Our objective has been to raise awareness about the issue of youth homelessness in Australia, through the production of a feature documentary, and the establishment of an independent National Youth Commission, culminating in the release of a comprehensive report to accompany the film.
There are many compelling and powerful stories that need to be to be told. I believe the key to good documentary film making is getting access into worlds where cameras rarely tread -- or if they have in the past, they have only scratched the surface of that world. When a great documentary comes together apparently seamlessly on the screen, I feel audiences have a tendency to take it for granted that the film just happened. They rarely take time to consider how it was filmed or the struggle the filmmakers may have had to capture each frame and every step taken to get it made. When we see a powerful observational film about the ravages of war, we rarely pause to consider how the brave and embattled documentary film crew captured it on screen. Or if we see an intimate film about a close-knit family where a father is accused of murder, we typically take the access for granted, and, despite the dire circumstances, assume that getting approval to film the family and the courtroom process was simply a matter of turning up. Getting permission to film at most locations, and convincing subjects to appear in a documentary, can be an extremely sensitive and exhaustive process. On more occasions than not, access is simply not granted.
The art of great observational documentary making takes enormous patience. Documentary filmmakers do not arrive on set and simply shout "action". They have to wait for events to unravel, and there is never any guarantee that they will. Stories may take weeks and months to unfold -- sometimes years. Characters take time to open up to the camera; time needs to pass for a relationship of trust to be created between filmmaker and subject. Subjects often change their mind mid-course, wanting to be in the film one day, and divorced from it the next. Characters are often literally hard to find, there is no call-sheet, no time to be on set -- it only happens because the filmmaker is there day in day out, with camera at the ready to observe the action.
Armed from the outset with an understanding of the challenges of observational documentary filmmaking, we knew that making a film about homeless youth would come with all sorts of challenges. But nothing could have prepared us for the journey that we were about to embark upon.
I had known Paul Moulds for about 10 years. Paul is a Captain with the Salvation Army and manager of the Oasis youth refuge in Sydney. Having been on a variety of voluntary boards and committees with the Salvation Army during the Nineties, Paul asked me to set up a new Management Advisory Board at Oasis in 1998. Over the five year period I was involved with Oasis, before leaving the board at the end of 2003 to live overseas, I witnessed a side of Australia that I thought no longer existed. How could the so called "Lucky Country" so readily sweep the problem of youth homelessness under the mat, and so easily pretend the issue had disappeared? Why was the community not more engaged and aware of the issue? When I returned to Australia in 2005 it was evident that little had improved, and I thought the best way to do something about the problem was to raise awareness through a documentary.
By mid-2005 the pre-production process for creating the documentary The Oasis had begun. From the outset we wanted to make a film that was capable of making a social impact, to contextualise the issues and show some of the solutions to dealing with the problem. We wanted to film over at least a one year period, hopefully two, and we needed to see change, the struggle, the highs and lows along the way, and how these kids coped with the daily challenge and grind of living on the streets. Whilst there are many dedicated social workers across Australia, our challenge was to find not only someone who would let us into their world, but also someone so extraordinary that he could inspire a generation of Australians to do something about youth homelessness. Knowing Paul and having seen what was on offer at Oasis several years earlier, this seemed like the perfect place to start.
I have been attracted to making films about remarkable individuals, mavericks in their own worlds, from all walks of life, and Captain Paul Moulds was one of these people. I don't think I have been so humbled or impressed by the work of any single individual ever before. Paul is an extraordinary man -- one of the great unsung heroes in this country, who quietly goes about his daily work, with no other agenda, other than trying to save the lives of the desperately unfortunate young street kids. Paul has an unending commitment to the youth homeless problem -- any lesser soul would run a mile, with hands in the air, raising the white flag, and simply put this all into the 'too hard basket'. It takes a rare individual to tackle the toughest problems in society, day-in day-out. Paul was the perfect central character for our film! An added bonus was meeting Paul's wife Robbin, also a Captain with the Salvation Army. Robbin would soon become another important character in the film, both as a major support base to Paul, and an extraordinary member of the Salvation Army, caring for the less fortunate members of the community every day of the year. Indeed the type of raw talent that documentary filmmakers could only dream of.
