Natasha Gadd
Stories & Ideas

Tue 27 Sep 2022

Episode 9: Non-fiction storytelling with Natasha Gadd – Inside ACMI X

ACMI X Factual media Industry Inside ACMI X podcast Interview
Amber Gibson

ACMI X Community Coordinator

The CEO of AIDC describes her creative process, industry trends and the documentaries she enjoys watching.


Amber Gibson: Welcome to Inside ACMI X: a series where we discuss TV, film, videogames, creative technology, and art, with practitioners in Melbourne. Each episode, we interview a resident that works at ACMI X: ACMI's screen-focused coworking space. I'm Amber Gibson, the Community Coordinator.

Before we begin, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, on whose land we record this podcast here in Melbourne. I extend that respect to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples listening in.

Today we are chatting to Natasha Gadd, who is the current CEO and creative director of the Australian International Documentary Conference, AIDC, but who is also a writer and director in our own right. We're going to be chatting about non-fiction storytelling and Natasha's own experience creating documentaries. Welcome, Natasha.

Natasha Gadd: Thanks for having me.

AG: For people who haven't been to AIDC, can you tell us what the festival is about?

NG: Well, AIDC is an annual industry event. We have a four-day conference in March each year at ACMI in the heart of Melbourne and the purpose is really to celebrate and elevate non-fiction storytelling in all its forms (such as); television, streaming, digital media. We bring together filmmakers with industry representatives from all across the globe and the idea is to sort of drive collaboration and production and industry development for non-fiction storytellers. Our four-day event includes sessions and marketplace and pitching opportunities as well as screenings, which we do in collaboration with the wonderful team at ACMI. Really, it's sort of a hotbed of ideas to discuss content and craft and technology and future directions.

AG: We're gonna talk a bit more about AIDC towards the end of the interview, but I really want to chat to you Tash about when you first became interested in non-fiction storytelling.

NG: Well, I guess (in) the first stages of my career I was really involved with more of the sort of screen culture side of the industry. So, I was interested in research and distribution and also film festivals.

I was working on a documentary film festival called Real Life on Film, which was a national touring festival, We would call for submissions from all across Australia and internationally as well, and I just was really interested in watching and thinking about and writing about documentary. I did that for many years and realised that sort of the passion that I felt when I was watching documentaries that I wanted to transfer into making documentaries, especially those that would tell a story and take us on a journey that was not those sort of informative, prescriptive kind of educational documentaries, but really kind of story-driven, character-driven observational docs.

AG: In 2005 you did move into production, co-founding Daybreak films. What was that pivotal moment that prompted that shift?

NG: I think I was at that point that when I was studying documentary craft and all of the different types and modes of documentary storytelling, I was really clear about what I personally resonated with. That was very much observational documentaries that drew on the sort of tropes of fiction in a way, to build character arcs and story arcs and build tension and really sort of draw you into the story. And I think that's what inspired me to start making documentaries in that format. That style was really born out of the vérité movement in France in the seventies and the sort of observational movement in the US and we weren't really doing a lot of that here. It was a format that was getting harder and harder to get over the line with the broadcasters who really wanted to have those narrated documentaries with presenters.

And so there was this real tension and I just felt like that craft was something that I really, really loved and that we could create more of in this country. So I think that was the initial inspiration that I really knew very clearly what kind of documentaries that I liked and what stories that I would like to tell and thought I'd give it a shot. I hadn't had any formal sort of filmmaking training. Most of my study around film had been very much in theory and critical theory. So yeah, it was very much: grab the camera, learn on the job.

AG: Was that observational style what you aim to achieve with your debut feature, Words from the City?

NG: Not quite in the way that I would've loved to. I love pure observational documentary in which there's sort of like a code; there's laws, there's rules around observational filmmaking from the 70s, which there were sort of these tenets. So you needed to use only natural lighting. It's very similar to dogma. You needed natural lighting, you wouldn't preset scenes, you would follow characters as events unfolded before the camera. (It was a) very fly-on-the-wall approach and it would appear when you're watching the film that it was very unmediated but as we all know that the moment you point your camera at something, you're framing something else out. The moment you make an edit, the moment you turn your camera on, turn it off, all of those things are choices and they're all edits in the filming process before you even get to the edit room. So I knew that I loved that style of filming people in situ, not putting them in a studio, not sort of setting up lighting and all of those things, trying to use natural light. But at the same time as I was saying, there was a resistance to that format, that broadcasters still wanted interviews. So the compromise was to film our characters in their environs that kind of matched their story, their world, their experience, and not take them into a studio and do it that way.

AG: Yeah. And how did you write it? Because you had to present a treatment to the stakeholders. What was your process for doing that?

NG: There's a real tension in the development stage of documentaries and trying to predict what will happen when the idea of a documentary is that it's not prescriptive and that you are sort of learning as you go unless it's a historical kind of documentary that's fact driven and you really can script that out, you can map it out and that's easy. That's definitely par for the course. But with observational films, the idea is that you don't know what's gonna happen and that the characters lead you through and guide the story. But I think what helped was that a lot of the films that I've done have been with artists and storytellers. And so there was information about those people. I could listen to their music and particularly with Words from the City, which was sort of about oral storytelling, and in Australian hip hop, the idea behind hip hop is to sing about who you are and where you are from or to rap about who you are and where you're from.

