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Ian McLean and Margo Neale at the start of our journey, Yuendemu

 

Since January 2015, I’ve been working with the eminent art historian Ian McLean and the irrepressible Margo Neale, Senior Indigenous Curator at the National Museum, on a wonderful project funded by the Australian Research Council: to investigate and document the little known but influential relationships between Aboriginal artists and close white associates.

Siobhan interviewing Warlpiri artist Alma Nungarrayi Granites at Yuendemu

I’ve recorded 30 oral histories, in two remote and one urban setting. We are donating this revelatory interview collection to the National Library of Australia, where it will be available as a research resource. But first, I’m mining it for a podcast, called Heart of Artness.

At the ABC, Sydney working on The Conquistador, the Warlpiri and the Dog Whisperer, March 2018. Margo Neale (presenter), Claudia Taranto (Executive Producer) and me (producer).

It’s been an enlightening and extraordinary journey. Sitting by a river, 300 kilometres from anywhere in Yolgnu country in tropical Northern Australia, listening to Yinimala Gumana describe how his great-grandfather came back from a hunting trip in 1911 and found about 30 dead bodies floating there: they’d been massacred in a ‘punitive expedition’ after a white surveyor went missing. (The surveyor turned up unharmed.) And then a tragedy in Yinimala’s own life, when a friend and ranger colleague was taken by a crocodile at the same spot, in 2018.

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Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales, who manage the Warlukurlangu art centre in Yuendemu, NT

Learning to understand the two Chilean women whose tough pragmatism has earned the approval of the Warlpiri artists who employ them.

Cecilia Alfonso and Gloria Morales have increased the turnover of their desert art centre from 300 works produced in a year to 8000.

 

 

With artist Richard Bell on top of the MCA, Sydney, which holds his work.

Sitting with artist Richard Bell in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, with Sydney Harbour glittering outside the window, as he fulminates about the “Captain Cook Cruises” going past – a reminder of the British invasion that cruelled his people and tried to quell his culture. ‘ I’m Irish – they practised on us,’ I tell him. ‘For 600 years, before they got to you.’ It instantly changes the dynamic.

What follows below is a version of an article that Ian McLean and I wrote for The Conversation. To find out more, visit the Heart of Artness website and listen to the podcast. Five episodes are up now (Nov 2018). Four to come: on early days in Yuendemu in the 1980s and on the edgy proppaNOW movement of Brisbane, featuring artists such as Bell, Vernon Ah Kee and Jennifer Herd.

Artist Jennifer Herd, founding member of proppaNOW

Aboriginal Art– it’s a white thing

… so Richard Bell declared in 2002. But as we discovered investigating this white thing, it’s also full of ‘positivity’, to use a favourite Bell expression. Not all that is white is evil.

Bell’s accusation was aimed at the then-booming market in remote Aboriginal art, but it was as true of the urban Aboriginal art scene. Bell should know. His [art] has been acquired by major white art institutions, from Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art to London’s Tate Modern, and he is represented by Brisbane’s Milani Gallery, a major player in the Australian contemporary art world. This white thing is no big deal says Bell:

‘Nobody thinks it’s strange that black people play in sporting arenas owned by white people, for teams that are owned by white people. Josh [Milani] has an arena for us to play in – it’s the same deal. The MCA is the equivalent to Sydney Cricket Ground.’

As in sport there is much more to the art world than the stars, the artists, and this much more is mainly white. Largely invisible in the hype around Aboriginal art, we wanted to know about these invisible white men and women.

Milani Gallery is a major Australian art centre, owned and run by Josh Milani, who trained as a lawyer: ‘I do it as an advocate – with a sense of moral purpose and hopefully integrity. Queensland has a very large population of Aborigines… my work as a gallerist should represent the culture that’s here.’

Growing up with an Italian migrant father, Milani always “felt like a Wog”. His natural empathy with outsiders and intellectual passion for art and justice led him to where he is now: the go-to dealer for international curators. ‘I’ve learned a lot – how power operates, identity operates.’

Artist Wukun Wanambi and art centre manager Will Stubbs, Yirrkala 2010 (photo: Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre).

Issues of power and identity are equally fundamental to the art produced at Buku-Larrnggay Mulka, a Yolngu owned and run art centre in Yirrkala, 600 km east of Darwin. Its art also comes from the artists’ lived experience, in this case of an unusually intact Yolngu culture. Will Stubbs, a former criminal lawyer from Sydney, has been employed to managed the centre for over 20 years. While he has to balance cultural imperatives with market demand, for him cultural imperatives come first. “They bring in what they want to bring in, not what we ask for. And then we have to make it work from there’ – in, that is, the white market and art world.

Celebrated Yolgnu artist Nyapanyapa Yuninpingu (photo: Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre)   

One of its most successful artists is Nyapanyapa Yunipingu. One wet season when the centre ran out of bark, Stubbs handed Nyapanyapa some leftover acetates to keep her busy. She filled them at the rate of five a day. As he filed them away, he noticed ‘this filigree of complexity, of abstract existence, that I’d never seen before.’ As the acetates accumulated, Stubbs realised that seeing them in random permutations and sequences would accentuate their impact – so he contacted a Melbourne digital guru, Joseph Brady, who could devise such an algorithm.

Joseph Brady, digital artist.

The resulting Light Box became an installation in the 2012 Sydney Biennale – and Joseph Brady became so affected by Yolngu culture that he transplanted his young family to Yirrkala, where he now manages the Mulka Project at the art centre, a vast archive of Yolngu knowledge.

Like Milani Gallery, Buku-Larrnggay is one of the most successful purveyors of Aboriginal art, but as different as these two models are, they are not the only success stories. The Warlpiri-run Warlukurlangu Centre at Yuendemu, 300km northwest of Alice Springs, is also defying the post-GFC downturn in the Aboriginal art market.

Warlpiri artist Margaret Lewis Napangardi at work at Yuendemu.

Run by two Chilean women, its market-driven approach is the polar opposite of the culture-privileging mission of Will Stubbs. ‘They hired me because I’m an outsider,’ says Cecilia Alfonso, who started at Warlukurlangu in 2001. ‘They don’t want some hippie-dippy well-intentioned person to run their business.’ She and her business partner, Gloria Morales, monitor the market closely and encourage the artists to paint what is likely to sell. ‘This is a meeting of the two worlds as an enterprise and they come in for money.’ The centre now turns over about 8000 artworks a year, compared to around 300 when she and Gloria started. Traditional owner and artist Andrea Nungarrayi Martin is unconcerned whether the artists paint their traditional ‘tjukurrpa’ or dreaming story or decide to do something non-sacred. “Doesn’t matter – so long as it sells.”