The Oasis refuge in inner Sydney was the ideal location to make the film. It is a mixing pot of hundreds of street kids, a central meeting place, and a refuge with a compendium of care, where a variety of services are offered to try and give these kids a sense of hope and enough tools to try and get them back on the right track. Oasis attracts some of the most damaged and troubled kids in Australia, with a mix of drug and alcohol related problems, many of whom have been physically or sexually abused, some with mental health problems, and others with a long history of crime. Virtually all of them lacking in stable home environments, devoid of love and affection. Paul and the team at Oasis are often the only family in their lives.
In mid-2005, my business partner at Shark Island Productions and Senior Editor, Sally Fryer, and I wrote an initial treatment and synopsis for the film. We then commenced discussions with Paul Moulds about the concept of a longitudinal documentary to be filmed over a year or two at Oasis. Paul immediately saw the potential of such a film and collectively we started to prepare all of the information required to obtain the many layers of permission we needed before filming could commence. Our aim was to get this phase completed before the end of the year so that principal photography could commence in early 2006. Without the formal approval of the Salvation Army we simply wouldn't be able to film at Oasis. Despite regular requests to film at their centres, the Salvos are extremely protective of any outside interference, primarily due to the strong duty of care they feel for all of their clients and staff.
We presented the documentary concept to Commissioner Les Strong, head of the Eastern Territory at the Salvation Army, and also to Commissioner Jim Knaggs in the Southern Territory. They immediately saw the potential of the film for raising the community's awareness of a significant problem with homeless youth, and have been constant supporters of the project ever since. We took our proposal to the full Council of the Salvation Army in Sydney, and to their Advisory Board, who also gave us their unanimous support. The key for us was to clearly show our intent, highlight the safeguards we had in place, explain the longitudinal and involving nature of the film, and present the extensive Outreach and Education campaign we had planned upon completion of the documentary. We then presented to the Oasis Advisory Board and to the staff and management at Oasis. This meeting with the staff was especially crucial, as without their support and trust, the project would have little chance of success. After a long session, faced with a wall of considered questions, the staff too gave the thumbs up and filming was ready to commence.
During the second half of 2005 Sally and I conducted a number of film tests at Oasis. We explored a variety of ways to capture and involve the clients at Oasis. Initially we thought we would get a collection of the kids to assist us with the filming and sound, as there were some very talented kids hanging around eager and willing to help. However, we soon discovered that their circumstances changed dramatically on a daily basis, and that the challenge of capturing the film would be even greater than we originally anticipated. The demands on the film crew would be such that a dedicated professional was necessary. We required someone who was willing to sacrifice a few years of their life to the project, who was capable of immersing themselves in the daily lives of these kids, in order to make the film as far as possible from their perspective. We clearly needed an experienced and dedicated observational cinematographer in order to proceed and take the project to a whole new level.
Production and Filming
As luck would have it, Sascha Ettinger Epstein entered our lives and we were able to proceed. Sally introduced me to Sascha, who had directed the highly successful documentary Painting With Light in a Dark World about the street photographer Peter Darren Moyle. We were also familiar with her documentary Sentences, which she filmed in Long Bay Gaol about an art program for a number of the prisoners. Sascha clearly was not afraid to go to places others would fear to tread. Without the skill, dedication and commitment of Sascha, the project would probably not have proceeded in its current direction. Sascha soon became a part of the team as Director of Photography and Co-Director of the documentary (see Director's Statement).
Sascha, Sally and I all agreed that this should be an observational documentary with no narration or formal interview-style commentary. We had long been fans of the Drew/Maysles/Pennebaker school of observational documentary filmmaking, and from the outset felt that the audience needed to get close to the action and see it for themselves. As filmmakers we wanted to be invisible and give the audience a raw and confronting glimpse of life on the streets, without being told by a narrator how they should feel or what they should look at. We identified all of the issues we wanted to raise in the film, and all of the community misconceptions we wanted to clarify (such as "it's their choice to be homeless", and "young girls who are street workers sell themselves because they want to"). Again we wanted the characters to bring out the issues and themes through observing their lives and getting a greater understanding of their past, rather than simply being told the facts.
