Champion Girls breathes new life into the world of ‘physie’ and the lives it touches
Hilary Balmond’s Champion Girls uncovers the little-known world of the female-only sport of physical culture - or as it is affectionally known ‘physie’ - and will screen at year’s Antenna Documentary Film Festival.
What motivated you to tell this story?
It’s a story that has been simmering in the back of my mind since high school, where every so often a few of my friends who did physie would turn up to school a strange shade of orange. I recently ran into one of these school friends who was rattled after having performed badly in a competition at the Sydney Opera House. I didn’t realise you could do physie as a 40-year-old!
This encounter got me wondering, what was it that I had overlooked or assumed? What was it that had held her in the physie world for so long? Who else is there with her? And what do they find in physie that is hard to find elsewhere?
I knew then that this was a story I wanted to uncover and tell and I found generations of the same family doing physie together and all around the country. These women and girls are united by performing the same routines, no matter their age, shape or size. They love their community and they support each other through the trials of life and competition.
Although physical culture exercises are performed in other countries, nowhere else has it evolved into anything like physie in Australia.
You have previously worked as an editor across factual TV and documentary and you have now made the transition to directing. What inspired you to direct Champion Girls?
Physie has become a victim of the cultural cringe and in it I saw a story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things and thought an audience might enjoy this discovery too. In terms of directing it felt like a natural transition from my editing experience. I have to say that making Champion Girls is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
It turned out that I knew less than I thought about filmmaking. I naively believed I could have this film made within 18 months. Thankfully I was surrounded by great mentors and I had a dedicated producer in Merran Lang who held everything together.
The biggest change I felt in stepping into a director role was the increased responsibility. You’re liberated to tell the story in your way, but the buck stops with you to produce a compelling film, which represents everyone fairly and honestly.
What have you learnt over the time you worked on Champion Girls? Was the outcome of the final documentary what you expected?
This has been a period of many firsts. The first interviews with characters, the first funding application, the first shoot at the Opera House, the first meeting with a broadcaster and my first time running a crowdfunding campaign. I learnt that if you believe in your project, if you’re well prepared and have a great team to support you, you can meet these challenges and get your film made.
I’ve been working on Champion Girls since 2014 – almost five years. I aimed for a feature length or one-hour documentary and it didn’t get a lot of traction. We eventually made the decision to cut a half-hour version. Champion Girls was shortlisted for the 2018 Antenna Rough Cut Lab where I met Rochelle Oshlack (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet and The Dish) who we brought onboard after seeing the way she helped other filmmakers progress their films from rough cut to fine cut. Even in its shorter form, I’m happy that the film stayed true to what I set out to do.
How was Champion Girls funded and what are your future plans are for the documentary?
Screen NSW and Screen Australia provided development funding which allowed me to travel across regional NSW and add country physie stories to the city and suburban ones I had already collected. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in securing further production funding so we ran a crowdfunding campaign through Pozible and had strong support from the physie community – who were excited about having their story told.
What a crazy, sleepless time that was! We successfully raised about $60,000 from over 700 supporters which allowed us to continue the project. We also received a Creative Arts Scholarship from the Veolia Mulwaree Trust that is an arts practice scholarship for regional artists. Finally, we finished the film thanks to generous donations made through the Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF) and the film also qualified for the Producer Equity Program (PEP) through Screen Australia.
Despite the funding we received, the production costs were still far greater and the shortfall was met by the huge generosity of my filmmaking colleagues lending me gear, giving me their time, energy and advice.
We hope to share Champion Girls with as many audiences around the country as possible by offering community screenings and making the film available as an education resource for health and well-being, personal and physical development, ageing, inter-generational relationships and community. If audiences are encouraged to start dancing, moving or exercising and getting involved in communities, be it the physie community, or another community - then that’s a great outcome for the film.
Screens with feature documentary No Time For Quite
Monday, 21 October at 7.00pm | Palace Chauvel Cinema Paddington
The Elite Ladies section compete on the Opera House stage. Credit: Hilary Balmond
Marching on to the competition floorâ. Credit: Hilary Balmond
Life long Physie friends. Credit: Hilary Balmond