmmakers alike. Hula Dancing 1920s is one of the earliest depictions of hula dancing in the Bishop Museum. The silent footage shows a hula dancer at Waikiki beach (which due to tourist promotions was about to become an international icon of Hawaii) accompanied by a woman chanting and playing a drum. These early Pacific actuality films, travelogues and adventure films, mirrored the travel literature of the 18th and 19th century, further romanticising the South Pacific – recreating an old image of the ‘Polynesian maiden’ in the new medium of the motion picture. Ed Rampell was well versed in this early motion picture history when I interviewed him in LA,
Moving pictures and anthropology as a serious social science emerged during the same historical era. So you find both early ethnologists and movie makers using the new medium of film as a means for recording what they saw as the vanishing cultures of Oceania. Part of the appeal of these early films is that they permit some sexual license in depicting toplessness on the grounds of ethnographic authenticity. And the image of the hula girl is also quickly picked up by both amateurs and by travelogue companies, further popularising the image of the South Sea maiden. 5
It wasn’t long before Hollywood realised that Polynesian women and the legends of their sexuality could provide titillating subject matter for audiences. In 1920, Tinsel Town’s most famous silent era director, D.W. Griffith, directed the Idol Dancer, a feature length drama with musical accompaniment set in the South Pacific. The film opens with the title Idol Dancer, followed by a subtitle, A Story of the Southern Seas, in an attempt to furnish the film with authenticity. Griffith’s feature tells the story of a rebellious native girl, White Almond Flower, played by Clarine Seymour, a dusky South Seas maiden who is desired by both a derelict white adventurer and a local missionary's invalid son. The
South Seas genre theme of beauty and ‘near-nakedness’ plays itself out here too. As with most silent era films the narrative is aided and abetted by title cards to explain the story. In one scene White Almond Flower sits in a hut wearing only a grass skirt and floral lei. Sitting next to White Almond Flower is her adopted father who implores her, via a title card, ‘Say, why don’t you get some clothes on?’ Dad grabs a blanket and encourages her to wear it. A recurring South Seas genre moral is played out in the scene: the feral and exotic island girl, the temptress or ‘jezebel’, is tamed by a white man and ‘civilised’. In a latter scene White Almond Flower, wearing her grass skirt, dances a strident and crazy hula dance (more in keeping with modern jazz ballet) in her father’s shack, while she is watched by the missionary’s doting son. The dance is erotic and the son is spellbound. Griffith had a strong eye for the power of documentary or actuality footage in drama and used it to with great effect as a back drop in Idol Dancer. He shot beautiful village scenes of large traditional canoes paddled across a tropical lagoon by islander men. He also included footage of ‘South Sea maidens’ standing at the fringe of the lagoon bathing. This photographic realism confirmed for audiences that the legendary island girl existed and was as exotic and beautiful as they were led to believe. It reinforced the truth of the fictional character, White Almond Flower, by placing her within an ethnographically ‘real’ milieu. The fusion of documentary and drama in Idol Dancer is something we now take for granted as a device in the vocabulary of filmmaking. But in Hollywood’s early silent era it was still a novel and inventive technique for filmmakers like Griffith to employ as part of their story telling arsenal. According to Ed Rampell this technique is one of South Seas cinema’s defining attributes,
Hollywood’s early incantations are a curious mixture of actuality or documentary footage, filmed in the islands, which provide a backdrop for fictionalised stories, usually about a dancer, or a love story involving a young island woman and a beachcomber or sailor, like Griffith’s The Idol Dancer. So the border between anthropological ‘authenticity’ and Hollywood fancy became blurred. Culture and geography in Hollywood is always goofy, there’s head hunters, missionaries and sexy maidens all thrown in together. Hollywood didn’t think up these things it all came out of the literature and chronicles of the sailors. Movies just put a face and an image and a picture to what was already there. 6
Hollywood’s most noteworthy South Seas genre picture of the silent era is also a concoction of fact and fiction and the product of a turbulent collaboration between two legendary film directors, the German expressionist master of fantasy and poetry, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (better known as F.W. Murnau), and the American documentary maker, Robert Flaherty. Released in 1931, Paramount Pictures Tabu — A Story of the South Seas, is unusual in that the young lovers are not a western man and a native girl. Instead, it tells a story of forbidden love between Matahi and Reri, on an island whose inhabitants still live according to ancient Polynesian customs. When a ship comes to their island bearing the high priest Hitu, he decrees that Reri is ‘tabu’ to all men — her virginity must be consecrated to the island gods. As if mimicking the painting Tahiti Revisited (1776) by William Hodges, women’s bodies, waterfalls, dappled sunlight and tropical foliage are empathically intertwined in Tabu (shot on Bora Bora and Tahiti, and winning for cameraman Floyd Crosby an Academy Award for Best Cinematography) producing a bounty of near-naked sensuality for its audience. I transcribed the following beautifully shot waterfall scene from Tabu for inclusion in the Hula Girls shooting script,
00:35:58 Waterfall sequence: Matahi peers through large taro leaves and spies on a group pf young and beautiful Polynesian women swimming in a waterfall flowing into a deep water pool. The women pose seductively in the pool wearing floral leis on their hair. Matahi’s other mates eagerly join him to ‘spy’ on the women. They topple down the waterfall their bodies firm and muscular. Matahi grabs a ‘young nymph’ in his arms and together they tumble down the waterfall — it’s a lover’s paradise — perfect bodies in the sparkling tropical sunlight. 7
When I interviewed Margaret Jolly for my research, she elaborated on the connection between landscape and ‘the figure of women’ in Tabu,
Tabu is all open air and sunlight — the brilliant tropical light sparkles on the ocean and glistens on the beautiful young bodies of the native men and women. It’s a romance not a documentary, but it gains ethnographic authority from being shot on location in Tahiti and from its representation of the Polynesian practise of Tabu, chiefly power. The border between
anthropological ‘authenticity’ and Hollywood fancy became blurred around the ‘figure of women’. 8
As with the earlier Idol Dancer, Tabu relies on its documentary footage to enhance the sense of authenticity. But Murnau and Flaherty take authenticity one important step further, by employing Polynesians to play most roles, many of whom were non actors,
First of all, Tabu is almost completely made on location on Bora Bora. Secondly it has a feeling of authenticity because most of the actors are Polynesians who actually weren’t actors. The neorealists would do this about 17 years later or so. But Flaherty and Murnau were using to a large extent non-actors, not completely but a number of them were non-actors in the lead roles. And there are these great topless scenes and you really feel that you’re seeing something authentic. You can see bronzed breasts and nipples and that was somehow acceptable because it had sort of an anthropological or sociological spin to it. And it was a nod towards authenticity. 9
As Tabu, a story about ancient Polynesian rites and customs was being made in French Polynesia, sweeping changes were underway in Hawaii at the apex of the Polynesian triangle. Often referred to in the press as ‘a passing race’, indigenous Hawaiians found their dance and music transformed into entertainment, and nostalgia for ‘the old precolonised Hawaii’. This eclectic mixture of nostalgia and entertainment is best exemplified by the South Seas movie sub-genre of the Hawaiian musical, which in the 1930s cashed in on the sweeping international craze for hapa haole music featuring ukuleles and steel guitars. Song of the Islands, a 1934 colour tourist film promoting Hawaii, featured an early hapa haole song classic, I Found a Little Grass Skirt, for a Little Grass Shack in Hawaii. The film depicts ‘romantic’ 1930s couples in romantic locations, doing romantic things: dancing, strolling, surfing tandem style at Waikiki, taking in the unspoilt beauty (or what was left of it) of Hawaii. In one scene in a famous Honolulu hotel, the Royal Hawaiian, a band master proclaims: ‘Ladies and gentleman we want to offer my new composition entitled, “I Found a Little Grass Skirt, for a Little Grass Shack in Hawaii”’. The band plays the melody as dancers take to the dance floor, then cuts to scenes of Honolulu Harbour, downtown palm-lined streets, Hawaiian lei sellers with their fresh flowers, a panoramic view of the lush
mountains surrounding Honolulu and European surf board riders at Waikiki. The storylines in these films are no longer centered on European male meets ‘native female’ and falls in love. The narratives have evolved to include tourists from mainland America travelling to Hawaii seeking romance and or meeting a European resident of Hawaii. Hawaii has become a location and a draw card for generic Western romance. In Hawaii in the 1930s tourism and Hollywood danced the same tune to promote Hawaii as a destination for love. But unless you were a blue blood, a celebrity, or a seaman, visiting the South Seas was just a dream. Only the rich and famous could afford the five day steam ship passage from the West coast of America to Hawaii. And hence there is a plethora of 1930s newsreels featuring Waikiki beach and celebrities, movie stars like Mickey Rooney and Shirley Temple with Hawaiian surfers such Duke Kahanamoka the ‘ambassador of Aloha’. Every Hollywood starlet and pin up girl who visited Waikiki, including such beauties as Rita Hayworth, Eleanour Powell, Movita Castaneda and Esther Williams were regularly photographed in grass skirts. Ed Rampell, who had lived in Honolulu, knew well the impact of this tourist legacy,
Hawaii became a playground and what was left of Hawaiian culture became glamorised. Never mind that the people of Hawaii have been almost been wiped out by contact with the West or that the hula had been banned. Hollywood royalty had now arrived big time in the South Seas. 10
Movie-going became ingrained in America. During the 1930s, 85 million people from all walks of life attended packed movie houses each week. The audiences were largely middle class adult women, who set the tone for the majority of American films. According to Ed Rampell the golden age of South Seas cinema was during this era and the reason he attributes to the genre’s popularity are the desperate nature of the times and the Great Depression,
This was the hey day of Pacific pics. Why is that? Capitalism failed, the system failed. And white man was trapped in civilisation and its discontents. And there was this yearning to escape from the dust bowl, from the unemployment, from the class struggle, from the social upheavals of the depression, from the creeping fascism overseas. In the US people wanted to run away and get away from it all. And one cinematic solution to this was to return to nature, to return to the golden
age. To return to Eden before the Fall. 11
The personification of this great escape in the 1930s and 40s came in the ‘fine’ figure of Dorothy Lamour, a former Miss New Orleans beauty queen, who became a sensation in a series of frothy South Seas romances in which she played a bewitching Polynesian maiden wearing only a skimpy sarong, and the obligatory garland of flowers. She was nicknamed ‘sarong girl’. Young girls the world over would swathe themselves in table cloths and say, “I’m Dorothy Lamour”.
In the Lamour pictures Her Jungle Love or The Jungle Princess you could get away from the industrial nightmare, 9 to 5 slavery, from the drudgery of the depression. You could run away to a place where food just grew on trees and you could just pluck it from the trees and nature was balmy, there were no winters. So there was this back to nature movement and, well if we’re going to go back to nature, why not go some place warm. And there’s something about islands, there’s something about the fact that they’re surrounded by water, they’re harder to get to, they’re not part of a continent and a bigger society. And they were scenically spectacular, they weren’t environmentally devastated by modern times, and the South Seas epitomised all of these fantasies.
The ‘South Seas Princess’ also became a stock Hollywood character in the 1930s. When Dolores Del Rio played Princess Luana in the RKO film Bird of Paradise (1932) she pushed the risqué image of the hula girl as far as Hollywood would allow. Her breasts were covered only by floral leis held in place by adhesive tape. Del Rio was one of numerous Hispanic actresses whose dusky looks could double for the generic Pacific Island ‘maiden’. Viewing production stills in Los Angeles at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences, of Maria Montez in South of Tahiti (Dir. George Waggner, 1941) or of Movita Castaneda in Mutiny on the Bounty (Dir. Frank Lloyd, 1935) one could be forgiven for thinking that the painter of Poedua, Daughter of Oree, Chief of Ra’iatea on of the Society Islands (1780) John Webber, was the hairdresser, costume designer and make up artist employed by Universal and MGM. Their hair is dark and flowing, they have flowers behind their ears, their breasts are firm, ‘suggesting that this is the Pacific itself, as young feminine, desirable and vulnerable, an ocean of desire’ as Margaret Jolly described the Webber portrait.
Whilst I was searching for the most emblematic Hollywood productions for inclusion in Hula Girls I had at the same time to be mindful of potential royalty fees payable to the studios for the clips I wanted. Researcher Greg Colgan, from Electric Pictures, worked in tandem with me, making inquiries with the studios about the films. It was looking tough. On average studios were quoting a price of $US 10,000 per minute. At this rate we could only afford 3 or 4 clips as our total archive budget was $AUS 120,000 and this budget line also had to accommodate the many other copyright payment and clearances we required for paintings, stills, photographs and prints. Clearly this budget impost would be disastrous for the film and my strategy of employing as much Hollywood as possible to tell the story. However, just as we were facing up to this debacle, Colgan had a break through. He was advised by several American distributors, who specialised in Hollywood trailers, that cinema trailers for productions produced prior to 1964 were copyright-free. Colgan also sought advice from the US Copyright Office confirming the view from distributors that all trailers produced prior to 1964 are in the public domain unless they were registered, then renewed after 28 years which in most cases was highly unlikely. US distributors, Footage Hollywood and Subucat had many trailer titles on their books from the South Seas genre. For instance we could purchase an entire trailer for MGM’s 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty for just $US750. On average trailers were one-and-half-minutes long, and in the case of the Marlon Brandon 1962 version of Mutiny there were several different trailer versions featuring dissimilar scenes from the movie, each more than 3 minutes in length. Not only was this a budget windfall but trailers had other significant benefits for Hula Girls which would considerably assist the story-telling. Trailers are a short-hand version of the narrative of the film they are promoting. They utilise the key moments and scenes from the film, highlight the stars and quickly tell the film’s story via voice-over and titles. I could employ these trailers without huge budget implications and quickly summarise storylines by selecting key segments. At this stage in my film research I also came across King Vidor’s Bird of Paradise, staring Delores Del Rio and her on screen love interest, 1930s heart throb, Joel McCrea. A romantic comedy, it tells the story of a boat load of fun-loving US travellers who drop
in on a ‘generic’ South Seas island. Johnny Baker (McCrea) meets the native princes Luana and makes love to her. Their relationship breaks a local taboo and upsets the island’s chief. The young lovers flee to a deserted island paradise where they build a hut, food simply falls from the trees giving them time to woo each other and make love. When a volcano erupts on her home island Luana decides to return, against Johnny’s will, and sacrifice herself to appease the fury of the island gods. The film features an extraordinary dance sequence (now viewable on Youtube) in which Luana bewitches Johnny and the rest of the boat crew. Frenetic ‘orgiastic’ dancing is another attribute of Hollywood’s South Seas genre. Bird of Paradise also featured fabulous dialogue which I thought well summarized Hollywood’s image of the South Seas and Pacific Island women. I transcribed the following scene for the Hula Girls script. It’s a latter day example of Bougainville’s famous South Seas welcome from 1768,
00:03:30 A boat load of fun loving sailors in a yacht drop in on an ‘island’. Canoes full of islanders come out to the boat to greet the sailors. As they come closer the sailors yell out to the women in exaggerated pidgin-english. Sailor 1: Hellooo. Hellooo. Hellooo. Sailor 2: What’s that supposed to mean? Sailor 1: It’s the call of the wild. Hellooo. Hellooo. The canoes begin to surround the boat. Sailor to Johnny: Johnny you’re out of luck. There’s no blondes. Passenger: You don’t suppose they’re cannibals do you?
More and more canoes arrive, circling the yacht. Johnny and other crew members stand on deck admiring the women. Passenger: What do you call this place?
It’s probably one of the virgin islands. Heaven forbid. Girls!
Johnny sits down and talks with the yacht’s skipper. Skipper: Johnny here’s the charm of the South Seas. You cruise about and out of nowhere you tumble onto one of these little islands. You nearly always find the natives are happy, carefree people. Johnny: Yeah I know. Fond of life, wine and dancing.
A young island woman, Luana, dives off a canoe in front of Johnny and the skipper and swims around nymph like in the water. Johnny: Hello baby. Got anything on for tonight?
The crew and passengers throw objects into the water, encouraging the natives to dive for them. 13
Bird of Paradise features other common elements of the South Seas genre including a nude underwater swimming scene where Luana swims out to the newly arrived yacht to greet Johnny. Its night time and Johnny stands on the deck listening to the sound of her splashing as she approaches the boat. Luana swims up to the yacht and playfully squirts water at him and dives back enticingly under water, imploring him to follow. Johnny obliges, strips down to his shorts and plunges in. The under water chase sequence, accompanied by Hawaiian steel guitar is long and sensuous. Launa swims to shore where Johnny eventually catches her. Half naked, Luana struggles to free herself from his grasp. But the much stronger sailor pins her down, kisses her, and Luana’s resistance melts to romance. As if experiencing kissing for the first time she implores Johnny to kiss her again, but she doesn’t know the word for kiss, so Luana points to her lips.
In terms of themes, characters, dialogue, ideas and representation of both women and island life, Bird of Paradise is a classic example of the South Seas genre and was a must for inclusion in Hula Girls. So I was astounded when Greg Colgan informed me that the film was in the public domain. RKO was a long defunct studio and the copyright in the film had passed. Turner Entertainment had picked up the entire RKO library and was selling the film for $US 5,000. And for this amount I could use unlimited footage and any scene I liked. Interracial love is one of the most common themes running through Bird of Paradise and the South Seas genre, with the basic plot centering on a Western man, fleeing from civilization, who takes up with a Polynesian beauty. They have a brief and intense love affair that ends when he returns to civilization or she is sacrificed to the island gods. This common plot structure harks back to the doomed relationship of Rarahu and Loti in Julien Viaud’s 19th century pot boiler Le Marriage de Loti. But according to Ed Rampell this doomed love scenario, involving a western male and a Polynesian women has a much earlier and symbolic genesis,
It goes back to the biblical myth of Adam and Eve in Eden. And the Bible story does not end with Adam and Eve continuing to live within the womb of Mother Nature and happily making love for ever and ever. It ends with their expulsion from paradise. So white civilisation is perpetuating this outlook, in the collective unconscious, it’s perpetuating the fall from paradise. Another reason why is because the white man who likes in his arrogance to think that he’s superior to others and has the best civilisation and the best God and so on, he can’t allow another society to be depicted as being superior to his. So he has to undermine the utopia. He has to subvert the utopia because we can’t be seen as having our civilization bettered by another. 14
Bird of Paradise has another of the fundamental tenets of the South Seas genre: displays of open and frank sexuality. Del Rio is bare breasted throughout the entire picture, with her bosoms discreetly covered by floral leis. There are numerous scenes of passionate kissing on the beach with suggestions of interracial love-making between a white Caucasian male and an island woman. Discovering this theme in the South Seas genre, Hollywood’s representation of interracial love and sex, became one of the major turning points in my research. Its easy to look back and snitch at Delores Del Rio the Latina 119
playing the Polynesian beauty, with the benefit of hindsight and 1980s orthodoxies of ‘political correctness’. But Rampell and his co-writer Luis Reyes presented me with alternative view points that were more in keeping with the era in which Leonard Praskins, and Wells Root were writing, and King Vidor directing. In their judgment, characters like Luana and Johnny were examples of Hollywood’s early attempts to challenge mainstream America’s attitude to race and segregation, as Ed Rampell put it,
You can’t have South Seas cinema without interracial love. It’s like Aunt Jemima’s pancakes without the syrup. It’s a main ingredient. It’s usually the white male and brown female, but not always, but that’s what it usually is. One can look at that in a number of ways. It’s an extension of colonialism, the white man is conquering territory, and he is also conquering, the foreign woman becomes a sex object to him. But maybe we could look at it in a more kindly way, and maybe its love conquers all and love conquers racism. That’s another way to look at it, the idea that in a paradise the different ethnic groups will get along.
Films like Bird of Paradise not only challenged racially divided America they also tested main stream moral values. In the 1930s, Hollywood’s portrayal of romance, sex and violence came under fire from America's moral guardians. The Legion of Decency, a powerful off shoot organization of the Catholic Church of America, was formed in 1934 to combat what they branded ‘immoral movies’. Members took a pledge in church to boycott ‘corrupt’ Hollywood films and also embargo movie theatres that screened them. This ‘fight against filth’ was aimed at discouraging the major studios from producing movies that would earn the displeasure of the Legion. In response studios adopted a voluntary code of strict moral censorship implemented by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America (MPPDAA). The Hollywood Production Code (also known as the Hays Code 1930) spelt out restrictions on language and behaviour, particularly sex and crime. It prohibited nudity, suggestive dances and explicitly forbade miscegenation, sex relations between the white and black races. Adultery, illicit or premarital sex, could not be overt or presented as attractive options. In a love scene, the lovers couldn’t go near the bed and even married characters had to have separate beds. If there was a kissing scene actors had to have one foot on the floor and the kiss couldn’t have a screen time of more than a few seconds duration. By 1934 any theatres that ran a
film without the Code’s seal of approval were fined $25,000. According to Rampell one the of the virtues of the popular South Seas genre films of the 1930s was that they directly challenged the strictures of the Production Code, and got away with it, partially on the grounds of ‘ethnographic realism’,
One of the really curious things about South Seas cinema was that it was a way of getting around the Production Code. In some of the South Seas movies you could have nudity. You could have bare breasts or leis or sarongs or you could see the woman from behind and see her back and know that she has no bra on or no sarong covering her breasts. And there was an acceptability to this because it was far away, it wasn’t in America and because, well, this was a nod toward anthropological authenticity. Because audiences were already conditioned to accept these notions of Polynesian beauty, it was a way to skirt, or sarong around, the Production Code. And to get away with stuff that you could never do with black and white actors. The epitome of this is South of Pago Pago where John Hall woos Francis Farmer. Hall plays a Polynesian chief. In real life he was part Tahitian. Francis Farmer, a blonde haired, all American girl. And he woos her away from Victor McLaughlin. And they go away to their own little love island. And this could never, never have happened in Hollywood with a black man and a white actress. Can you imagine a scene like this with Bette Davis and Paul Robeson? 16
Rampell’s take on Hollywood history was new to me. These revelations provided nuance and complexity to my research and the Hula Girls story unimagined in the original pitch. Rampell urged me to watch South of Pago Pago (1941) when I met with him in Los Angeles and to include scenes from it. He considered the United Artists picture to be a seminal work in the South Seas genre because it reverses the usual love interest in the story line. This time a blonde beauty ventures to paradise and falls in love with a native chief,
South of Pago Pago. 00:53:52: Kehani (Jon Hall) and Ruby Taylor (Frances Farmer) lie in each other’s arms on a beach, on an island somewhere. Behind them (rear projection) waves swell and crash on the shore. Chief Kehani: What are you thinking?
I’m thinking that sky up there is like a lot of things I’ve always dreamed of having. High and far away. And I know if I reached out my hand, I could touch it.
There is a saying on Manoa. Love is always the beginning, never the end. Always the new, never the old.
I know what you mean. I feel clean and new, like I’d had a bath in them clouds. I only wish I could believe it will be like this for always.
Chief Kehani: Kehani leans forward and kisses Miss Taylor. 17
It will be like this always.
Including South of Pago Pago opened a new thematic door for Hula Girls, women too were vulnerable to the charms of the South Seas, even all American gals like Francis Farmer. So historically consistent is the European male meets native women story that it was in danger of becoming its own boring stereotype within the Hula Girls story. This film broke the mould. Perhaps the greatest Hollywood take on inter racial romance and the South Seas is to be found in the film whose title squarely locates its story in the ‘islands of love’, South Pacific. The end of World War 2 generated a spate of popular G.I. genre romances including the 1958 movie version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical hit of the same name. The movie trailer promoting South Pacific quickly proclaims the attractions of the musical drama and storyline,
South Pacific Trailer: World War 2 comes to a tiny island in the South Pacific. Japanese planes dramatically strafe the ground with machine gun fire. Trailer Vivid drama as the tide of battle turns in the
Joe Cable and Liat, his Tonkinese lover, swim and kiss under water. Trailer Narration: Romance to make one truly Younger Than Springtime. Matchless music by Richard Rogers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein the second. Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific a thing of beauty, a joy forever.
