Through the filmmakers lens / by Glenn Dixon

“When I am travelling home to my country seventy six kilometres out of Alice Springs, I look out for the windmill my grandfather made because it gives me a signal of where the turnoff is. It’s a long dusty road and when we get to the main house our car is full of red sand.”

Inside the Alice Springs ABC radio studio, three year eleven students from Centralian Senior Secondary College are projecting narratives into the broadcast microphone. I can barely hold the camera steady as I observe them through my viewfinder. I am humbled and almost shaken to tears by the honesty and authenticity of their stories. I met these students barely a week prior. When we walked into the classroom the students were apprehensive. They barely uttered a single word of verbal communication. We would drop in on a daily basis in preparation for the filming, chatting with the students and encouraging them to play with our equipment. After a few days of helping with assignments and being visible in the space the barriers began to collapse. Documentary filmmaking is as much about relationships as it is about making pictures.

When an assignment transports the film maker into a place above and beyond the self, magical storytelling opportunities present themselves. In this climate of possibility we are inspired to create our best work. The results leave us feeling challenged, creatively fulfilled and fully self expressed. Subsequently our work is true to those we represent on film and resonates with the core values of those for whom we create the work.

See examples of work from Alice Springs and Katherine.

ON LOCATION: MacFarlane Primary School, Katherine. NT

Above: Interviewing Glenn Mitchell Wightman (Northern Territory Biodiversity Conservation Division) with my team of very enthusiastic helpers.

Below: Post shoot spear and boomerang lessons with Arnold Von Senden.

I have been privileged to travel across Australia, visiting a great diversity of schools and engaging with inspirational educators to document exemplary teaching practice. My involvement has spanned six states and territories, filming hundreds of hours of footage and crafting the material into short standalone films. These Illustrations of Practice are commissioned by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership and managed by Education Services Australia (ESA). They live in an online showcase, available for teachers to reflect on and spark conversations around learning. It has been an important exercise to reflect on my personal learning as a film maker throughout this project.

Inviting a film maker into the classroom is a courageous undertaking for an educator. This leap of faith ultimately exposes the teacher, their students and the school community to the scrutiny of a worldwide audience. Every inflection, pause and gesture in the teachers' delivery is propelled into the spotlight. Open to praise and equally vulnerable to critique. My colleague and friend, Dr Julie Hamston of the University of Melbourne, offered an insightful and lasting piece of advise in the early stages of our collaboration,

It is our job above all else to maintain the integrity of the individuals whose stories we tell.

Classrooms are unique and special places. They share a common foundation built upon trust. Each participant must feel safe in the shared journey for the learning to be effective. Filming an educator in practice, a pursuit that means the world to the individual leaves me with a tremendous amount of responsibility. A film-makers ability to omit, re-arrange and juxtapose teaching and learning moments fundamentally influences the communication between the subject on screen and the audience. Sometimes when editing shots together, I inadvertently trim a shot in a specific place to best fit the narrative flow without realising that I am now presenting the teaching moment out of context. The piece I removed was vital to keeping the integrity of the teacher's initial intent. It is a very difficult task to be true to the moment yet confine each one into a brief and logically structured film.

For each moment I captured, there were simultaneous moments playing out beyond the cameras field of vision. For every moment I recorded on film, something happened just before I triggered the record function and continued after the recording lapsed. I think of these outsider moments as impossible stories. Events beyond the scope of the screen. These impossible stories, although never seen by anyone else are a celebration of the untold interactions that occur each day within Australian schools. The reality of documentary storytelling is that we can never be truly objective in the ideal sense of the word. We can just do our very best to portray the events with compassion and sensitivity.

The intellectual input from Dr Julie Hamston, Joan Holt and team from ESA was invaluable. There was always an educational expert present on set to guide the discussions during the interviews. Joan and Julie have a wonderful way of translating what is happening in the classroom into a language that I could understand in order to best represent on screen. A producer from ESA would also travel with us on each shoot. Anne Rogan, Madeleine Daniel and Jane Weston were paramount to the smooth and fluid operation.

To many, the idea of being filmed is daunting to the point of unthinkable. To those who volunteered their time and opened their doors to a stranger yielding a camera, I applaud your tenacity and willingness to share. We met in unusual circumstances yet departed as friends. Both parties all the richer for the exchange. As a son of two teachers I thought I had a fairly good grasp of what the role of an educator was. After my experience I have many more questions than answers. Perhaps that is an intrinsic quality of a masterful educator, they inspire in us more questions than they care to provide the answers to.

The views expressed here are solely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of other parties involved in the project.


Filming Lansdowne Crescent Primary School students undertaking science investigations in the Knocklofty Reserve. See the Lansdowne Crescent Primary films.