We also acknowledged that the most effective way to capture the stories from the street was with a film crew of one and at most two. This placed significant demands on Sascha, who filmed most of the 250 hours of footage. With the aid of a string of radio microphones, she was able to capture an intimacy on film and develop a level of trust with the subjects that a standard film crew would never have been able to achieve. I tried to cover and assist as a second unit camera where possible, however Sascha established an incredible relationship with the kids and captured many hours of outstanding footage. So much of the power of this film is due to the courage of Sascha and her persistence and professionalism, day and night, week after week. (See Sascha's Director of Photography's Statement).
The Editing Process
The editing phase of The Oasis (from initial digitising and logging to picture lock-off) took place over two years, and in some ways was as exhaustive and gruelling as the filming process. Sally and I had worked together on Woodstock for Capitalists, Alone Across Australia and In the Company of Actors. However, these earlier films were shot over a far more contained period, and editing commenced after the filming process was complete. This edit would be different, as material would be digitised in real time, and would help us determine who to follow and what stories to develop along the way. The key was to find an approach that would allow us to digest the volume of footage we needed to get through, and that would be workable for Sally, knowing that she would be dealing with two directors, Sascha and I, in the edit suite. Sally developed a process where we would put all of the characters into separate bins, and all of the events and locations in other bins. Over the two and a half year film shoot about 40 street kids were interviewed and followed. For the first 18 months we really were unsure as to how many of the characters would (be able to) make it into the final cut. Even in the early days we knew the final editing decisions were going to be extremely difficult, as every one of the kids had a compelling story to tell. Most had a different reason for being at Oasis, and most of them were searching for a different path out. With the enormous volume of footage to digitise, and Sally's additional commitment of completing In the Company of Actors during most of 2006, we were lucky to be able to engage Hilary Balmond as our Assistant Editor. Hilary was able to work effectively on the footage and assist with Sally's process of editing characters into bins, which ensured that the wheels in the editing suite were turning virtually non stop. Hilary provided us with another objective set of eyes, and was a big contributor to the editing process. Sally, with the assistance of Hilary, has worked wonders in the cutting room. (See Sally's Editor's Statement).
The first very rough assembly of the film was about 8 hours. Some of the individual characters' stories were as long as 9 hours, whilst others were as short as 6 minutes. Sally, as always, was very structured and organised in her approach to the edit, and we mapped out the entire storyline on the pin board. Although this would change hundreds of times over the edit, it acted as a guide for weaving all of the intricate stories together and culling the characters and story lines. Sally, Sascha and I all had our favorite characters, and in many instances these did not always overlap. We knew that the film would only sustain about six of the kids’ storylines -- but with our short list down to about 15, we knew there would be some robust conversations to be had along the way. As it turned out, we reached agreement on the final character list reasonably easily. So much of it depended on the extent and depth of the story, and ultimately the issues presented through individual characters. Whilst everyone had a compelling story in reality, in some instances two characters told virtually the same story, so we cut the character who did not fit as well, or was not as sympathetic with the composition of the film.
Our rough-cut assembly gradually came down from 8 hours to 4, then even more slowly from 3 to 2. Once we had the cut at around 2 hours we held a number of test screenings to gauge the impact of the film. Our audiences were a blend of experienced filmmakers, social workers, friends, members of the Salvation Army and a selection of the staff at Oasis. These screenings were incredibly effective in assisting us with narrowing down characters and refining the stories of each character. At the end of the first screening the audience could not move -- we had focused too much on the really hard and confronting elements of the footage, at the expense of the uplifting moments, that would ultimately leave the audience with a feeling of redemption and hope. Test screenings can be brutal; as filmmakers we are opening ourselves up to raw criticism. Sometimes it is not all that easy to take, and after every screening, no matter how positive the reaction, we all felt extremely flat. We always picked ourselves up off the floor the next day and kept pushing forward to make a better film.
The editing phase can be the most wonderful part of documentary filmmaking, when the film actually finally feels like it is coming together and getting made, yet it can also be the most challenging. As we discovered over the long edit, involving intense days, many late nights, weekends, and unplanned erosion of holiday time, the team handled the process with amazing spirit. Even in the darkest days, when a team of lawyers and barristers advised us that we needed to remove several characters from the film, the dedicated team at Shark island Productions never gave up on the quest to make the best possible film. This has been one of the great edits!