And so you would learn about those characters' stories and life experiences through their music, but also through the interviews they'd done with press. And we knew that we wanted to film them in their small town or in their remote community. So, we could imagine where we would wanna take the filming. It's funny you write this treatment thinking; "God, I would love it if this would happen because that sounds dramatic and that would make the documentary really, really interesting." But you can't predict and you can't force something to happen. But if you have a collaborative relationship with your subjects and you are also filming with artists, they're really open to working with you to get a shot that's in that best natural light at Golden Hour and to get the best environment that's going to make them performing sound incredible. So you do have that flexibility that you might not have with a person who's not working with media and that's not sort of savvy to that.

AG: I read that when you wrote Muscle for Anatomy and Murundak: Songs of Freedom, which is now on Netflix - congratulations - (that) you shifted away from creating a densely written document to writing a treatment that would engage stakeholders but also provide a realistic guide for shooting and editing. Did you feel that gave you more freedom to allow that story to evolve?

NG: Yeah, I definitely did. I think also that once I'd learned how to edit and learnt from my own mistakes like editing when you've been filming without the edit in mind is a nightmare. I didn't learn through film school. So in the edits I used to just sort of edit scenes how I wanted them to of play out and then I would stitch the whole film together. So there might be a four-hour initial pass, and then I would spend so long whittling it back down to the 90-minute feature that it needs to be, that it would take all the heart out of what I'd just edited in the scenes. So I sort of learnt over subsequent edits – and particularly I think I learnt properly how to do it when I was filming and editing Anatomy; I worked with an editor – was actually writing a post-production script and editing to the duration of the film and making that work as opposed to cutting back.

And people will still do it both ways. A lot of people still like to edit and whittle down, but I felt when it got to Anatomy, that was a half-hour doco and I'd only ever done features. So it sort of was the reverse. I started with long-form and then worked on short-form and that was an entirely different process, but it was more akin to the type of observational filming that I had always wanted to do because I knew what I wanted the final film to be, but I really let the subject... so this was an acrobatic troupe who performed in a real Soviet-style, so really stripped back kind of ascetic style of they would often perform either just in Y fronts and boots or completely in the nude. They lived in a caravan by the train tracks in Albury, Wodonga with their two kids and they would kind of incorporate some of the things that were impacting on their lives and their psyche into their performance. And so I sort of used those top-level themes.

One of the subjects, he'd snapped his Achilles and so he was of having a real disconnect between what his body used to be able to do and what it could do, and realising that the movement is something that would help him deal with other kind of mental health issues that he had experienced. I sort of learned through that process how to look through these reels and reels and hours and hours of observational footage and look for the top-layer themes that we wanted to pull out for the edit. So it was sort of a different approach to how I edited previously, but I really loved that (process of) finding the story in the edit.

AG: Yeah, I love the documentaries that you've done with such an Australian focus and on such different themes. You mentioned that you're not traditionally trained as a filmmaker. Do you see a lot of people coming through AIDC and attending AIDC who aren't formally trained?

NG: More so these days. When I first started attending AIDC as a film programmer before I started making films, and then when I was just on that cusp of kind of trying to get Words from the City funded, it was quite impenetrable, I'd have to say. There were a lot of really established filmmakers who had direct relationships with the buyers and the commissioners, and it was quite hard as an emerging filmmaker to have the space, platform, (and) opportunity to pitch. The funding system required you to have a certain number of credits to be able to be eligible to access the funding, which was a Catch-22. If you had never made a film, then you didn't have a credit, then you couldn't get the funding. And so you kind of kept ending up in that cycle. We now have a number of programs that are designed for emerging practitioners who've never attended AIDC and who don't have credits, but also we have an Indigenous creators program, we have a Leading Lights program, which is for culturally and linguistically diverse and emerging practitioners to be able to come to AIDC, be mentored through that experience, have direct access to decision-makers and buyers to be able to pitch ideas.

So we are trying to create those opportunities and I think that's made AIDC more accessible. I think also just the democratisation of media and the availability of technology means that you don't have to have tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment to be able to make content. People are making content on their phones, so you don't have to be formally trained, and that sort of younger generation are really savvy to that.

There is so much more interest now in working with new voices. In the past, that was not a thing that happened. If we can create those opportunities through the programs that we do and we create sessions and pitching initiatives where we bring the buyers into the room and pair them with emerging practitioners; they're willing, they're interested. We are really seeing that there are a lot of experienced producers who wanna work with emerging practitioners and there are a lot of broadcasters and platforms who are creating new opportunities and putting funding to those new stories and new voices. And so where we can do that, particularly for underrepresented practitioners and voices, then we're seeing really great things come out of it.

AG: What are some of the trends that are emerging from practitioners at the moment?

