Jeni Lee – part of the doco dream team that brought the Murray Bridge, Port Augusta and Raukkan residencies to life, and currently working with Big Stories in Coober Pedy – gives us some insight into her amazing career as a storyteller and documentary maker extraordinaire.
At school I loved photography, then I went to a brilliant alternative art school in North Adelaide and got a re-education in life. They had a brand new edit suite there, but no one knew how to use it. I read the manual and taught myself. Soon I was finding any excuse to make very strange experimental films. After art school I enrolled at film school. The teacher there asked us whether we were interested in drama or doco. I said ‘I love documentary and I think I will get work in documentary’ he laughed out loud. I think that was when my rebellious spirit kicked in and I became even more determined.
My first foray into documentaries was just after my first year at film school, when the director of Australia’s self proclaimed ‘dodgiest circus’ told me of his mad plan. He was about to drive his double-decker bus from Singapore to Ireland, performing circus shows to make ends meet along the way. He asked if I would like to come along and film. I was pretty excited to be involved. The circus ended up being ripped off pretty badly in Malaysia and doing a lot of circle work around South East Asia. I was lucky enough to travel from Thailand through Cambodia on the roof of the bus and focused my film on the volunteer work the circus did with Street kids in Sihanoukville. I had two amazing mentors, Nick Torrens and Bruce Moir who helped me nut out the story, a committed volunteer editor, David Ngo and a tiny amount of development money from the SAFC and the ABC. I learnt on the job from then on.
Big Stories provided a lot of opportunity for learning on the job. At times it has been quite challenging to get the films made. Some communities are harder to crack than others. Some places you find yourself being invited very quickly into peoples homes for a cup of tea and in others it is a long process of building trust. The first Big Stories residency in Port Augusta was very open as there was no precedent. As film makers in residence Sieh and I collaborated with Big Stories producers Martin, Anna and Nick to get a feel for what Big Stories really was. There was lots of butcher paper stuck all over the kitchen wall in our rented house on the edge of the desert, with potential site navigation paths, ideas for central themes and stories and plenty of late night conversations at the pub. Sieh and I both enjoy embracing the chaos but looking back there was a certain amount of floundering involved. It is certainly simpler now that we know what the site looks like and the main themes are locked in.
Each place we go there are different reasons that the locals might want to share their stories. There is always people who have something they want to share and that is the central idea behind Big Stories, to give a voice to people from regional towns. I think the key thing is getting past peoples suspicion of the media, building relationships and showing them that we are not coming to their town to dig up dirt and expose dark secrets. We meet people, share food, drink beer, cups of tea, tell stories, and let them know that we are interested in the people who keep these communities alive. A lot of the films are character portraits that give insight into a way of life in different regional areas. We avoid the spokespeople and look for everyday people with something to share. In Raukkan there was understandably a lot of closed doors when we first arrived and moved into a house there. People there often had good reason to be suspicious of strangers with cameras.
On our daughter’s first birthday we called past the school and told all of the kids they were welcome to come over for birthday cake. I was pretty surprised when the whole school turned up. We scratched around for some flour, mashed up some bananas and all made a cake to share. From then on our house was an open door to anyone that wanted to call past. We also give respect and distance to people who would prefer their privacy and that is part of the trust building too. It’s a fine line sometimes as most people need some gentle encouragement.
Sometimes we meet one key person in a community who then introduces us around to other locals. Mac Hayes, the president of Longriders Christian motorcycle club in Murray Bridge, was a big advocate of our project and really opened a lot of doors in Murray Bridge for us.
Rural towns are not for everyone and a lot of city people are resistant to staying for very long in small towns. But If you scratch the surface of rural communities you find a wealth of stories and insight. The locals can share the best food, stories, sights and experiences that the region has to offer. Mostly you open your mind to new perspectives and ways of seeing the world. If you spend time imaging what it must be like to live underground in Coober Pedy for 40 years for example, in a town with it’s own customs and culture, you gain a richer view of the world and the people in it.
In Coober Pedy there are people who were lured up here 40 to 50 years ago hoping to strike it rich, who fell in love with the laid back lifestyle, the warm dry climate, the colourful sunsets, and the frontier lifestyle with less rules and regulation, and many of them stayed. I think spending time imagining life in other peoples shoes is always a good thing to do. Big Stories lets you imagine living within in different realities and cultures around the world.
As film makers in residence we are lucky to share experiences and ideas with people from so many different backgrounds. Hopefully we can pass on some of those insights.We have been taught to exaggerate the significance of the strangeness of strangers and the foreignness of foreigners by an order of magnitude…
“In human communities we need to develop habits of coexistence: conversation in its older meaning of living together, and in particular, conversation between people from different ways of life. Conversations across boundaries…”
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Some of the towns we have been visiting for Big stories are smaller now than they have been. Coober Pedy is shrinking due to mainly the rising cost of fuel prohibiting the style of mining a lot of the small operations relied on. Raukkan has shrunk as there is not a lot of work for the young people there. Murray Bridge and Port Augusta are growing though, they are a middle sized towns really and those larger regional centres are growing.
My family and I live in Echunga, a very small town in South Australia, which had its heyday in the gold rush in the 1880s. Small towns have their advantages and of course their disadvantages. We have worked to create our own little sanctuary in Echunga, which is a place we can really relax and wind down. Echunga is side stepping a lot of the growth and development happening in the Adelaide hills, partly as water catchment rules have limited development and partly because people are put off by the lack of mains water and other services there. We like relying on rain water though, collecting firewood when trees blow down, being a little more connected with our environment.
What’s next for Jeni?
I am currently writing, researching and developing a documentary that celebrates fired up female artists and provocateurs, who dare to be themselves. These women are finding amusing ways to reveal sexist, racist and commercial rubbish and standing up to the abuse of power worldwide.
I am very excited to be travelling to meet some amazing artists in the UK, US and Spain later this year including: Adrienne Truscott a stand up comedian from Brooklyn whose provocative show – Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It: a one woman comedy about rape - is causing a stir on the international comedy circuit; UK based specialty act Amy Saunders, who will be performing her own anarchic gameshow in Soho; Spanish activist artist, Yolanda Dominguez who performs public stunts intended to stir up a public reaction; and the Tunisian/French protest singer Emel Mathlouthi whose songs became icons of the Tunisian revolution and Arab Spring.
For more of Jeni’s fantastic work, check out Carousel Media, the production company run by Jeni and her partner-in-crime/docos/life, Sieh. And check out their work from Murray Bridge, Raukkan and Prt Augusta at www.bigstories.com.au