Beneath South Pacific's sugar coating of musical melodrama is a modern look at the reality of interracial love. Both the musical and the 1958 movie production, starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi, directed by Joshua Logan, contain story elements unusual for their time, a love affair between a middle aged French planter, Emile de Becque and a young navy nurse from Little Rock Arkansas, Nellie Forbush, set on an island during World War 2. Paralleling their love, is the story of Lieutenant Joe Cable and Liat, the beautiful island daughter of Bloody Mary. Nellie loves Emile, but she is troubled by their different racial backgrounds and what disturbs the American the most is that Emile has two children to a Polynesian woman. Although the children’s mother has since died, she can’t accept De Becque’s past liaison with a woman of colour and Nellie breaks off their romance. Race is also an issue for the lovers Joe Cable and island girl Liat. Although Cable loves Liat, the Pennsylvanian cannot bring himself to marry her because she is not white. The musical features high drama and romance particularly through the Rogers and Hammerstein lyrics and score, songs such as; Younger than Springtime, Some Enchanted Evening, There ain’t Nothing Like a Dame, I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy. Two of the Rogers and Hammerstein songs had particular relevance to Hula Girls: Bali Hai, sung by the island matriarch Bloody Mary, and You've got to be Carefully Taught sung by Joe Cable. Bali Hai is the epitome of the fantasy love island, an accumulated expression of two centuries of travel literature about the South Pacific equating warm 123
tropical islands with dreams of paradise, romance and the promise of sex. Bali Hai echoes the meaning of Neil Rennie’s paradigm about the 18th century sensibility which produced ‘the fundamental idea of an island that was really a female and was welcoming - the
necessity of basing your relationship to a place around a woman’,
Bali Hai Lyrics: Bali Ha'i will whisper In the wind of the sea: ’Here am I, your special island! Come to me, come to me!’ Your own special hopes, Your own special dreams, Bloom on the hillside And shine in the streams. If you try, you'll find me Where the sky meets the sea. ’Here am I your special island Come to me, Come to me.’ 19
When I interviewed Margaret Jolly about South Pacific, she had a similar take to Rennie’s on the historical and thematic connection between islands and the bodies of women, which echoed her thoughts on the 18th century Hodges landscape, Tahiti Revisted. But this time the ‘female bodies’ are an island girl of Tonkinese descent, Liat, played by France Nuyen and Mitzi Gaynor as nurse Nellie,
It’s not the old story of white man desires and wins Polynesian woman. Rather Joe Cable desires the beautiful young daughter of a Tonkinese migrant woman, Bloody Mary, who entices him in the song Bali Hai whose plaintiff tones merge the body of a singing woman with the mystique of the vaporous island. The presence of beautiful Americans in the Pacific has eclipsed the beautiful indigenes of previous Hollywood films. It’s a Pacific space that Europeans can draw on and are revitalised in terms of eros and freedom. 20
The alignment of expert opinion provided by Jolly, Rennie and Rampell was taking on a 124
life force of its own. It was becoming abundantly clear that one could look at depictions of Polynesian women made by Europeans, in different art forms and media, across centuries and come to the same critical point of analysis. It was also possible to see how the images and the literature over time had cannibalised one another. This after all was the intention of the program — the thesis if you like. My research across continents and epochs, from 18th century paintings and prints, to 19th century post cards & souvenirs through to Hollywood was clearly paying off. I was equally excited by the view that reached beyond this critique of the historical stereotypes via the opinions and work of film journalist Ed Rampell. When we discussed Joshua Logan’s direction of South Pacific Rampell took his historical analysis even one stage further. Progressive Hollywood according to Ed, was using the musical form and the romantic location of South Pacific to directly challenge segregation and home spun American racism,
Joshua Logan, the Broadway musical and the film’s director, wanted to create a special song to confront racism, so he has Joe Cable sing the lyrics, ’you have to be taught to hate and to fear’. The song directly challenges the idea that racism is innate, arguing that it is learned at an early age. The film’s themes of racial and cultural tolerance were presented at a crucial juncture in American race relations. The movie was released during the hey day of the civil rights movement and was an important part of Hollywood taking on the issue of race.” 21
Joe Cable sings You've got to be Carefully Taught at a point in the South Pacific story where he faces a moment of personal crisis. He loves Liat but can he go one step further and marry her? What will the folks back home in Philadelphia think of Liat, an island girl? Can he overcome his own doubts about her racial background? Through the lyrics Cable questions the values he grew up with and the attitudes of mainstream America,
You've got to be Carefully Taught Lyrics: You've got to be taught To hate and fear, You've got to be taught From year to year,
It's got to be drummed In your dear little ear You've got to be carefully taught. You've got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade, You've got to be carefully taught. You've got to be taught before it's too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You've got to be carefully taught! 22
Ed Rampell’s claims for South Pacific as a progressive beacon are borne out by an incident involving the stage production when it toured the southern states of the US in the early 1950s. Anticipating the arrival of the musical in Atlanta Georgia in 1953, the local legislature introduced a bill outlawing all forms of entertainment that promoted,
an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow. 23
Advocating support for the bill one lawmaker spoke about the song, You’ve got to be Taught, arguing that,
a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life.
Rodgers and Hammerstein publicly defended the integrity of their work and the inclusion of Joe Cables’ moment of questioning,
The authors replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in. 25
The Pacific Islands continued to be a site for exploring romance, interracial love and sex into the 1960s with the advent of a series of musicals featuring two popular-culture heart
throbs, Elvis Presley and the teenage story book character of the late 1950s Gidget. Paradise Hawaiian Style (Dir. Michael D. Moore, 1966), Blue Hawaii (Dir. Norman Taurog, 1961), Girls, Girls Girls (Dir. Norman Taurog, 1962) and Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) draw heavily on the image of the hula girl. However as in the earlier musical South Pacific the storylines replace indigenous islanders with ‘haole’ or Caucasian characters, European and American women dressing up as hula girls. This, in part, was a reflection of the craze for ‘tiki’ bars which swept New York and California in the late 1950s where women dressed up as Hawaiians and also the burgeoning wave of interest in surfing on the West Coast. American teenagers were now adopting the erotic persona inspired by the romantic feminine and pop culture image of the hula girl. The Hawaiian Visitors Bureau did an effective job of marketing an accessible image of the islands to middle class Americans. With the increasing affluence of the 1960s, more than a million American tourists flew into Hawaii every year. The Aloha shirt and the muumuu skirt became popular tourist fashions, while the ukulele became synonymous with fun at Waikiki. Hawaii would become Elvis Presley’s favorite vacation destination and he would enjoy many well publicised vacations there. This further colonisation of the Hawaiian Islands by the motion picture business (echoing the arrival of the Edison crew at the time of annexation in 1898) coincided with Hawaii’s full integration into the United States, when it was made the fiftieth state in the Union in March 1959.
One of the really great things about the Gidget Goes Hawaiian and the Elvis films is that you get to see Waikiki Beach before it was overbuilt and ruined by the tourism industry. The tourism industry curries favour with the film industry in order to make these films, a lot of deals are made because it’s considered to be free advertising for the islands and helping to draw a crowd. Hawaii Five O it’s said, which also came out in the 60s, 1968, H5O is believed to have been the biggest tourism poster and lure to the allure of the islands than anything else in Hawaiian history. So there’s a direct relationship between the pop culture of the period and the tourism industry. 26
The confluence of pop, tourism and the movies was a boon for Presley too. His management team determined that movies and movie soundtracks should be the future focus of his career. Blue Hawaii was Presley’s highest-grossing box office film and
became the model for musical comedy associated with him during the 1960s. The soundtrack gave Elvis the song with which he would close most of his 1970s concerts: Can't Help Falling in Love. Blue Hawaii continued another recurring South Seas genre cliché, the white person who goes to the island, hits the bush and goes native. Paul Gauguin was accused by the French ‘colons’ in Tahiti of being ‘encanaque’ or ‘kanakised’. Joel McCrea goes native in Bird of Paradise. It’s a familiar storyline that stretches back to the legend of the Bounty mutiny where Europeans, beachcombers, deserters, are entranced by the beauty of the South Pacific and ‘jump ship’, as Tom does in Enchanted Island, and adopt the characteristics and attributes of the indigenous people. Racism also plays a part in the Blue Hawaii story when Elvis chooses a part-Hawaiian lover and his Hawaiian male friends over and against his mother’s wishes. My motion picture research also included looking at a wider range of hula produced images: television commercials, cartoons, documentaries about the South Pacific, soft core 1950s pornography, 1960s tourist promotions for Hawaii and Tahiti and more recent television footage of South Pacific beauty pageants. The beauty pageants were intriguing as the contestants were clearly drawing on the popularised historical image of the South Sea maiden and hula girls. Katerina Teaiwa was greatly concerned about the influence of this sexualised hula image on Polynesian and Melanesian women across the South Pacific,
The South Sea maiden image is an imagining of what Europeans want when they come to these islands. So when the Ministry of Tourism is trying to find a face for their campaign they will try to find the one that is the most Polynesian looking. Which has become the face and the body of the Pacific. These images are consumed and exchanged and re-imagined by Pacific peoples themselves. It’s not just the result of history. It’s a function of globalisation as well the fact that they sell glamour in Fiji and the Pacific, that there are these magazines out there that sell images of women that are the most ideal. It’s the ideal vahine converging with idealised glamour. 27
After almost six months my research was slowly winding up. I’d chosen my characters and I’d selected a huge number of prints, paintings, photographs and movies that could potentially be used in Hula Girls. I knew I’d reached a point of closure to the research as
I could now discuss confidently what the story was, and according to my own guidelines, ‘why I am making it, what the underlying themes are, the subtext, where it will be filmed and most importantly who the characters are’. Greg Colgan continued to pursue copyright clearances and estimates of royalty fees from copyright owners. What images and Hollywood clips would make it into the film was dependent on the next stage of this journey, writing the script, organising the themes, characters, key historical moments and pictures into a coherent narrative. The great challenge was how to shape this 250 years of history of images into a compelling film that audiences would engage with and enjoy, a film that would, ‘inform, educate and entertain’ and fulfil the brief for the three broadcasters. Putting pen to paper was the next important next step as writing helps focus the mind.
Footnotes: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. Ed Rampell, journalist & film critic interviewed for Hula Girls by Trevor Graham, 2003. Rampell, E. & Luis Reyes, L. 1995. Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Sea, Mutual Publishing. Honolulu, p.274. Rampell, E. & Reyes, L. 1995, Introduction, South Seas Cinema — Is it a Film Genre, Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Sea, p. XXIII. Ibid. P. XXIV. Ed Rampell, journalist & film critic interviewed for Hula Girls by Trevor Graham (2004). Ibid. Scene description from Tabu. directors F.W. Murnau & Robert J. Flaherty, Murnau-Flaherty Productions, 1931, transcribed & interpreted for Hula Girls script, by Trevor Graham, 2004. Margaret Jolly, Professor and Head of the Gender Relations Centre in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University research interview by Trevor Graham, 2003. 9. Ed Rampell, journalist & film critic, interviewed for Hula Girls by Trevor Graham, 2004). 10. Ibid. 11. Ibid. 12. Ibid. 13. Scene description from Bird of Paradise, written by Leonard Praskins and Wells Root, RKO, 1932, transcribed & interpreted for Hula Girls script, by Trevor Graham, 2004. 14. Ed Rampell, journalist & film critic, interviewed for Hula Girls by Trevor Graham, April, 2004.
15. Ibid. 16. Ibid. 17. Scene description from South of Pago Pago, written by George Bruce & Kenneth Gamet, Edward Small Productions, 1940, transcribed & interpreted for Hula Girls script, by Trevor Graham, 2004. 18. Scene description from movie trailer, South Pacific, 1958, Magna/TCF, transcribed & interpreted for Hula Girls script, by Trevor Graham, 2004. 19. Bali Ha’i lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein 2nd, South Pacific, 1949. 20. Margaret Jolly, Professor and Head of the Gender Relations Centre in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University, research interview by Trevor Graham, September, 2003. 21. Ed Rampell journalist & film critic, interviewed for Hula Girls by Trevor Graham April, 2004. 22. You’ve Got to be Taught lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein 2nd, South Pacific, 1949. 23. Most, A. 2000, ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’: The Politics of Race in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific” , Theater Journal 52, no. 3, p.306 24. Ibid. 25. Ibid. 26. Ed Rampell, journalist & film critic, interviewed for Hula Girls by Trevor Graham, 2004. 27. Katerina Teaiwa, Assistant Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii, research interview by Trevor Graham, 2003.
Writing Sharpens the Mind
When I was the Head of Documentary at the Australian Film Television and Radio School in Sydney (1997-2002), some of the most frequently asked questions by my students were, ‘How do you write a script for a documentary? How can you anticipate what will happen in front of camera? How do you know what people will say or do? Doesn’t it become staged if you have a script?’ They are legitimate and debatable questions that continue to resonate amongst documentary practitioners. The well-known American documentary writer and teacher Michael Rabiger, often refers to two types of documentary, there are,
films about closed truth, whose content and form can be decided in advance of shooting. The other kind is called open truth. Here the documentary must accommodate situations that are in change and development. 1
Hula Girls falls into Rabiger’s first ‘closed truth’ category, as does most history programming. My intention was to engage audiences with fresh insights into the ‘closed truth’ of the hula girl image and the history of colonisation in the South Pacific.
Whether we like it or not, writing a script has become an important part of the business of documentary even for highly experienced documentary producers and directors. Scripting is necessary because broadcasters, both national and international, together with film funding bodies, want certainty about the projects they are investing in. Broadcasters want a sense of what the picture will look and sound like and most importantly how it will engage an audience. That’s the question they always ask.
That’s one aspect of why writing a script is important — the documentary market place routinely expects it. However my belief is that’s not the best reason for writing! For me, the real reason to write is for the pleasure it brings. Structuring a documentary story on paper, as much as that is possible, helps me clarify my ideas about what it is I want to say, and how I should say it. Writing sharpens the mind! The words on paper are a dialogue I have with myself about the scenes I want to shoot, how I will present and use my characters, what I expect may happen to them, locations, the archive I might use and potential interview questions and answers. The scripts I write also provide me with an opportunity for discussion with my producer, crew and editor, and through the script they can engage with my vision for the program. My challenge in writing Hula Girls was to find the structure of the story with a beginning, middle and an end, or in dramatic story telling terms, a set up, conflict and resolution. A story is a process of transformation and ‘story structure’ reveals that process to a reader, a listener or an audience. Structure loosely defined, is the architecture of a film, novel or a play, it’s the movement from scene to scene through which characters, subtext, information and themes manifest themselves. Stories need drama too. The dramatic 3-act story structure or story arc is well ingrained in feature film writing and applies to documentaries too. You may not see it in a finished program, and shouldn’t, but structure helps to hold and focus an audience’s attention. With bad structure, you lose your audience. The familiar cry ‘I didn’t understand what happened’ can be the result of an incoherent storyline. But there is no magic fix or formula to story telling, each story needs to find its own logic and rhythm to engage an audience. As veteran screenwriter William Goldman said about writing the screenplay for his feature screenplay, Maverick (1994),
There is no mathematical logic to any of this, it’s just how I decided what the narrative might be against what you decide. No right or wrong storytelling answer exists. Ever. I went with my answer for many reasons, but chiefly this: it gave me my spine for the movie. And until I have that, I am
essentially helpless. Once I have it, I have the confidence to start to write. 2
The documentary scripts I write include dialogue taken from my research interviews, or extracts for an author’s book. I chose the following quote from Anne Salmond’s, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog — Captain Cook in the South Seas because it vividly evokes the arrival of James Cook on board the HMS Resolution in Hawaii in 1779. It describes the first contact of indigenous Hawaiian’s with Europeans and the awestruck nature of the encounter on both sides,
People paddled out on surf boards and canoes, swarming on board, up the rigging and under the decks, where the women made love to the sailors. The decks both above and below were entirely covered with Hawaiians, men, women and children. The mood was one of unbounded joy and when one young woman, the most beautiful girl that they had hitherto seen at these islands was given a mirror she gazed at herself and cried out in delight, ‘Wahine maika’I au!’ How beautiful I am.
Quotes like this would provide my Hula Girls script with flavour and authenticity. Having met Anne in Auckland I had a fair idea that in interview she could create the same vivid ‘word pictures’ with her descriptions. A quote like Anne’s judiciously placed, makes a script engaging to read, and if it’s engaging to read the chances are the finished film will be engaging to watch. I also decided to include historical ‘eye-witness’ accounts from the period (to be delivered by actors in post-production) to further enhance the veracity of the story, and I chose this diary extract from Captain Samuel Wallis of HMS Dolphin, the first English navigator to set foot in Tahiti in 1767,
We were much surprised to find ourselves surrounded by some hundreds of canoes, there could not be less than some eight hundred people, who looked up at our ship with great astonishment. When they came within pistol shot of the ship, they lay by us, gazing at us with great astonishment. They all paddled around the ship, making signs of friendship. In the meantime we showed them trinkets of various kinds and invited them on board.
It was also important to write the script for Hula Girls to quantify for producer Andrew Ogilvie the enormous number of archival images that were required to tell the story, so he could cost the royalty fees. I wrote clear descriptions of the archival film, paintings and 133
photographs and contextualized them within the historical narrative of the image of the hula girl. By writing the script I was also thinking ahead to post-production where it would serve as a helpful guide for my editor, Denise Haslem. Writing the story’s possible structure, suggesting archival images and how the sequences could be put together would be an invaluable start for an assembly edit. We met several times before the shoot to discuss the script, the story and the story structure. In this dialogue about scripts we must also be mindful that the scripting process does have its limitations. At best documentary films should be full of surprises. The twists and turns of real life stories are particularly engaging and the unpredictable must be allowed for, it’s what makes documentary exciting to make and watch. So I am always open in the shoot to letting go of the script and seeking the unexpected as it arises either on location or in interviews with my key talent. My antenna is always tuned and on the look out for something new, even within a ‘closed truth’ story. I find it difficult writing to a preconceived plan. I have learned over the years that I have to commence by putting words on screen and then I muddle along for a while testing my ideas, feeling my way through, waiting for patterns of ideas, argument, moods and emotions to take shape. This involves a lot of writing, rewriting, deleting, cutting and pasting. It’s a collage approach, one that aligns more with film editing and the visual arts than with writing: I put this piece of interview against this image, that piece of narration against that painting, quote, or Hollywood clip. An embryonic story and style eventually emerges. When I arrive at that point I can begin to plan ahead and think about where I want the story to go and chart the spine of the narrative. The quest and challenge in writing this shooting script was to crystalise my research into a coherent 52-minute historical narrative that would engage an audience and reveal the origins and continuing allure and legacy of the hula girl representation, in its many media guises, that has so occupied the Western view of the South Pacific. How could I squeeze
250 years of Pacific and European history and its grand historical trajectory into an hour of television? It was also important not to create my own fantasy version, yet another Western vision or image of ‘exotic’ Polynesian women. In the latter stages of my Hula Girls research I started thinking about approaches to the story telling and tried to imagine novel ways of writing it. I wanted to get away from a strictly chronological story, beginning with Bougainville in the 18th century and ending in Hollywood in the 20th. This linear style of story would mean only using Hollywood in the latter stages of the program and Hollywood clips I thought, were my best asset. Healthy doses of South Seas cinema accompanied by interviews with Ed Rampell would enliven the story with humour. I considered creating a first-person narration, telling the story from my point of view as a 50-something Western male, along the lines of how I commenced this thesis, (Chapter 1) in the Captain Bligh Restaurant and Bar in Papeete. I could delve into my fantasies about brown skinned maidens with a frangipani behind one ear and the origins of this deeply ingrained desire within Western male culture. The problem with this however was two fold. Could I pull it off performance wise? It could be tragic! But more importantly, would this style fit the brief I’d been given by my producer and the three broadcasters? I also considered telling the story from the point of view of Paul Gauguin. After all, he was greatly influenced by Viaud’s novel, Le Marriage de Loti, ‘exotic’ studio based photographs of naked vahines circulating in Paris in the 1880s, and the European mystique of the ‘noble savage’. I could explore these historical influences on Gauguin, where they had originated and the ways they had influenced his paintings and desires to live amongst ‘savages’ in Tahiti. This story approach also had its problems. How would Hollywood fit in to this scenario? I quickly dismissed these two early script ideas. However much I wanted to escape it, linear chronology seemed fundamental to the brief. Hollywood writers and directors had followed on from, and capitalized on existing images, created by 19th century novelists and artists. These writers and artists in turn were
inspired by the early representations, conjured by Bougainville, Wallis and Cook a century earlier. I needed to connect the dots in this unfolding narrative. But still the question of avoiding a linear historical story was niggling. Potentially this would be deadly boring to watch. I couldn’t work this problem out in advance and decided to plunge in and write. An adjunct of my interest in screen writing is reading the reflections of other writers on their creative processes. I am always hopeful of gleaning useful tips about story and structure. William Goldman’s, Which Lie Did I Tell, More Adventures in the Screen Trade, is full of insights about stories and writing screenplays,
We get fed them in the cradle and forever on. Want to read a good story? Pick up, The Little Engine That Could. Soppy and primitive, sure, but today just by chance I read it again and let me tell you, you are rooting with all your heart for that crummy two-bit nothing of a train to get those toys over the mountain. That’s all it is this business of writing. Just get the fucking toys over the mountain. 5
With Goldman’s advice in mind, ‘Just get the fucking toys over the mountain’, I decided my story equivalent was to get the hula girls dancing or ‘wriggling’ as quickly as possible. I also sought advice from another writer’s ‘agony aunt’, crime novelist Stephen King, who says in his book, On Writing,
Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. A writer should start with the situation and the character and let the story grow from there.
With King’s advice in mind I decided to write the image of the hula girl, Neil Rennie’s ‘nubile savage’, as the lead character in the film and to quickly bed down the situation, how she was first conjured by Bougainville, and to let this lead the unfolding historical plot. After much trial and error (cutting, pasting, deleting) I eventually wrote the following scene as a prologue or pre-title tease employing, Hollywood clips, archive, narration and contemporary dance images. The prologue establishes the hula girl as a
character and she then becomes the recurring motif throughout the script. The narration and the choice of images would sit alongside some of my favourite Hollywood clips from my research, Tyrone Power’s Son of Fury (Dir. John Cromwell, 1942) and Marlon Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty (1962),
SCENE 1: “LOVE” & LEGENDS_________________________________________________ Contemporary Polynesia: Picture post card scenes of the islands of Moorea, Tahiti and Oahu: palm trees, sandy beaches, blue lagoons — clichéd but real images of the ‘idyllic’ south Pacific. Narrator: The thousands of atolls, isles and islands that dot the South Pacific provide the setting for many of history’s most dramatic events, as well as for some of its most romantic legends. Movie Clip: Son of Fury. 1942. Benjamin Blake (Tyrone Power) and an ‘exotic Polynesian’ island girl ‘Eve’ (Gene Tierney) sit on a palm fringed beach. Blake spells out the word “love” letter by letter in the sand. Eve watches him curiously. Blake: Eve: Blake: L,O,V,E. Love! Love. Yes!
Movie Trailer: Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962. Captain William Bligh (Trevor Howard) stands on the deck of the Bounty addressing his ship’s crew. Bligh: This island is inhabited by over 200,000 savages. In the event that we find ourselves welcome you’ll discover that these savages have absolutely no conception of ordinary morality. And you will no doubt take full advantage of their ignorance. Contemporary Papeete: Tourists at the Captain Bligh restaurant watch a heiva, a Tahitian dance performed by the dance group O tahite E. The dancers wear elaborate costumes and perform to a furious drum beat. The women wear grass skirts and coco-nut shell bras. Thighs, hips and hands
move fast and rhythmically to the beat of the drums. Narrator: From the time of the first European contacts in the Pacific, the South Sea maiden has conjured a spell in the Western imagination. Poedua, Daughter of Oree, Chief of Ra’iatea on of the Society Islands, 1780, oil on canvas by John Webber. Mahana No Atua (Day of the Gods), 1894, oil on canvas by Paul Gauguin. Filles des Mers du Sud, a contemporary tourist post card shows a collection of bare breasts and bums as women pose provocatively to the camera. Narrator: The young and hyper-feminine Polynesian maiden, is most frequently evoked by writers, artists, photographers and film directors. The ‘island girl’ is an integral part of the adventure and romance associated with travel to the South Pacific. Movie Trailer: Pagan Love Song, 1950. Mimi (Esther Williams) in Andy’s (Howard Keel) arms sings, By the Sea of the Moon. Mimi swims in an underwater fantasy scene surrounded by other ‘maidens’.