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Cecilia Alfonso with Warlpiri foundation artist of Warlukurlangu, Paddy Stewart.

It’s another twist in the ‘authenticity’ debate around Aboriginal art. In 2002 Bell decried how the white-controlled Aboriginal art industry privileged art from remote areas as more ‘authentic’ than that by urban artists such as him even though ‘we paid the biggest price.’ Bell’s genius is to leverage this loss to get a return. “When I started working with Richard [in 2003], we were selling paintings for $2000”, recalls Milani, but ‘the more people he offended, the more I put his prices up!’ … and the more this white clientele bought Bell’s paintings.

When Milani first met Bell in a pub, he had his trademark punch. He wrote on a beer coaster that he was an ‘enema of the state’. But he was no novice and he had a plan. Brilliant as these white dealers are, they need the artists as much as the artists need them. ‘We’ve positioned ourselves inside the tent’ – though not without Milani’s help – but, Bell told us, ‘that doesn’t stop us from getting outside and pissing on the tent.’

Artist Richard Bell.

 

 

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April started well with our win at The Castaways. This was a surprise and a thrill, given the stiff competition we faced, from such excellent series as SBS True Stories and their series on the gay hate murders of the 1980s. Kudos to Castaways founder Dave Gertler for a great initiative and a fun night. Podcasting events are taking off. The UK have the British Podcast Awards and the London Podcast Festival, the US has an all-women event, Werk It, and 2000 people attending its annual Podcast Movement, while Australia hosts two podcast industry days, Audiocraft and OzPod. There’s also recognition via awards such as the Webbys, which honour media excellence on the internet, and new podcasting categories in older awards such as the Prix Italia and the New York Radio Festival – where Phoebe’s Fall won GOLD in the Personal Lives category in June.

Yep, not to boast, but this is our FOURTH big award: we also scooped a Melbourne Press Club Quill award and a Kennedys Award for Outstanding Radio Current Affairs. So my co-producer Julie Posetti and I thought it was worth mulling over the process that led to Phoebe’s Fall success.  We wrote about it here for The Age newspaper. We also presented a paper on it at the huge IAMCR media /communications research conference held in the beautiful walled town of Cartagena, Colombia.

I’ve wanted to go to Colombia ever since I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s astonishing  100 Years of Solitude, the novel that launched magic realism. I was then a student, based in grey, rainy Dublin, and the book transported me to an opulent sensual universe of epic proportions. Captivated, I resolved there and then to learn Spanish and visit this extraordinary other world. Learning Spanish wasn’t too hard – a stint as an English teacher in the Basque Country near San Sebastian furnished me with the basics. (I particularly enjoy its earthy curses.) But it took till now to get to Latin America.

Carmen Miranda type

Cartagena was once the epicentre of slave trading. Today’s assertive African-Colombians channel the sensuality captured by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

The first thing we did was tour the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fortification installed by the Spanish over centuries of colonisation of the continent. The audio guide brought to life the harrowing stories of life in this port, once a thriving centre of slavery.

Next, we tracked down the home of Marquez, who set his other great novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, in Cartagena. There is no plaque, just an unofficial appropriation by the guesthouse next door of one of his quotes. A few days later, I got to ask the unassuming Jaime Marquez, elder brother of Gabriel, why his home was unrecognised. Because his wife and children still stay there sometimes, he told me, and they want privacy.  It was not a private audience – I was one of dozens of delegates trailing Jaime on a walking tour of his brother’s Cartagena, an inspired idea of the conference organisers. Jaime pointed out places where characters and scenes from Love… drew inspiration. A door near the historic clock tower evoked one of Don Emilio’s associates. San Diego Plaza brought forth a tale of a spilled cargo of oranges that inflamed Gabriel’s imagination. I stuck close to Jaime to record his talk and at one point, I had his ear. In ungrammatical Spanish, I told him how I had had ‘quarenta años de esperando’ (40 years of waiting to get to Colombia) after reading Cien Años de Soledad. He smiled. His brother showed him the first 80 pages, Jaime recalled. ‘I told him it was quite good – he should continue’.

As for the IAMCR conference, another revelation was the scope and innovation of media and communications research by Latin American scholars, of which I – and many English-speaking delegates – were embarrassingly unaware. We were roundly chastised for our Anglo-centric views in a provocative and entertaining keynote by Omar Rincon, who chided us for imagining Latin America as a theme park for magic realism.

Among the diverse papers by over 1200 delegates, I counted only five that dealt with podcasting. I had to explain to several colleagues what a podcast was.  There is a strong oral tradition in Colombia and audio storytelling should have traction. Community radio is hugely popular, but its first cousin, podcasting, languishes. It’s partly about lack of band width; it was also chastening to learn that few Colombians have smartphones. Omar Rincon left us with a worthy challenge, to consider communications from a unifying perspective of aesthetic and narrative.

Latin American scholars 1

With In Cold Blood, Truman Capote invented the non-fiction novel and turbocharged the genre of literary journalism. S-Town, a podcast by the team at Serial and This American Life that dropped online March 28th as seven bingeable “chapters”, has unleashed aural literary journalism that is as masterly in its evocation of place and character as exemplars by Didion, Wolfe and Capote himself.

S-Town had 10 million downloads in the first four days, far surpassing even Serial, and has caused waves in media circles as a new form of ‘novelistic’ audio storytelling; it was a Critics’ Pick of the New Yorker and has been rapturously reviewed by The Atlantic, The New York Times  and respected podcasting critic Nicholas Quah in Vulture. It has also been described as “morally indefensible” (The Guardian) for its intrusion into the life of a mentally ill man and panned for breaching privacy, glossing over racism and misrepresenting aspects of gay sexuality.

In order to engage with the debate, it is vital to consider not just the ‘what’ of S-Town, the journalistic content, but also the ‘how’: the art form that is choreographed audio storytelling, which S-Town exemplifies.

