On a recent trip to the Trades Hall in Melbourne to view a collection of Robbie McEwan’s short films, a talented and razor-sharp film director was revealed to Bindarri.
He stems from the Humorous arm of the Save-the-planet-through-social-action School, but his work is also layered with the kind of subtlety and empathy that allow viewers to connect with the issues of our time…
and maybe instigate a bit of social action for themselves.
His latest film, Galactic Sex Wars, recently won the Selector’s Choice Award for Best Australian Short Queer Film in Celluloid Casserole from the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, which was also his ticket to the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival.
And his newest project, Climate 101, promises to clarify the science behind climate change in 7 minutes.
Lana De Jager interviewed Robbie on his return from San Francisco:
I wouldn’t say art has to have a purpose, but it does have to have meaning and for me meaning comes through engaging with the world and hopefully engaging with it in a positive way so my films do deal with issues.
They do have messages because they want to express a certain point of view or idea about something in the world rather than simply making a piece of work that’s about gratifying my arbitrary idea about what’s good art and what’s not. That being said, it’s fairly important that when you create work that contains such messages, to do it in an artful way because if you don’t, not only will that messages get lost but it would also get incredibly painful.
Nothing is as painful as artless messages. You need to balance the two. For me it’s about making something that’s artful, but also has meaning and neither of those things are in isolation.
I suppose so. It’s also a conscious decision to. One of my films deals with climate change and another with industrial relations and another again deals with the tedium of work and to tackle those issues in an earnest and serious way would be really painful and torturous.
So, yes, I think with films as a medium, if you can take those issues and present them in a way that’s entertaining and lighthearted, you’re going to have a lot more success in getting through to people.
I’m more interested in getting connected with people than getting a point across. I think a lot of art practices are self-serving and exist in this high vacuum and that’s profoundly boring.
I think I went about acquiring my knowledge and arts craft in order to communicate the things that are important rather than a means to gain employment or be famous. I’m not really interested in those things, though I would love to buy a new pair of jeans!
I didn’t have a moment or epiphany – rather I learnt it from my grandmother and my parents. My gran could’ve been a doctor or an engineer, but she didn’t have those choices. My parents always supported humanist causes.
My father was a Presbyterian minister and he was very involved in the anti-Springbok tour – the anti-apartheid movement at a time sport and politics couldn’t be separated. So being aware of social issues was part of my upbringing.
Melbourne is bigger than any city of New Zealand and there’s a depth to the arts scene and activist scene that you just can’t get in NZ and that inspires me.
I found NZ a really satisfying place to create work but it didn’t have a film school so I came over here specifically to join the VCA and now that I have a network here it seems silly to go back.
I think it’s a conceit to imagine that you can transcend where you come from so I’m a product of NZ and I really miss it, but at the same time I’m not a nationalist and I don’t have any illusions to the ‘state’ of NZ or any other state of the world or the politics that go with it.
People just don’t trust politicians and rightly so, and anytime someone appeals to patriotism I think that should make us weary and suspicious. You see how John Howard appealed to notions of what’s Australian and un-Australian things as a way of talking about right and wrong. It’s as strange as saying there’s a New Zealand-ish and an un-New Zealand-ish way of doing things!
I was making programs for National Radio in NZ and driving trains at the same time. I got back from travelling (in 2000?) and I needed to make a bit of money. I wanted to do a job that was one where you didn’t have to work close to the boss, where you had good paying conditions and a good union, and a job where I could call in sick without feeling guilty about it… a big enough organization.
So I started as a conductor and worked my way up to driving a train. You have to drive under supervision for an amount of hours to get your license before you can drive alone. It was like being the old trammy – like a community figure rather than an authority figure – giving people directions and helping.
I worked for the railways for 3 years and during that time I was writing. But there’s only so many times that you can go to the end of the line and then back before you start to wonder whether there could be anything more… at which point I decided to apply to VCA film school and got a place at the start of 2006. So I quit my job as a train driver and a week later I was starting at the VCA which was a great change.