Narrator: Polynesian women have been typecast in this role - it’s a seductive formula — refined over the centuries. Archive: Hawaiian Musical Performances 1941-48. A beautiful young Hawaiian hula dancer, performs to the tune of, Everybody Loves a Hauki Lau, a ‘Hapa Hoale’ song, with steel guitars and ukuleles. The song is fun, sensual and beautifully sung: The lyrics: What a beautiful day for kissing, the old Hawaiian way. It’s a Hauki Lau day for kissing, the old Hawaiian way. Oh we’re going to a hauki lau, hauki, hauki, hauki, hauki lau, everydody loves a hauki lau, hauki, hauki, hauki, hauki lau. TITLE – supered over dancer & music:
Hula Girls - Imagining Paradise - 7 With this opening sequence I wanted to flag to an audience that Hula Girls would be an entertaining program that would tell an historical tale and challenge some of our preconceptions about Polynesian women, tourism and the South Pacific. It set up the style of the program, entertaining Hollywood clips, evocative paintings, images and music from popular culture, of the hula girl. Having written the opening I proceeded to write a sequence about Bougainville’s arrival in Tahiti in 1768, using his famous quote from Un Account du voyage autour le monde, historical images, narration and also a quote from Anne Salmond. After putting these elements together, I had my first big break-through as to how I could write the script and avoid a purely linear structure. I decided, by chance, to try cutting and pasting into it a section from W. S. Van Dyke’s silent era film, White Shadows of the South Seas (1928) about an alcoholic doctor, Monte Blue, who is disgusted by the negative effects of
European colonisation and sails away to an untouched Pacific island where he falls in love with a native girl played by Raquel Torres. The White Shadows scene I chose to cut
into the Bougainville historical sequence is when the doctor first arrives exhausted on the island and is welcomed with a traditional coconut oil massage by a bevy of island women,
Pan across the French text of Bougainville’s Un Account du voyage autour le monde. Bougainville (in French): I ask you, how was one to keep four hundred young French sailors, who hadn’t seen a woman in six months, at their work in the midst of such a spectacle? Despite all the precautions we took, a young girl got on board and stood by one of the hatchways. Portrait of Tynai-Mai, a young woman with large eyes and classical face, by William Hodges, Atlas to Cook’s Voyages. Bougainville: The girl negligently let fall her robe and stood for all to see, as
Venus stood forth before the Phrygian shepherd; and she had the celestial shape of Venus. We managed to restrain these bedevilled men, however, but it was no less difficult to control oneself. Louis Antoine de Bougainville 1768. Interview Anne Salmond. Anne: Once the French sailors were on shore it was impossible to control them. When they made love to the women they were eagerly watched by fascinated spectators. Movie Clip. White Shadows in the South Seas. 1928. Inter-title: Lomi-lomi — coconut oil pressed by the fingers and drawn out by the sun — the secret and sacred massage of Polynesia. A European sailor is massaged sensuously by six Polynesian ‘maidens’. They rub oil into his chest, stroke his arms and run their hands along his legs. The sailor is blissed out. One of the ‘maidens’ smiles as the other women stroke his forehead. 8
I was unsure at first how this collage would sit on the page. It seemed highly unusual and out of context, perhaps even cheeky, it also made me laugh and still does. The White Shadows scene disrupted and intervened in the historical narrative. It connected Bougainville’s journal to a film made 150 years after the French navigator arrived in Tahiti. And significantly it solved the puzzle of how to tell the story. I decided to employ two story strands from the very first frame. Strand ‘A’ would be historical and linear, connecting the dots, the images that had successively created and reinforced the image of the hula girl in the popular Western imagination for two centuries. Strand ‘B’ told the story of South Seas cinema, Hollywood’s vision of paradise. With these dueling narrative strands I could jump straight into the 20th century and utilize the popular images of the South Seas and Polynesian women conjured by 140
moviemakers. Using this ‘intervention’ technique I could introduce South Seas cinema into any place throughout the story where there was a point of thematic reference or historical connection. I eventually wrote the following scene to tell the story of the arrival of Wallis in Tahiti in 1767, using original footage to be shot in London, historical engravings, interviews and two key scenes from the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty,
SCENE 6: WALLIS ARRIVES IN TAHITI_______________________________ Contemporary London: Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London on the Thames. A statue of a mermaid holding Triton’s fork outside St Paul’s Cathedral. Narrator: In the mid 18th century European geographers believe there is a great land mass in the Southern Hemisphere to balance the weight of the northern continents. The Lords of the British Admiralty are determined that Great Britain, not France, should claim what they call Terra Australis and a race begins to get there first. Engravings of Captain Samuel Wallis and his ship HMS Dolphin. Narrator: In August 1766 they despatch Captain Samuel Wallis in a small frigate, HMS Dolphin, with secret instructions to discover the Unknown Southern land. Movie Clip: Mutiny on the Bounty 1935. A woman hawker tries to sell a sailor a string of beads on the docks at Plymouth. Woman: So you’re going to the South Seas Jack? Here take this (a string of beads) you can buy your own island. Ten shillings! A ship in full sail at sea, the Bounty sailors climb rigging. The boson pipes a watch. Contemporary Pacific: Tahiti’s verdant, craggy peaks rise from the reefs and lagoons surrounding the island. Mist shrouds parts of the island — travelling shots across the sparkling surface of the reef water.
Narrator: After ten months at sea on the evening of June 18, 1767 the Dolphin’s crew sight a great mountain covered with clouds to the south of their ship, and rejoice thinking they are the first European’s to discover the fabled Terra Australis. But Wallis has arrived in Tahiti — the heart of Polynesia. Scenics of Tahiti and Moorea, their remaining untouched beauty — fruit trees, waterfalls, ocean views, idyllic white and volcanic black sandy beaches. The lagoons of Moorea are a deep blue and turquoise. Anne: Tahiti is a jewel of a tropical island — a world away from Yorkshire and London. You can imagine the response of the Dolphin’s crew after 6 months at sea. And you can equally imagine the response of the Tahitians when the Dolphin appeared over the horizon and sailed into Matavai Bay. Thousands of men, women and children lined the beaches staring at the Dolphin in amazement. It was a moment of pure bewilderment. Review of the war galleys of Tahiti, 1776, oil on canvas by William Hodges. Narrator: Just days later the Dolphin is surrounded by a fleet of 500 canoes full of Tahitian warriors, commanded by a sacred high Chief. Thousands of men line the shore opposite. Amusements des Otahitiens at des Anglais, sailors on deck ogle naked young Tahitian women on a canoe who dive into the water, engraving, 1788. Narrator: More canoes paddle out to the Dolphin carrying women lined up on platforms posturing provocatively to the sailors and exposing their genitals. The Fleet of Otaheite assembled at Oparee, 1777, engraving by William Woollett after William Hodges. Representations of the Attack of Captain Wallis in the Dolphin by the Natives of Otaheite, engraving 1773. Narrator: The warriors attack from all sides with a barrage of rocks, hurled with slingshots. The Dolphin responds with a flurry of canon fire, and muskets firing into the canoes, hurling shattered bodies into the water. But the Tahitians are quickly subdued by superior firepower and the next day Wallis takes possession of the island
and renames Tahiti, ‘King George the Third’s Island’. Captain Wallis, on his arrival at O’Taheite in conversation with Oberea the Queen, engraving by John Hall, 1773. Insulaires et Monuments de l’Isle de Paques, a group of European sailors sitting with islander men and women, 1797, engraving after Duche de Vancy, Anne: As soon as the British and the Tahitians stopped fighting they started having sex, and some of these relationships became commercial. The crew of the Dolphin were off having a glorious time, concealing each others absences ashore from the officers and stealing iron from the ship to pay for sexual favours. Movie Clip: Mutiny on the Bounty 1935. Sitting on the beach Maimiti and Tehani brush their long black Polynesian hair and coyly look to Fletcher Christian and Roger Byram who in turn are watching the two young Tahitian women looking at them. They look backwards and forwards at each other. Fletcher is besotted. Byram: Aren’t they amazing Fletcher? I never knew there were such people in the world. They’re simple and kind and yet somehow they are royal. Fletcher stares at the two beautiful Tahitians. He hasn’t heard a word that Byram has spoken. Christian: What did you say?
Narrator: Over the following weeks a frenzy of lovemaking takes place on shore. Fearing that discipline on his ships is at risk, on 22nd July 1767, after a stay of one month, Wallis decides to leave Tahiti. Contemporary Tahiti: Travelling shots across the surface of the waters off Tahiti — the water ripples and sparkles in the hot tropical light. Narrator: As the Dolphin departs a flotilla of canoes escorts them away from Matavai Bay. 9
This disruptive or intervening technique was liberating. It mixed up images and text from the distant past, with the recent past and present, as though they are having a dialogue with each other. They were all one and the same after all, images residing in the popular imagination, but from different eras and employing different media. It allowed me to run clips of scenes with actors like Clarke Gable, Marlon Brando and Dorothy Lamour throughout the length of the program. This for me was a way of drawing an audience into the unfolding historical drama and the consequences of colonisation in the South Pacific. Introducing South Seas cinema at the head of the film also allowed me to set up the humorous Ed Rampell as a key interviewee who would be woven throughout the story. Using my Rampell research interviews together with blocks of Hollywood clips and scenes from trailers, the script became a joy to write. In my writing I was trying to find a way of interweaving history and historical analysis with the humour provided by South Seas cinema stereotypes. The Hollywood story strand, I thought, would provide entertainment value for my Australian and European audiences alike. Introducing popular culture, music and tourist images, would also provide audience connectivity with the program as familiar icons. The South Seas cinema ‘B’ story strand I was scripting would also provide the story twists I alluded to in Chapter 7, through the themes of interracial love, frank sexuality and the reaction to this by America's moral guardians, via the Hayes Code. I wrote South of Pago Pago into the script, with comments by Luis Reyes and Ed Rampell, as the beginning point to the end of Act 2,
SCENE 29: INTERRACIAL ROMANCE_______________________________________ Film Archive: Newsreel. Hollywood scenes 1930s. At a Los Angeles picture theatre, patrons que to see a new 1930s Hollywood romance. Narrator: Movie going becomes ingrained in America during the thirties — 85 million people attend packed movie houses each week. But Hollywood’s mass appeal and its portrayal of romance, sex and violence draws fire from America's moral guardians. Under pressure from the Catholic Church, producers in the
30s are forced to adopt a code of strict moral censorship. Film Archive: Newsreel, on set for a 1930s Hollywood film shoot. Narrator: The Production Code prohibits nudity, suggestive dances and explicitly forbids ‘sexual relations between the white and black races’. Film Archive: Newsreel. Lights and camera are placed in position for a 1930s romance. Reyes: If you had a love scene, the lovers couldn’t go near the bed, married people had to have separate beds, if there was a kissing scene you had to have one foot on the floor. You couldn’t show interracial romance or marriage between blacks and whites. But South Seas cinema got away with violating the Production Code. Ed: Unlike dealing with the American Indians in the Western or blacks, the South Seas movies are where white and non-white mingled the most freely. One of the best examples is South of Pago Pago, starring Jon Hall. Movie Clip: South of Pago Pago. Kehani (Jon Hall) meets Ruby Taylor (Frances Farmer) for the first time. He stares at her intently. Kehani speaks a broken ‘islander English’. Kehani: Your skin is white. And your hair is golden like the sky at dawn. Ruby: Well it’s been described before, but not like that. Ed: Hall was Tahitian, he had a Tahitian mother. So in 1940 you had a guy playing a Polynesian who was in fact a Polynesian. He steals Frances Farmer, a blonde American beauty, and interestingly this time it’s a blonde woman who goes native and has a romantic interlude on an island. 10
From this point in the story I worked towards a climax for Act 2, culminating in the story of South Pacific (the movie) as a challenge to racial segregation in America. The musical’s love stories, set against the backdrop of the Pacific War and the ‘allure’ of the South Seas, were being utilised here as a progressive beacon.
Apart from finding a structure for the story to fulfil the brief, there were several other big creative and content issues to solve at the scripting stage. How could I deal with the literary history of the Pacific, in particular the South Seas writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Frederick O’Brien amongst others? There was no easy solution to this aspect of Hula Girls. Literary works on screen are anathema in documentary as they are inherently non-visual. One is usually reduced to the talking head to describe the novel. Or re-enacting key scenes, and I had no desire to go down that path nor the budget to do it. I decided brevity was the way forward and to suggest the expansive literary history via several camera moves and narration. I wrote descriptions of camera pans and tilts across the covers of major literary works, tableaux of popular novels, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, Coral Island, Le Marriage de Loti and other works by Jack London, Somerset Maugham, Louis Becke, Barbara Grimshaw, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. I also decided to focus on one literary story as an example, and chose Melville’s 1846 autobiographical novel, Typee — A Peep at Polynesian Life. Melville, as I outlined in Chapter 8, is often considered the first writer to popularise the South Seas, and Typee, his first novel was a best seller in the 1930s. The real reason though for choosing Melville and his story about Marquesan dream girl Fayaway is that Warner Bros produced and released a feature film based on the novel in 1958, with the new title Enchanted Island. And further more there was a cinema trailer of the film that I could use without great copyright expense. I wrote a scene into the script employing 40 seconds from the trailer. This approach gave Pacific literature a toe-hold on the script. It was tokenistic at best. But it was a sacrifice I was prepared to make in favour of a visually entertaining story. The other creative dilemma I struggled with in scripting was the requirement of the original outline that the Hula Girls story should conclude with an epilogue that explored contemporary Polynesian artists, writers and filmmakers and their take on the image of the ‘nubile savage’. As I described in Chapter 6, I was concerned that these scenes would appear tokenistic at the end of the program and would be seen as a divergence from the main thrust of the story. I had researched this part of the brief when I traveled to the
centers of contemporary Polynesian artistic endeavor, New Zealand, Tahiti, Los Angeles and Hawaii. In fact across the Pacific islands a renaissance in Polynesian culture had, and is occurring — a proliferation of artists, writers and filmmakers seeking to portray their distinct lives and questioning the image of Polynesian women.
In Auckland I came across Yuki Kihara a Japanese/Samoan photographic artist and her House of Spirits series of photographic portraits of herself as a ‘dusky South Seas maiden’. Mimicking 19th century studio portraits of near naked vahines, Yuki had photographed herself with a twist. She is a fa'a fafine, a phenomena within Polynesia culture of men who live as women, constituting a third, traditionally accepted and acknowledged gender. Yuki’s playful and hyper-sexual caricatures often focus on the promotional images of Polynesian women created by tourism. I wrote Scene 33: Cultural Renaissance and Self-representation into my script and planned to shoot Kihara getting ready for a new studio photo session and posing naked to camera as a stereotypical ‘South Seas maiden’. She would wear a barbed wire ‘floral lei’ around her head and neck. I also planned to use performance footage by the Pacifika Divas, a musical group of fa'a fafine who Yuki regularly performs with, who parody and mimic the hula maiden stereotype. Kihara had a lot to say about the influence of contemporary tourism and Hollywood on Polynesian women, and not only via her photographic work,
In my series Faleafatu, which means House of Spirits I have seven portraits. I dressed myself in seven different personas. I consciously made myself look like a dusky maiden as Christ. But I want to do a flip on that image, of the dusky maiden with the tiara, naked with a floral lei around, her, being happy happy happy, like they are in tourist promotions. The image of the Hula girl is totally about fucking and sex. That’s why I want to add soft porn under currents to my work, because sex is behind these images. Tourism and Hollywood are the things that influence me most.
Polynesian Hip Hop has a very strong presence in New Zealand, Los Angeles and Hawaii. Katerina Teaiwa agreed to let me film her Hip Hop group in Honolulu and I would rely on her to help tie these scenes together in the script via commentary about Polynesian contemporary arts, 147
Many Pacific female artists, writers and filmmakers are reworking the image of the Polynesian maiden — they are making a parody out of her and they are saying this is a fantasy image, a construction, and then using the hula girl as a basis for their own images that reflect their own lives.
As a vivid contrast to the bulk of the Hula Girls story I wrote into the final pages of the shooting script several scenes from the 1994 smash hit New Zealand film, Once Were Warriors. With its gritty realism, Warriors directly challenges the romantic Hollywood idyll of indigenous Pacific life and women. Directed by Lee Tamahori it was the first and most successful feature film, produced, directed, written by, and starring Polynesians. The film tells the story of Beth Heke a descendant of a proud Maori tribe, and her husband, Jake, who live in squalor in an Auckland ghetto. I transcribed the following scene from the feature into my script,
Beth, Jake and Uncle Bully are in the kitchen, there’s a party happening. Beth is throwing eggs on the floor smashing them at Jake’s feet. Beth: You want eggs, well have the bloody lot of them. She gets angrier whilst Jake momentarily adopts an air of control. Jake: Beth: Cook the man some fucking eggs! Do it yourself Jake!
Jake violently punches Beth in the jaw, knocking her to the floor. Beth: I’m not the fucking slave around here Jake. Jake picks her up off the floor by her hair and ears. She spits in his face. He brutally bashes her head against the wall and smashes her with his fist. He throws Beth against a far side wall. She struggles to stand up.
You fucking coward! 13
The female lead in Warriors, Rena Owen agreed to be interviewed for Hula Girls. I thought this a coup to have a Polynesian actor of her stature in the program. I interviewed Rena by phone from Los Angeles for my research and wrote some excerpts into the script,
Warriors dared to have the courage to explore things we've all known about, things that most societies keep in the closet. It was time to look at domestic abuse, sexual abuse, alcohol abuse and cultural alienation, the things that are going on in our society and not do it in a Hollywood way, but do it with honesty. An underlying theme of the film is that this is what happens to warriors when they are colonised. The theme of losing your land, losing your identity and your mana along with that, that’s the theme of cultural alienation.
Rena provided an opportunity to further politicise the Hula Girls story. She wanted to speak out about the colonisation of land, her people and the cinematic images of Polynesians,
What’s happened for Polynesian people, for all indigenous people around the world, we’ve been colonized and we’ve all had to fight to have a place in the contemporary Western world, to have some equality and being reflected honestly in films. It’s about us saying well this is who we really are, this is us and this is where we are at. It told our young brown kids from New Zealand or Hawaii, or in Samoa, that they too could be filmmakers, they could be actors, writers and directors.
I was very happy to write these scenes into the script and the gritty perspective they provided. Kihara, Owen and their respective works offered further twists in the narrative of the screenplay. But no matter how strong or engaging these scenes were, they still felt like they were occurring too late in the story, and were superfluous. Despite these misgivings I planned to shoot them, use the potent scenes from Once Were Warriors and see how they worked in the edit.
And so I kept on writing. In retrospect I was having too much fun! The first draft was 90 pages long, mammoth, rambling and unwieldy. There was too much exposition, too many ideas and interviews and way too many Hollywood clips for our budget. I was over writing the story, wanting to show and tell too much history. The first draft also had several ‘ethnographic tangents’ which AVRO specifically didn’t want. I’d written some scenes about Polynesian settlement of the Pacific and the Polynesians as master navigators and sailors. I’d also written in several scenes that predated Wallis and Bougainville’s arrival in Tahiti, including early European imaginings and writings about the Southern Hemisphere, describing mermaids and monsters and fantastic ideas about peoples from remote regions. I subscribe to the feature film script notion that a page is worth a minute of screen time. The 1st draft badly needed slashing, burning and simplifying to about 50 pages. I had to kill my babies and lose 40 pages. I returned to the original Hula Girls brief and my writing mantra, ‘What’s the story I want to tell?’ To slash the script I revisited the original program brief that had sold idea to the three broadcasters, I let ‘the market’ be my guide,
A lush, visual exploration of the origins and evolution of the sexual mythology surrounding the Pacific island woman. 16
Anything superfluous to that ‘chant’, including ethnographic and political history that I’d written would either be trimmed back or deleted. Editing interviews and rewriting reduced and simplified narration brought the script down to 68 pages including synopsis and character notes. I decided to settle on that as a final draft even though it was still way too long for an hour long program. In hindsight the shooting script is more like a rough cut of the edited program, but it was more than adequate as a piece of scriptwriting. I’d solved the puzzle of how to tell the story. It had the requisite characters, locations, themes, sub-text and archival elements in place from which a royalty budget estimate could be drawn. Perhaps more importantly
the script gave me confidence that I knew what I was doing and how I would do it. I could answer my own mantra questions: ‘What’s the story I want to tell and how can I make it? What will I need? Who will I need and where must I go to make my film?’ My producer Andrew Ogilvie liked what I’d done. It gave us a point of focus and discussion for the production. Andrew was confident from his reading that the program would deliver to the broadcasters the program they had commissioned, thus reassuring me that we would deliver the one version to all three broadcasters. It fulfilled the original premise, told a story, had a beginning, middle and end. With the script completed we could now move into pre-production planning for the shoot and make the program. This would be the real test of the locations and characters I’d chosen. How would they perform in front of camera? Would they deliver to my expectations? And crucially would the locations we were filming in Tahiti and Hawaii deliver the weather to shoot the opening scenes of the script, ‘Contemporary Polynesia: Picture post card scenes of the islands of Moorea, Tahiti and Oahu; palm trees, sandy beaches, blue lagoons — clichéd but real images of the “idyllic” south Pacific’?
1. Rabiger, M. 1994, Scripting the Documentary, a lecture at Nordisk Panorama Film Festival. 2. Goldman, W. 2000, More Adventures, Which Lie Did I Tell, More Adventures in the Screen Trade,
Bloomsbury, London, Chpt 1, p.61.
3. Salmond, A. 2003, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog — Captain Cook in the South Seas, Penguin,
London, Chapter 17, Killing Kuki, p. 394.
4. Hawkesworth, J. 1773, An account of the Voyages of Cook and Wallis, Volume 1, based on diary
entry of Captain Samuel Wallis of HMS Dolphin Thursday 18th June 1767, printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, p. 213,
5. Goldman, W. 2000, Which Lie Did I Tell, More Adventures in the Screen Trade, Bloomsbury,
6. King, S. 2000, On Writing — A Memoir of the Craft, Scribner, Riverside NJ, p.32 7. Graham, T. 2004, Hula Girls — Imagining Paradise, Electric Pictures, Perth, p. 6. 8. Ibid, p.12.
9. Ibid, p. 23. 10. Ibid, p. 54. 11. Yuki Kihara, contemporary performance and photographic artist research interview by Trevor
12. Katerina Teaiwa, Assistant Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii, research
interview by Trevor Graham, 2003.
13. Scene description from Once Were Warriors, 1994, written by Riwia Brown, based on the novel
by Alan Duff, 1994, transcribed & interpreted for Hula Girls script, by Trevor Graham, 2003.