Front and centre of S-Town is the mordant, self-destructive genius that is John B. McLemore, a forty-something fixer of antiquarian clocks who is both shaped and shackled by his small Shit Town (S-Town), actually Woodstock, Alabama. Literary journalists can only write about delicious details they unearth; Capote gave us artfully reconstructed scenes and boasted of faithfully recalled dialogue, but S-Town gives us the real deal: we hear first-hand the magnificent rants about climate change, chicanery and ignorance that McElmore delivers with rococo Southern musicality and a stand-up’s timing.

Listen here to how producers Brian Reed and Julie Snyder craft one rant around an operatic aria, delivering a kind of acoustic alchemy that both counterpoints and elevates McElmore’s vitriol.

We ain’t nothin’ but a nation of goddamn, chicken-shit, horse-shit, tattle-tale, pissy-assed, whiney, fat, flabby, out-of-shape, Facebook-lookin’, damn twerk-fest, peekin’ out the windows and snoopin’ around, listenin’ on the cellphones and spyin’ in the peephole and peepin’ in the crack of the goddamn door, listenin’ in the fuckin’ Sheetrock: Mr Putin puh-lease, show some fuckin’ mercy, I mean drop the fuckin’ bomb, won’t you?”

Opera swells in the background to climactic end, then he emits a heavy sigh.

 I gotta have me some tea.

To add opera to a landscape of trailer trash, tattoos and “titty-rings” might seem incongruous, but in true literary journalism tradition, it is grounded in interview; Miss Irene Hicks tells Reed in a Blanche DuBois voice when he inquires after her grandson, Tyler, John B.’s hired hand: “I have my medicine and I have my [Andrea] Bocelli.”

In S-Town, journalism meets art. The episodes unfold via evocative scenes, intensive interviewing (perhaps a hundred hours  Reed thinks) carefully placed encounters, metaphorical musings by Reed on the “witness marks” left by clock-repairers and the notion of time itself; but all is driven by sound and voice and the unalloyed intimacy of listening, in real time.

Bypassing our bigotry

We meet Tyler via the click, click, click of a chainsaw he’s sharpening, tooth by tooth. Tyler doubles as a tattoo artist whose pop up parlour has a secret Whites Only bar out back. Its misfit denizens are unfazed by a reporter with no camera, only a microphone; Reed records their casual racism and bravado. “Tell ‘em,” one implores.

I’m so fuckin’ fat I don’t care no more. I’m a six-foot, 350 lbs bearded man in a John Deere hat with FEED ME on my belly.

We listen in appalled fascination; audio can bypass our bigotry and suck us in to places where we normally wouldn’t go. As S-Town producer, Julie Snyder, recently told me:

 In audio, it’s much easier to connect with the people in the story. You’re hearing their natural way of talking. You hear emotion, it’s not a polished thing. In film… you judge, the way they look, the way they’re dressed, the setting they’re in.

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Julie Snyder and Brian Reed of Serial Productions, S-Town. Photo: Elise Bergerson

In this medium, language achieves added force, the poetry of the South laced with the affective power of sound. Tyler’s Uncle Jimmy, speech-damaged after a bullet lodged in his brain, echoes Tyler with strangely beautiful ejaculations reminiscent of Gospel affirmations. “Beacoups and beacoups of stuff,” he sings out, after the murder Reed is investigating at John B.’s request gives way to another, more tragic, death and an unseemly feud about the estate of the deceased.

One thing we don’t hear in S-Town is John B. pissing in the sink, his personal contribution to mitigating global warming by reducing toilet flushing. Right after he tells us about that, we get the mother of all jaw-droppers. Tyler’s sister-in-law rings Reed: John B. has killed himself. While on the phone to the town clerk. By drinking potassium cyanide.

Reed’s shock and grief are real. Like many literary journalists, he has become part of the story. He knows John B. is his subject, not his friend, but he cared about him. Reed’s immersion grows after John B.’s suicide, taking him to S-Town “nine or ten” more times.

John B. asked Reed to come to S-Town to investigate a murder, critics say, not to have his own suicide and life become the focus of the story. But it’s clear even before Reed meets John B. that the “murder” is less important to him than having the ear of a national radio reporter. “We’d end up on the phone for hours, Reed says, “with him going on and on, not just about the murder, but about his life, and his town.”

Socially, intellectually and sexually isolated, John B. yearns for meaningful, non-judgmental contact. He is candid about his depression: he keeps a suicide note on his computer and has emailed the town clerk a list of people to be contacted in the event of his death. His mental illness, it will be suggested by Reed, probably derives from mercury poisoning; he has been ingesting mercury vapour for decades due to “firegilding” and other alchemical operations he practises when mending clocks.

 Listening is bearing witness

In my experience as an oral historian, people greatly value being attentively listened to. When mortality looms, the impulse to place something on the record for posterity, to avoid being erased, can deepen. John B. talked openly about his suicide ideation and probably knew he did not have long to live. He reeled Reed into his life because Reed was the ideal person to bear witness: intelligent enough to engage with a swirling canvas from the epic (John B.’s Critical Issues for the Future Manifesto) to the everyday (dogs, takeaway pizza), undeterred by his “virtuosic negativity”, an outsider with no prior relationship with S-Town and a relatively unobtrusive means of recording all he encountered.

It felt as if by sheer force of will, John was opening this portal between us.

Once he stepped through that portal, into the “proleptic decay and decrepitude” John B. described, Reed felt compelled to carry on: not to needlessly invade a life, but to honour the splendid, scabrous, sprawling complexity of the man who chose him as his chronicler.

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Brian Reed, host of S-Town, in the Alabama woods.   Photo: Andrea Morales

S-Town pioneers a form of aural literary non-fiction in service of what that great Southern writer William Faulkner, from whose pages John B. could have stepped, declared to be the only subject “worth the agony and sweat” of the artist: “the human heart in conflict with itself”. In so doing, it validates, rather than violates, the fierce, flawed life of John B. McElmore.

The other characters also deepen as we explore John B.’s life: is Tyler (who at 25 has four kids by four women) John B.’s surrogate son or the object of thwarted desire? Tyler’s would-be eulogy for John B. is touching and frank:

Whenever I left him there, he’d say, “I love you man.” Every time. And I’d say, “I love you, too, John B.” And sometimes he’d say, “Just because I say I love you, don’t mean I’m trying to get up your butt or anything.” And I said, “I know John B. God damn.” Because he knew, I mean, he mighta had a little sugar in his tank.

