Interview with nominated producer, Carolyn Johnson, The Last Goldfish, News

Interview with nominated producer, Carolyn Johnson, The Last Goldfish

Four months on from her journey with Academy Award nominated Tanna at the Academy Awards, we caught up with Carolyn Johnson ahead of the World Premiere of her new film, The Last Goldfish.


Hi Carolyn, to get started, can you tell us at what stage you came onto the project with Su Goldfish?

I first met Su Goldfish at AFTRS in 1996. Then we re-met at an industry drinks event about five or six years ago, I forget what it was, but I was pleased to see her and she told me about this project. I thought there was something in it, so we met up over brunch to talk more.

There was already a lot of footage. Being her own family's history Su had been filming for years, and there were her father's photos and super8 footage, and Su had already been back to Trinidad and done some filming there with director Kathy Drayton and had been to Germany and filmed there. The challenge was how to structure the labyrinth into a cohesive story - a story that has resonance with the public. So we started an on-going conversation about why we should tell this story to the public: what are we saying, to whom, and why.


The film is told through a personal archive of photos and home movies that stretch across a century and it reveals the inter-generational impact of loss and displacement on refugees and their families. Can you share with us how you developed the idea and what made you believe it was good material for a documentary?

Hundreds of thousands of people have come to Australia as refugees or because of forced migration in the years since WWII, including Manfred Goldfish, and including the many recent arrivals who are just beginning to build a new life for themselves and their descendants.

As a country dominated by migration it is incumbent on us to understand the deep complexities that migration brings. Many Australians, while getting on with their lives, carry pain and sadness from the past, as Manfred did, trying desperately not to inflict it on his daughter Su, but of course it has an impact on the next generation. Secrets do. It impacts the soul. We felt it was time to talk about this type of experience, which is widespread but rarely spoken of.

There are millions of second and third-generation Australians who will relate to Su's journey because they too have felt the need to understand the reasons behind their parents' migration to Australia, even if those reasons are traumatic. For refugees, they usually are. We came to realise that the way to look at the long-term impact of displacement on refugees is to follow the story of one family: the Goldfish family.


A lot of the film hinges on Su discovering her history. As a producer, how did it feel to wait for Su’s discoveries, and what do you feel the risks and benefits of this style of documentary?

Su had been driven for many years by a strong urge to round up her broken family. So most of that work had been done before she and I met up over that brunch. She had been corralling material on film, video, stills, collecting objects, keeping letters. Fortunately her father left a trail of artefacts to uncover too.

The ending of the film was a surprise for all of us and only happened in late 2014 when Su came across the descendants of one of her father’s uncles in America. It gave the film a positive and joyful conclusion; it was the perfect note to end on.

Sadly our funding structures in Australia don't encourage making longitudinal films. But now and then circumstances come together and it is possible to piece together a film like this across a sweep of history. It requires a patient-but-determined director who persists in finding a way to tell a story because it matters, and who can inspire a lot of people to donate through Documentary Australia Foundation! 

What also supports it is time in the edit room. Editor Martin Fox had made the wonderful William Yang films so he knows this genre well, and we worked with Louise Wadley as script editor who helped wrangle the story structure. There were years of assemblies, and feedback, and more writing, and rough cuts, and more feedback. Until eventually we cracked it, we had a rough cut that made people cry.

You'll see in the credits of the film how many people helped in all sorts of ways.


The Last Goldfish, is screening at Sydney Film Festival as a part of the Documentary Australia Foundation Award. What does it mean for you to be screening at the 64th festival?

It's our dream to launch the film at the Sydney Film Festival. The film has been made with the help of many supporters, the majority of whom live in Sydney. It feels right to share it in Sydney first. We all love SFF!

To be in the documentary competition is a wonderful affirmation that we have made a good film.


What other plans do you have for the film's distribution?

There will be a theatrical release later this year with Umbrella. Watch out for it in November/December. Some of the plans are still confidential but I can say we're in a lot of discussions and there will be some other festival screenings both here and overseas first.


The film has a striking emotive soundtrack. Can you tell us about your process working with the composer Liberty, and your Sound Designer, Yulia Akerholt (Little Fish, Samson and Delilah)?

Liberty came on early. She started composing sketches at rough cut stage which Martin Fox cut with. It was very symbiotic.

Then Yulia Akerholt joined the team and what a great contribution she made to the storytelling. The spine of the film is the narration by Su. The words we had worked on with script editor Louise Wadley, then Yulia, Louise and Su headed into the recording studio. Yulia is a dialogue expert and she was attracted to the poetic potential to draw the audience through the story with the voice-over, through tone and mood, backed by the music and atmos tracks. It's masterful storytelling through sound. I'm extremely proud of the whole sound team and that includes Su Goldfish, Martin Fox, Louise Wadley, Mick Baraso, Tania Payne, Robert Sullivan, Liberty, her musicians, and the wonderful Yulia Akerholt.


The film speaks largely to the displacement and trauma on refugees and their families. What do you hope that audiences will learn from Su’s journey?

When we ask migrants to leave their past behind, in many ways they do. But at a deep level it is impossible. Our past is part of who we are. There will be many viewers who relate to that.


This is your first documentary to be released since Academy-award-nominated Tanna, what was the experience like being in the US and have you have you had any opportunities come about as a result?

Tanna was actually completed in 2015 and that's when it premiered in Venice and it was in cinemas and many, many festivals. After that, I worked with the same team to make A Sense of Self which was on the ABC last November. The Oscar entry was timed with the film's US release so it was quite a while after finishing the film that the nomination came about. As you can imagine, we were thrilled to bits. Tanna was such a passion project for the whole team, including the villagers in Vanuatu, so it was absolutely wonderful when the film received such recognition.


What kind of films will you make after this? Has this film changed your storytelling worldview?

In Yakel village on Tanna Island they pass on history through verbal storytelling. In our society our dominant form of storytelling is screen-based. It serves the same vital human function. We see our own life in perspective, or have compassion and understanding for other peoples' experience. This is how we learn about life.

I became a producer because I wanted to facilitate the public telling of stories that help us understand each other and society. I'll keep doing that. Through both drama and documentary. I like truthful stories about real people. I like a bit of depth and I believe the audience does too. So I'll keep nurturing authentic worthwhile stories that I believe there's an audience for, and keep finding ways to get them made and shared. Yes, it would be nice to produce a huge financial hit, but more importantly, this is my life's work, my contribution to society. It's my legacy. I need to be proud of the films I produce. So my plan is to keep producing good films.


The Last Goldfish at Sydney Film Festivlal, Tuesday 20 June, Dendy Newtown 6.15pm:

Go Back