14. Rena Owen, actress & consultant Sundance Screenwriters Lab, research interview by Trevor
15. Ibid. 16. Sturma, M. & Colgan, G. 2002, Island Aphrodite, Electric Pictures Perth, p. 1.
We Got 2 or 3 Shots Done Today
Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke the 2nd was nicknamed ‘One Take Woody’ by his Hollywood colleagues. Throughout late 1927 and early ’28 Van Dyke spent four-and-ahalf months in Tahiti filming his famed White Shadows in the South Seas, which he codirected with documentary auteur Robert Flaherty. Flaherty was renowned for Nanook of the North (1922) and his documentary Moana (1926) which was set in American Samoa. Flaherty’s film shoots were usually long and drawn out affairs and in the case of Moana took two years to complete. Van Dyke on the other hand, as his nickname suggests, would require only weeks to shoot his dramatic features mostly, Westerns and melodramas. Woody was a Hollywood ‘factory’ director accustomed to scripts, budgets, schedules and quickly getting the picture in the can. White Shadows was based on the 1919 travel book by journalist Frederick O’Brien and had sparked a wave of interest in the South Sea Islands as a travel destination and a place to escape the ‘civilized’ world. It was MGM’s first sound movie (without synch dialogue) employing synchronized music and sound effects only. There is one spoken word in the entire film ‘Hello’ along with water splashes, wind, crowd voices, laughter and whistling. The production was a major undertaking for MGM. Cast and crew had to be relocated from Los Angeles to Tahiti and everything was built from scratch: a small studio, village sets, accommodation, a screening room for viewing rushes along with a film processing laboratory. Van Dyke’s ‘one take’ reputation would be sorely tested on this picture as he was directing experienced Hollywood professionals like Raquel Torres and Monty Blue, alongside a large cast of Tahitian non actors. The White Shadows narrative about colonial exploitation of Polynesians, and its beautiful 153
cinematography by Clyde De Vinna was a perfect fit I thought, for inclusion in Hula Girls and so I wrote several scenes from the feature into my script. Van Dyke wrote a diary of his experiences on location in Tahiti. It’s a day by day, blow by blow account of the film shoot, the weather they encountered, the problems with cast, the tension between himself and Flaherty and Van Dyke’s longing for his lover, his script clerk, Josephine Chippo. The diary would make poignant reading and I hoped an evening respite from the rigors of shooting Hula Girls. In pre-production, and together with my director of photography John Whitteron, I planned a style of filming the Hula Girls interviews that employed an old Hollywood technique that W. S. Van Dyke was well acquainted with: rear projection. This technique relies on location footage projected onto a screen in a studio, in front of which the scene is performed by the actors. Car chase sequences and early westerns, like those directed by Van Dyke, relied heavily on this technique. However we didn’t have the large studio spaces that are required for this technique, nor did we have the crew, so we adapted the technique by using a data projector to throw images from the front onto an improvised screen (a large double bed sheet) placed behind our interviewees. We planned to project historic hula girl images into the frame which were relevant to the interview subjects, in the case of Anne Salmond, engravings from the Cook voyages to Tahiti and Hawaii. For Ed Rampell we chose movie production stills from 1930s South Seas pictures and for Rena Owen stills from, Once Were Warriors. I carefully planned each interview, including the questions, with the background images in mind. My research interviews had given me a very good idea of how my shoot questions could be answered, which allowed me to choose the relevant backgrounds. This technique required a lot of planning, including screen tests. We thought about using ‘blue screen’ as an alternative, which would have been easier to manage on location. However John and I decided the adapted rear projection technique would provide a more ‘cinematic’ look to the frame. Blue screen we concluded can look very electronic with its hard edge division between foreground and background. Rear projection on the other hand creates a surreal space between the interviewees and their backgrounds. We created, however, a rod for our backs as each interview set up would take several hours to prepare. The latest data
projectors, no matter how expensive, tend to whir as they operate and required sound baffles to muffle the sound. So much padding was required that the projector would often over heat and shut down, sometimes half way through an interview. Patiently we would wait for the projector to cool before firing it up. We were also mostly shooting in hotel conference rooms, not the most efficient form of makeshift studio. Consequently the rear projection technique whilst effective also provided challenges. We arrived in Papeete, after shooting in New Zealand, at the end of April. Seasonally this is the beginning of the dry season, the torrential down pours so characteristic of the South Seas tropics around Christmas, January and February tail off in April. It’s also meant to be the best time with calmer seas as the wet season monsoonal winds die down. Tranquil seas were important as John Whitteron and I were planning to shoot scenes of the Tahitian landscape from a boat in the water, POVs of a ship approaching the island. I would use these shots with historical quotes from Bougainville and Cook. After a day of filming around the streets of Papeete we headed off to the island of Moorea which is an 18 kilometer journey by ferry. Several large French warships were moored in the Papeete harbour which we filmed as we sped past. On Moorea, which means yellow lizard, the weather was close to perfect for filming. Looking out to sea and back to the distant rugged outline of Tahiti, we filmed white crested waves breaking gently on the reef line. The water was many shades of blue and turquoise. We were filming classic South Seas tourist ‘postcards’ as I had written into the beginning of my script. Along shaded pathways we found lush tropical gardens with beautiful hibiscus and other fragrant flowers. Here we found fertile abundance, banana groves and other fruits that I wasn’t familiar with. We filmed this fecund world in close up as though they were the POVS of the ‘first contact’ navigators encountering the lush tropical landscape and vegetation for the first time. Then we drove into the southern mountainous interior of the island. It’s here that you can get away from the visual trappings of modern tourism and contemporary life. Signage disappears along with power lines. We ascended winding roads to Moorea’s peaks. Here
we could film views of Mount Rotui with clouds and sea beyond. These scenes were akin to the 18th century paintings of Englishman William Hodges. The sunlight, the humid atmosphere, the play of light on foliage, mountains and clouds all conspired in Hodges’ pictures to create an image of a paradisiacal world inhabited by sensuous liberated women. His landscapes were a precursor for a new era in British art — the Romantic Movement. Here we were filming a cinematic equivalent to fulfill my intention of inter cutting our pictorial scenes with his. That night the weather suddenly closed in on Moorea and Tahiti. The next day the sky was a deep sullen grey. The ferry crossing back to Papeete was rough, the wind whipped up big surf as the ferry maneuvered its way through the reefs circling both islands. The heavens soon unleashed a wild storm. Fortunately the next two days were taken up with an interview with dancer Marguerite Lei and filming her O Tahiete E troupe at the Captain Blight restaurant, followed by a precious day off. When Woody Van Dyke ventured to Tahiti in 1927 he was expecting his usual quick turn around to complete White Shadows. What he hadn’t factored was the reputation of his codirector, for painstakingly slow work, his largely unprofessional cast and the unpredictable Tahitian weather. His journal reveals him often venting his frustrations with Flaherty,
Flaherty has been on location now for a week that should have been finished in three hours. 1.
Van Dyke and MGM were clearly smitten by the myth of the South Seas as a tropical wonder land of eternal sunshine. To schedule the shooting of a picture in the middle of the wet season (December 1927) can only be described as extremely naïve at best. White Shadows needed continuous sunlight as most of the shooting was in outdoor locations and several scenes were to be shot at sea and required calm waters. Van Dyke, like I was 80 years or so later, was hoping to shoot picture ‘post card’ scenes of Tahiti. He optimistically started work when he arrived in Papeete, he loved the warmth and the atmospheric light. But as the weather turned, so did his mood. Compounding his woes
were the film stocks of the era which were notoriously slow (low in light sensitivity compared to modern film stock) and requiring an abundance of studio or natural light. Weeks later, Woody sank into deep depression. In a cable to his lover in Los Angeles, Josephine Chippo, dated January 1928, he wrote about his depressed mental state which was increasing day by day, along with the torrential rain,
Didn’t think I would write any more today but have got to do something or go mad. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with me. I never so thoroughly detested a place or a job in my life. I have been in the most squalid and miserable places under the worst possible conditions but never have I felt toward them as I feel to this job and place. If hell were any worse than this I will cease from sinning from now on. Could honestly get some relief by putting my fist through a wall. There isn’t enough money in the world to have made me take this job had I known what it was going to be like. I miss you worse than ever thought possible to miss anyone. And a damn sight more than I ever missed anyone in my life. MGM has taken a few months of my life and put them on a hot griddle and watched them fry.
The heavens continued to open on our Tahiti shoot too. Like Van Dyke, I was laid up in my hotel room, reading his diary which wasn’t reassuring at all. I wasn’t depressed like Woody, but I was becoming increasingly nervous about our schedule and whether we could achieve our shoot in Tahiti. Fortunately there was further undercover shooting to conclude at the busy Marche` de Papeete. Here Tahitian women sell beautiful displays of tropical flowers, fruit and arrays of souvenirs all with a tropical hula girl theme. Many of the men and women look like they have stepped out of Gauguin’s epic canvas, Where Do We come From? Who are we? Where are We Going? I planned inter cutting these contemporary ‘marche`’ scenes with quotes from Gauguin about Tahiti and her people. On the Sunday morning we were in Papeete, we had permission to film at the Evangelical Church of French Polynesia. The large pink 19th century Protestant Church was bursting at the seams with a large congregation of men and women belting out hymns sung in Tahitian — a style of Christian singing unique to Polynesia. The women wore their white ‘Mother Hubbards’ — a cover all dress introduced by the London Missionary Society. The men wore formal suits. It was hard not to over-shoot here. The singing was so dynamic and the scene spoke strongly of the evangelical legacy of the London 157
Missionary Society. We had planned to travel around the rim road of Tahiti to shoot both sea and landscapes where we could find them. I wanted many views that would replicate the type of habitat that William Hodges encountered or the natural beauty witnessed by Bougainville or Wallis. But the weather remained gloomy for the rest of our stay. We had four days of filming next to nothing. Eventually we toured the island, but more for pleasure. Every time the camera was pulled from our vehicle the rain began to tumble. “Let’s shoot anyway!” I insisted. “It’ll look like shit!” was the response from DOP John Whitteron. “You’ll never use it.” It was as though Tahiti was proving a point about its mythic ‘good looks’ to both myself and Woody. On the 27th and 28th of January 1928 work had still not progressed far enough for Van Dyke, he was sinking further into a depressed state,
I think maybe there is a possibility of their sending down some lights, and if they do that will help us out a lot. We certainly need them bad enough. The rain is not so usual down here but the clouds are and we can’t shoot a thing when it is cloudy …. We got two or three shots done today. It has rained with that terrible insistency that you felt all the way through the play of Rain (1922). It comes down steadily and hard until you think it is raining as hard as it can and as hard as you ever hope to see it rain, and then the roar on the tin roof will mount until you can’t here yourself talk above a shout. Every moment this country grows harder for me to bear …. 3.
I knew in the intellectual sense that the legendary Tahitian climate, white sands, crystal clear waters and deep blue skies, were just that, legends. For starters Tahiti has black volcanic sand on all but two of its beaches. In fact for the Mutiny on the Bounty shoot, starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, director Lewis Milestone had tons of white sand imported to Tahiti and raked over the volcanic beaches. Black volcanic sand does have a beauty to my mind, but it doesn’t uphold to the image of ‘paradise’. I knew all of this and intended filming Tahiti’s black beaches. But without sun and against grey skies they were extremely unimpressive. 158
I was still looking for these perfect postcard views. I realized I too was trapped in a mindset when writing the script and now on location. Andrew Ogilvie had pitched the program to Commissioning Editors as ‘winter viewing’ for their European audiences. He saw it as a bright tropical interlude for viewers in the depths of a grey snow bound winter. I was overlooking my own knowledge and experience of the tropics in favour of Ogilvie’s pitch. Was I perhaps too willing to please? Was I now enhancing the legend rather than critiquing it? But still I hoped the weather would clear so I could get the shots. It was hard to let go. There is one other important factor in this equation (which may in the end just be a rationale) the dynamic range of film stock and in our case video tape. Light is what both respond to, and brilliantly. Grey, sullen skies do nothing for the ability of film and video to record life because light is a sculptural tool. Consider the way light falls on and is reflected by the white marble of Michelangelo’s beautiful Pieta. The sculptor well knew that light defines space and the human body skillfully. Landscapes, faces, a nude or a vase of flowers all need light to be photographed well. The cinematographer’s art is in part about creating meaning through light and using the ability of film, and more recently digital video tape, to record it. This is why movie making in the US was originally established in Los Angeles, because of the daily abundance on sun light to be had there. In Tahiti, on our shooting tour around the island, the grey light created flat, dull images. It was a major intellectual conundrum for the program. I began to think that the tropical sunlit images of Tahitian paradise are intimately connected to the technical recording abilities of black and white and colour film and video stocks. The proof was in our rushes from that day of touring the rim of Tahiti. Back in our hotel rooms we could see that Whitteron was right, our rushes were ‘shite’. The work of William Hodges, the first artist to paint the atmospherics of the tropics, holds a key to this argument too. Hodges uses his deft techniques to infuse the scene with mood. For example the heavily shaded clouds that he includes on the horizon establish a counterpoint with Cook’s ships and the Islander canoes and the woman bathers, which
are all awash in ‘Arcadian’ golden light that defines the space of Matavai Bay. Just as it was for Van Dyke and for me, tropical sunlight was important to ‘sculpting’ a more dramatic scene in Hodges’ pictures too. Van Dyke eventually got his film in the can with sumptuous views of Tahiti. But he had to wait nearly five months to complete the picture. When released the White Shadow reviews were largely positive with most of them commenting on the breathtaking black and white cinematography which gave DOP Clyde De Vinna an Academy Award,
Even today the film holds up as an extremely well made, imaginatively executed fusion of drama, travelogue, and romantic picturization of South Seas manners and customs. 4.
Unlike Van Dyke we didn’t have 5 months and we left Tahiti with much of our mission ‘unaccomplished’. On arrival in Hawaii where I’d planned to shoot along the beach at Waikiki, the weather wasn’t any better. This skinny stretch of sand, with its flat waves is testimony to the power of advertising, the myth making of Hollywood and popular culture. And to boot the shore line has been savaged by over-development from tourism. I wanted to film row after row of ugly modern hotels, it is a big part of the legacy of tourism’s colonisation of Hawaii and her people. The weather continued to dog us in Hawaii, dull grey light and occasional rain. Our tour of Oahu like our tour of Tahiti resulted in very little shooting. We had also arranged with the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani Hotel to film an outdoor sunset dinner show, featuring hula performances, with Waikiki as a back drop. The show is called ‘Creation — A Polynesian Journey’ and comes with a Mai Tai cocktail and an all you can eat buffet featuring prime carved rib. Just as the performance started so did the rain. The cheery extravaganza was abandoned. We packed up, ate the ribs and enjoyed a Mai Tai. More scenics were shot in Los Angeles, London and Paris: the Hollywood sign looming large over Beverley hills, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London on the Thames, Place de la Concorde, statues of classical
figures in Les Jardins des Tuilleries. With these scenes I intended to contextualise 18th century European responses to the ‘discovery’ of Tahiti and Polynesia, particularly the writings of Dr. John Hawkesworth and Denis Diderot, the publication of Bouganville’s travel dairy and the exhibition of Hodges’ Tahitian landscapes at the Royal Academy in London 1776. In Boston I had one of my greatest pleasures of any film shoot I have ever been on, filming the 2004 Paul Gauguin Retrospective, Gauguin in the South Seas, staged at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was difficult filming here as the exhibition was crowded with patrons lining up to scrutinise the artist’s work. But the crowds had their advantages too as they afforded the opportunity to provide a sense of scale to Gauguin’s colossal canvas Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Stephen Eisenman, our Gauguin, ‘expert’ attended the exhibition with us, which enabled me to film him in a museum context and shoot him viewing Gauguin’s work first hand. In contrast to our weather woes my interviewees on the whole performed well, as expected. I was extremely pleased with myself for casting widely and internationally. This felt like an ‘international’ picture, a co-production with stature. Anne Salmond I thought was brilliant. She gave an energetic and engaging performance in front of camera and was gracious when asked to do a second or even a third take on a question. Ed Rampell made the entire crew laugh as we filmed him in our make shift ‘Hollywood studio’ a backroom of the famous Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, home of the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Ed can talk for hours and not tire, but we did. At one stage I had to ask him to play down his humour, he wanted to be the funny man all too often. Katerina Teaiwa provided a younger, Pacific perspective on the history of the hula image. Her interview was insightful and fresh and she provided a ‘face’ of the Pacific for the program. At the Musee de l’homme in Rochefort, curator Claude-Louis Stefani wheeled a large trolley through the nooks and crannies of the museum. He stopped here and there grabbing large books from the shelves as we filmed him. Claude then sat at a large desk
carefully opening delicate and fragile pages of Louis-Henri de Freycinet’s voyage in Les Corvettes L’Oceanie et La Physicenne 1817-20 as he discussed the French voyages of discovery to the Pacific. The interview in French went extremely well. Even though Claude-Louis spoke very good English I wanted to conduct the interview in French as to my mind it would seem more authentic for an audience and in keeping with the subject under discussion and would further enhance my desire for internationalism. When I was writing the script I grappled with the French part of the Hula Girls story, particularly the many voyages of exploration to the Pacific in the first quarter of the 19th century. I was concerned that these later voyages though important within Pacific history, would be repetitive within my story in that they would not greatly advance it beyond the initial Cook, Wallis, Bougainville ‘first contact’ narratives. Within one 52-minute program, how many 1st encounters could I have? During Claude-Louis’ interview, as I sat there engaged in interview with him, a beautiful French image, Iles Sandwich: Femme de l’ Isle Mowi Dansant ( a naked and tattooed Maui woman dancing from a sitting position on the ground from Les Corvettes L’Oceanie et La Physicenne 1817-20) projected behind him, I could already see him hitting the cutting room floor. First contact narratives of Wallis, Bougainville and Cook had already been covered eloquently in interview with Anne Salmond. Losing good material is always painful. A story is a journey and once you over stay somewhere too long it’s boring, ‘keep the story moving’ is a cutting room refrain. I arrived back in Sydney with 49 shot camera tapes or 32 hours of rushes. Twenty-six of these tapes (approx 17 hours) were interviews and the remainder comprised location shots, the filming of artworks, books and a sequence of Yuki Kihara’s photo shoot in Auckland. This isn’t a huge amount of footage for a six week international shoot. But considering that much of the program was archival footage, artworks, photographs and graphics it’s fair enough to say that we had more than ample material to cut Hula Girls with.
1. Behlmer, R. (ed) 1996, W.S Van Dyke’s Journal, White Shadows in the South Seas, Scarecrow
Press, Lanham, p.41.
2. Ibid, p.38. 3. Ibid, p.39. 4. Ibid, p.72.
Keep Your Eyes on the Hands
Cross-cutting – interweaving two threads of the storyline, from different locations and often different time periods. 1.
I chose to edit Hula Girls with an old friend and colleague Denise Haslem. We’d worked closely together on 6 previous films and our creative collaboration is one based on teamwork and trust. We enjoy each other’s edit room aesthetic, style and taste. But there are also points of difference and both of us allow the other space to work creatively and with independence. Even with our well founded working relationship I was still feeling nervous about showing Denise the rushes. An editor is the ‘first audience’ for a film and so Denise’s response to viewing the material was critical. Like most directors I was needy and looking for affirmation about my rushes.
Despite the enormous time and effort in writing the script, documentaries and non-fiction films mostly find their true form in the edit. The cutting room is like a lab, it’s where all the ideas in the script, all the planning and the style of shooting are finally put to the test. I wondered whether my Hula Girls script would hold up? Would the 10 interviews we shot, look and sound as good in our Sydney cutting room, a place of introspection and analysis where you tend to notice flaws, as they did when I was shooting them? What content would stay in the rough and fine cuts and what would go? Would the broadcasters want tits and bums as I predicted at the outset of this journey? And would they like and approve my story approach and style or could this be another agonizing edit, a woeful case of co-production blues? Only the next 12 weeks of editing could answer these niggling questions and doubts.
On viewing the rushes with Denise the first casualties became apparent. My interview with the co-author of Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas, Luis Reyes, became redundant instantly, largely because the interview with his cowriter, Ed Rampell, was so hilarious and compelling. Ed had us in stitches and simply stole the show. He in fact presented us with other problems further down the track, at assembly stage, where there was way too much Ed. He was funny but created an imbalance – too much like the ‘Ed Rampell show’. Reyes on the other hand stumbled too many times to be inspiring and there was also doubling up in the movie history content covered between the two. The second major casualty was the London academic who created the phrase ‘the nubile savage’ which I relied on so heavily in the script, and indeed in this document. Neil Rennie’s interview proved to be too ‘studious’ in tone. As with many expert or academic interviews on film it was full of qualifications, he was speaking with ‘historical footnotes’ and it was very difficult to find concise interview grabs, or an alluring anecdote, that could quickly hook an audience. If we had to, we could’ve worked his interview hard and supported selected grabs with a link of narration. But I made a deliberate and creative choice at this very early point. I wanted this film to entertain and draw an audience into the subject matter. Interviews that didn’t cut the mustard were sacrificed. The story and flow of a program, the energy of a character and their ability to engage viewers must dictate whether they stay in the cut, or go. Having viewed the rushes and the mass of archival materials I left Denise alone for several weeks to put together an assembly edit based on my script. This is where the hard yards of script writing pay off, we had a starting point, a plan of how to put the story together. A subsequent interview I concluded with Haslem sheds light on the benefits and the deficiencies of the Hula Girls script for her edit process,
The first thing I did was read the script. It told me the story you were telling and it told me the style that you wanted to tell it in. And it told me that the construction of the film would be from archival and interviews and the international approach you wanted. It also told me that there would be quite a lot of humour in the program. Although I didn’t realise to what degree until I saw
the footage that you had chosen. I think when I saw the archival footage that you chose, and the B grade quality of it, which you are fond of, that’s when I really knew where you were going. The script didn’t show me the degree of humour, but the footage you chose certainly did. When I saw the footage the humour potential was realised. 2
We decided to lay down some grounds rules for the edit. We would have a minimum of 50% narration. We were working to a European model in deciding this, as the program would be translated into French, German and Dutch and from my conversations with producer Andrew Ogilvie, I knew that the broadcasters wanted a balance of chat and narration, too many ‘talking heads’ was anathema to them. We also decided to keep the interview grabs to a minimum. If an interview grab or anecdote was too long, then we would edit it back and support it with narration and only use the superlative moment. We decided to let the narration carry the burden of exposition, conveying information, and so free up the ‘characters’ to relay historical anecdotes, insights and analysis. We would look for humour. Always! In both the archival materials, particularly the South Seas Hollywood films and the interviews, humour would be king. We decided Hula Girls should be an enjoyable viewing experience for an audience and should be both celebratory and critical in tone with a contemporary political ‘post-colonial’ edge.
Haslem, 2 years later in interview, revealed her nervousness about our editing approach particularly our combined senses of humour,
My main concern was whether the humour we were injecting into the program was parochial, whether it was too much an Australian sense of humour, laughing at, rather than with. So I wasn’t certain about the balance of the humour and how it would work for an international audience. What we thought was funny, was it really funny and would it work for an international audience. I don’t think I ever really resolved that. We just kept going. 3
My answer to her uncertainty was, ‘we had to suck it and see!’ We could only rely on our own humour buttons and comedic instinct. If the humour made us laugh then let’s use it and test these scenes later on others with screenings.
Five weeks later we had an assembly based on my script. It was 94 minutes and way too long. I knew when I’d completed writing it that the script was enormous and too laiden with information and historical detail. Now was the time to finally confront that I was trying to say and tell too much in this story. Now was the time to let go, to ‘kill the babies’ so to speak. But which babies and how?
We showed the cut to producer Andrew Ogilvie. His first response, thank God, was to drop the end section of the program dealing with contemporary Polynesian arts that ‘selfreflect’ on the hula girl image. I sighed with relief. It was clear, as I had thought all along, that this epilogue opened up a whole new story line just as the program was coming to closure. Deleting this alone would take out 8 minutes from the rough cut.
Other crucial story telling elements became clear from the assembly too. Firstly the narration! The draft narration was OK for the purpose of the script but not for our final screen version. My writing style is often too wooden with exposition. Screen writing needs few words, elegance and grace. Good narration writing bounces off the pictures. Skilful writing brings the spoken words and pictures into a combination that unlocks a third layer of meaning in the mind of the viewer. Narration should also create subtext for the unfolding story and draw the thematic and dramatic threads together. Not only would the narration script need rewriting, but I asked for the assistance of an additional writer to make the narration sparkle and shine. Fortunately I was supported by Ogilvie. We approached and eventually worked with the highly experienced playwright and screen writer Louis Nowra (Map of the Human Heart, Cosi, The Matchmaker, Radiance, Black and White, The Widowmaker, First Australians) to co-write the final drafts.