S-Town validates, rather than violates, the fierce, flawed life of John B. McElmore

 

In its treatment of John B.’s sexuality, S-Town treads on dangerous ground. A self-described “semi-homosexual”, he has had few and mostly unfulfilling relationships. Chapter Six, devoted to this, opens with John B. uncharacteristically reticent. Off the record, he tells Reed about a relationship with a married man. Reed later interviews the man, though does not play the tape; he justifies including these and other details because two others had confirmed them on the record and because John B. is by now, in his own view, “wormdirt”. However, by mentioning that the man once worked for John B, Reed does risk making listeners participate “in the unwitting outing of one queer man over the dead body of another”, as an insightful Vox article suggested.

The final chapter provides disturbing detail on what John B. called his “church” ritual with Tyler, where “Wild Turkey is the Holy Water… the tattoo needles are the reliquaries”. John B. describes church as getting “drunk as hell in the back room”, talking about everything from life and death to black holes and quarks. Tyler reveals, somewhat uncomfortably, that it involved increasingly painful tattooing  that gave John B. “an endorphin high”. John B. got “addicted”, says Tyler, “like a damn dope fiend”. Some critics  – ironically – go into graphic detail to argue that including this element crosses an ethical line. It is shocking, certainly. But the way it unfolds in the inflected voices of Tyler, Reed and John B., the listener can only empathise with John B. and appreciate how truly anguished he must have been to crave this momentary expunging of mental pain. It is a vital part of seeking to understand the man. And that was Reed’s simple, profound purpose.

I think it’s worthwhile trying to understand another person.

The series ends up as a vivid, engrossing portrayal of a community. It dodges the sociology of its rampant racism, but provides insights into the “fuck it” philosophy of the disenfranchised, self-identifying white trash who would shock the world by helping Trump get elected.

The ability to evoke empathy  is a cornerstone of audio and its deployment in S-Town is both timely and provocative. As Snyder told a Sydney Opera House audience last year:

Things that make them human, you relate to that … There is nuance, there isn’t a monolithic way that certain people think, the Republicans think this way and Democrats think that way.

As Uncle Jimmy would say, Amen to that.

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An abridged version of this article was published in The Conversation, 27 April 2017, as  ‘S-Town Invites Empathy Not Voyeurism”.

A few of my favourite things in the second part of 2016….

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I was consulting producer on this gripping podcast series, which toppled Serial to be #1 in the Australian iTunes charts.

  • Making a narrative/investigative podcast, Phoebe’s Fall, with a crack team from the newsroom at The Age in Melbourne
  • Attending Australia’s first podcasting conference, #OzPod2016
  • Interviewing Aboriginal artists in remote Australia

 

                 ADNAN DID IT!

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Julie Snyder, EP of Serial, at Sydney Opera House 18 December, reveals that their IT guy accidentally posted “Adnan did it” while trying to stop just such comments!

 

The podcasting boom continues, with a plethora of new content, ranging from the good (Heavyweight and Homecoming, both from Gimlet Media) to the predictable (endless panels and chum-casts on everything from pop culture to ‘behind the news’, often presented by people whose confidence inversely matches their competence. I surveyed a bunch of audio producers earlier this year, to see if they felt that podcasting was evolving as a new genre, and was not just a mode of consumption, or time-shifted radio. One memorable response: podcasting has produced a ton of ‘narcissistic audio selfies’. I think he’s right –  iTunes is swarming with ‘personal stories’, both first person and narrated, which endlessly loop stories of identity, relationships and trauma, but with no prism on the social issues and political or historical environment that govern the individual experience. It’s like being thrust into a kaleidoscope of fragmented lives. You emerge shaken or unmoved, but not enlightened.

Podcasting has produced a ton of ‘narcissistic audio selfies’

The difference between these screeds of talkiness and a well structured audio feature is like the gulf between a provincial TV news item and an immersive documentary film. My survey respondents were skewed towards experienced and award-winning; that is to say that unlike folk who think that consuming podcasts makes them qualified to be podcasters, they know how to make audio – and how incredibly time-consuming and complex it is to make a layered, well composed mix, that flows well and sounds so right, it seems like it just happened spontaneously.Thing is, it didn’t. That’s the difference between a beautifully paced, evocative piece that engages the imagination and develops character and plot much as a good novel does, and a pap of pundits talking over each other about stuff that they seemingly have no expertise in, but are nonetheless happy to opine about. When I mentioned how much TIME it takes to make good crafted audio, Julie Snyder laughed loudly, relieved that someone got it. ‘That’s all I want to do – talk about how hard our job is!’

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Audio’s dirty little secret: crafting it well takes massive amounts of TIME

The latest trend is for podcast listeners to set themselves up as podcast critics, offering endless listicles of the ten or fifty or a hundred best podcasts around. I’m happy to take the recommendations of a media writer at The Atlantic or Vulture or such – but what are the credentials of all these other folk ? And why would you listen to a piece of audio at up to twice the natural speed, if you are presuming to evaluate it (that goes for you too, Nick Quah of Nieman Lab’s Hot Pod, in an unusual lapse of judgement)? If the work is crafted audio, or even a well structured interview/profile format such as Conversations with Richard Fidler, to fast-forward through the audio is heresy! It may, just may, be ok if it’s four football types talking about the match – what they say is more important than how they say it – but for anyone with the slightest pretension to making well produced crafted audio storytelling, it’s a slap in the face to have someone whizz through it, completely ruining one of audio’s most powerful characteristics – that it unfolds in real time. You can’t freeze-frame audio. And the pauses are there for a reason.

To fast-forward through audio is heresy!

Speaking of Richard Fidler, it was a real thrill to meet him at OzPod2016, Australia’s first podcasting conference, held at the ABC in Sydney. He interviews  such diverse people, with empathy and wit. His tip: the two best questions are, ‘why…?’ and ‘really?’ Conversations… regularly tops the Australian iTunes charts – though I’m chuffed to say we knocked it off its perch with Phoebe’s Fall – as we did with Serial! I will post separately about the making of Phoebe’s Fall: it was wonderful to work with top investigative journalists and technical folk at The Age in Melbourne, alongside my old colleague Julie Posetti, now heading Digital Transformation at Fairfax Media. The year ended, thrillingly, with an encounter with Julie Snyder, followed by excellent and revealing presentations by her and Jad Abumrad at the Sydney Opera House. I like Radiolab’s ethos, as captured on a napkin: gap in knowledge (gap) followed by epiphany (oh!) in ever-amplifying waves. More of that, please, in 2017!Radiolab ethos on napkin.jpg Read the rest of this entry »

Podcasting just keeps on growing, gaining new fans, cultivating audio creativity and maybe even redressing legal wrongs.