Susan MacKinnon joined the team as Executive Producer early in the process, and has played an instrumental role throughout the production process. Susan instigated the ABC's involvement with the documentary and has been the main contact point with all of the various ABC documentary, legal, distribution and publicity executives. Susan prepared the final budgets and negotiated all of the broadcast agreements. She has also been actively involved with all of our test screenings and it has been invaluable to have fresh eyes on each new cut of the project. There can be a tendency for us in the edit suite (as directors and editors) to get a bit too close to the project, and Susan has played a classic EP role in providing a guiding hand and sound, fresh advice by being one step removed from the daily editing process. Susan's experience and steady hand has been invaluable over the course of this long documentary project. (See Susan's Executive Director's Statement).
Mary Macrae and Isabel Perez have been the Line Producers on the project, sharing the responsibility over the last three years. Isabel worked on the pre-production and principal photography phase and Mary focused on the post-production and Outreach and Education. Both played a significant role in getting the many layers of the project completed. This has been an extremely challenging production, involving significant permissions, location approvals, police negotiations, release forms, account payments, post-production bookings, film supplies, and the ordering of hundreds and hundreds of AAA batteries for the remote microphones on the film shoot. Flexibility, spontaneity, and long and short-term planning all come into play with a long observational shoot, and Isabel and Mary did not miss a beat. (See Mary and Isabel's Line Producers' Statement)
Filmmaking is a very collaborative process. It is when all of the elements start to come together that it really gets exciting. As we were developing our final cuts of the film we bought Music Composer Felicity Fox into the process. Felicity spent time getting to know and understand the characters and the story, ultimately creating a brilliant soundtrack for the film. Felicity was incredibly patient with us, as the cuts kept changing and new characters presented along the way. Sascha, Sally and I had many sessions in the studio with Felicity, discussing every element of the music until we all were totally satisfied that it provided the right impact and balance of emotions throughout. (See Felicity’s Music Composer's Statement).
Annelie Chapple again established a very real, yet beautiful look and feel for the film in the colour grade. Mike Gissing and Kimmy Sekel worked wonders with the sound mix, and captured the real sounds of the street that we required. Our production accountants, Michael Hanavan, Patricia Pedersen and Basia Gadja kept all accounts with great efficiency and provided invaluable support for the project, ensuring the project stayed within budget at all times.
We commenced discussions with the ABC in the last half of 2007. We wanted to get them on board as a partner because we truly wanted the film to have as big an impact nationally as possible, they were an obvious choice given the enormous reach of their audience around Australia. With our planned Outreach and Education campaign, it would be a major boost if the ABC could embrace the project, and not only screen the film but raise the issue of youth homelessness extensively through their radio network and online resources. Our initial contact was with Stuart Menzies and Dasha Ross. Both immediately saw the potential of this film for social change, and luckily also saw its potential as an engaging documentary for an ABC audience. The ABC wanted to establish the documentary as an "event" program, which would combine the national screening of the documentary with a live panel discussion to follow. Dasha came on board as the ABC's Commissioning Editor, and during the edit played an invaluable role in assisting us to shape the documentary for a broadcast audience. It was a great collaboration for us, and Dasha provided constant support for the project at every level.
Outreach and Education
The Outreach and Education component has always been an important element of this production. With a commitment from The Caledonia Foundation to donate the DVD to every secondary school in Australia it was important to enhance the documentary with a rich educational website and study guide and a summary of the homeless report.
Our designer, Rachel Dight, designed a beautiful and powerful set of images for the website, DVD cover, poster, and designed the homeless report; again working exhaustively for us under difficult circumstances as we failed to meet any of her delivery deadlines. We had worked with Andrew Thompson and Carol Constancon (and Rachel) on designing and creating the website for the Documentary Australia Foundation and the documentary In the Company of Actors. For The Oasis they again created a brilliant website to accommodate our Outreach and Education campaign and make a user-friendly, accessible and relevant site for the full array of users. Again we used the resources of Peter Tapp and the team at ATOM to create the study guide and distribute the DVD to all the schools.
