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Facing the music

Threat advisory: High - High risk of entertaining activities

Movie propaganda

Inside the halls of Sydney University's Music Department, talented young students create sublime music in a setting that's far from serene.

It's budget time at the university and Professor Anne Boyd is in a panic. As gifted young students pursue the mysteries of musical creation, Boyd is fighting to preserve basic standards after nearly a decade of relentless government funding cuts.

Boyd is an internationally recognised composer and an inspiring teacher, and now it seems she must be an entrepreneur as well. But the professor has no training or capacity for the money raising that's called for. When it comes to harsh economic realities, she's an innocent.

Facing the music documents Anne Boyd's roller coaster journey as she struggles to negotiate the most tumultuous year of her life. It's a startling transformation from unworldly conservative to frontline activist, and one that comes at a high personal cost.

Theatrical propaganda posters

Facing the music image

Target demographic movie keyword propaganda

  • Film documentary University of Sydney Music Department funding cut

Persons of interest

  • Anne Boyd .... Herself
  • Winsome Evans .... Herself
  • The Renaissance Players .... Themselves
  • The Song Company .... Themselves
  • Bob Connolly .... Screenwriter
  • Robin Anderson .... Screenwriter
  • Bob Connolly .... Director
  • Robin Anderson .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Special Agent Matti

Theatrical report

This is a very, very well made documentary.

If you are a film student or a filmmaker, you should go along and see Facing the music and watch how Bob and Robin masterfully portray the passage of time. The sound editing is perfect. Yes, you just read me using the P word. There is a seamless blend from speech to music to more music to more speech to silence. It matches the visual journey in a way that makes the two almost impossible to separate. The balance between musical performances, interviews, fly on the wall segments and scenery unsullied by crude speech is not only wonderful to watch, it's a truly dramatic reality. There are not many documentaries that manage to mix the ingredients right (See Into the arms of strangers: Stories of the kindertransport).

As for Anne Boyd, her personal growth is perfectly documented. The ivory tower academic who elicits peals of laughter at the beginning of the film becomes a sympathetic victim by the end. There is not a moment of falsehood in that conversion, either - its course and its cause are mapped out with clarity and simplicity.

Just see it.

Security censorship classification

PG (Low level course language)

Surveillance time

85 minutes (1:25 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 5 July 2001 - Canberra, Sydney
Film: 2 August 2001 - Melbourne
Film: Undated August 2001 - Brisbane
VHS retail: 3 December 2001

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Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson interviewed by Tina Kaufman

Some people might see this film as a departure for you, but really it's just another community that you've gone into to observe. How did you decide on this particular community?

Bob: It's an exact line of succession, in that it's an interesting, complex, contradictory, flawed figure, faced with a crisis situation - and that's always what we look for.

Robin: And the issue is something that affects our community, our society. We'd been interested in doing something about universities and something about music. We had lived next door to Anne, years ago, for six months, and soon were the best of friends, but we both moved away and didn't see each other for several years.

While we were finishing Rats in the ranks, we heard tales about problems in university departments that made that film look like kindergarten - it was really bloody! So we got a sense of what universities could be like, on the inside.

Several years later, in 1998, when we were looking for a new film, we got in touch with Anne, who was engaged in writing a huge cantata for schools, which at first we thought might be a good subject for us. We explored it and decided it was probably not multi-dimensional enough. But we kept in touch, and began to think of her - in a regular year where she's head of her Department, with the economic pressures she told us she was experiencing - as the subject for a film. That sense of economic crisis was what attracted us - she told us that she thought they'd be lucky to make it through to the next year.

Bob: I was a little worried, at first, that it was an overly polemical reason for doing a film. I mean, I think our films are polemical but it's as a consequence of along, intimate involvement with people - the polemics emerge out of them, rather than us using the people to say what we want to say about the polemics.

But the polemics are there; you just bring them to the surface.

Bob: I was really keen on the cantata film - we had everything in place - and then about two weeks before we were due to start, we just looked at each other and said no. Robin had been worried about it instinctively. In this sort of film work, if the narrative line is really clear, you're actually too late, it's too far advanced and there's not enough complexity.

This film is very much about the politicisation of an originally quite unworldly character, one who starts out not wanting to be involved in any direct action.

Bob: The others already have their position, and they stick to it, but Anne evolves, and therefore she needed to be more the centre of this film - it is more about her.

Robin: The interactions that went on with her and other people were, in a way, secondary to the bigger issues affecting her. We filmed lots of Rats in the ranks type squabbles. I suppose that's what a lot of people are expecting the film to be about, and it's certainly there, it does happen, there are knives in the back. There were other unbelievably petty things that blew up and occupied people for weeks, but we had no desire to put any of that in, because it detracted from what became the big issue.

The music element of the project seems to have been important to you.

Bob: We'd been looking for a while for a film to do about music, and in particular classical music . . .

Robin: But until we started editing, the music didn't really find its place. And in the end, what it represents is that life goes on - these students strive for perfection, people do their art, in the face of these obstacles.

