Interview with Sydney UNESCO City of Film Award winner Lynette Wallworth
Create NSW is the proud host of Sydney’s status as a UNESCO City of Film. The Sydney UNESCO City of Film Award is $10,000 presented to an outstanding NSW-based screen practitioner, whose work stands for innovation, imagination and impact.
The award's first recipient, Lynette Wallworth is a game changer, a pioneer, a visionary. Lynette was selected for her talents and imagination to showcase the stories, challenges, passions and pain of some of the world's most unacknowledged, yet inspiring communities both here and internationally. We spoke to Lynette about her work and being the inaugural award winner:
How does it feel being the first recipient of the Sydney UNESCO City of Film Award?
It's wonderful to receive an award in my home city. It's a fantastically affirming sensation to celebrate my work here where I was born. I am also really honoured to be chosen for an award that recognizes innovation and impact. I strive to make impact with my work on the global stage and I really appreciate that aspect being acknowledged. I feel humbled and happy to be given the inaugural award.
In working with so many different technologies through your career, what do you feel has been the biggest challenge?
Even when it seems the path ahead feels impossible I've learnt that there is always a solution if you hold your nerve and keep looking for a lateral approach to the technology. Sometimes just holding that faith and not giving up requires all my strength because new technologies are untamed, they don't behave consistently. So you have to love the bleeding technological edge, hold on with white knuckles and enjoy the challenge of discovery.
What brought you to film?
My grandmother worked part time as a cleaner in the Tamworth cinema. When we visited her in school holidays my sister and I would creep into the cinema at the end of the session so we could help her clean once everyone had left. That was how I saw the ending of some of the greatest films ever made, without knowing the rest of the story. I was captivated and hopelessly conditioned to a non-linear story telling approach. That very fact has been a beneficial skill in the forms of moving image work I have subsequently made. I was caught from the very first by the beauty of that moving light and the habit of how I first experienced film meant I have always had to contemplate the role of the viewer in completing the story. It was a happenstance of my earliest experiences in film. Because I didn't know the whole story, I had to imagine it. That essential involvement of the viewer in relation to the work remains a key part of everything I do.
The award, which is attached to UNESCO, demonstrates the power of film’s potential to raise awareness around political and cultural issues. How do you feel the industry can utilise that capacity to turn imagination into discussion and social change?
The challenge is to get works that are striving to generate change in front of those who have the capacity to create that change and who are not necessarily of the same mind set. That has been my goal with my work. I have had the opportunity to show works at forums such as the World Economic Forum in Davos and in China, the Global Climate Summit, Washington and most recently the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty meetings at the UN in Vienna. I think often in the arts we imagine that decision makers are cut from a different cloth, impervious to the same emotional triggers that affect most of us in powerful story telling. That has not been my experience, in fact, quite the opposite. I have found that once inside those powerful forums, debate and discussion triggered through artworks, that open the heart not just the mind, leads to deeper discussions and different outcomes. It has given me hope to place my work in these arenas.
Your VR film, Collisions, tells a devastating story of the consequences of nuclear testing in the 1950’s. It screened during the 2016 World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Did you ever anticipate it attracting so much attention and having so much impact?
I always knew it would premiere at Davos followed swiftly by a screening at Sundance, after that I was focused on what the impact would be here in Australia especially around land rights so the escalating global reach has surprised me and it is hugely satisfying. I'm thrilled to be able to show it to someone like Hans Blix in Vienna or talk it about it with a crusader like Al Gore. It seems to resonate on various levels and so is being pulled into climate discussions, nuclear forums and land rights debates. At the heart of it the Martu concept of stewardship and multi generational thinking has a bearing on all of these. I am grateful it began its life at Davos as that has opened many of these doors simply because that entry into the world gave us a gravitas that is cemented then when people experience the work and feel moved and changed by it. It is a short, powerful parable for our time and I am glad that it is having the impact it is. It is a testament to Nyari's story coupled with a powerfully immersive technology.
Can you tell us why you decided to tell the story of Collisions, and why you chose to tell it through virtual reality?
Collisions is the story of Nyari Morgan who witnessed an atomic test in the South Australian outback in the 1950's as his first contact with Western culture. That is the shocking cultural collision at the heart of the work. I heard Nyari's story four years ago and knew he wanted to share it so I had been searching for the best form for the work. I had some fundamental concepts in mind and I imagined I would create an immersive video installation, until I experienced VR. In that moment I realized that VR, because it gives presence inside the story to the viewer, would allow me to place you where Nyari stood at that crucial moment, so you could see the world as he saw it and experience the devastation crashing around him while you hear him narrate. There is no other form that could provide that sense of presence so it made the decision very easy. This was the best technology for this story.
Was the process of making this work different from your usual way of working?
Not really because I have wrangled several new technologies, but it was difficult. Not in the shoot so much but in the post production which was time consuming in areas that I hadn't anticipated just because the post production pathway was not quite there for level of finish I wanted for the work. What was different was that I did the post for Collisions in the US. I had a residency with a Palo Alto based company, Jaunt VR which was established for me by Sundance New Frontiers and I had a US based producer, Nicole Newnham but in addition I worked with editor Kaz de Cinque who cut Tender and also Liam Egan who did sound design on Tender. So it was a great combination of old working relationships and new ones, all of us discovering together the narrative possibilities in VR.
As a filmmaker you have been able to traverse emerging technologies to create truly powerful work. What is your advice to other emerging and established filmmakers who want to test new platforms?
I have never gravitated towards technology for its own sake. I look for the form most fitting for the deepest expression of the meaning I want to convey. So I would say story, or the meaning of the work, always comes first and the technology needs to come second. I have never been enticed by the tech alone, which is a diversion that leads you down a different path. In the end the thing people remember is not the technology but the feeling that resides at the heart of work. You can't short cut that or replace it by a shiny new tool. So if the technology seems the absolutely perfect match for the intent of the work, then go for it. But if it doesn't, don't be seduced just because it's the latest thing. Story, in the end is what matters. Know the story first.