NG: Well, I mean just on a broad industry scale, True Crime is just not going away.

AG: (Laughs) oh my gosh.

NG: It just seems to be... it's sort of like this evergreen genre and I think we can probably blame Making a Murderer on Netflix for that one. There are lots of jokes about the Netflix model that you can just add water and get this particular kind of true crime series with the black and blue tones and the particular suspenseful music and the cliffhanger at the end of every episode that will help people stick with it.

Another trend that has been really noticeable over the last few years is the rise of music docs, particularly by really well-known filmmakers and auteurs. I think that that was based on the fact that we were locked down for so long that a lot of those filmmakers obviously couldn't travel, couldn't shoot, couldn't bring cast and crews together. So a lot of people turned to the archives, which was really interesting. Lots of footage and also the ability to do that from home and from anywhere. We saw Todd Haynes make the Velvet Underground Doc, the Beatles documentary - I think it was called Get Back - by Peter Jackson, the Beastie Boys documentary by Spike Jones, which was kind of a stage show but also a lot of archive as well, and the recently released Moonage Daydream - the Bowie documentary - by Brett Morgan. So that was definitely something that I've noticed and a huge rise in sports docs as well.

AG: Interesting. You mentioned the way that people were producing documentaries during lockdown has changed. Are there any methods or formats that are coming out now that are specific to Australian creators?

NG: I just think that what's happening and what has been happening over the last few years in Australia is that the streamers have really disrupted the market. So, what we used to see was the primary avenues for documentaries outside of the film festival market would be the public broadcasters, so ABC and SBS. And they wanted national stories with a uniquely Australian lens, Australian characters, landscapes, and stories that would reflect our different national identities, but to ourselves. We were the primary audience. With the streamers on the market; they're looking for universal stories, universal themes, and universal audiences. They're not territory based in terms of their subscribers, so they're wanting people to subscribe to their platform to access stories from all over the world. I think that has meant that we're seeing (that) the successful documentaries have a unique Australian character or story, but really translatable global themes.

I'm thinking of the incredible doco called Valerie Taylor: Playing with Sharks, featuring the conservationist Valerie Taylor, who actually was instrumental in helping write some of the story around Jaws, which then created a global fear of sharks and sparked a sort of shark culling movement. Then, she turned into this incredible conservationist and she was sort of like the Jacque Costeau of under the water. She took all of this incredible footage, she wore this bright hot pink swimsuit and wetsuits and that has just travelled really well overseas. So films like that... So she's a uniquely Australian character. I remembered the filmmaker Veronica Fury saying that she'd just watched the Jane Goodall doco on (the) conservation of gorillas, and I think she'd walked out of the film screening and she just thought; "we've got our very own Jane here under the sea and no one's told that story." And she knew straight away that that was a story that would resonate globally. So I think that we are definitely seeing a lot more people thinking broader than just Australian stories for Australian audiences and Indigenous stories are travelling really well. I mean, you know, have to acknowledge that storytelling absolutely begins with the First Peoples of this country, and there's a long tradition in so many different formats and that has translated so well to the craft of film and documentary and audiences across the globe are really interested in those stories as well.

AG: There does seem like there's a big push for creators to tell more interactive stories. How does that affect the production of non-fiction films?

NG: Well, each year AIDC has an innovation day where we try to celebrate non-traditional forms of non-fiction storytelling. That might be VR, MR, AR, but also non-traditional forms of financing and distribution and web series, interactive web series... It's a totally different format of storytelling. And so what we try to do each year is develop a new initiative. Last year we had May Abdalla who was from the creative studio called Anagram, and they've had a number of interactive docs screen at Venice and festivals overseas, and she did a lab with documentary filmmakers who were wanting to learn how to tell their story in an interactive format. And so she sort of took them through the process of what they would look like, so they would have a blueprint for how to tell a story with interactive elements or immersive elements that are different to screen-based content. I think it's a new way to experience a story. Rather than watching a story or listening to a story, it's actually experiencing a story. And that's a really new, exciting future direction.

AG: Yeah, interesting. We do have to wrap up. Thank you so much for joining us, Natasha. Before we let you go, what have you been watching lately?

NG: I've just watched an incredible feature documentary by a filmmaker called Sara Dosa, called Fire of Love. It's about the French Volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft who were really passionate about discovering new volcanoes in the sixties and seventies and had this incredible 16mm archive footage that they had documented. It's kind of an ill-fated story, which is something that is no surprise to a lot of people who know of them, but it's kind of this... they create all the incredible scenes in these Costeau-style beanies and it's weird kind of science fiction in homemade space suits and feels like this kind of weird love affair between a French new wave film and a Wes Anderson film. But it's a documentary and it's narrated by Miranda July and it's quirky and fascinating and feels like you're watching kind of this epic fiction film, but it's all documentary and I love it.

AG: Thank you so much for joining us.

NG: Thanks for having me.

AG: Thanks for joining us on Inside ACMI X. To learn more about ACMI X and keep up to date with the next episode, follow us on Twitter at @acmiXstudio.

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