Right from the beginning this was a very guerrilla-style observational project so visually it is by no means a feat of considered cinematography! Nothing was set up or recreated, very little was planned. Reality unfolded on a daily basis and offered itself up to be captured. It was a matter of choosing what to follow and then covering the events as thoroughly as possible in often noisy, unpredictable outdoor scenarios. And although working as a sole camera/sound unit provided unparalleled flexibility and intimacy, it had quite a big impact on how things had to be shot.
The initial notion was pretty basic - we wanted to capture a year in the life of Oasis in a 'cinema verite' style to create an artistic but informative feature that would put the issue of youth homelessness back on the social and political agenda. Ian had spent years of meetings, proposals and rainforests of paperwork getting access to the refuge and once the green light was given Shark Island invested in the Sony HDV Z1 camera and sound gear and we got going.
From November 2005 I just started turning up in the Oasis carpark with the camera and hanging around trying to fall in with the locals, who would congregate every day to socialise, wait for Captain Paul, ask for food vouchers, have showers and access support services. The first major hurdle was to overcome the rumour that I was an undercover police agent which many kids, especially those heavily into crime and drugs, were convinced of! After being allowed to attend various secretive bonging sessions with no repercussions, I finally shook off that stigma. (But created even more rumours amongst the staff!)
By this time I had forged stable connections with a few different groups of kids and usually had free reign to go off with whomever was doing something interesting.
At the very beginning everything seemed capture-worthy, but I soon grew more selective in what to shoot. Days were sometimes sprawling and uneventful, consisting of long patches of 'hanging around' where nothing actually happened - but this time was crucial as it allowed good relationships to solidify, with the aid of many servings of hot chips! Then just when I had been lulled into a false sense of boredom, something dramatic would erupt! So it was wise to have the camera and microphones stocked up with tape and enough battery juice at all times. I can recall at least one occasion where I reloaded casually, just in time to capture the reappearance of a young man who had just been released from incarceration - a touching moment of celebration amongst the local boys on site.
Dusk was usually when things started to get interesting, as the streets come alive with 'shady activities' easier to get away with under the cover of darkness. There were food vans to visit, fences to climb, abandoned buildings to explore. Aside from being curious adventurers with the city as their playground, the kids did need to find places to sleep and hang out where they would be out of the cold, safe from street predators, and away from the police. The streets do get wilder at night with drugs and prostitution really intensifying the various dangers. Many of the night time fights and dealings could not be shown in the film due to incrimination issues, but remnants of the knife-edge atmosphere and explosive aggression are tangible. I generally felt safe when I was out with a crew of Oasis kids no matter where we roamed, as they often protected me if I came under attack from other 'streeties' who were paranoid about the camera. My policy was to shoot until I was told (sometimes abrasively!) to turn off the camera but people who did not want to be filmed or appear, were not pursued or shown.
Aside from running wild with the kids, what I found fascinating and deeply enjoyable was spending time with Captain Paul Moulds. Paul's daily movements would always lead to something offbeat or interesting - a trip to a rehab centre, a consultation with a kid in distress, an altercation with some right-winger from the local community. With him as my guide I was able to access and shoot inside places I had never seen and get a great insight into the lives of many young people struggling with seemingly insurmountable problems. A great raconteur, he has amassed an incredible mental library of stories of kids' lives over his 25 years work, ranging from harrowing to inspiring. What frequently amazed me was the resilience of Paul and his deep belief - despite being lied to, ripped off, and abused - that every kid could be salvaged from the wreckage of his or her life, no matter how horrific the past had been. Every day he was dealing with problems on a practical level. When someone came in being chased by drug dealers, he would whisk them off to rehab; if a kid needed to hand themselves in to police, he would take them; if someone was having a psychosis he would get the mental health team. Paul's connection with the young people was so warm it transcended any notion of mere 'youth work'. He is literally a surrogate father to a whole community of dispossessed kids.
Style-wise our aim was for as much 'fly on the wall' shooting as possible. I attempted to disappear into the background while dramas were happening, whilst still being close enough to the action to capture the sound on my top microphone - often a challenging feat. Thankfully, with the luxury of so much time spent on location - over a calendar year - I was able to become 'part of the furniture' so after 6 months of solid hanging around most kids were no longer camera conscious nor paid me much attention. In many scenarios their immediate needs - money, drugs, protection - overshadowed the relatively minor distraction of a camera being around. Paul, especially, learned simply to ignore me and get on with his work, looking over only occasionally to share a nod of disbelief or commiseration. This is not to say I did not change the way things unfolded as the camera being present always has some kind of impact and people always elicit some kind of 'performance', but I tried to minimise 'playing up' and hoped for a more truthful depiction of life around Oasis. Generally we also selected characters on the basis of who was the most natural in front of the camera.
The drab setting of Oasis's concrete carpark and the grimy foyer where much of the action took place were not the most glamorous backdrops for interviews and interactions, but this was the reality of the refuge and things literally happened in the heat of the moment. There was no point steering the real situations to 'prettier' backgrounds. Things happened where they happened. I could only occasionally direct bodies around for the best available light - and do not forget these are the kind of kids who do not really warm to being told what to do! - but the best option was to manoeuvre myself for the best vantage points which meant moving around a lot.
