No pressure. Sally Aitken gets five stars for a documentary career including writing and directing with Australia’s feisty film critic David Stratton. Aitken
Sally Aitken is an Emmy-nominated Director who has spent the past 15 years making bold factual series and television documentaries for broadcasters around the world.
With a track record in executing big ideas, she's is passionate about people and creative, humorous storytelling. From tracking dusty camel traders in the mountains of Rajasthan to portraying the art of glass and Eiffel’s ironwork architecture, to reliving race riots in Australia.
When did you first start making documentaries? How did you get in the "biz"?
Starting with a university film in NZ Rock the Boat, about a small gang of young & idealistic radio disc jockeys in the 1960s Sally Aitkin’s career has seen her cross the seas from London’s immensely aggressive training grounds, directing films for the BBC, and many UK and US production companies to North America and finally to NSW.
Can you share with us what interests you about the documentary form and why you select the projects to work on that you do?
I love working with people. I love learning. I love twists on genre. And I love the challenge of making fact, visually arresting. Increasingly, I’m looking for projects that will grow me creatively to push innovation in the form. I think documentary is an incredible training for drama, because the discipline of looking for drama when it’s not already scripted is a big one. Our budgets are also much smaller so you learn to be very imaginative, flexible and efficient. Basically, I’m open to every idea.
What kind of themes interest you?
Personal stories. I like drawing out subtext. Heart, warmth, emotion and soul. I like seeing metaphor in visuals. Are they themes? I’m not sure! But I like finding all those things in each project. And humour. Humour is absolutely vital.
What words of advice would you give to yourself when you were just starting out in the industry?
Do not underestimate the gender bias.
Who is a woman who inspires you in the industry and why?
Yikes, just one?! Well I’ve already mentioned Jane Campion. Let’s see, Sarah Polley (Canadian filmmaker) who works across both drama and doc, and her film Stories We Tell was a brilliantly clever and emotional examination of the power of narrative in our own lives. And then there are the McDonagh Sisters – a trio of sisters in Australia in the 1920s who gave it all to make films what could be more inspiring than that? They’re a future project too.
You’ve recently worked as the writer and director on David Stratton: A Cinematic Life - three-part series and a feature documentary about the glorious story of Aussie cinema. Can you tell us a bit about working on that project?
Well hanging out with David Stratton was certainly a baptism of fire in elevating my knowledge of Australian cinema! It was such a privilege going on the inner journey with him - because his personal story can be reflected in film and he’d never thought of it that way.
He’d always been the black sheep of his family, loving cinema from the first film he saw (he was three years old). So, what resulted in the project was a lovely homage to a man who for the majority of his life sees a new film everyday alongside an incredible insight into the enormous diverse and rich cinema history of this country.
The public and critical reception to the project - great ratings on the ABC for the series, and much critical acclaim for the feature was a reminder that Australians’ collective national memory has been shaped by art as much as sport or politics and certainly the art endures. Cinema was a great prism to see social history. Happily…. David and Margaret Pomeranz both liked it.
Given the project originally started as a three-part TV documentary can you talk to us about how it transitioned into also being a feature doc?
Producers, Jo-anne McGowan and Jen Peedom had discussions with Transmission, who had also distributed Jen’s film, Sherpa, about a feature version as an accompaniment to the television series. Richard Peyton and Andrew Mackie felt from the get-go that David’s story was deserving of a single form and could be further enhanced with public Q&As with David in the house. This happened when the film was released to the great delight of cinemagoers across the country. The fact it wound up overseas in other major international festivals was an added bonus.
The film was nominated for the Golden Eye at Cannes Film Festival in 2017. Did you go and can you tell us what you’ve learnt from that experience (and has anything come out of it)?
Yes. The whole scene is pretty overwhelming so it was buzzy but also kind of horrifying aggressive and commercial. The best part is watching great films.
Then, as a director, to be nominated at such a prestigious festival for the Camera d’Or award with my first feature was a real honour. Maybe if I was savvier I’d have worked that into a ring of deals by now! But I’m not very good at self-promotion! There was a lovely moment on the red carpet as David, Jo and I walked up the famed red steps while the wall of press snapped their cameras and the loudspeakers hailed our names in French, when I leaned into David and whispered that this was “a long way from Melksham” (the town he grew up in England). He beamed - and almost shed another tear. It was really very sweet.
Can you tell us what you are working on now, what’s next?
I’m finishing up directing and writing a six-part series called Uncharted with Sam Neill where Sam retraces Captain Cook’s three epic voyages across the Pacific to understand the encounters from the Pacific side of the beach. It is revelatory, rich history, plus looks amazing, tons of drone and just staggering beauty – and it’s exciting, because no one has ever looked at this particular history in this way. I’m co-directing with Kriv Stenders and we’ve had a ball. Next, I’m directing a film about Sidney Nolan...going well beyond Ned Kelly. Nolan’s story – and his art – is really astonishing the deeper you probe.