Bob: Whatever mayhem is going on, here are these beautiful kids sublimely indifferent to it all.

There's also the structural element: how you've worked the music into the narrative, in a way.

Bob: There are two elements to that. Firstly, Anne gives a history of Western music in a series of lectures, and we decided we'd film every one of the lectures. Our footage rate was colossal, more than twice what we shot on Rats in the ranks, but we were shooting on tape. We began to be very glad we did film all the lectures, because as things happened outside, she began to identify with certain of the composers.

Beethoven was such a revolutionary!

Bob: That tied in with her own notions of what was going on - her stalking horse for the university authorities and so on. That was far more developed in the rough cut than in the finished film - the conceit, basically, was a bit top heavy.

But it comes through - you didn't need to emphasise it any more than you do.

Bob: I was more disappointed in just what we had to take out of this film than in any other film we've done. I kept on quoting Lina Wertmuller's dictum that "the mark of a filmmaker is to be able to take the best scene out if by so doing the overall film is improved". One in particular showed Anne playing the slow movement of the Mahler 4th, at the height of her emotional distraughtness, in front of a hundred kids, and everything is written on her face. She has described the music as "a troubled child's view of heaven", but it so perfectly encapsulated her mental state at that time. But the scene had to go, it blocked the narrative at that point. It was really painful.

What we recognised was the potential of a woman - a creative personality, who was also an administrator under enormous psychological pressure because of economic issues - who went through a transformation in terms of her attitude towards the Department and what was happening to it. As a result of that, she had a bit of a personal crisis, and then actually began to re-examine her own position as a creative artist.

Did you get the material to do it?

Robin: There were two aspects of Anne that we concentrated on when we were filming. One was her political involvement, her dealing with the university authorities and facing the problems of the budget cuts. The other area was her as a composer. Trying to weave them together was very difficult, and in the end we had to acknowledge that showing her as a composer had to take a back seat, as it were, because there's really only one issue that a person can be revealed as passionate about in a film, even though in real life there's more.

I think her passion about composing comes out very well in the scene with her young composing student, where the student breaks down and cries.

Bob: Exactly. That's Anne's own frustration. As she says, "There's too many people trying to write bloody music, and they can't do it".

Robin: We know of Anne's life for the last twenty, thirty years, we know what she's been through, but the limitations of how we work mean that we can't reflect on her past. We didn't want to sit her down and do an interview, so we are lacking her whole past, which in some ways is very relevant. In other ways, we didn't want to say that what is happening this year, to her, is really only because of the difficult past she's had, that you could excuse all the problems she's having because of her past. Our other films were very much action based, where one event followed another, but this had limitless possibilities, to take in any direction we wanted.

Robin: The biggest challenge was the portrayal of Anne. We didn't want her to come across as a person who was too theatrical, which could have been very possible. That was hard - we had to have several screenings to try and judge how people were reacting.

Well, I was very taken by her evolution as a political operator.

Bob: But then she retreats from that, which takes it out of the ordinary. It's not something she can do naturally. Anyone reading between the lines would say that what brings on her emotional crisis is in fact a pretty mild rebuke - it's not as though they gave her fifty lashes. Someone says to her that she's out of touch - publicly. We tried to make a connection to a lecture she gave around this time on Beethoven's 9th - how he felt at the time, that he was the same age as her, that he was sick, that nobody liked his music, and he was deeply unhappy and had never been able to form a real relationship with a woman that was satisfying to him. And really, it was her, she was talking about herself. We thought that what the audience would gradually realise is that you can say that she might be wayward, not a very good administrator, emotional, and over-reactive in crises, but would you say that about Beethoven?

But on the other hand you can see that what she's doing in the Music Department is very worthwhile, and the attacks they are sustaining are quite savage.

Bob: What's been very interesting has been the response. Peter Devries, who came in to look at the film to do a bit of pick-up shooting of the buildings, was outraged after he'd looked at it. Tim Trumble, who's doing the blow-up to 35 mm, rang up and said "I'm really mad!" and there have been the press stories recently [about the University of Sydney Senate]. The audience for the film are people who are aware of these issues. You can talk about economic rationalism and what it's doing to institutions, and you hear people in the institutions complaining about it all the time, but nobody's actually seen the emotional and psychological impact of it on a group of people and what they have to go through.

Back to the music - it should sound great in a cinema.

Bob: We make a film, first and foremost, to be seen in a cinema - that's what we strive for. The television is what pays for it. We were very lucky that Film Australia really got behind it when they saw it, and saw the potential for theatrical release.

Robin: The mix is going to be great. All through the year, the students have concerts in the Great Hall on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and we filmed almost every one of them. Not only that, but we persuaded ABC-FM, through Andy Lloyd James, to give us Andrew Clark Nash, their executive producer in charge of technology (or something like that), to come with full DAT stereo music recording gear, so we've got stereo recordings of all the music. At the Sydney Film Festival, with 35 mm and full Dolby 6 track sound, it's going to be terrific!

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