On a story telling level and stylistically it became apparent in the assembly that there was an inherent conflict between our contemporary location footage from Tahiti, Paris, Hollywood, Los Angeles, London, and the historic archival imagery that comprised 75%
of the cut. On our first assembly viewing we found the archival images and the stories about them from our interviews so compelling, that to move away from them, to break the spell so to speak, by inserting contemporary footage, was creating confusion. Why break out from these beautiful and sometimes funny archival images when the story is about them? This left us with a creative and budgetary conundrum. The more archive we used the greater the cost to our budget and secondly there was an expectation by the two European broadcasters that the program would have a dazzling array of tropical scenes to provide comfort for their mid-winter viewing audiences. I however, decided to chance my arm on this issue of broadcaster expectations. The contemporary footage was jarring and if it came to the crunch, and the CEs wanted more ‘exotic’ scenes I would try to persuade Andrew Ogilvie and the commissioning editors to my viewpoint, a legitimate course of action on a picture of this magnitude. So with the support of Andrew and Denise I decided to drop all but a handful of shots from Tahiti, and a couple of scenes from contemporary Paris, which were used in support of the Gauguin episode in the program.
At assembly stage we also decided to drop the interview with Claude-Louis Stefani. The Francophone in me objected strongly. But as I predicted when interviewing Claude-Louis in Rochefort, his interviews about the artistic legacy of the early 19th century French voyages of discovery, didn’t sufficiently advance the storyline quickly enough. Similarly the Claude-Louis interview about French philosopher, Denis Diderot’s, musings on the voyage of Bougainville in my script, were also dropped in favour of brief and succinct narration. Even though Diderot’s reflections on Tahiti in, Supplement au voyage de Bougainville, are considered to be part of the intellectual ferment that lead to the French Revolution, I wanted to avoid a situation where an interviewee, no matter how good, was only used once.
Documentary editing involves selecting interviewees who can inform the story themes on a number of levels. In this way the audience can build a rapport with the selected ‘cast’ — get to know them on screen and come to appreciate their position as their appearances
evolve through the story. Having a never-ending cast of interviewees popping up throughout, with one anecdote or point of analysis, cannot achieve this same level of audience engagement, and the editorial authority is diluted. So because of this I also dropped the interview appearance with Marguerite Lei the dance director of ‘O Tahiti E’ and the associated dressing room scenes I shot with her dancers. Much of Marguerite’s interview doubled up with the content of Katerina Teaiwa, to the point where Marguerite had only one appearance in the assembly. The ‘O Tahiti E’ dancers would eventually evolve to just a few scenes that supported the historic images of Polynesian dancing in the opening and closing scenes of the program to connect the hula girl image to the contemporary tourism industry. The decision to drop the young ‘sexy’ Polynesian dancers was supported by Ogilvie. I was reassured by this, because it became clear from our assembly viewing that Andrew wanted to deliver to the broadcasters an entertaining program with analysis and integrity. He did not have ‘a tits and bums’ agenda to push as I thought might be the case at the outset. However removing Marguerite Lei from the program, the only female Polynesian dancer I interviewed, greatly impacted on the way one critic, as we will see in the next chapter, viewed the final program.
As with all assembly cuts there were potentially many creative paths that Denise and I could follow to deliver the final program even whilst working to the definitions of the brief. There were two key connected questions in my mind. How could we make this program engaging and entertaining for audiences to watch and draw them into the story? And how could we quickly and methodically jump forward through 200 years of history, ‘connect the dots’ and provide the audience with intelligent insights to the image of the hula girl that pervades our collective Western imaginings about her? The answer to the first question was inherent to my script. The multiple story line approach that I’d written simply needed finessing and further development in our edit.
In his book Everything Bad Is Good For You, author and critic Steven Johnson claims that the first television serial drama to introduce multiple threaded story lines was Hill Street Blues,
According to television lore, the age of multiple threads began with the arrival of Hill Street Blues in 1981 the Steven Bocho-created police drama invariably praised for its gritty realism. Watch an episode of Hill Street Blues side by side with any major drama from the preceding decades — Starsky and Hutch, for instance, or Dragnet — and the structural transformation will jump out at you. 4
Johnson goes on to analyse the story complexity of Hill Street Blues which often wove together within an individual episode as many as 10 story threads. For Johnson this new dramatic TV writing technique was at first hard work for audiences but offered viewers greater engagement,
Some narratives force you to do work to make sense of them, while others just let you settle into the couch and zone out. Part of that cognitive work comes from following multiple threads, keeping often densely interwoven plot lines distinct in your head as you watch. But another part involves the viewer’s ‘filling in’: making sense of information that has been either deliberately withheld or deliberately left obscure. Narratives that require their viewers fill in crucial elements take that complexity to a more demanding level. To follow the narrative, you aren’t just asked to remember. You’re asked to analyse. This is the difference between intelligent shows and shows that force you to be intelligent. 5
I didn’t approach the writing and editing of Hula Girls employing the multiple story line narrative with any screenwriting history or theory in mind. Rather, I came across this device intuitively, in keeping with visual arts practises, watching the structure emerge by trial and error. However, multiple story threads as Johnson calls them, were a feature of other documentary programs that Denise Haslem and I had edited together and they are particularly prominent in our first documentary collaboration in 1994, Aeroplane Dance. That film employed 3 story strands woven together, an ‘ethnographic’ indigenous dance, dramatic re-enactments using a missing (lost after an air crash in northern Australia) airman’s diary as the source, and an Indigenous oral history Yanuywa account of the same World War 2 aviation tragedy.
How did we finesse the multiple narrative threads suggested in the Hula Girls script in the edit? Denise and I decided to use as much Hollywood as we could possibly afford. This would require us to supply Ogilvie and our researcher Greg Colgan with constantly updated footage counts as our edit progressed. We would use clips from South Seas cinema to suggest actual historical moments and first contact encounters in the Pacific. We would also use Hollywood to bounce off and reflect ethnographic themes in the story, leaving the audience to fill in crucial elements and make the connections. This style had to be established at the start of the picture. For instance, our post opening head title scene was from King Vidor’s 1932 picture, Bird of Paradise, where Johnny and his gang of sailors come across their first South Pacific island and encounter Neil Rennie’s ‘nubile savage’,
A boat load of fun loving sailors drop in on Tahiti. Canoes full of islanders come out to the boat to greet the sailors. Skipper: Johnny here’s the charm of the South Seas. You cruise about and out of nowhere you tumble onto one of these little islands. You nearly always find the natives are happy, carefree people. Johnny: Yeah I know, fond of life, wine and dancing.
A young island woman, Princes Luana, dives off a canoe in front of Johnny and the skipper and swims around nymph like in the water. They are both astonished by her.
Hello baby. Got anything on for tonight? 6
In the context of our story this Hollywood scene, which is one of hundreds of cinematic and literary versions of a South Seas greeting, was in fact being used by us to set up the very first South Seas welcome and the arrival of Captain Wallis in Tahiti in 1767. Louis Nowra and I decided to write our way out of this Bird of Paradise clip with the following narration over an historical engraving of Samuel Wallis,
The beginning of this infatuation with the South Seas girl starts in the late 18th century when Englishman, Captain Samuel Wallis, is sent to confirm or deny the existence of the Great Southern
Continent — instead he finds himself among the islands of Polynesia and accidentally discovers Tahiti. Wallis and his crew can scarcely believe what they have stumbled upon. 7
The final line of narration ‘Wallis and his crew can scarcely believe what they have stumbled upon’ is a clever piece of writing by Nowra that unfolds subtext in the story and helps bind the vastly different pictorial sources together thematically. It picks up on Johnny’s ‘astonishment’ in Bird of Paradise, when Princess Luana (Dolores Del Rio) swims up to and greets the yacht. Historically it pre-empts the response of Wallis’ men to their first encounter with Tahiti and Tahitian women. It also sets up the well documented first contact of Bougainville when he arrives in Matavai Bay and Venus, as Bougainville describes her, boards his ship and unveils herself in front of his astonished crew. In these scenes layers of historical images and popular culture from across two centuries permeate and play (have fun) with each other. The structure of this post title scene set the pattern for the film. We deliberately intended to ‘scramble’ historical incidents and images. The linear historical narrative from the 18th century onwards would be interrupted by 20th century images thematically connected to the historical narrative. We used this technique many times throughout the structure of the story. Introducing Bird of Paradise early in the narrative also sets up Princess Luana as a ‘stock’ Hollywood character that we come back to time and again as an exemplar of Hollywood’s ‘South Seas princess’. Given that the picture was out of copyright, King Vidor’s picture graciously helped stretch our archival budget. There was another pragmatic decision driving my introduction of Hollywood early into the story. Most of the early pre-cinema story of Hula Girls, in fact much of the story, was relying on graphics, paintings and engravings. The use of Hollywood allowed us to liven the early history in the program with moving pictures, light dramatic comedy like Bird of Paradise, and make it more engaging to watch. Another strong example of moving picture footage disrupting the linear narrative occurs later in the story when Katerina Teaiwa, in interview, reveals the spiritual meaning of the
ancient hula dance to Hawaiians and then contrasts that with the attitudes that Europeans have historically projected onto hula, from the time of Cook’s first visit to Hawaii,
You’re actually acting out this very deep and close connection between the supernatural realm, the physical realm and the realm of human society. So you will see it in the actions for example, the mountain, or the moon. People who understand Hula choreography can see the story that is being told in the hand movements. And it’s funny that Europeans focused just on the lower regions, and saw hula as just the hips moving. 8
From this interview we cut to a 1956 musical film clip of Tony Todaro singing Keep Your Eyes on the Hands. The clip features 3 hula dancers in bright pink cellophane skirts while Todaro serenades them. The lyrics were the focus of our interest and their placement following on from Teaiwa was critical in sustaining our Hula Girls editorial style,
Whenever you're watching a hula girl dance You gotta be careful, you're tempting romance Don't keep your eyes on her hips Her naughty hula hips Keep your eyes on the hands Remember she's telling a story to you Her opu is swaying, but don't watch the view Don't concentrate on the swing It doesn't mean a thing Keep your eyes on the hands 9
Haslem wanted to push this ‘scrambled’ editing style to the limit as she was very keen on parallel story threads, or cross cutting, as an editing device,
I guess what I really like about that is the interweaving of the past and present, running parallel. What that does is it creates timelessness for the hula girl image. You look at where it has come from simultaneously with how it has impacted on the 20th century through Hollywood. For me as an editor I love the interplay of those concepts the two timelines. The final product is a really complex interweaving. I think it’s entertaining. I think it tells a pretty good story. 10
Denise and I then decided to put together a scene about Cook’s arrival in Hawaii in 1788 to push the parallel story style to an extreme. The Hawaiians were awestruck by the white-skinned visitors and their extraordinary vessel, and greeted the navigator and his crew like gods. To create the scene we would rely on a vivid description by Anne Salmond about the welcome of the Resolution and Discovery by Hawaiians and the subsequent love making that occurred on board the ships,
They swam out, they came out on canoes. They came on surfboards and they just swarmed on board the ships. Just swarmed all over them. In fact, at one point there were so many people hanging on to the side of the Discovery that it was sort of keeling over. And there they were making love with the sailors. Just all over, below decks, on decks, presumably not in the water but who knows. There was joy, people were calling out. There was just this huge sense of celebration and excitement. 11
To build the sense of excitement we used the ‘welcoming’ scene from F.W. Murnau’s silent 1931 classic, Tabu and intercut it with close up details from an engraving by John Webber (1779) A View of Karakakooa, in Owyhee, in which the Resolution and Discovery are surrounded by scores of canoes. The rhythm of the cutting was determined by the music track from Tabu. It eventually became a frenetic scene that typified the editing style we were developing and became a high point of it — historical juxtapositions between past and distant past, or as Haslem puts it, ‘You look at where it (the image) has come from simultaneously with how it has impacted on the 20th century through Hollywood’. The cross cutting of history through the use of images quickly lead to a broader application of the technique with music and other forms of popular culture. In a scene dealing with the arrival of Bougainville in Tahiti in 1768, we used an engraving from a latter French voyage, the Atlas du Voyage de La Perouse (1797) Insulaires et Monuments de l’Isle de Paques, showing a group of sailors sitting with topless islander women. Over the image we ran an early 20th century recording of a song by the Hawaiian master of the steel guitar, Sol Hoopii, I Like You Cos You Have Such Lovin’ Ways. Denise and I knew
the 20th century popular music recording by Hoopi was way out of context with the 18th century engraving, and we still debate its use years later. But in my mind it worked. And it worked by leaving the audience to connect the dots, to hopefully come to their own conclusion that Hula Girls was looking at the origins of the popularised female Polynesian image and how ‘she’ has played herself out through the ages across art forms. We were also I believe, inferring that the original first contact historical texts, and their latter day manifestations, were one and the same thing — popularised images for audiences to read, view and enjoy. I hoped audiences would also conclude by watching Hula Girls that history can be fun. By having Hollywood intervene in the linear historical narrative we were freed to jump forward in time to the next major historical development in the hula girl story. This ‘jumping forward’ and ‘connecting the dots’ approach to the story structure, centered on the creation of mini episodes of historical incidents, and or characters, important to the development of the hula girl image. Within our edit the Bounty incident in 1787 was the first of these mini eps. The famous maritime incident created countless popular works of fiction over the years, but in 1933, Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, American writers who settled in Tahiti after the 1st World War, created a publishing gold mine with their book, Mutiny on the Bounty. The novel was read by an estimated 25 million people. Its rebellious characters, romance and high drama made their account irresistible to filmmakers and in 1933 one of the first talking pictures produced in Australia was In the Wake of the Bounty directed by Charles Chauvel. This picture was the debut of heart throb and swashbuckler Errol Flynn. All following Hollywood versions of the Bounty story ensured that the leading male sex symbol of the time played the role of handsome Fletcher Christian, whether it be Clark Gable, Marlon Brando or Mel Gibson. When we were cutting the Bounty episode for Hula Girls we had to face our first prohibitive hurdle with archive royalty fees. I had written into my script several scenes from both the 1935 and ‘62 adaptations of the Norman and Hall novel. But when it came to calculating these scenes against our budget and considering the hundreds of other archival images we had to pay for, we clearly could not afford to deliver the script.
Fortunately we were saved by the Bounty movie trailers which we purchased at minimal cost. There were three cinematic trailers available for the Brando picture, one of which was more than 4 minutes long. Each of these trailers was slightly different in the scenes they featured from the film, so we had a reasonable range of scenes featuring Brando to pick and choose from. On the other hand for the 1935 Clark Gable and Charles Laughton Mutiny version, there was one trailer available with limited only scenes from the movie. We had to evaluate the royalty cost against the intent and the drama of our Bounty sequence we wanted to cut and find a creative solution for both our story and budget. So we decided to rely on the 3 trailers to build the story about the 1962 Brando version. We would then also use one dramatic scene from the 1935 trailer and purchase one 30 second clip from the feature Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) at a cost of $US10,000. These constant calculations of our story needs against our archival budget became a drama in their own right which dogged us to the end. They were a large part of the creative challenge we faced in editing to deliver an engaging and entertaining program to the broadcasters. It was also complex. We were working with trailers and clips that were free of royalties as they were in the public domain, trailers and clips that weren’t free and trying to marry them together. We were never really on solid ground until we had final quotes from the copyright holders. Other episodic story elements that we constructed in the edit were on the subject of: Paul Gauguin in Tahiti, Murnau and Flaherty’s 1931 picture Tabu, Hape haole music which became a mini-history of Hawaiian music, the themes and storyline of the 1941 film, South of Pago Pago, and the story of the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit musical South Pacific within the context of World War 2. With our multiple story lines and episodic structure our story was taking shape. We had a story arc, a beginning, middle and an end. Within our eventual 55-minute rough cut we encapsulated more than two centuries of Pacific and European history. In our initial story discussions I elaborated to Denise the conundrum of how we explore the representation and sexual imagery surrounding Polynesian women without ourselves
exploiting these images. This was one of my suspicions concerning the commissioning of the project. Did the broadcasters want this program because of a desire to explore the history and origins of these images? Or were the Commissioning Editors seeing Hula Girls as a potentially voyeuristic viewing experience for their audiences? Our rough cut was treading a fine line with respect to this question. In order to explore the images we had to show them. But in showing them we were also exploiting them with the knowledge that a certain part of our audience demographic would nakedly enjoy them for what they were, in many cases, a Polynesian peep show or tame erotica. The manner in which we negotiated this fine editorial line was to present context, to build a scaffold around the pictures which provided history and analysis. When Louis Nowra joined us in the edit room he wanted to tread a more cautious line and insert what he called a ‘contemporary feminist perspective’ via the narration writing. In his judgement our story, in its present written form and structure, could be misjudged as glorifying the hula girl image and ultimately be seen as sexist. He acknowledged that our cut needed to celebrate the iconic image of the hula girl throughout history and he wasn’t suggesting the program become a ‘feminist mouthpiece’. But Nowra argued for a more contemporary ‘post colonial’ critique of the image via the language of the narration script we employed. At this stage of our editing I felt it was important to have someone of Louis’ standing, as a screen writer, to view the film and critically assess it. He provided a new pair of eyes to a program that I’d been laboring over for almost a year. Nowra not only polished my existing narration draft, but suggested ways of tightening the story lines, by deleting pieces of interview in favour of a line or two of narration. Big and little changes evolved over several narration drafts. Sometimes Nowra added just a word or two in a paragraph, sharpening the intention of the writing, providing a sense of critique and, or analysis. We eventually evolved opening the program with the following evocative narration penned substantially by Nowra,
She's beautiful and exotic. She's half real, half myth. A product of male fantasies, a by-word for paradise and a creation of the Hollywood Dream Factory.
For over two centuries she's been immortalized and exploited by artists, travellers, tourists and film makers. For millions of people across the world the image of the beautiful Polynesian woman is an invitation to paradise. But just how real is she? 12
‘She's half real, half myth’. ‘A product of male fantasies’, ‘exploited by artists’ clarified at the start of the picture our intention to explore the icon. The words together with the images maintained a balance between critique and celebration. The pictures came to life by questioning the familiar. My niggling issue, “how not to make yet another voyeuristic image” was finally only answered and dealt with in the final weeks of our edit. A few subtle words throughout the story were all that was needed. Ten weeks after we commenced editing we sent our rough cut to the 2 European broadcasters, Walter Braamhorst from AVRO in Holland and Olaf Grunert from the French/German network ARTE. It’s was an anxious moment for all concerned as we waited for feedback from Europe. Ned Lander, the Commissioning Editor from SBS, came to the cutting room to view the rough cut. I wasn’t particularly worried about this screening. I had known Ned for many years. He is a close personal friend and we have worked together on numerous film projects. Lander had also worked with Nowra on the feature film Radiance. So I fully anticipated that he would be accustomed to Louis Nowra’s writing style and aesthetic. Commissioning a program is always a gamble. You can’t back winners, just projects and teams. There is however immense satisfaction in seeing a project successfully realized and engaging to watch, which you have commissioned. On the whole CEs don’t have much to say at rough cut screenings unless there are problems in the story and structure to negotiate. The dialogue tends to focus on what is not working, what is unclear and how the drama of a story can be enhanced, or how a character’s presence in a story can be strengthened. A rough cut screening should present a clear sense of story, structure and character, with themes, subtext and drama arising from the narrative. Fortunately in our screening with Lander we ticked mainly positives. There were 178
however two minor requests. He wanted (1) more interview with Katerina Teaiwa, and (2) less contemporary footage from Tahiti and Paris. He put the case that Katerina was a young, attractive and intelligent Pacific Island woman. An extra piece from her, close to the head of the program, would help the credibility of the story as it is an unfolding narrative about the images of Pacific women. He argued that audiences would readily identify with her and her thoughts. This request was easy to achieve, although adding another interview grab from Katerina would mean losing something else from somewhere else. Lander also found some of the contemporary footage jarring, taking attention away from the examination of the historical images. We had already cut these back substantially and he was suggesting cutting them further. This was a potential point of difference between Lander and the other CEs who wanted tropical scenes for their mid-winter viewing audiences, There was not much more discussion about the rough cut than this, apart from deciding on a delivery date. The story was telling itself and he was engaged. In retrospect, three years later, I quizzed Lander for his views, not on the rough cut, but the completed program. Significantly he tended to pin his critique on the fact of Hula Girls being the product of a co-production which served several broadcast masters,
I probably have an ongoing feeling that the essay form is a tricky form. It’s a form that works best where there is a compelling social issue to be examined. Hula Girls was much lighter in touch. And that made it enjoyable but it also ultimately means there is a lack of narrative structure or journey story arc in it as a work. It’s kind of got a chronological spine but it kind of breaks out of that and goes to Hollywood early on, but you need to do that to bring your audience in. And I think it’s often true of the higher end budget co-production work that you are serving several masters and it is serving several sensibilities and that can flatten out the shape of it a little. I suppose a strong character driven story can’t be realized editorially in this co-production context. It’s more the essay form that will work for the market. 13
He elaborated further by critiquing the content of the story as a history of colonial encounter in the South Pacific, albeit though images,
You also have that problem with any kind of story that involves colonial interaction with
Indigenous peoples in that one side keeps records that are written down and turned into images, and the other side has an oral tradition. It’s an oral history not a written history. So it becomes very difficult to build a consciousness from both sides of the colonial encounter. So there is supposition or contemporary people making assumptions about their forebears. It’s a difficult form which we encountered with First Australians (a TV history series released on SBS in 2008). At the same time Hula Girls doesn’t have much of that diarised thought, personal reactions that bring to life the European or Indigenous point of view. 14
With the benefit of hindsight these are not the type of comments that could have been made at the rough cut screening. They are more about structural issues to do with the financing of co-productions and the story demands of international broadcasters on local producers. Lander raises compelling concerns which are not easily reconciled given the need of producers to finance programs like Hula Girls internationally. I will expand further on this theme and expand on Lander’s view in my final chapter of conclusions. His second point is an astute observation about the limits of historical storytelling for television, particularly when dealing with Indigenous history and first contact encounters. They are sentiments with which I whole heartedly agree. However Hula Girls was never envisaged, or indeed commissioned, as representing ‘both sides of the colonial encounter’. Its foot is firmly planted in the European experience, imagination and images. With rough cut approval from Ned Lander we waited for news from Europe. I’d arranged to have a two week break from the edit whilst waiting for approvals and feedback. There was no point ploughing on if there were major problems with ARTE and AVRO. I immersed myself in cook books and feeding my family to distract myself and hide my anxiety. It was like waiting to have a tooth pulled or, even worse, major surgery. Then on the 24th of September late in the afternoon I received a phone call from Andrew Ogilvie with the good news that Wolter Braamhorst had approved the rough cut, with some minor recommendations. Andrew forwarded the following email from Braamhorst,
----- Original Message ----From: "Andrew Ogilvie" To: "Trevor Graham"
Sent: Friday, September 24, 2004 3:43 PM Subject: FW: hula girls rough cut Trevor The following are Wolter’s comments on the rough cut. Olaf has been away but we have a message saying that he will view it today. A ------ Forwarded Message From: "Braamhorst, Wolter" Date: Thu, 23 Sep 2004 13:52:54 +0200 To: " Andrew Ogilvie" Cc: "Huijbregts, Marijke" Subject: hula girls rough cut Dear Andrew, Thank you for the rough cut of Hula Girls. I liked it a lot and I think it's going to be a very wonderful film. I don't have many things to suggest. There is in my opinion a little mix up around 40 minutes with the Dorothy Lamour segment and after that with the latina girls playing polynesian beauties. Dorothy, I think, should be chronologically after that and not before? Things to cut? You can lose a little on the Bounty story and maybe on the music segment. Twice the point is being made about the US military having a big presence in the Pacific. Maybe the US colonisation of the Pacific should be more together, making the point only during the WW 2 story and looking back a little a that point in the story. The 'South of Pago Pago' segment can lose a clip or two. The interracial story could be a little better cut, more closely knit, than it is now. As it is now, it goes back and forth too much. Also, a couple more new shot images of the beautiful islands would be welcome. Sometimes the documentary is too much a compilation of archive material.