Other locations, which I was often entering at night or without permission, were a nightmare in terms of official OH&S! Squats and abandoned buildings had barbed-wire fences or rotting staircases and were sometimes hazardous to negotiate. Rooms in boarding houses were often ridiculously small. I actually only fell over once - an embarrassing trip over the base of a statue whilst filming on the move in Hyde Park - but I valiantly saved the camera (but not my pride) just as the lens was about to crack on the pavement!
Filming in cars was my most hated feat as you need a chiropractor afterwards and it seems you can never get a decent angle or exposure. Speed humps are the mortal enemy! Unfortunately much of the time Paul had free to film was when he was rushing between appointments and hospitals and detoxes. So I did spend a lot of time squashed into the windscreen of the car but at least this conveys how frantic his day is.
Observational shooting on the run relies mostly on available light, so the daytime outdoor strategy was just to go with what was happening. Indoors there was rarely time to move lamps and light sources around so much of the vision occurs under flat ugly fluorescent lighting which, though unattractive, ultimately only heightens the mood of desperation and chaos. As much of the action occurred at night I carried a little light panel and a top mounted light to illuminate squats and other dark crevices of the city-scape. Surprisingly, the torch on my mobile phone came in handy one night in the middle of a dark park setting when other batteries failed! I also regularly filmed on 25 frames per second which allows more light but gives a 'slow mo' affect.
The raw, edgy feel synonymous with handheld footage was what we felt suited the subject matter and given there was no chance of carrying a tripod around at the pace the kids moved anyway, it was both a practical and stylistic choice to shoot the entire film handheld, even wide establishing shots. Two assets for this are strong arms and patience, but the flexibility for movement and reframing this enables is unparalleled! Wherever the characters decided to go, and these were often split second decisions, I could be up and running.
Ratios were crazy as we wanted to film longitudinally but had no idea where characters' journeys would end up. Lives that had been relatively prosaic - seemingly not worth following - would suddenly erupt into chaos so I went off on many tangents, never knowing what would eventually prove fruitful.
It is difficult to shoot, sound record and direct all at once, and there are definite technical drawbacks, but working in this style in observational documentary-making facilitates a degree of intimacy with the subject that you just cannot achieve with a big crew. Add to this the flexibility to go everywhere without requesting permissions, and to look innocuous when sneaking into buildings, I cannot imagine having shot the film any other way. The most important factor was surrendering control of the scenario and just seeing how it unfolded and praying not to stuff up the focus on the crucial part of the dialogue! Ian also ventured out throughout the shoot to back me up as second camera and take some timeless still photographs, so it was great to have two perspectives of coverage for some scenes.
Probably the most difficult terrain was the ethics of shooting. On one hand I did not want to encourage any drug use or bad behaviour, nor prey on misfortunes or raw emotion when characters were going through hard times, but paradoxically this kind of stuff makes for the most dramatic material. I found it apt just to judge on the spot whether or not the subject was comfortable with being filmed in a bad situation. Luckily I usually had built up enough of a relationship with the individual to have the access to film them, even in a poor state. There were, however, quite a few things I did not film for fear of inflaming a situation - such as several physical fights. The most unnerving event I filmed was Darren having his ice psychosis as he was very erratic and no-one knew what he was capable of doing after such a massive amount of drugs. Thankfully he was dealt with by police and the psychiatric nurses before he could harm himself or anyone else. It was emotionally gutting, however, to watch someone I knew quite well go through this trauma, even if it was largely self-inflicted.
Lacking the natural patience and tolerance of an experienced youth worker like Captain Paul Moulds, I experienced significant frustration watching the young people entangled in their daily struggles. Despite always needing basic necessities like food and accommodation, the kids often prioritised less productive pursuits, such as drugs and alcohol, driven by addictions and mental illnesses. Hanging around watching young people get wasted and burn their brain cells is not particularly inspiring but such is the reality of street life. Unfortunately even kids this young have been through so much and find reality so bleak, that they try to escape their problems by getting 'off their face'. I managed to negotiate the line between observing and participating (with difficulty) but if passive inhalation of various smokes counts, then I probably lost a few of my own brain cells in the process! There was also the issue of what kind of information would be divulged/confessed on camera in various degrees of intoxication but I was careful not to focus on kids in uninhibited states.
In terms of storytelling, the greatest advantage of this film was the ability to keep shooting right up to the end of the long edit, so that stories could be faithful to what was happening in the lives of the characters at a more up-to-date point. So while the bulk of the shooting occurred over one year, if major turning points subsequently occurred we could then shoot scenes and incorporate them into the story. This also helped us to flesh out our storylines when we had finalised which characters would feature in the film.
Ultimately, while this film was emotionally taxing and demanding to make, it was an amazing and extremely rare opportunity to work longitudinally on an observational film. The finished product is really a tribute to progressive philanthropy and the belief in the power of documentary films to catalyse social change. It is thanks to the foresight and refined stylistic palate of the producer/co-director Ian Darling, that the film can simultaneously be a powerful social statement and an accomplished artistic piece of non-fiction filmmaking.