 

Let’s start in Barcelona last year, where I was invited to speak on how audio’s qualities as an intimate, portable medium that can evoke emotion and imagination drive the podcasting boom. I was on a panel at the formidable Global Editors Network (GEN) media summit with a producer of the @Serial podcast phenomenon – the excellent Dana Chivvis – who regaled us with insider thoughts on the astonishing success of the series: 100 million downloads last time I looked. Dana said they innocently enough set out to make audio that hooked folk as much as the best HBO/Netflix series – think House of Cards – and out of that came the signature trailer to start each episode, and the cliffhanger ending. The rest was partly luck (they  started out without a fixed ending, which hugely increased fan engagement, and Apple launched their native purple app for podcasts on iPhone at just the same time, greatly increasing ease of download) and partly dogged shoe leather journalism brilliantly transformed for the audio medium, as host Sarah Koenig candidly deconstructs here.

 

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Sarah Toporoff, GEN podphile and organiser; Mark Rock, founder, AudioBoom; Dana Chivvis, producer, Serial; Siobhan McHugh; Francisco Baschieri, Spreaker

 

Then Marc Maron took podcasting to another level in a wonderfully revealing interview with Barack Obama, recorded in his garage for his WTF series. Yet again podcasting was shown to be the medium of authenticity and intimacy – qualities it derives largely from being audio, but also because of how podcasts are delivered – to our ears, without gatekeepers, at a time and in a place we choose. Minority and interest groups are mining this ease of access and distribution, and panel-fests and chumcasts (friends riffing on a theme) are proliferating. See my article here for The Conversation with good links to examples. Diversity loomed large too in in Radiotopia’s Podquest competition, which attracted over 1500 entries from 53 countries! Nice to see that one winner was The Hustler – stories from inside US prisons. This will be hugely empowering for those locked up, and a vital counter-balance to a US system which, disgracefully, has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

Podcasting as a tool of social engagement

Not that Australians can be blasé. The Northern Territory region actually outstrips the US for rates of incarceration, and most of them are Aboriginal people. Aboriginal voices are shockingly absent from Australian public conversations, so it was a pleasant surprise to see none other than a Murdoch publication, The Australian newspaper, have a very good go at doing a Serial, with its podcast The Bowraville Murders. This examined the unsolved murders of three Aboriginal children from the same small town 25 years ago, bringing the raw pain of victims’ families and the kneejerk racism of the community direct to listeners. It also, like Serial, was probably instrumental in achieving a retrial – the power of podcasting as a tool for social engagement writ large.

Because of its persuasive power, advertisers as well as activists are now taking notice of podcasting. I was back at GEN in June 2016 on a panel in Vienna, this time, with CEO of Commercial Content at ACAST, the incisive and insightful Sarah van Mosel, and with Vanessa Quirk, who authored a comprehensive Guide to Podcasting in late 2015 which is rich on metrics, trends and case studies of some of the most exciting shows. Even among the glitz of the latest corporate innovations and the lure of 360 degree TV and Virtual Reality, we three ‘podcast queens’ (fact of interest: female listeners to podcasts in the US have DOUBLED since 2013) showed yet again that audio storytelling can captivate an audience through the simple yet unassailable power of our common humanity and desire for connection.

 

Podcast Queens

Meanwhile, podcasters have become celebrities – Ira Glass is appearing at the Sydney Opera House to present audio accompanied, thrillingly, by dance; while the whimsical Starlee Kine of Mystery Show and the relentlessly enthusiastic PJ Vogt of Reply All had sell-out shows at the Sydney Writers Festival in May.

What fans perhaps don’t realise is that the simpler and more casual a podcast sounds, as if it’s something anyone can do, the more craft and slog lie behind it! It’s all about understanding the medium of audio and the structure of narrative.

Maybe that’s why the latest trends show collaborations between older-style print journalists with specialist audio experts: the Marshall Project partnered with This American Life for their examination of a miscarriage of justice around a rape victim who was not believed, Anatomy of Doubt; The Economist is pairing with Mic media whiz Cory Haik for a forthcoming podcast; and I am teaming up with a media outlet in Australia for a special series. Watch this space!

 

 

 

 

 

OHR Third EditionI am thrilled to report that my article The Affective Power of Voice: Oral History on Radio, has been included in the forthcoming edition of The Oral History Reader (Routledge 2015). This comprehensive anthology (722pp) is undoubtedly the most important collection of articles by the international community of oral history scholars and practitioners. I am humbled to be in the company of such giants of the genre as Sandro Portelli, Michael Frisch, Studs Terkel, Paul Thompson, Sherna Berger Gluck, Valerie Yow, Doug Boyd, Paula Hamilton, Steven High, Linda Shopes and of course the editors, Australia’s Alistair Thomson of Monash University and the UK’s Rob Perks of the British Library.

 

2015 has been a good year for publication of my oral histories. The City of Sydney has done a fine job of placing online the archive of interviews with residents at Millers Point Sydney, done by me and coordinating oral historian Frank Heimans back around 2006. These interviews capture the rich harbourside community life of one of Sydney’s oldest suburbs, where men worked on the wharves (stevedoring) under tough conditions, and women raised families in cramped public housing. One of my favourite quotes was a woman who laughed that yes they did have running water back then – you ran in to the laundry, filled a bucket, ran back out and threw it into the bath! There are also great interviews with sports journalist legend Frank Hyde, a gentle man with a lovely sense of humour who sings Danny Boy on the tape; Jack Mundey, trade union leader extraordinaire, whose Green Bans movement stopped the proposed demolition of these inner Sydney ‘slums’ and kept the community intact; and Bill Ford, who grew up swimming off the steps at the ‘Met’ wharf and went on to be part of the famous US Freedom Ride that was mimicked in New South Wales in 1965 in a push to end discrimination against Aboriginal Australians.