These are only small points, nothing major. I like the movie a lot and it is mostly like I hoped it would be. Lots of fun with the editing. Best wishes, Wolter Wolter Braamhorst Commissioning Editor AVRO Close UP AVRO Public Television 15
Grunert’s rough cut response didn’t come that day as promised. It took another week. In typical Grunert style, he doesn’t respond to emails, he rang from Strasbourg and left a message on the Electric Pictures’ answering machine which simply said in his thick German accent, ‘Andrew, I love it. Please deliver as soon as possible’. End of message. No hello’s. No, ‘hi this is Olaf’. The approval from ARTE came in the most unceremonial fashion. In the age of the email communications I took this as an extreme positive. He wanted to personally give his blessing to the program but had forgotten the time difference between Europe and Australia. We had rough cut approval! Ogilivie sent Braamhorts’ email to Ned Lander. Braamhorst wanted more, ‘new shot images of the beautiful islands’, Lander at our screening asked for less. Lander rolled over on this, it was a small point after all, so we put in a couple of extra shots so we could tell Braamhorst we had done it. We also began addressing Wolter’s other points. We had to lose three minutes, so we employed many of his suggested cuts. We left the structure of the Dorothy Lamour scenes as they were. Ogilvie agreed with this. Two weeks later we had a fine cut and all of my anxiety dissipated as we moved towards completing and delivering the program to the three broadcasters. Given the good responses to the rough cut we then sent fine cuts for approval. There were no further responses or comments from ARTE, AVRO or SBS. On the surface my suspicions about what the three commissioning editors originally 182
wanted when they commissioned the program were in the end substantially negated. In retrospect however, this could be interpreted in different ways. Either my fears about them wanting an exotic sexy program, ‘I want to see these sexy ladies’ as Grunert reportedly said when he was introduced to the program at MIPCOM, were completely wrong. Or, we had in fact delivered exactly what they wanted, with enough sexiness’ and ‘sexy ladies’ to satisfy the masters. I was happy with the piece. I had written and directed a program that explored, with integrity I believe, the origins of the hula girl image and how she had been mythologised by Western artists and filmmakers throughout the centuries. We had also deliberately produced an entertaining picture, a history that was fun to watch. Perhaps embedded within this approach was the ‘sex appeal’ that attracted the broadcasters in the first place? Perhaps we had achieved in the story telling a balance of analytical context, history, but also conveyed it with charm and a tone of celebration. We delivered the program to all three broadcasters in mid December 2004. It was now up to audiences, critics, programmers, distributors, awards judges and festival directors to have their say on the program. Perhaps the true answer to these questions of sexiness, entertainment and intellectual rigour, or integrity, lays with their responses and views on Hula Girls. It was now time for the audience to have their say.
Footnotes: Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film, accessed 20/7/08, www.routledgeny.com/ref/documentary/editing. Denise Haslem, editor Hula Girls, interviewed by Trevor Graham, 2006. Ibid. Johnston, S. 2005, Everything Bad Is Good For You, Riverhead Books, New York, p. 67. Ibid, p. 63.
1. Scene description from Bird of Paradise, writers Wells Root & Leonard Praskins, directed by
King Vidor, production company, 1932, RKO, transcribed & interpreted for Hula Girls script, by Trevor Graham, 2003. Nowra, L. & Graham , T. 2004, Hula Girls narration script.
2. Katerina Teaiwa, Assistant Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii, research
interview by Trevor Graham, 2003. Todaro, T & Johnston, L. 1956, Keep Your Eyes on the Hands, Lyrics & Music, interpolated into the film The Revolt of Mamie Stover 20th Century-Fox. Denise Haslem, editor Hula Girls, interviewed by Trevor Graham, 2006.
3. Anne Salmond, Professor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor University of Auckland interviewed by
Trevor Graham for Hula Girls, 2004. Nowra & Graham (2004).Hula Girls narration script. Ned Lander, Commissioning Editor SBS TV, interviewed by Trevor Graham, 2007. Ibid. Andrew Ogilvie email to Trevor Graham, re: Hula Girls rough cut, September 24, 2004 3:43 PM.
An Historical Mash up
The story of the hula girl is the story of the colonisation of the Pacific and the myriad fantasies and myths that these colonial encounters inspired. 1
Hula Girls — Where can I buy it? I need it for an assignment. 2
After the intensity of making a program like Hula Girls it was a relief to have it finally delivered into the hands of the broadcasters and have it passed by their tech check departments. I’d been working on the project now for almost a year, more or less full time and its final delivery and acceptance to the broadcasters was an anti-climax. Beyond the responses of our commissioning editors to Hula Girls, I was wondering how the network’s programming and publicizing departments felt about my program? There were lots of questions running through my mind about the Hula Girls TV premier and when it would hit the TV schedule. Will people watch and will it be favorably reviewed by critics? Then there is the international festival scene to think about and whether the project would be selected by festivals? The wheel of fortune then suddenly brought an unexpected and welcome career change. About 4 weeks after delivering Hula Girls to SBS I received a phone call from Glenys Rowe, the General Manager of SBS Independent, asking if I’d like to entertain the idea of joining them as a Commissioning Editor for Documentary. It didn’t require much thinking, I jumped at the opportunity and launched into the job starting in early February 2005. The CE job proved to be a fabulous opportunity to learn more about filmmaking from a broadcasting perspective. It came with the prospect of learning about TV audiences, what people watch, why they watch and what projects attract SBS and international broadcasters to documentary projects and presales — issues central to the
lines of inquiry in this document. Over the ensuing three years I also learnt much about the craft of filmmaking as I worked with producers and directors on the 100 plus hours of programs I commissioned. From films like Gillian Armstrong’s Unfolding Florence, to a major international ‘blue chip’ science documentary series, Cracking the Colour Code, or a host of small 5-minute interstitials, each program that I commissioned taught and challenged me to think about the dynamics of story and storytelling and anticipate what might work for the SBS TV and increasingly online audiences. I then also had the opportunity of seeing how audiences responded to these commissioned programs via ratings provided by SBS TV’s Audience Affairs. The Commissioning Editor job gave me extraordinary access and insights into the methodologies of broadcasting in Australia and abroad. It was a fast-tracked learning curve in a very supportive and collaborative environment. SBS Independent was highly regarded at the time amongst Australia’s independent filmmaking fraternity, and also by film State and Federal funding agencies. We were out stripping by far the documentary commissioned work by the national broadcaster, the ABC, and investing in award winning low budget feature films like 10 Canoes and Home Song Stories. It was an honour to be part of the SBSi team. AVRO and ARTE were very quick to schedule and broadcast Hula Girls and it was transmitted only a matter of weeks after delivery. In Holland the program was broadcast in the Close Up arts strand it was commissioned for, with the title, De Hoela-Hoela Meisjes, on Monday 16th January 2005 at the beginning of ‘prime time’ 18.30 - 19.20. It was repeated four days later on Friday the 20th by Nederland 1, at 2pm in the afternoon. Unfortunately the ratings figures for the AVRO and Nederland 1 broadcasts have proved impossible to determine. It’s also proved impossible to garner information about publicity and/or reviews. The ARTE transmission was as planned, part of their slot, Thema — Discovering the
Great Legends of Our Time, on Sunday 30th January at 8:45 pm. Hula Girls was programmed as the second ‘themed’ program that evening and screened at 10.30pm after Kevin Costner’s 1994 drama Rapa Nui, which was the feature film component for the themed evening. Hula Girls broadcast in France with the title, Les Filles des Mers du Sud, (The Girls of the South Sea) as our original title does not have an equivalent French translation. The ‘hula girl’ is also more of an American term that has come into broad use as a result of the history which the documentary explores. This may also have influenced ARTE’s decision to re-title the program with a French cultural and historical reference to their South Pacific territories. According to the ratings figures supplied by ARTE’s, Unité Thema department, Hula Girls attracted an audience share of 1.8% for its transmission or approximately 850,000 viewers. As with AVRO it has proved impossible to gain a sense of ARTE’s publicity for the program and how it was received critically. Australia’s SBS TV, on the other hand, did not commission Hula Girls with a specific slot in mind and it took some time for the programming department to place it in their broadcast schedule. It is the local transmission and promotion of Hula Girls which I now wish to elaborate on, as I believe my research illuminates perceptions about the completed program which also explicate the inquiry I’ve undertaken in writing this thesis: why was Hula Girls successful in the market place for documentary? When I started working at SBS the then Programmer, Jane Roscoe, was experimenting with slots for Friday night, particularly outside of the ‘prime time’ 6.30pm – 10.00pm zone. Jane started running an array of international documentaries exploring sexuality from 10 to 11pm. Internally at SBSi, we jokingly called the slot ‘Sexy Docs’ and it is now (2008) publicly promoted as ‘XY Docs’. Working at SBS gave me access to Jane Roscoe and it was a privileged position to be in given that I was also a filmmaker with a program yet to be scheduled by her. The interview I conducted with her about the ‘Sexy Docs’ Friday night slot and her subsequent programming of Hula Girls corresponds to the weekly discussions Commissioning Editors had with Jane about SBS slots, ratings figures and the programs we’d commissioned from the independent sector,
Friday is a difficult night and its difficult for networks to get it right across the board. People at home want something entertaining, something a little engaging. It’s not the night to put on your hard hitting political documentaries. You don’t want any of that but you still want something that engages your brain a little bit. What we tried to do is get documentaries that push the boundaries around sex and sexuality but do so in smart and intelligent ways. So we want programs that have some analysis, some context to the images that might be quite sexy, quite out there. And that’s the constant challenge because there is an awful lot of programs out there that are made, they are really quite fascinating, they’re outrageous, but without that context, you don’t want to be showing just smut basically. I am sure there’s an audience for that but I don’t think that is what SBS should be doing. 3
I have to admit to being horrified when Jane told me that Hula Girls was probably destined for 10pm on a Friday night. “Nobody will watch it at 10pm”. “It’s not a sexy doc and it’s not sexy enough”, I protested. Never in twenty years of filmmaking had I had this type of access to a programmer and been able to discuss slots for a program I’d made. It had always previously been a fait accompli. I also didn’t want Hula Girls tagged a ‘Sexy Doc’, to me this seemed cheap and smutty. “I haven’t made a sex program”, I shrieked. To my way of thinking this choice of slots was SBS proving my thesis tag line and cashing in on what I have called ‘tits and bums’. Here was living proof! I set about arguing for a more ‘serious’ slot for Hula Girls, an 8.30pm time zone for instance, where more people would tune in. “Surely 8.30pm would pull in a bigger crowd” I argued. But to no avail, my pleading fell on deaf ears. The reality was that there wasn’t another suitable slot for the nature of the Hula Girls content on the weekly SBS transmission schedule and this was my first big lesson after joining the broadcaster. Of course I already knew from 20 years in the industry that documentaries need to have a home on a broadcaster’s transmission schedule. A regular slot, that appears in the TV guide week by week, helps audiences know where to find a program of a certain genre. But I had never fully appreciated just how set in stone transmission schedules and slots can be. A television network is like a large Bruce Petty cartoon of contraptions and levers that 188
chew up ‘product’ and spit the fodder out to national audiences at an extraordinary rate. Hula Girls was just one hour, 52 minutes to be exact. One of thousands of hours of programs that need to be commissioned, brought, delivered from Australia and around the world, then scheduled, publicised and broadcast on SBS throughout the year. Hula Girls had taken me a year to write and direct, but it was now just a tiny cog within the SBS broadcast machine. In 2005 the defined SBS slots for independent Australian and international documentary, according to genres were: 8.30pm Tuesday night, Cutting Edge for investigative-political documentary (often Iraq stories), Wednesday night 10pm Hot Docs, for feature length programs with a high festival profile, and 8.30pm Thursday night, Storyline Australia for showcasing the works of independent Australian filmmakers (Storyline programs were exclusively Australian based stories, not a slot for a program about the history of the hula girl) and 8.30pm Friday night, As It Happened, a history slot, often running war stories (dubbed the Hitler slot). And then there was 10pm Friday, ‘Sexy Docs’. SBS can and does create documentary slots for a series any time they wish to, but not for a ‘one off’. There was no other place to program Hula Girls apart from ‘Sexy Docs’ and I ruefully had to accept it. There was an inherent contradiction in my protestation about the ‘Sexy Docs’ slot too. When making the program I wanted it to challenge and entertain and attract an audience and a large part of the entertainment value Denise Haslem and I offered to audiences was the historical image of the semi naked hula girl. You couldn’t make the program without her. But I wanted audiences, and indeed programmers, to embrace the more serious historical side to my film. This in retrospect (3 years later) was perhaps moi, the writerdirector, acting as ‘control freak’ wanting to direct the way networks and audiences see the finished program. And in retrospect one has to laugh at the preciousness of it all. However at the time I was extremely nervous about how the program would be received in Jane Roscoe’s chosen ‘sexy docs’ slot and whether it would draw an audience. Was it ‘sexy’ enough?
When the dust had settled from my tilting at windmills, I spoke with Jane Roscoe again about her programming decision,
Given the hula girls cultural baggage as an object of sexual desire it seemed to me to be perfect for the ‘sexy docs slot’. We call it the ‘sexy docs slot’ but it is supposed to be for documentaries about sexuality and the body, sexual issues. But for me I’m not keen to load it up just with lots of naked bodies. So Hula Girls to me seemed perfect because there was analysis there, cultural understanding of the importance of the hula girl, plus there was all that amazing archival footage. It’s a really interesting balance between analysis and the straight talk, plus the sensuality of the hula girl and the historical journey as well. And what I got from the documentary was that notion of the lasting importance of that image. It is still such a strong image, an icon. What the documentary did in a very entertaining way, was give us a history lesson but also give us something that was quite sexy. 4
One couldn’t ask for ask for a better response to the intention of the program. Jane clearly had tuned in and her comeback was hugely reassuring. Jane helped me come to grips with the reality of the program I’d made and to see and value that the entertainment in the show was intrinsically linked to the sexuality. Her scheduling decision was further challenging my thinking about the sexuality and the historical representation of Polynesian women which I referred to in Chapter 7 Hollywood’s South Seas Princess ‘a one dimensional, politically correct view of sexuality in South Seas cinema, seeing it solely as a means of peddling cinema tickets’. It was time to start exfoliating, let go of this defensive idea and embrace more the celebratory tone of the program and the exploration of sexuality embedded within it. But this internal debate I’d been having with myself from day one was set to continue and to plague me. Not much later I was sent the DVD cover and flyer which Beyond Distribution had created to sell the program internationally in broadcast and non-theatrical (educational) markets. The front cover featured a crisply focused mid shot of a ‘gorgeous’ French Polynesian woman dancing against a blurred background. The blur and lighting served to highlight the features of her face and gentle smile. She has a dancing, ‘welcoming’ beauty to accompany the program title in large bold letters Hula Girls — Imagining Paradise. This was Bougainville’s Venus, and it brought to mind Katerina Teawia’s
remark from her interview that, ‘Paradise is not inhabited by ugly people. It is populated by beautiful people’. Beyond Distribution’s graphic designers had decided to cash in on the exotic ‘nubile savage’ and make her look sexy and contemporary. Tahiti Tourism could not have done better. And the accompanying text was selling an out of the ordinary documentary voyage as well,
Take a journey to the South Pacific: a land of exotic and seductive women — a paradise on earth. The subject of countless Hollywood films, the bronzed beauties of Polynesia have hula-danced their way into history books and become the stuff of romantic legend.
But is this image of the erotic Pacific woman fact or mere sailors’ fantasy? Hula Girls reveals the many faces of the Pacific Island woman as portrayed through Hollywood films, art and literature and explores an indigenous culture which has connected nature, people and love for centuries. Drawing on spectacular images from Tahiti and Hawaii, this special will open your eyes to the South Pacific woman.
Archival footage includes film excerpts from Clark Gable, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando and Shirley Temple. 5.
There was no escaping the cliché. Sex sells. It was a further example of the creative conundrum I’d been dealing with, the balance between the appeal of the images and the weight of the story. Selling the completed program, as it was in the original pitch to broadcasters, was a matter of planting first and foremost seductive imagery in the buyer’s mind. Hula Girls was at last scheduled for broadcast by SBS on Friday 27th of May 2005 at 10pm, 6 months after we delivered it. SBS Publicist Verity Leatherdale put out a press release, with the following introductory paragraph, some of which had originated from the program’s narration,
Hula Girls - Friday, May 27 at 10.00pm Beautiful and exotic. Half real, half myth. A product of male fantasies, a byword for sexuality and
a creation of the Hollywood dream factory. The image of the beautiful Polynesian woman underwrites the Tahitian and Hawaiin tourism industries and for millions of people across the world continues to be an invitation to paradise. HULA GIRLS, screening on SBS Television on Friday, May 27 at 10.00pm, draws on spectacular island locations and a rich heritage of art, literature and moving pictures to explore the sexual mythology of the Pacific Island woman and its grip on the Western imagination. 6
I was getting used to the sell by now. At least there was sexy angle to pitch, I thought to myself, unlike many documentaries. However SBS Publicist Verity Leatherdale revealed she had a sophisticated approach to selling the program to local TV journalists,
I did the obvious things. I produced a press kit with pics on it because it had fantastic pics. On the front of the kit I used a painting, I used a couple of movie stills. Why did I use these, well to get a flavour of the program, they are all colourful, but I’ve got to admit in all three of them, appropriate to the program they are showing lovely looking hula girls in a slight state of undress. But the press release talks about the program as a serious, well not serious, but a considered, comprehensive, intelligent, cultural studies program and I took my lead from the program and the press materials. It talked about Bougainville’s fantastic description of the woman coming out to the boat. It talked about Cook’s horror at the permissiveness the first time he saw the hula dance. And I hope I remained true to the program but I took my queue from that knowing that you have all of thirty seconds to grab someone’s attention in the highly competitive world of TV programs and I had a finite amount of time to do it. 7
There-in lies the rub. In the machine of TV publicity Leatherdale had all of 30 seconds to grab the attention of reviewers who are being pulled in all directions by scheduled TV programs across the networks. At least there was a 30s seconds pitch to draw a reviewers attention,
It wasn’t difficult at all. I didn’t get on the phone and say, “Heh. Woooo, tits and bums hula girls”, I said, “It’s a really enjoyable program, it’s a serious subject in some ways, but it’s about the whole concept”. So you can have it both ways, it’s enjoyable subject matter, you are drawn to it for the very reasons the filmmaker is talking about it, because everyone has this image in their minds, so you can play off that but at the same time you can enjoy it. As a publicist it’s a gift because it’s got elements that you can work with. You know you don’t have to lie about. I could quite honestly say it’s got a celebratory side, that’s the leaping off point I guess, but at the same time it’s got a critical, analytical side and I could play that up or down according to who I was
speaking to. And of course it’s visually fantastic. 8
I liked Verity’s, ‘you can have it both ways’ sell. It was the publicist’s version of my own ‘entertainment and history’ that I have written about extensively, which was utmost in my mind when writing and editing Hula Girls. Verity Leatherdale’s leg work paid off. The week proceeding the 27th May 2005, reviews big and small in column centimeters, began appearing in newspapers around the country and online. They were generally positive critiques of the program, but some particularly from the main TV guides in Sydney and Melbourne expressed reservations. The reviewer for the Melbourne Age Green Guide, Kathy Kazilos, wondered why there were no voices of contemporary Polynesian women in the program,
Even in this documentary, which is sympathetic to her plight, understanding it as a metaphor for the process of colonisation, the Polynesian woman’s voice is not heard. Instead we hear from sympathetic academics, some of whom are Polynesian, who attempt to explain why, say, Tahitian women were so willing to have sex with the French and English sailors who first visited their island (and could hardly believe their luck). 9
Another feature article by a colleague of Kazilos, Paul Kalina appeared in the same edition of the Green Guide. Kalina had more column space and his article titled, Hubba hubba hula history strongly endorsed Hula Girls,
While the film gives a light treatment to how history and Hollywood has depicted the hula girl, the subject is for Graham a prism through which colonialism, sexuality and artistic representation can be examined. Perhaps the ultimate irony, he notes, is that the notion of paradise has been turned on its head by the presence of Westerners. Much of Hawaii today is a military zone. In the typical movie and pulp-fiction melodrama, a white male comes to paradise and falls in love with a beautiful native girl. But among the hundreds of black-and-white B-films Graham looked at in the research, one of the most interesting is the Frances Farmer-Victor McLaglen starring South of Pago Pago of 1940. There, a blonde beauty falls in love with a native chief. Graham argues that the film tacitly acknowledges that women entertain similar fantasies about escape.10
On the other hand Scott Coomber writing for The Australian’s Saturday Review in his 193
critique, Shaking all over reinforced the Kazilos view about the absence of Polynesian women,
Surely there were some local people who could explain the intricacies of the dance and its choreography, 11
Coomber also thought there was too much Hollywood in the program, it was too ‘Bill Collins’ for his liking and taste,
This is where Hula Girls strays off course, steering a little too sharply towards Hollywood, probably helped along by ready access to film archives. Vintage film buffs will enjoy the footage of Clark Gable and Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian, plus songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Not to mention a little ditty the producers dug up called Keep Your Eyes on Her Hands with its amusing double meaning. 12
But the Coomber review concluded, I thought, on a positive note,
That said the director has made a piece of entertainment and should have the final say, ‘Hula Girls not only analyses the use of the image but celebrates it as well’.13
One always hopes for glowing reviews after the intense effort of making film and television programs, but 25 years of doing the business has lead me up a different path. I could quote from Doug Anderson in the Sydney Morning Herald and downplay the Scott Coomber review altogether. But this would be a pointless exercise. When you make a program to put forward to the general public on a national broadcaster you need to be able to encompass the views of the people who review it. It is after all only their opinion. At the time I believed the major dailies through their reviewers had embraced the program and helped promote it to their readers. All publicity is good publicity is the cliché about promotion and television. That the major TV guides had reviewed Hula Girls at all, when it was destined for a Friday 10pm slot, was an achievement in itself and I believe a broad endorsement. However Kazilos and Coomber had picked on a weakness in the program with which I
agreed and grappled with in the making — the absence of the voice of a contemporary Polynesian hula dancer. Perhaps the inclusion of dance director Marguerite Lei in the program would have provided this additional indigenous voice. But I dropped her from the edit as I thought her interview wasn’t strong enough and she would have appeared once only. The lack of this Polynesian female voice was part of a bigger issue that became evident in my research and which I wrote about in Chapter 10 — the problem with first contact histories with Indigenous peoples is that there is no written record, let alone visual representations, of the colonial encounter from the Indigenous side. Instead the words, the images and largely the on going study of these histories, are the preoccupations of the colonisers. Indigenous Hawaiians and/or Tahitians don’t on the whole study the work of John Webber, Paul Gauguin or the writings of French explorer Bougainville. And even if I did find in my research a Polynesian woman conversant with these European images, would she be compelling talent? That was my number one criteria. I was pleased with the TV guides response to Hula Girls. In addition to the reviews, Ed Rampell did an extensive live interview with ABC’s Radio National from Los Angeles to further promote the program. The SBS publicity team had done everything possible over a 3 to 4 week span to promote the show in its 10pm slot. It was now simply a matter of sitting tight and waiting for the program rating figures which determine not only the numbers but also the demographics of who was watching. Every Monday morning at SBS, the Friday night and weekend ratings figures are emailed to all the network executives and the commissioning team. The SBS ‘Daily Overview’ gives the overall evening audience share for SBS, the ratings figures and audience share for every program from 6pm onwards and also contains an evening narrative summary. The Daily Overview for Friday 27th May 2005 stated,
- Evening share of people 16+ was 5.4%, down on last week. - Top programs were Hula Girls with 250k & World News with 241k. - A Fork in the Mediterranean began its new series well, attracting an audience of 212k, which was an increase on the program previously in the 20:00 slot, She'll be Right, Boss, whose highest
audience number for the series was 174k. The 250k achieved at 22:00 by Hula Girls was driven mainly by older men. 14
These were extremely good figures. Hula Girls was the top rating program SBS achieved across the entire Friday evening, and it did so from the 10pm slot. It even outstripped A Fork in the Road which was a highly promoted new SBS series. Jane Roscoe was vindicated and I was forced to rethink my earlier opposition and disappointment about her programming decision. The documentary also achieved an audience share of 13%, more than double the SBS average for 2005 (5.5%) and as the Daily Overview showed the increased audience share was driven by the SBS traditional audience, older men. The OZtam TV ratings for Sydney and Melbourne also revealed that the audience share in these capitals grew as the program progressed and viewers switched off from other networks. This was a considerable achievement given the stiff opposition programmed from the other networks, which included: the ABC’s, The Memphis Trousers Half Hour with Roy & HG; 7 Network’s, Edinburgh Military Tattoo; 9 Network’s, AFL Football; and Ten Network’s American Idol Finale. On the surface the older male demographic supported my supposition (perhaps cynicism) that Hula Girls was commissioned to potentially provide an increase in ratings via naked Polynesian women. But according to Jane Roscoe older men are already the core audience of SBS, with or without either Hula Girls or the ‘sexy docs’ slot. Hula Girls simply managed to pull more of them in that evening, along with some younger viewers,
That is the problem of SBS generally. They are the core audience of SBS, they are the over 65 males who will generally watch anything on SBS. Whatever program we show there is a core of men over 65 watching and Friday night we are really trying to bring in some different audiences and the sexy docs slot does bring in a portion of younger viewers and a portion of female viewers. And the females are very hard to get at SBS. We only see them in certain numbers across the schedule at certain points. 15
It is worth making a comparison at this point between Hula Girls and other ‘Sexy Docs’ programmed by Jane Roscoe for the 10pm Friday night slot as they provide a ratings 196
