SFF Exclusive Interview: Sari Braithwaite15 June 2018
This piece is part of our coverage of the Sydney Film Festival.
“It’s a film about the structures and bureaucracy of censorship”: Sari Braithwaite’s [UNCENSORED] is an unflinching investigation into “the anxieties and taboos of Australian culture”
Sari Braithwaite’s documentary [CENSORED] premiered in the Sydney Film Festival this week after years of painstaking archival research. Comprised of snippets from films released in Australia over the course of 1951 to 1978, these are the scenes that were deemed too inappropriate for Australian audiences by censorship authorities. By piecing these moments together, Braithwaite gives us access to a world defined by scandal and taboo.
There are a couple of Australian archival films playing here. Soda_Jerk’s Terror Nullius has a more overtly experimental approach to archival footage in forging a narrative film. What style does your film, a documentary, subscribe to?
I think one of the things about this film is it’s quite difficult to try and categorise. In some ways it is a documentary, in some ways it leans on the traditions of scholarship and academia, and then there is a really strong experimental arts perspective to it. And the other element of it is, because it’s a personal film, it draws on essay films. So in some ways, it’s part scholarship, part essay film, part documentary and part experimental.
A bit of everything then.
Yeah, I think that’s one of the things. After years of doing [CENSORED], we had no idea what it was. And then at the end of it we found a form for it. It doesn’t quite fit into an easy category.
Your film, Paper Trails, adheres to a more expository documentary style. Why the shift away from this style?
I think something like Paper Trails is a more traditional, linear documentary. And I think that one thing is I was making these two films at the same time and that’s a really interesting process because what you discover is there’s your style and your aesthetic and how that emerges, but also how the story is speaking to you and how the archive is speaking to you and what works for each film. And I think that they’re very different stories. But they do both revolve around how you use archive in interesting ways in film, but they turned out very different films. I think in some ways it’s kind of about letting it find you and being open to that. And that was definitely the case with something like [CENSORED]. Because it was a challenge to find a story amongst all these scraps of film. So it involved a lot of experimentation and figuring out a new form. I think whatever the story is dictates the form.
[CENSORED] is a personal work, as you mentioned, whereas Paper Trails is about Anne Deveson, so it’s someone else’s story that you’re focusing on.
Yes, but Paper Trails is about me and Anne, so it’s a personal story as well. I think what kind of story you tell informs the way you tell it. Not the other way around.
As you mentioned, both of those do involve archiving in very different ways. I categorised Paper Trails as being more about the personal memory as opposed to [CENSORED] being more about the public memory. I suppose [CENSORED] is an expanded version of another short film of yours, Smut Hounds.
In some ways Smut Hounds was the genesis of the project. And that’s a very traditional documentary. Smut Hounds is a story about a scandal that erupted at the Sydney Film Festival in 1969. So it’s a linear story with a beginning, a middle and an end with David Stratton. And that’s how I located the archive. But I think that if you saw Smut Hounds and then you saw [CENSORED] you would almost be surprised that it’s made by the same filmmaker. Because they’re very different points of view and perspectives on censorship. And I think that really shows how I was going into this project and what I imagined what I was doing at the beginning and how it turned out to be something very different. So they are connected but they’re very different.
You also have an extensive background in history and research. What’s drawn you to archiving and history?
I studied history at university. I didn’t study film. And I think there’s something about history that I love delving into stories. Particularly stories we don’t investigate and we don’t interrogate as much as we should. I like that idea of how we examine the past to understand where we are now. So I’ve always been drawn to that idea. And then I guess kind of part of that is working with archives. And I love that process of trying to discover something in an archive and the discipline of what it is to spend weeks and months working through something to figure it out. It’s very much before the digital age, before that came in. I like that process of being in the archives and slowly working through something to try and figure something out.
It’s very interesting that Smut Hounds is about the 1969 Sydney Film Festival. 1969 was a very big year for Australian cinema.
But that particular controversy does fly under the radar. I’d not heard of it before seeing Smut Hounds. Would you say that even the history of censorship has been censored?
Well, Australia had some of the most repressive censorship in the world and that’s not necessarily something we like to think about ourselves as a country and our history. But we did. It’s a really strong part of how we viewed films in this country. And it was only due to the acts of a small number of people that it shifted.
Like Hexagon Productions.
Yes, and an organisation like the Sydney Film Festival, which, before David Stratton came along, just accepted censorship. They knew what happened and they were okay with it. And they didn’t really fight back. It was David Stratton, coming in as a 28-year-old, who demanded the change. So it is one of the parts of our history that we don’t talk about.
There’s even a comical commentary on censorship within Australian cinema from that time. There’s that film, The Naked Bunyip. And every time a risqué scene comes on, there’s an animated sequence of a bunyip to replace it.
Yes, I haven’t seen it. Do you know what year that’s from?
I think 1970.
I haven’t heard of it, but the collection I’ve been working with for [CENSORED] isn’t Australian cinema. It’s imported films.
Being comprised of snippets from non-Australian films, the Australian identity comes through in a very interesting way. It’s a very interesting way of excavating Australian culture.
I think it reflects the anxieties and taboos of Australian culture at the time. But I think it’s a film that is more about the structures and bureaucracy of censorship. It starts to be about the culture and representation of cinema itself. So it’s both Australia’s relationship to the outside world, but also the outside world itself.
So when we’re watching [CENSORED], we’re not only watching it as ourselves, but also retroactively trying to assess how people from that time period would have experienced those films had they not been censored.
There are a lot of expectations going into a film like this and what you imagine you’re going to see and the feelings you have and the excitement you have about imagining and seeing what was denied. I think the film gives you an opportunity to put yourself into a number of different positions. Which includes the position of the censor and the position of the audience – then and now. And then also the position of the filmmaker. And those are the ideas the film is really trying to interrogate.
Are there any particular documentary filmmakers who you take inspiration from?
I mean, there’s lots! In this work, the filmmakers who really impacted me are Bill Morrison, who made The Great Flood and Decasia, and Kirsten Johnson, who made Cameraperson a couple of years back. But there’s a range of documentary filmmakers I love. I think Agnes Varda was really important for me as well. Her use of the personal essay in The Gleaners and I impacted me and helped me to figure out how to tell a bigger story and get my point of view in there too.
She has such a freewheeling, subjective approach.
You’ve found my answer there! [laughs]