INA launch

With Denis O’Flynn, President INA, Dr Richard Reid, Michael Lyons and Dennis Foley at the launch of the INA Oral History, Nov 2015

My other big project this year brought me full circle: recording the oral histories of prominent Sydney Irish and Irish-Australian members of the Irish National Association (INA), which has its centenary in 2015. As an accidental Irish migrant who has now spent just over half her life in Australia, it was fascinating to hear stories of similar migrants, and what they felt they’d gained and lost in the process. The project explores how the INA upholds Irish culture and heritage, through activities around music, dancing, teaching the Irish language and maintaining an awareness of Irish history and politics, through events like the annual Easter oration at the wonderful Waverly cemetery monument, the St Patrick’s Day parade (revived in 1979) and the Famine Memorial event at Hyde Park Barracks each August. The interviews were commissioned by the National Library of Australia, which has placed some of them online in full. You can browse the timed summary, where a keyword or phrase will take you direct to the audio, and even provide a citation. Try Bishop David Cremin recalling how he held a controversial Requiem Mass for Bobby Sands, the first of the IRA hunger strikers to die in 1981. Or Maurie O’Sullivan, passionate Irish cultural advocate, describing how he talks Irish to his dogs and his horse to keep up his language skills! There is also Tomás De Bháldraithe, whose father wrote the first Irish-English dictionary, reflecting on the prominent role his family played in the public intellectual life of the nascent Irish state.

My next oral history project promises to be exciting and very different. It’s an investigation into the relational aspects of how contemporary Aboriginal art is produced, funded by the Australian Research Council. I’m part of a team with noted art historian Ian McLean and Indigenous Curator at the National Museum of Australia, the indefatigable Margo Neale. We’re seeking to understand how Indigenous artists work with non-Indigenous art centre staff and dealers, and in conversation with other artists, both Indigenous and non, and how these relationships affect the art that emerges. We’ve already visited two remote communities and it’s been a revelation. No wonder I love oral history – you get to hear the life stories of the most extraordinary people. And I agree with Studs – there are no ordinary people; just the uncelebrated. Let’s get celebrating!

Field research with Margo Neale and Prof Ian McLean

Field research with Margo Neale and Prof Ian McLean

famine memorialMemorial to the Great Irish Famine, Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney.

Lots of Famine-related events lately. My radio documentary, The Famine Girls, features descendants of the 4000 orphan girls sent out from Ireland to escape the famine in the 1840s, and a fascinating interview with noted economics historian Cormac O’Grada, about the nature of collective memory around the famine. It was broadcast on ABC RN Hindsight, 11 Aug 2013.  Audio and info HERE

Conlon book Publication of the amazing Atlas of the Great Irish Famine by Cork University Press, with maps that give unparallelled insight into what happened, at micro-level.

Great speech by Tom Keneally at the launch at the State Library in Sydney, and fascinating yarns with cartographer Mike Murphy afterwards.

Iveragh Final

Irish writer Evelyn Conlon’s new novel, Not The Same Sky (Wakefield Press), explores the journey of some of the orphan girls, within a contemporary context.

 

BANISHED WOMEN

And a new series on TG4, Irish-language television in Ireland, Mná Díbeartha (Banished Women), starts 25 September.

I’m one of many historians and commentators interviewed (Episode 4), in a beautifully filmed work that questions why Irish women sent to Australia in difficult circumstances were so maligned.

“It rescues them from obscurity and restores their historical importance in building the Australian nation, the young orphan girls viewed as “the moral dregs of the workhouses – the most stupid, the most ignorant, the most unmanageable set of beings that ever cursed a country by their presence”, and the transported women, who, because of contemporary attitudes towards them and the shame of the convict ‘stain’ have not gained any place as pioneers in the legends and histories of their home and adopted countries.

The series is a testament to the lives, struggles and legacy of these 18th and 19th century women and girls but it leaves us with a question – what have we learned from the experience? What is it in our own culture that has allowed us through the 20th and 21st century to continuously banish from our midst, those who make us feel uncomfortable, or are considered undesirable in our communities?”

Hibernian macaroons at State Library of NSW

Hibernian macaroons at State Library of NSW

And a final Famine link – a lovely evening of Irish-Australian song, poetry and story at the State Library of NSW on 24 October with actor Maeliosa Stafford, co-founder of Galway’s Druid Theatre and   frequent actor with the Abbey Theatre Dublin, but living in Sydney since late ’80s, and singer Freddie White, whose gravelly voice I used to play on Breakfast Radio on RTE in the ’80s, and who has moved here with his wife Trish Hickey, a wonderful singer herself. Maeliosa paid tribute to my Famine Girls doco, noting how these stories of ordinary unsung heroes such as Eliza Fraser had moved and inspired him. Maeliosa has often played Irish parts in historical re-enactments in my documentaries, and we actually know each other since Galway in 1978, so it seems fitting that our lives should intersect artistically at the other end of the world some 35 years on. A tricolour plate of macaroons provided a fitting end to a stirring night.

Here’s our say: WATCH OUR SEMINAR  on the making of Eat Pray Mourn

And here’s yours –  so far, you like it!

Check out these unadulterated comments from the 360 Documentaries website on Radio National (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/eat-pray-mourn/4598026):

db :
05 Apr 2013 10:41:46pm


           Powerful documentary, brilliantly executed. Cuts right through to the core of the matter, and gives a voice to a few of the zillion people who call Jakarta home. As this documentary shows, life is hard going and unfair for 99% of Jakarta’s residents. If you visit, or work as an expat there, you tend to live in a bubble of sorts. This documentary well and truly pops that bubble. Good show. 

Mark Gregory :
07 Apr 2013 3:24:58pm

 Very moving and informative exploration of Indonesian politics and life, this shows the power of radio documentary making use of all the possibilities of interviews, narration, street soundscapes and music, when painstakingly and lovingly combined. And I loved the finale where in court the sister of the victim of police brutality raised her fist and shouted “Victims we will never be silent”. Encore!


IW :
07 Apr 2013 4:01:52pm


           Excellent journalism. Intimate stories that reflect the views of the little people, in their words. A good reflection of the improvements in Indonesian civil society. Small people are now prepared to stand up. The story had an excellent historical and development context.


r manning :
07 Apr 2013 4:48:23pm


Absolutely brilliant! It is the story of something so very wrong which cries out to be redressed. When you believe you have right on your side, it brings out the courage, tenacity and confidence to stand your ground. One woman’s story was beautifully told to show an insight into an all pervasive practice condone by people in power. Well done to the production team who told the story. This should be a fine example of bravery to all the voiceless people around the world who have suffered and/or suffering injustice.