context for the program. The week after Hula Girls (3/6/05) Roscoe programmed Obscene Machines in the ‘sexy docs’ slot. 370,000 people tuned in, and like Hula Girls, it was the top rating show that evening. The next best rating that evening was World News Australia with 210,000 viewers. Overall the night was down ratings wise, but the ‘Sexy Docs’ slot boosted the average audience share to 5.6%. Almost a month later SBS screened Diary of a Teenage Nudist and 364,000 people viewed it. As the Daily Overview for that day (24/6/05) noted about the 5.9% evening audience share,
Increase in share was due to the return of Sexy Docs in the 22:00 timeslot. 16
The week before SBS had screened the FIFA Confederations Cup Highlights which scored a dismal 87,000 viewers nation wide and an audience share of 5.5%. A week later (1/7/05) in ‘Sexy Docs’, In Search of the Perfect Penis screened, drawing a large audience of 367,000 viewers, most of them predictably older men. Once again ‘Sexy Docs’ was the best rating program of the night, but overall ratings that night were lower, so the evening audience share remained on average for the year at 5.5%. I cite the example of the ratings figures for these three documentaries as they are evidence of the audience pulling power of a late Friday night slot devoted to programs that deal with sex and sexuality. They witness that SBS in this period (and since) was successfully boosting audience numbers and average yearly audience share through the ‘Sexy Docs’ slot. The slot on many occasions was the slot ratings wise for Friday evenings. But I cite the figures also because each of these sex content programs, particularly with their strong and provocative titles, sheds light on the more modest ratings achievements and also the intentions of Hula Girls in exploring sexuality and history. There is nothing like a sex selling title, Obscene Machines, or Diary of a Teenage Nudist, for instance to guarantee an audience. Like Hula Girls, each of these 3 programs were reviewed by the major daily papers and in my opinion they were credible well made explorations of sex and sexuality. But the ratings difference is stark, 100,000 more people watched them than Hula Girls. They put my fears about SBS commissioning Hula Girls to ‘exploit’ tits and bums back in the box they came from. It was ultimately a
question of degree and intention. At SBSi throughout this period the commissioning team would often debate how we could evaluate whether programs we had commissioned were successful or not. What were the standards we could apply to measure our own success in commissioning? These are not easy criteria to establish because there are so many variables. As a broadcaster one obvious measure is the ratings and the ability of a program to pull in and sustain an audience. Time and again however many excellent local and international documentaries did poorly on SBS, simply because of the competition that night from other networks. Another measure of success is the ability of a program to draw press reviews or create a public profile though festival screenings or a cinema launch. The final criteria we employed, was recognition via national and international film and or television nominations and awards. On the first two criteria alone Hula Girls had already kicked some goals, but it was the third category that I felt the most personal satisfaction was achieved for my year long effort in writing and directing the program. In mid July 2005 I received a phone call from the NSW Ministry of the Arts to say that Hula Girls had been nominated for The Audio/Visual History Prize ($15,000) of the 2005 NSW History Awards and was one of 3 short listed nominees amongst locally made documentaries made by my peers. I had won the prize on a previous occasion in 1998 with Mabo Life of an Island Man. I had a high regard for this particular award with it its cash prize of $15,000 and to be nominated a second time I believed was quite special. The prize emanates from the NSW Ministry of the Arts and is judged by a panel of academicians. The Ministry website stated the judging panel’s reasons for the Hula Girls nomination,
Short-listed Trevor Graham Hula Girls Electric Pictures Pty Ltd, 2005 A witty, intelligent cultural history of the hula girl — a western fantasy whose origins lie in
European colonisation and imperialism in the Pacific — this cleverly structured film moves between a chronological account of the development of the image of the Polynesian Hula girl in western culture, and a deconstruction of more recent manifestations of the Hula girl in popular culture. The story of the Hula girl is the story of the colonisation of the Pacific and the myriad fantasies and myths that these colonial encounters inspired. Trevor Graham makes rich use of a diverse archive of visual representations of Pacific women to develop his arguments. From the very earliest accounts of the beautiful women of Polynesia by Louis Antoine de Bougainville, to paintings, photography, and Elvis Presley films: all evoke the same fantasy of the beautiful, innocent, and sexually available Polynesian woman. Historians and commentators are used judiciously to further these claims. A lively contribution to the history of colonialism in the Pacific, Hula Girls is also a highly original documentary film. 17
Four months later I was dining at Government House in Sydney for the awards presentation with the former Premier of NSW Bob Carr and the then Minister for the Arts Bob Debus. Hula Girls had in fact won the The Audio/Visual History Prize, they had informed me in advance, and I was there to raise the roof, speak, and take hold of the all important cheque from the Minister for the Arts. It was a high honor and moment of personal achievement particularly as the other two nominated programs Political Football (Dir. James Middleton, 2005) and Frank Hurley: The Man Who Made History (Dir. Simon Nasht 2004), were both excellent documentaries by filmmakers whose work I enjoy and respect. It was a strong field of nominations to win from. I cite the example of the award not to blow my own trumpet, but to give context to the significance I place in my work as a film practitioner receiving recognition from an award like the NSW History Awards, and in particular the history discipline. The judges’ reasoning for the award was reassuring after the creative tussle of making the program and trying to find the balance, as I have said all along, between entertainment, celebration and historical analysis. The award, along side of the reviews, and the SBS ratings was recognition that we had achieved that balance. The Awards ceremony also provided another unexpected opening when I met historian Michelle Arrow, one of the Audio — Visual Prize judges. I later arranged to interview her about Hula Girls, to probe her thoughts beyond her judge’s comments and it provided an 199
opportunity to dig deeper into a young female historian’s view of the program,
With something like Hula Girls, what I liked about it was that it didn’t tell a particular story about a person, most of the other films (in that History Award category) were biographical. But Hula Girls was like an essay, a filmed essay. It was the exploration of an idea, rather than an exploration of a story. Therefore you have more freedom in the structure, it places more demands on you in the way you tell that story, because the narrative is not immediately obvious. The way that film started and the way it cut in with 1930s cinema and then went back to the very early colonial encounters, I liked that sense of different layers of the past are all mashed up together. It wasn’t just, ‘Here’s the beginning, someone is born, and that’s when they die’. And the other thing I liked was using the Hollywood film to illustrate the older historical points and the way that Hollywood kept reinserting itself and the twisted narrative. It was emphasising the mixed up nature of the past and the present, the distant past and the more recent past. I liked that. The past was commenting on the more distant past. They were having a conversation with each other which I kind of liked. I liked its slightly playful presentation of history. That it wasn’t dead serious. I think Ed Rampell was great because his interview introduced a tone of lightness to it, in his Hawaiian shirt and he’s brash and he’s loud and he’s out there. The young woman, Katerina Teaiwa, from the University of Hawaii she was great too because, she was really important, because it was like the Hula Girl is speaking. She looks fantastic she is gorgeous, but she is also like, ‘Well get stuffed this is actually the way it was’ and she is actually explaining the cultural specificity of it. She was great because she was feisty and important to have that voice in that film for that reason. It would have been very easy for Hula Girls to simply perpetuate all the things it was critiquing, or explaining. And the other thing I liked about Hula Girls is that it digs below that image, the hula girl or the Elvis image or whatever, it digs below what we think is very surface or kitschy and says this has a really deep history. It starts out with something that is quite innocuous and reveals something that is quite fundamental about colonisation. So I liked that sense of digging down below the surface and revealing something much more disturbing, the sense of representation and that this is a kind of western fantasy or a male white fantasy. I learnt something from it and that question of what you want an audience to get from it is interesting. Do you want your audience to learn from it do you want them to be entertained by it? 18
Michelle opened up some new important ideas on the program that I hadn’t really thought through myself all that clearly. She referred to the program as a ‘mash up’ and ‘a filmed
essay’, but I have never actually ever described it that way either throughout making it or indeed in writing this thesis. And that’s because in the business of television ‘essay films’ are ‘on the nose’ and have been for some time. Try pitching one to a Commissioning Editor or a TV publicist or a programmer and see how far you get! So I deliberately avoided that unpopular documentary genre label. I always prefer to use the word ‘story’ when describing a program and with Hula Girls in particular I’ve preferred to always push the entertainment button. But Michelle’s thoughts were refreshing and accurate as a descriptor of the form, ‘Hula Girls was like an essay, a filmed essay. It was the exploration of an idea, rather than an exploration of a story’, and ‘therefore you have more freedom in the structure, it places more demands on you in the way you tell that story, because the narrative is not immediately obvious’. I had grappled for that ‘freedom in the structure’ so as not to tell a purely chronological tale or as she puts it, ‘Here’s the beginning, someone is born, and that’s when they die’ and her words resonated like bells in my head when I interviewed her. She was ‘reading’ the structure of the film as it was intended and could appreciate the balance we had struggled to achieve between historical analysis and popular entertainment. Post Script: 18 months later on 26/01/07 Hula Girls was back in the SBS XY Docs Friday night 10pm slot as a repeat program in the “Summer Schedule”. As the Daily Overview from SBS’ Audience Affairs department stated, “Top programs were The SS and Hula Girls Rpt”. The program repeat actually pulled in more viewers (255,000) than its first successful outing in 2005 (250,000) and an audience share of 12.2% almost double the SBS summer average for 2006/2007.
Footnotes: Arrow, M. 2005, Nomination Shortlist & Judge’s comments NSW History Awards, NSW Ministry of the Arts.
1. Overnight Audience Response — SBS TV Audience Research Tuesday, 13th of February, 2007. 2. Dr. Jane Roscoe, Programmer SBS TV interview by Trevor Graham, 2005.
4. Hula Girls, DVD cover, Beyond International (2005)
5. Hula Girls, SBS TV Press Release, Verity Leatherdale, 2005). 6. Verity Leatherdale, Publicist SBS TV, interview by Trevor Graham, 2005.
8. Kathy Kazilos, K. 2005, Critics View, The Melbourne Age Green Guide, p. 18. 9. Paul Kalina, P. 2005, Hubba hubba hula history, The Melbourne Age Green Guide, p. 16. 10. Comber, S. 2005, Shaking All Over, Weekend Australian Review, p. 38.
12. Ibid. 13. SBS ‘Daily Overview’, Audience Research Department SBS TV, 25/5/05. 14. Dr. Jane Roscoe, Programmer SBS TV interview by Trevor Graham, 2005. 15. SBS ‘Daily Overview’, Audience Research Department SBS TV, 24/6/05.
Michelle Arrow, M. 2005, Nomination Shortlist & Judge’s comments NSW History Awards, NSW Ministry of the Arts.
16. Dr. Michelle Arrow, Lecturer Dept of Modern History Macquarie University & Judge NSW
History Awards 2005, interview by Trevor Graham, 2006.
The research and writing of Hula Girls and this accompanying document have been a lengthy and significant personal journey in which I have had to test and challenge many of the bald assumptions and ideas I had when I commenced making the documentary in November 2003. It has proved to be a rewarding and revealing experience as I examined and re-examined the history of the hula girl. Over these past five years, as part of my doctoral project, I have researched the documentary, written the script, directed the shoot and edit, delivered Hula Girls to the three commissioning broadcasters and was actively involved in promoting and publicizing the program in Australia and abroad. In completing the doctoral ‘package’, this companion text has subsequently accounted for the creative processes I employed to make the film. The written component of the doctorate has also provided an opportunity to research the international market place in which Hula Girls was initially pitched and successfully funded. Thus the combination of research, analysis and the creative thinking I employed to write and direct Hula Girls, and to write the subsequent companion text have altogether generated knowledge about cultural history, about creative processes within documentary practice and about strategic issues of international media production and consumption. The two major questions I set out to explore in this document were: (1) Is there anything significant about the production of Hula Girls in the international documentary market that allows us to understand and reflect upon ‘the market’ and ‘market forces’ particularly for Australian documentary? and, (2) are there lessons to be learned from this experience for Australian producers seeking to sell their programs in the international arena?
Since opening these inquiries into the financing of Hula Girls I have come to the conclusion that in some respects these two questions cannot be answered definitively, mostly because of the continually evolving broadcast landscape. Since 2003 when Hula Girls was financed, much has changed in the national and international documentary scene. In Australia in 2008 there has been a huge shake up and amalgamation of Federal film funding agencies involving the Film Finance Corporation, the Australian Film Commission and Film Australia. Whilst the newly amalgamated ‘uber’ agency, Screen Australia, proclaims its continued commitment to the funding of documentary with similar guidelines and levels of support to the Federal agencies it replaced, the exact level of that support (at the time of writing) and the nature of the new organization funding guidelines are yet to be determined. One can only hope that the promised streamlining of the three former agencies will result in increased levels of production funding support for the overall film and television industries.
At SBS TV there have also been profound organizational changes with deep implications for ‘one-off’ documentaries like Hula Girls. The commissioning arm SBS Independent, (which granted Hula Girls its required Australian presale) has been dismantled and replaced by a Content Division with a new Manager of Commissioned Content, and newly appointed Executive Producers replacing Commissioning Editors. With these new staff have come new commissioning priorities and a greater emphasis on ratings at the public broadcaster, and many argue this is heavily linked to the networks commercial advertising agenda. 2007 and 2008 saw a shift at SBS away from broad support for producers making ‘one-off’ documentaries, towards the commissioning of factual entertainment, series like Nerds FC, the reversioning of international formats such as Who Do You Think You Are? and Top Gear Australia and documentary series production. Acquiring factual entertainment programs like the BBC’s Top Gear and reversioning the format into Top Gear Australia is SBS’s attempt to bring new and younger audiences to the network and boost ratings and commercial advertising revenue. These twin imperatives are joined at the hip by the current SBS board and management. This trend towards commercialization of the public broadcaster has had many outspoken critics. But one critic stands out amongst them all for his consistent trenchant censure of ‘in program advertising’ and the processes of commercialisation at Australia’s multi-cultural public broadcaster. On the 21st of August 2008, Errol Simper, continued his frontal attack in his column for The Australian, with an article titled, Bogus public broadcaster with the hide of a pachyderm,
When SBS's television service made the most crucial decision in its existence, when it announced in June 2006 it was to begin interrupting its programs with advertisements, it consulted absolutely no one. Viewers and its traditional, ethnically diverse political support bases were totally ignored. They were treated with utter contumely. Indeed, one senior SBS person is said to have informed a group of concerned staff that what viewers thought about commercial interruptions was pretty close to irrelevant. The station was targeting a different, younger, more lucrative bunch of viewers and existing audiences could like it or lump it. 1.
SBS TV continues to commission programs from independent companies, but they are
increasingly the ‘big’ companies, not the kitchen table variety, capable of producing longer series and format television. These comments are not meant to deny the quality of a series format like the Australian version of Who Do You Think You Are? and its ability to pull an audience to history programming for SBS. The first episode with Jack Thompson in 2008 broke the record for the highest rating SBS local production with 857,000 viewers. This was also the biggest ever SBS audience in the Sunday 19:30 timeslot,
In total, approximately 2.4 million people tuned into the series in the 5 capital cities and 1.1 million in regional areas (audience reach 5 minute consecutive viewing). Viewing was strongest in Sydney and Melbourne. 2
Each of the six Who programs were well crafted, made by Australian producers and directors, and their work and the series as a whole was worthy of support by SBS. It is informative however, to examine the Who and Top Gear Australia examples in contrast with the axing of Storyline Australia in 2007. Storyline Australia was a strand which fostered a vast range of Australian talent. Over the three years of its existence (20042006) Storyline consisted of 23 to 26 one off documentaries broadcast every year, made by as many producer/director teams. By abandoning the Storyline series, SBS was clearly moving away from its prior support for a plurality of ideas by small companies, often passionate ‘kitchen table’ producers, towards format and series television (encompassing factual entertainment) produced by bigger and fewer companies. The strength of Storyline Australia and other one-off documentaries, like Hula Girls, is the plurality of independent program ideas and the plurality of ‘voices’ making them. A series like Storyline with its many voices and many styles democratises factual television programming. By promoting program diversity over its three years, the strand provided a core documentary value for Australian audiences which Peter Wintonick describes as,
social and political commitment, which goes to the very definition of documentary itself . 3
Ideas came from all corners of the country. Commissioners were dependent on a random 206
collection of ideas presented to them, you would never know what would come through the door, and we would select the best 5%, more or less, from the hundreds of proposals we received each year. This random process could produce some gems and some disasters, but it at least fostered unknown and unpredictable story ideas and often new and different styles of documentary production. The ratings for Storyline varied from week to week anywhere between a low 60,000 or a high 470,000 viewers. Most weeks audiences hovered around 200,000. And this is why the series was discontinued, program quality and ratings were too inconsistent from week to week. On the other hand a formatted series like Who Do You Think You Are? provides consistency in terms of quality and audience expectations. Viewers know what they are up for week after week. A ‘promise to the audience’ is made by the quality of the productions and the stories that unravel for viewers. The Australian series of Who Do You Think You Are? attracted an average audience of 602,000 viewers, more than double the 2007 average for the Sunday 19:30 timeslot and three times the average audience for Storyline Australia. The format therefore has great potential to generate audiences ratings and in the case of SBS advertising revenue. The danger is however that the bigger production companies with their larger overheads need to play it safe with their relationship to SBS. They will only present ideas they know the broadcasters will like and see as relevant to their ratings and commercial advertising agenda. This not only undermines the democratic nature, of many voices, many styles, but also leaves one questioning the value of SBS as a public broadcaster. Is SBS a ‘Bogus public broadcaster with the hide of a pachyderm’ as Errol Simper asserts? To internationalise and contextualise this conclusion about the altering broadcast landscape, at the BBC in 2007 there was a massive restructure of staff due to budget cuts. Programs and commissioning weren’t immune either to the budget razor and this eventually impacted on several Australian producers working on British-Australian coproductions. In Chapter 2, I cited the positive experience of filmmaker Simon Nasht and the enthusiastic response of BBC4 Commissioning Editor, Nick Fraser, to his project Rebel with a Cause, about renegade Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. After Hot
Docs in April 2007 Nasht was offered a substantial presale in English pounds. The project was well on its way to being financed (it had also been commissioned by me at SBS) or so we thought at the time. Five months later the project was in tatters. As a result of the changes at the BBC, Fraser’s budget was slashed and for a moment it seemed that one of the most significant feature length documentary slots in the international arena, Storyville, was doomed for the guillotine. The potential closure of Storyville caused a minor furore amongst filmmakers both in Britain, Australia and elsewhere. Fraser eventually successfully lobbied BBC management to keep the series, but he would cut back on the overall number of his commissioned projects and reduce his budget. Sadly Rebel with a Cause was one of Fraser’s sacrifices and his initial offer, which had already been passed to the BBC’s Business Affairs Department, was withdrawn. To state the obvious, independent filmmaking is a fickle business, and the old cliché, ‘I won’t believe it till the money’s in the bank’ is a well worn truism for good reason. With a more commercially oriented imperative currently at play at SBS it is highly unlikely, even with its potential for ratings success, that a program like Hula Girls would now be commissioned by the network. The point of these insights into SBS, apart from expressing my regret about the changes, is to reinforce what Augustus Dalgaro said in Chapter 2. A Buyers Market, that, ‘The tastes of the market place are changing every six months’. The commissioning staff are also changing. The point needs to be reinforced that what is commissioned at SBS, or any other broadcaster, depends on the needs of that broadcaster at any given moment and most importantly on who is driving the commissioning and their programming taste. It also depends enormously on broadcaster budgets and where they are in their budget cycles at any given moment. Hula Girls was commissioned at a time when SBSi, under the regime of Rowe and Commissioning Editor Lander, was actively commissioning ‘one off’ documentaries and vigorously supporting local producers engaged in financing and co-producing programs for the international market. At the time Hula Girls was commissioned by Lander even without a regular SBS slot in mind. This couldn’t happen post 2007. As Lander stated in Chapter 3, A Buyer’s Market,
At that point in time I was two years into my time at SBS as a CE, and I still had a lot of independent filmmaker characteristics coming out, and that was one of the things about SBSi, it lent towards the independent filmmaker as well as to the broadcaster and there was seen to be a value in terms of supporting the industry and strengthening the industry. 4
Ogilvie had approached Lander for a presale at an opportune time. Lander had been in the job two years, he was venturing overseas to the international markets and keen to support Australian producers in this context. When I interviewed Lander for this document four years later, I asked him how much he thought ‘commissioning of project ideas was personality based?’,
Personality is inevitably a part of it, a significant part of it, but not in a very obvious way. I did a little bit of testing of that early on in my period as a commissioner at SBS. And I found that who ever you chose whether it was a representative of a funding agency or a broadcaster, or for that matter a filmmaker, and if you were looking at 100 submissions, you would all reject the same 80. Of the next 20 there may be small disagreements getting rid of the next 10. And of the last 10 you would start to have significant differences about whether you chose this one or that one and this is where personality comes in to play. But actually those final 10 would be all viable productions and would have things going for them as ideas and there wasn’t a right answer or a wrong answer. There is a kind of a myth out there that there is a vast quantity of really top work that isn’t getting funded. And that’s simply not true. There are five of the 10 on a regular basis that are not getting funded, that could’ve been funded. And you could say that part of the selection process is based on personality. 5
From my own experience as a Commissioning Editor at SBSi I can vouch for and endorse Lander’s views that the best projects stand out and that roughly only 10% of submissions are worthy of consideration. And further that personal taste can be brought to bear on the final 5% of successful projects. Hula Girls was commissioned for SBSi not so much on Lander’s personal taste, but because the involvement of a local broadcaster would clinch the deal and make it eligible for FFC investment. It was therefore essentially a deal led project, one in which Lander was supporting an independent producer like Ogilvie and ‘strengthening’ his company Electric Pictures. It also happened to be a good idea for SBSi, at the time, in terms of the
broadcaster’s charter obligations. Despite the changing broadcast landscape, here and abroad, I can make some firmer conclusions about the process of successfully financing and producing a program like Hula Girls in the international market. These conclusions centre on producing skills. Andrew Ogilvie’s investment in time and travel to international markets over a period of time paid off. It allowed him to get to know CEs Grunert and Braamhorst, what they were looking for and also their personal taste. Grunert was known as ‘the king of sexy programs’ and Braamhorst was previously a cultural historian. Importantly the pitch for Island Aphrodite (as the project was originally called) encompassed the breadth of art forms that Braamhorst’s strand, Close Up focused on, painting, photography and cinema history. This knowledge influenced Ogilvie’s eventual successful pitch to both of them. Similarly, Ogilvie knew Lander was committed to delivering entertaining programs that fulfilled the SBS charter, so he could pitch the program as being important to SBS, not just because of the deal. If there is an obvious golden rule to glean from Ogivie’s successful experience pitching Hula Girls and ‘the market’ and ‘market forces’ for Australian documentary, it is get know the broadcasters and the Commissioning Editors, what strands or slots they commission for and their program tastes and preferences. When Commissioning Editors consider buying a project as a presale they put themselves in their audience’s shoes. An idea may appeal to their personal taste. But will it appeal to their audience and the demographic that watches at 8.30pm on a Thursday night, which is the slot they commission for? Producers should only present them with ideas that clearly work for their slots, otherwise they are wasting their time and the broadcasters. In relationship to Hula Girls, Ogilvie already had these questions answered when he pitched the program. They were a well-oiled part of his pitch. Ogilvie’s track record since Hula Girls is impressive and worth noting as a case in point. He has pre-sold numerous new projects to ARTE and SBS including a ‘blue chip’ high budget science series, Cracking the Colour Code, and many other co-production
broadcast partners. Clearly these broadcasters think he and his company are reliable coproduction partners, producing quality programs. But these presales have been generated because Ogilvie spent time acquainting himself with the international markets. As I discussed in Chapter 2 A Buyer’s Market Australian documentary in the international market is often disadvantaged. Augustus Dulgaro said of his experience selling Australian documentaries for Film Australia, the product was often seen as ‘too Australian’ or ‘too parochial’. Hula Girls clearly could not be ‘pigeon-holed in this manner. It was pitched as an international idea from the outset, for an international market. The hula girl icon was relevant to international audiences: ‘she’ was a readily identifiable ‘brand’. But what wasn’t known was the history and genesis of ‘her’ origins and the documentary could deliver on this. In terms of style, Hula Girls was also pitched with the needs of the European market in mind and would encompass an array of international experts and employ 50% narration. It would not be a program comprising Australian only experts or consist of wall to wall ‘talking heads’. In this respect too it could not be tagged as ‘parochial’ in style. In relationship to the successful completion and approval of Hula Girls from the three broadcasters, there are numerous firm conclusions to be made about story, style and content for the international market. Perhaps the most important of these was my decision to find a balance in the content and the story between entertainment, or viewing pleasure, and history. As Verity Lambert from SBS Publicity described Hula Girls, it’s a program where ‘you can have it both ways’. This involved, as I have written about extensively, the use of as many Hollywood scenes for inclusion in Hula Girls as we could possibly afford. But the Hollywood clips were supported by a strong historical story which provides context. These ‘A’ and ‘B’ storylines , ‘Hollywood’ and ‘history’ danced with each other, one dependent on the other to create the full meaning and complexity of the Hula Girls story. Fortunately my producer Andrew Ogilvie supported this approach and re-jigged his budget to accommodate as many Hollywood clips as possible.