The National Youth Commission (NYC) Report
During the initial months of filming it became apparent that we had a very powerful film in the making. Whilst we were focusing on an inner-city shelter in Sydney, we also believed that the problems and issues facing these kids were representative of the issues facing kids all around Australia. We felt the film could be even more powerful, and act as a real catalyst for social change in Australia if it were backed up by a comprehensive report about the situation of homeless kids throughout the nation. We hoped that our potentially powerful documentary would not be set aside as being too sensationalistic, or Sydney-centric. With the aid of a new independent factual report, we hoped to back-up the often heart-rending individual stories of our documentary with the facts and figures, highlighting the full extent of the youth homeless problem right around Australia. Paul Moulds suggested we contact Professor David Mackenzie, who for many years had been an authority on youth homelessness and a collator of the census figures for the Government. Paul and I met with David and brainstormed a plan. David felt the best approach for gathering all of the information for a report was by setting up an independent National Youth Commission (NYC) into Australia's homeless youth, to be conducted around Australia. It would be a similar model to the Burdekin Human Rights Commission and report 20 years earlier.
The NYC set up a team of Commissioners led by David Mackenzie and David Eldridge. They held hearings in every capital city and major regional centres throughout the country. From the hundreds of submissions they received from social workers, community leaders, homeless youths, and from government officials from Federal, State and Territory Departments, a comprehensive picture of the Australian landscape was prepared. This has resulted in a major report with recommendations for government and the welfare sector to consider. (See www.nyc.org.au for the complete report).
The Caledonia Foundation
In addition to the DVD donation program, establishing a National Youth Commission has required a significant funding commitment. We were again able to draw on the financial resources of The Caledonia Foundation, which I chair. My Caledonia partners, Mark Nelson and Will Vicars, and fellow Board members helped guide and implement a plan to fully fund the NYC and the preparation of the report by way of a philanthropic grant. The Executive Directors of The Caledonia Foundation, Fiona Higgins and Penny Richards, have overseen and monitored the process on a weekly basis, and played an invaluable role in coordinating the report and documentary at every step since day one. Having their industry expertise has added significant value to both the report and documentary, and highlights the role that a small private philanthropic foundation can play in attempting to cause real social change in the Australian community. The ability to partner with a professional team from a philanthropic foundation in this process of creating a documentary and report cannot be underestimated. (See Fiona Higgins’ Statement from The Caledonia Foundation -- www.caledoniafoundation.com.au).
Our objective has been to release the documentary and report as a package and for the two to complement each other. In addition to funding the NYC and the report, The Caledonia Foundation has funded the Outreach and Education component of the documentary. This involved the funding of a study guide, a comprehensive website, and the donation of the DVD of The Oasis documentary to every secondary school in Australia.
The Salvation Army
Ultimately this project could only happen because of the contract of trust between the Salvation Army and us as filmmakers. We treated this contract very seriously and tried never to abuse it. It has been very important to communicate with as many members of The Salvation Army as possible during filming and post-production. Whilst our project is totally independent, we always thought it was vital to also involve the Salvos as much as possible in the Outreach and Education process, in order to maximize the film and report’s overall impact. This has resulted in many presentations by us about the project, together with advanced screenings of the documentary. The faith and trust that has been shown towards us by The Salvation Army at every level has been unending, and most humbling for us as filmmakers and project organisers.
We have always had the best interests of the kids at heart. Some of the kids did not want to participate in the film and we totally respected this. We needed to obtain formal releases from everyone in the film, which we did, but also asked them all along the way if they still wanted to take part in the film, and asked specifically on camera why they wanted to be a part of the film. We were delighted by the level of support we received from the kids throughout the process. Many of them said their main motivation was to give homeless kids a voice. They wanted to help others to stay out of trouble and to raise awareness in the community about their own challenges. Others saw this as a great opportunity to help Paul. Some even just liked the idea of potentially being on television. We wanted this to be a totally honest account of life on the streets, but did not want to go beyond our own established duty of care guidelines. At times the cameras were turned off for safety reasons, or because one of the workers thought the camera could inflame a situation, or because the police requested it, or because the footage would have incriminated one of the kids.
This is a philanthropic project. 100% of the proceeds from any sale (television broadcast, cinema) are being donated to The Salvation Army in Australia. We hope that the combination of a documentary, report and extensive Outreach and Education campaign will assist the battle to put youth homelessness back on the agenda, and to finally get something done about the extensive problem. Perhaps by the year 2030 no child in Australia will live in poverty!