Christine Croyden : 08 Apr 2013 2:36:52pm

I loved this documentary. The sophisticated and vivid story telling is engrossing, and the Indonesian voices and sounds cutting through the narrative give it such a strong sense of place.
Begs the question of how things will go for Afghanistan, considering its 15 years since Indonesia became a democracy and the road ahead is still so precarious … with feral police, superstition and its bloody history. Yet, it seems the people are hopeful and beginning to claim their human rights… great to see/hear/learn.

Allan Gardiner :
28 Apr 2013 5:15:10pm


Only a paucity of Indonesia’s fragmented folk ever get to hear of the atrocities fomenting the home-grown strategic stranglehold there, and not until this sordid stricture’s sufficiently throttled back will this strangely strung-out archokedipelago ever have hope of becoming a decidedly decongested democracy, and even then it’d still be perceived for quite some time thereafter as being but a struggling phlegmocracy at b_est’ranged.

RADIO YOU CAN”T SWITCH OFF

More casual but no less heartfelt comments came in via the ABC’s general feedback site. One listener, Fiona, wrote:

Hi, I have listened to the above radio program and wish to compilment the producers and all those involved in this program. I was riveretted to the program and put off going out so I could listen. A great story, i really enjoyed to background history of Djkarta which helped put the story into context. I often the background sounds and music to these radio documentries annoying, but in this case they really enhanced the time and place and reality of the family and their struggles. Excellent work. I love 360 documentaries! And please excuse my very poor spelling!

I’m heartened by Fiona’s response. As she says, her spelling may not be 100%, but she engaged with the program with alert ears and an open mind – and the best compliment any radio maker can get is that someone is held spellbound by the program, and cannot leave. The power of radio to reach so many diverse listeners was echoed by another comment on the website, from an academic, Professor Craig Reynolds, a historian of South-East Asia, at the Australian National University. While it was great to hear a specialist of his standing praise our content, what was also interesting was that at one level his response was similar to that of Fiona – getting sucked in to listen: ‘I thought this was compelling radio that showed a side of Indonesia invisible to most outsiders… I came upon the program quite by accident and found I couldn’t leave it!’

Mourners walking to Yusli's grave

Mourners walking to Yusli’s grave

RADIO FOLK LIKE IT TOO

Most listeners, understandably, don’t know how a radio documentary is constructed – who is responsible for what, and how it’s put together. E.g. Jacqui did the field recordings, drawing on her in-depth knowledge of the culture to get close to our informants, but it was my task to distil a 50-minute coherent narrative out of over 30 hours of tape, and to do so in a way that allowed the personal stories to unfold as intimately as if they were speaking directly to the listener. So it was gratifying to get feedback from radio practitioners, alive to the complexities of sounding simple!

 John Biewen, editor of Reality Radio and an accomplished documentary maker and teacher at the Centre for Documentary Studies at Duke University, North Carolina, wrote:

Talk about sure-handedness! It’s a pleasure to listen to a piece so skillfully made — the deft blending of evocative ambient sounds, voice and voiceover, narration and music…. And the content is riveting. This was all news to me… Fascinated by the rhythms and surfaces of life in Jakarta (such nice writing there), then gradually absorbing the enormity of the dark underbelly. The story of the neighborhood lynching is grippingly told. And Yeni is a wonderful find. Love her bravery, and her optimism (“Indonesia is changing”), which can seem poignant at first but struck me as justified precisely because of what she herself was doing.

Colm McNaughton, who has made acclaimed, edgy documentaries about fraught political/security situations in Mexico, Guatemala and Northern Ireland, called it ‘a powerful and compelling piece of radio. Many of the ‘episodes’ weave narration, wild sounds and interviews with real mastery.’

But one listener at least was immune to the charm of the elaborate soundscape of EPM.  James Hay, who runs a beauty/tanning business, wrote to the ABC complaining that it was ‘a terrible documentary. I could hardly hear what was being said because of all the background noise.’

ACADEMIC RESPONSE

At an academic level, reaction has been very positive. On the adaptation of scholarly research for audio, a post-graduate ‘auto-anthropologist’ and artist was enthusiastic: ‘It’s incredibly complex, but does not at all seem laboured. It must have been a LOT of work! …I love how you connect a somewhat brutal ‘Magical Realism’ with ‘True Crime‘ and ‘Social Justice’, without preaching.’

Two lecturers, one at Charles Sturt University and one at Australian National University, have advised that they intend to use EPM as a set ‘text’, for Justice Studies and Asia Pacific Internal Security respectively. An Emeritus Professor of Islamic Studies told Jacqui she wept throughout the program, whose evocations of Indonesia she called ‘beyond brilliant’. She took issue with the translations of the voiceover in the first section, at Matraman – and she is correct that we did not literally translate every word spoken by Irfan, our first speaker. We had to let his voice establish itself in Bahasa, which meant the English translation was curtailed. The whole voice-over issue was trickier than I anticipated in fact – a steep learning curve.

INDONESIAN LISTENER GIVES THUMBS UP

And what of Indonesians’ response? We are still working on a Bahasa version to air in Indonesia.  Meanwhile, this Indonesian listener’s response to the ABC program was touching and heartening.

The backsounds and music are great, I enjoy it thoroughly. You brought me back to Indonesia. It feels so kampung and so rakyat! I love it! (I dance on some parts 🙂 )…. Listening this doco, you convinced me that you really-really-really concern to this issue, due to your heart and for the sake of your concern to humanities.  The way you narrate this story is wholeheartedly beautiful, it compensate the odd feelings that I got when hearing my country’s ulcer wounds revealed.’

Even the preliminary feedback above shows how a radio documentary takes on a life of its own once it hits the airwaves. Just as a book or film can have diverse, often opposed meanings for individual readers or viewers, every listener brings his or her individual imagination and attitude to a program. As the creators of the broadcast, we cannot control the reaction of the audience. A huge part of the satisfaction of making radio documentary derives from the multiple interpretations a creative work elicits.