The other factor regarding entertainment was the choice of interview talent. Not only was choosing an international cast for interview important, but selecting the best available talent and also looking for humour in the talent, by featuring someone like Los Angelesbased journalist and film critic Ed Rampell. The other important conclusion about interview talent was selecting characters that could provide the counter point and layering to the story that I was seeking. Margaret Jolly and Katerina Teaiwa were able to flesh out the meaning and importance of sexuality in customary Polynesian culture and provide some logic for Polynesian women’s ‘welcoming’ attitudes to Europeans. As Margaret Jolly says,
Polynesian eroticism was not a figment of the European imagination. 6
There is nothing obviously Australian about Hula Girls, it is an international idea, in its look, its story, its interviewees and the choice of archival footage. It had one foot in Europe in its historical story, another in the USA and yet the story is centered mostly in Polynesia. It is therefore a story with global resonance. The program pitched the hula girl image as an international icon, still relevant today, as an emblem of tourism. Working to the European model in relationship to employing narration was another important factor in the success of the program with AVRO and ARTE. It seems incredible to me that I still hear filmmakers say they don’t like using narration in their programs. It was something I encountered a lot in the cutting room as a Commissioning Editor at SBS, and still do in my current work as a Series Producer at the ABC. Narration is first and foremost another filmmaking tool to be used creatively as a device for storytelling. Deciding to embrace the notion of 50% narration in Hula Girls, from the very start, at scripting, was important. Also bringing in script consultant and co-writer Louis Nowra in the last stages of post-production gave our final narration script finesse and polish.
The other question that hung over the production, and is central to this thesis, concerned
the expectations of the broadcasters I was working for. Would Hula Girls by force of circumstance be another adventure in exoticism? “Oh exotic! Great winter viewing, on a cold snowy winter’s night” and “I want to see these sexy ladies” was apparently Olaf Grunert’s response when the project was pitched to him by Ogilvie at MIPCOM in 2002. On the surface one could easily conclude that the promise of ‘exoticism’ and ‘sexy ladies’ were part of the appeal for the broadcasters and their audiences. However my research revealed a far more complicated picture and set of expectations than my initial fears relied upon. And further, I found in the making of the program that sexuality and the history of the hula girl as an icon are not only intertwined but they have profound historical moments where they are beacons for social change. Essentially Hula Girls was commissioned because of a combination of factors, its ability to entertain and appeal to European and Australian audiences and for its historical analysis which involved unraveling a great deal of European thought and history. The sexy image of Polynesian women was the source of that audience appeal and engagement. But scantily clad Polynesian women were not sufficient reasons to commission the program by any of the Commissioning Editors. The images required history and analysis to underpin them — a deconstruction with humor, pleasure and rigour which would in the end speak about Europeans and their historical relationship with the South Pacific. As Andrew Ogilvie outlined to me when I interviewed him about AVRO’s and Wolter Braamhorst’s interests in the program,
He wanted something full of images that are luxurious, that are going to entertain through the image, an audience that is interested in painting and in art, and films. He would be also aware that being sexy it would appeal to his male audience. But it wasn’t the primary motivation. And never has been. If we were to make a film which was totally sensationalised and exploitative of those images and for no other reason than to show lots of tits and bums, then they wouldn’t like that at all. No, the sex has to be packaged within something that is more considered and which is stimulating intellectually, which is telling something about themselves as Europeans and about their history, which is educational. 7
I also found via my research for the program that films and literature set in the South
Pacific could also offer more than mere escapism and bare bodies. They were capable of exploring issues of race and sexual relations. Films like South Pacific, Bird of Paradise and South of Pago Pago suggest to audiences the possibilities of interracial and crosscultural romance, as Rampell explains,
love conquers all and love conquers racism. 8
These Hollywood films confront the taboo subject of inter racial sex in a time when race lines were strictly drawn in the USA. My movie history research challenged and broadened my thinking about sexuality and the historical representation of Polynesian women. I realised via the making of Hula Girls that I too had a preset and one dimensional view of the role of sexuality in South Seas cinema, seeing it solely as a means of peddling cinema tickets and exploitative of Polynesian women. As Rampell proclaimed,
It’s an extension of colonialism, the white man is conquering territory, and the foreign woman becomes a sex object to him. 9
The conclusion I have come to is that both themes expounded by Rampell ‘love conquers all’ and ‘the white man is conquering territory’, although contradictory are to be found in the Western image and history of the hula girl and Polynesian women. These dual ideas are embedded and are fundamental to her representation. South Seas stories and characters, even though they may employ stereotypes, were in productions like Bird of Paradise a ruse for Hollywood writers and directors to resist the strict censorship codes of the 1930s and 40s. Including South of Pago Pago opened a new thematic door for Hula Girls, women too were vulnerable to the charms of the South Seas, even blonde ‘all- American gals’ like Francis Farmer. So historically consistent was the ‘European male meets native women’ story that it was in danger of becoming its own boring stereotype within the Hula Girls story. South of Pago Pago broke this mould. Jane Roscoe’s response to Hula Girls,
What the documentary did in a very entertaining way, was give us a history lesson but also give us something that was quite sexy. 10
helped me come to grips with the reality of the program I’d made and to see and value that the entertainment in the show was intrinsically linked to the sexuality. The nakedness and sexuality were aiding and abetting an exposition of the colonial encounter. My initial apprehensions about working on an international co-production with Ogilvie were also proved to be ill founded. Andrew wanted to deliver to the broadcasters an entertaining program with analysis and integrity. He did not have ‘a tits and bums’ agenda to push as I thought might be the case at the outset. My concerns about co-production and versioning also proved to be ill founded. As I concluded in Chapter 5, Co-production Blues, ‘I had to be honest with myself, I was taking up this negative position purely because of my bad Nova experience.’ Ogilvie proved to be an extremely reliable and thoughtful producer, his prediction that we would only produce one version, proved to be true. It worked because he knew the broadcasters and their requirements and he put the time and effort into relaying those thoughts to me. We developed a constructive, and this is the key, a trusting working relationship, an essential for any producer-director team. Our combined experience delivered the program to the broadcasters without major rewrites or even minor hiccups. It’s clear from my doctoral research that broadcasters were hoping for Hula Girls to generate audiences and ratings. The two SBS broadcasts to date (there will be a third at some stage in the future) were successful in achieving the highest ratings for the night and on both occasions doubled the average yearly SBS audience share. SBS Audience Research revealed that the older male viewers drove the increase in ratings. Ned Lander had this audience in mind when he commissioned the project. On the surface the older male demographic supports my initial cynicism that Hula Girls was commissioned to potentially provide an increase in ratings via naked Polynesian women. But as Jane
They are the core audience of SBS, they are the over 65 males who will generally watch anything on SBS. 11
The professional lesson for me to learn about my preliminary fears about broadcaster expectations is to not store up the resentment of prior negative experiences. Based on my experiences with NOVA in 1996, I was seeing the negatives, rather than embracing the opportunities Hula Girls could provide. Fortunately once I jumped into the production these tendencies dissipated as I started to enjoy the work in making the program and working with the team. With a clear set of commissioning objectives and expectations spelt out by Andrew Ogilvie at the outset, this proved to be an enjoyable and rewarding co-production experience. My personal niggling issue that plagued me throughout Hula Girls, how not to make ‘yet another voyeuristic image’ was finally only answered and dealt with in the final weeks of our edit. An assembly of the pictures alone could be voyeuristic. But we built, through narration and interviews a scaffold around the pictures which provided history and analysis. When Louis Nowra joined us in the edit room he inserted what he called a ‘contemporary feminist perspective’ via the narration writing. A few subtle words throughout the story were all that was needed to clarify the intentions of the program to explore the hula girl as an icon. The words together with the images maintained a balance between critique and celebration. Did I succeed in bringing the past to the small screen? And how do I evaluate the program in my own terms? I have written and directed a program that explored the origins of the hula girl image and how she has been mythologised by Western artists and filmmakers throughout the centuries. We have also deliberately produced an entertaining picture, a history that is accessible and fun to watch. The opening lines of narration,
She's beautiful and exotic. She’s half real, half myth. A product of male fantasies, a by-word for paradise and a creation of the Hollywood Dream Factory. 12
neatly sums up the conclusion I came to about the history and origins of the hula girl image. And the closing narration left the audience with a more contemporary thought relevant to their desire for travel and tourism,
The hula girl has become an icon of romance and travel. Even today, after two centuries of idealisation and myth-making, she keeps on seducing us with the marvellous dream of escape to an exotic paradise, far removed from the drab realities of our ordinary lives. 13
I am also well aware of the historic content I ditched from Hula Girls and the limitations of what is achievable in a 52-minute program. The need to tell a neatly crafted story into a ‘program package’ requires some constraint and it’s easy to understand why sections of academia frown upon populist TV history. There were many sacrifices, including characters like Claude-Louis Stefani and a more expansive French history of early 19th century voyages to the South Pacific. These voyages produced some beautiful images such as, Iles Sandwich: Femme de l’ Isle Mowi Dansant, which further enhanced the ‘enchantress’ reputation of Polynesian women. This French content encompassed what Katerina Teaiwa referred to as the ‘Melanesian Other’, the conflicting versions of Pacific heaven or hell, paradise or purgatory, as depicted in the contrasting late 18th and early 19th century European images of the peoples of Polynesia and Melanesia. What emerged from these French voyages was a hierarchy of aesthetics in the Pacific, where the lighter skinned Polynesian women were at the top of the chain and the darker skinned Melanesian women at the bottom. This content would have further enriched the program and added greater meaning and depth. But there simply wasn’t the space for it. And I deliberately sacrificed this type of content in favour of the more populist Hollywood history of South Seas films. Entertainment won the day as an appeal to audiences and ratings. We faced an enormous challenge in the Hula Girls story which spanned 250 years of complicated colonial history in the South Pacific. Our task was not only to ‘keep the story moving’ but to ‘connect the dots’. Too much information and too many historical anecdotes would have confused the narrative. We had to find a balance in the story 217
telling, a narrative symmetry with the interviews, narration and archive. Not finding suitable Polynesian female talent in my research was another major disappointment. Whilst Louis Peltzer, Marguerite Lai and Tea Hirshon knew something of the history of images I was dealing with, it wasn’t sufficient to include them in the program. Peltzer, Lai and Hirshon expressed concerns about the influence of tourism on Tahitian life and culture, in which the figure of the beautiful ‘vahine’ has a central place. But I decided to have Katerina Teaiwa speak to this subject, thereby diminishing the need for the other women. Teaiwa added a welcome counterpoint with her presence on camera as Michelle Arrow noted,
she was really important, because it was like the hula girl is speaking. She looks fantastic she is gorgeous, but she is also like, ‘Well get stuffed this is actually the way it was’. 14
Finally I would like to assess the career value Hula Girls provided as an international coproduction and why I believe co-production work is a valuable professional enhancement. This premise of career enhancement though is based on a need to accept the restraints and limitations that come with the ride when working for international broadcasters. I will discuss these ‘creative restraints’ too. Hula Girls is not what I call an ‘auteur director’s’ work. It was essentially a deal and producer led project for the international market and it bears some limitations due to its origins. As Lander stated in Chapter 11,
I think it’s often true of the higher end budget co-production work that you are serving several masters and it is serving several sensibilities and that can flatten out the shape of it a little. I suppose a strong character driven story can’t be realized editorially in this co-production context. It’s more the essay form that will work for the market. 15
I wish to expand on Lander’s comment ‘I suppose a strong character driven story can’t be realized editorially in this co-production context’ by comparing a previous documentary which I wrote and directed, Mabo — Life of an Island Man with Hula Girls. It is a bit like
comparing apples and oranges, but the exercise will shed light on the value, differences and the restraints of directing for domestic and international broadcasters. Mabo which I directed in 1996 and ’97 was a strong character driven story about Eddie Mabo and his struggle for land rights in the High Court of Australia, which became known as the Mabo Case. It tells the private and public stories of a man so passionate about family and home that he fought an entire nation and its legal system. The feature length documentary was made essentially for the Australian domestic market with a presale to the ABC. On completion it had a theatrical release in cinemas around Australia. As a story it was highly relevant to Australian audiences, and engaging them in this important story, was my primary interest in making the film. Hula Girls from the start was a project conceived by Andrew Ogilvie for the international market and audiences. Ogilivie is a highly market focused producer and his company Electric Pictures was developing an international reputation. It was financed on the strength of its international presales through what was known as the ‘International Door’ at the Film Finance Corporation. As Ned Lander conceded, SBS largely backed the picture because of the interest from the European broadcasters AVRO and ARTE. In terms of its content, Mabo was a film I was driven to make. I was the writer, director, narrator and co-producer. Because of the personal nature of the film and my commitment to it I regard it is an auteur film. It is a film where the voice of the filmmaker is intimately connected to the story and characters. The feature length documentary is driven by a significant Australian human rights issue, with a strong historical political resonance in Australia, due to the 200 year lack of recognition for Indigenous land rights expressed through the doctrine of Terra Nullius. It was a program financed for its ‘national interest’ significance and because of this I was given the freedom by Film Australia, the production company, to make a feature length film, 87 minutes long. Although the ABC was initially unhappy about the length, the broadcaster eventually compromised and embraced the feature length because the film had been so well received at Australian film festivals and at the box office.
On the other hand I was a ‘hired gun’ to write and direct Hula Girls for Electric Pictures. I developed a passion for the subject, which I hope is self evident from the completed production and this document. But the story idea wasn’t mine, it wasn’t an idea that I obsessively had to make and I played hard ball when I was first approached by Ogilvie to direct it. In contrast to Mabo’s personal story, Hula Girls was conceived as an historical essay film, not I thought at the time, my natural forte. Given the original pitch to the three broadcasters and their interest in the history of the images of Polynesian women, there is no way it could be personalised or made into a Mabo style character driven story. An explicitly political story also wasn’t what AVRO and ARTE purchased and so Hula Girls is more a cultural history. It was a constraint I had to accept as a director, I would have liked to have tried a more directly political approach to the story. But within the context of the co-production framework, I couldn’t. So I had to find subtle ways of embedding the political themes I was interested in within the story of the hula girl, and the myths ‘she’ inspired as the Pacific was colonized, first by European powers, then by the USA and Hollywood. The growing impact of colonialism on the Indigenous populations of Hawaii and Tahiti became a sub theme of the program. Introducing the theme of inter racial love in Hollywood films such as Bird of Paradise and South Pacific and the challenges these films posed for censorship codes at the time and a racially segregated America, further enhanced the political themes. There was no possible option, as there was with Mabo, to make more than a TV hour or 52 minutes with Hula Girls. This is one of the major limitations I had to accept. I was contracted to deliver a TV hour. It comes with the territory of working with three broadcasters, particularly with AVRO and ARTE who had defined hour-long slots that the program would screen in. It’s one of the major constraints of making documentary for television and the cause of many complaints by filmmakers who decry the unwillingness of broadcasters to support feature length documentary programs. At one stage I put the proposition to Andrew Ogilivie that perhaps we should ask for flexibility with the broadcasters to make a longer version so that we could incorporate the scenes with Rena Owen and Once Were Warriors and other contemporary Polynesian arts that ‘self-reflect’ on the hula girl image. I had after all written these elements into the script and shot them.
And the material was strong. However all three broadcasters would have needed to agree to an increase in length to avoid a nightmare scenario of delivering different versions. I knew this was impossible and I accepted the 52-minute format. This wasn’t a disappointment in the end because I wasn’t at the time convinced that the story would hold over a longer duration. Significantly, I believe Mabo was not an idea that could have garnered international coproduction interest. It would have been very difficult if not impossible to sell it as a presale because it was, as Augustus Dulgaro, the former Director of Marketing at Film Australia, said ‘too Australian’ perhaps even ‘too parochial’. Stylistically it could not have been made with ‘an international cast’ or a third person narrator with 50% narration as was the case with Hula Girls. This would have undermined the personal story it told. It was a story that had to be financed locally for local audiences. My point in making these comparisons is to back up what Augustus Dalgaro and Lucy Milne said in Chapter 2 about the difficulties of selling Australian product in the international arena. Personal stories, no matter how strong, that have a particular focus on and relevance to Australian audiences, like Mabo, are a hard sell in the international arena. However Hula Girls could generate European presales because it’s a story that encompasses the history of Europe, the USA and the South Pacific. The focus of the pitch was an appeal to history, entertainment and an international audience. Not human rights. Not a personal character-driven story. Co-productions bring bigger budgets, provide an opportunity to tell international stories and reach larger global audiences. Co-pros also provide documentary producers, directors and writers the opportunity to expand their skill sets as they think about how to engage an ‘international audience’. Success on the global stage can also lead to greater receptivity by Commissioning Editors for new ideas. There is also the possibility of developing coproduction business partnerships with international producers who have close contact with their local broadcasters. But then there is the downside. The creative restraints imposed by the international market that was the focus of a well attended session on co-
production at AIDC in 2007,
More facts! No, more emotion! More pace! No, more local insight! Oh and more Americans! In TV, can one size fit all? Not if you intend to produce for the international market it can't. 16
Programs like Mabo and Hula Girls and their methods of funding domestically and internationally are necessary for both filmmakers and their audiences. The world of documentary funding isn’t getting any bigger and as budgets increase so does the need for international funding and co-production. Both markets are vital to the livelihoods of documentary practitioners and the industry we work in. Both approaches need the continued support of local public broadcasters and funding bodies for a healthy documentary sector to be maintained. I argue also that documentary makers need to be able to work confidently in both arenas. We are not able to survive and develop our professional and craft skills as producers and writer-directors on the relatively small number of domestic market programs commissioned by our local public broadcasters each year. I took up the challenge of writing and directing Hula Girls for a number of reasons. I was not working at the time. I’d just finished a very demanding film which took almost a year to shoot in Arnhem Land. I needed to earn an income. That was the base pragmatic reason. But more importantly I wanted to research, write and direct in the international co-production arena once again and move beyond my prior difficult experience of working with NOVA. This also established the context for making Hula Girls within the rigors of a doctoral program. Moreover, I wanted to work on a larger budget project once more, a budget that can only be raised via international presales. This presented another field of investigation for my doctoral work. I knew from my prior 20 years in the industry that I could make successful films that engage Australian audiences and I now wanted to gain practical and communicable knowledge about how Australian-based directors can work successfully in the international arena. I also wanted to understand more about the craft of writing and directing for the screen. I
started with the premise that a director should be able to direct a compelling program, no matter what the subject. As writer-directors we should be able to direct, not just our own ‘auteur’ ideas, but those generated by producers as was the case with Hula Girls. We can’t afford to not embrace the ethos and aesthetic demands of television and the requirements of the international market. What extra knowledge did I need to generate so that I and other members of the creative, filmmaking and scholarly community in Australia might understand better how to engage with the international co-production system? When I was a Commissioning Editor at SBS I often felt that directors were more concerned about getting their programs into national and international film festivals, where perhaps a couple of hundred people will see it in any one screening, rather than trying to attract larger television audiences on national and or international broadcasters. The reality is though, that even a poor rating Storyline Australia program on SBS would attract an audience of 100,000 viewers. Hula Girls, on the figures available, has been viewed by almost 1.4 million in Australia and Europe. It has also screened at a handful of film festivals for small audiences. Directing Hula Girls revitalized my faith in story telling for the screen. Writing this document confirmed that my creative processes are worthy of reflection and I hope sharing with colleagues in my profession. I also trust these behind the scenes disclosures about the funding and production of Hula Girls can provide insights into the anxiety and methodologies of funding and directing an Australian documentary for the international broadcast market. For those crazy enough to embark on a career in documentary and coproduction ventures I hope this ‘cocktail for international co-production’ will be fortifying, tasty and refreshing.
1. Simper, E. 2008, Bogus public broadcaster with the hide of a pachyderm, Media, The
Australian, 21st of August 2008, accessed October 1st 2008, www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,24214454-14622,00.html .
2. Who Do You Think You Are? Sunday 19:30, 13/01 – 17/02/08 Ratings Overview SBSTV. 3. Wintonick, P. 2005, Welcome to IDFA Land, POV The Art and Business of Indie Docs and 223
Culture, Issue 60, Winter, p.22 .
4. Ned Lander, Commissioning Editor SBS TV, interviewed by Trevor Graham, 2007.
6. Margaret Jolly, Professor & Head of the Gender Relations Centre in the Research School of
Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University research interview by Trevor Graham, 2003.
7. Andrew Ogilvie, producer Hula Girls, interviewed by Trevor Graham, 2005. 8. Ed Rampell, journalist & film critic, interviewed for Hula Girls by Trevor Graham, 2004.
10. Dr. Jane Roscoe, Programmer SBS TV interview by Trevor Graham, 2005.
12. Nowra, L. & Graham, T. 2004, Hula Girls narration script.
14. Dr. Michelle Arrow, Lecturer Dept of Modern History Macquarie University & Judge NSW
History Awards 2005, interview by Trevor Graham, 2006.
15. Ned Lander, Commissioning Editor SBS TV, interviewed by Trevor Graham, 2007.
16. AIDC Program 2006, Australian International Documentary Conference.
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