Likewise, a listener rarely encounters more than the artefact, the finished work. But here, we get to say how we did what we did, and why, and how. In this one-hour seminar  one-hour seminar at University of Wollongong, Jacqui and I discuss the long emergence of Eat Pray Mourn, from our chance meeting in 2011 to the broadcast two years later. Love to hear your thoughts.

Relatives hold a picture of Yusli, killed in police custody

Zia holds a picture of her uncle, Yusli, killed in police custody

While on a study tour of the US last year, I interviewed key figures among US radio innovators including Jay Allison, founder of the sell-out live storytelling show, The Moth, and a seminal figure in US public broadcasting for over 35 years, John Biewen, of Duke University Centre for Documentary Studies, and Julie Shapiro, curator, Third Coast Audio, a lively Chicago indie audio forum. All viewed Radio National’s arts/features mandate and output with a mixture of admiration, delight and envy. Allison, despite his standing, spends the equivalent of one day a week fundraising, so parlous is the support for public radio in the US, where some 28% of the population nominate Fox as their primary source of ‘trusted news and information’. Underfunded as it is, RN is precious, as are its best producers, whose sophisticated programs consistently punch above their weight, as their many prestigious awards testify. Yet under proposed new changes, some of RN’s most distinguished programs and program-makers face cutbacks and even extinction.

 

The 2013 schedule will establish a Creative Audio Unit to showcase a ‘Storytelling Movement’ modelled on US initiatives such as Allison’s The Moth and Jonathan Mitchell’s fictional/improvisational The Truth. Both formats could translate easily to an Australian context. They are relatively cheap to produce and could attract a new youth demographic to RN. But they should complement rather than replace or downgrade what RN already does so well: documentary, features and drama. As Allison told me, ‘one story form doesn’t rise up and destroy the other.’

 

RN programs such as Hindsight and 360 Documentaries (where I am an occasional producer) tell mostly non-fiction stories that greatly enrich the intellectual capital of Australia. Far from being elitist, this highly textured/researched format can reach people who might otherwise not know about important issues – you don’t even have to be literate to ‘get’ radio. But while storytelling on radio can be simple, it should not be simplistic; RN’s documentary output remains enduring because, besides its insight, gravitas, inventive sound design and general elan, it does what any well grounded research should do: it fills a clear gap in knowledge.

 

I was commissioned for instance to record the first substantial numbers of  ‘ethnic’ voices on the ABC (migrant workers from the Snowy Mountains Scheme), the untold stories of Australian women in the Vietnam war and the neglected history of sectarianism in pre-multicultural Australia. The collective RN output in arts and features over many years represents a vital social, cultural and historical archive of Australian life. Yet this culture of excellence is now under threat, with ‘built’ programs set to be effaced by panels peddling vacuous chat and opinion under the new Radio Lite.

 

There will be a net loss of eight positions, including two from Features shows Hindsight, 360Documentaries and Into the Music. Surviving producers will have increased output, which will, I am told, result in ‘a more superficial treatment of the ideas’. The pleasing aural aesthetic will be diminished, as two sound engineer positions go. The richness of immersion or observational documentary will be unattainable. I am currently making a 360 which will present a colleague’s Bahasa-language anthropological research as very human stories of crime, punishment and magical thinking in Indonesia, thereby extending the ordinary Australian’s understanding of this complex culture – surely an important issue, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the Bali bombings. But with no further ability to fund work in translation (because it takes so much extra time), either freelancers will have to take on that burden at their own expense, or future documentaries will be Anglophone – a grotesque limitation given our region and demographics. In Drama, three producers will lose their jobs, Airplay and other programs will be axed, and the fate of 39 slated productions and associated artists is unknown.

 

In a podcasting age, RN’s specialist programs exert influence around the world, and can play a key role in helping the ABC to fulfil its mandate to educate and inform, and even extend democratic principles by disseminating rigorously researched documentaries and imaginatively produced arts content to listeners in constrained societies. In 2010 I witnessed a budding drama producer in Shiraz, Iran, revel in listening to Airplay when occasional internet access permitted (the BBC and American outlets were barred). To cut him and his ilk off from this artistic oxygen is to abrogate the democratic calling of the national broadcaster.

To make redundant the likes of Sharon Davis (four Walkleys) and Jane Ulman (winner of several Prix Italias – the ‘Nobel prize’ of radio), currently on the cards, would be like sacking David Simon (The Wire) and Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) for taking television writing to unprecedented heights. A Creative Audio Unit is not in itself a bad idea, and I like RadioLab, The Truth and This American Life as much as anyone – but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater in rushing to ape US vogues.

This article was originally published 16 October by New Matilda, at 

http://newmatilda.com/2012/10/16/radio-national-needs-all-kinds-storytellers

Back: Jane Messer, Christine Croyden, Siobhan McHugh
Front: Jacqui Baker, Catherine Gough-Brady at Varuna

Varuna pulled off its usual magic. Five women gathered there for a week, to work on wildly different projects, united by a love of radio and storytelling. There was Jane Messer, with Dear Mr Chekov, a fictional story that moves between the penal colony of Sakhalin Island, off the east coast of Russia, and the Great Barrier Reef. Christine Croyden was seeking to adapt stage work, such as her acclaimed A Fallen Tree, for radio – her first venture in the medium. Catherine Gough-Brady was working on a highly textured sound work for ABC RN’s The Night Air, about Suleiman the Magnificent’s trip from Istanbul to Vienna in 1529. And anthropologist Jacqui Baker and I were taking the first daunting steps on a Bahasa-language feature, Rough Justice in Jakarta,  a blend of magic realism, documentary and soundscape that shows the complexities of a post-authoritarian society still deeply enmeshed in corruption, magical thinking and communitarianism.

this magpie looks deceptively mild here

And there was the dive-bombing magpie! Its nest must have been near the beautifully blossoming plum trees we passed on our way to the studio. A spring ritual, it swooped on anyone who got too close. Hence my adoption of a basin from the laundry as headgear! Others opted to wear sunglasses on the back of their head, to trick it into thinking they had two sets of eyes.

But despite the dangers of negotiating the path, the Indonesian story slowly, painfully started to emerge. I’ve never set foot in Indonesia, nor had I really heard the language spoken before, but at the end of a week’s immersion, I’m starting to pick up on its rhythms, and warm to the characters we depict. More of that anon.

Anti-magpie headgear

smchugh@uow.edu.au

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