Yeah, and it was also and excuse to show my films to my friends. I hadn’t really done that screening before. At the VCA we did some screening, but never all of our films at once and also VCA would charge a bit of money and for school purposes.
I think creativecommons is fabulous. The idea of intellectual property, while it was actually introduced to protect the author of a piece of art, it has become an obstacle to producing work and even an obstacle to generating income as well.
Intellectual Property (IP) is a really problematic notion when that property is controlled by massive corporations, who do a very good job of funneling all the income towards themselves and stopping anyone else from creating something from that IP.
IP in terms of ideas and the artistic part of IP is not that different from IP in other fields. If you look at say, the aeroplane industry in the US – there was no such thing as copyright on technology relating to aircraft in the United Sates for a long time and it was the most dynamic, profitable and cutting edge industry in the world.
When they introduced copyright all that was lost. I think that there are ways of protecting the rights of the artists but still being free with the ideas and the products that they create. Luckily, ways to replace these archaic mechanisms are emerging.
I think all this copyrighting might make people less creative or less self-expressed. It comes back to freedom. If people want to choose to copyright their work in the old rigid way, they can – it’s up to them. But before creative commons came along, there was really no way to make it possible for other people to use and share your work freely without giving up your rights altogether.
It’s of course important to retain rights to income generated from my work to make a living, but I also want people to be able to use my work if it’s done in a non-commercial way. The ideal is to share as much as possible to bring about social change.
It would be nice to make money out of my work, but when that’s not possible, I just want the work to get out there because without people seeing it, it’s dead – it may as well not have been made. My work is all about the effect it has on people rather than being some kind of artistic therapy for myself.
The idea of remixing initially makes me feel a bit weird. But I think it’s important not to be precious about it because the reality is that as soon as you put something into the world you should let go of it.
I also question the idea of authorship and my legitimacy to call all the shots because film by nature is a collaborative medium and so I may be the main driving force behind a film for a part of it but it’s certainly not a thing I individually own. It’s a product of a whole bunch of different people so maybe directors like myself should just be a bit less precious about their work and give up such a sense of ownership over what we create.
The duplication and editing power that exists now can certainly change the intention of my work… but then, once someone’s remixed it, it’s not my work any more. So although it’s not ok to exploit artists, at the same time artists need to be a little less precious about what other people do with their work, because artists don’t own what they make.
We are not able to OWN images and words and sounds. We still need to be able to survive and pay ourselves for the work that we do rather than for the product, because that product is now owned by everyone.
The films I showed at The Trades Hall are all available on www.engagemedia.org
“In the year 3069 a bitter struggle between homosexual separatists and Christian fundamentalists rages. Now only one homo star fighter remains and with it one last chance to save homokind - destroy god itself.”
Photos by katielikesdesign
The film I made that’s on Engagemedia and the protest (switch off hazelwood) that happened just a last weekend were different things and organized by a different mob, but I went last weekend. There were easily 500 people.
The film I made last year – the police officers were great – they were good cops. I think the fact that they’re usually out in the mountains with fresh air makes them quite different from people in say, a city response unit. They probably don’t have that institutionalized animosity that some urban cops have. But what was funny about the situation at Hazelwood last weekend was the diversity of responses from the police.
There were police that were incredibly petty and overly forceful and violent on one hand and then police who were quite nice and were afterwards encouraging us and giving positive feedback for putting ourselves on the line for a good cause. Still 22 people got arrested.
For me the dual imperatives of profit and growth, which are the fundamental characteristics of capitalism, are currently the biggest obstacles to creating a safe climate world and so to create a better world I think we really need to move past the paradigm of capitalism to a profoundly different economic system.
One that could be still based on trade and money but considers more than just money and growth. The thing that worries me is that I don’t think capitalism is dying. I think it’s strength is it’s ability to constantly change and remodel itself to suit whatever’s happening and you see it adapting and corrupting the environmental movement.
The dangerous thing that’s happening is that companies are holding up consumer solutions as a way to mitigate climate change – it’s ridiculous! By convincing people that the answer to our climate challenge is in sustainable consumption we’re not dealing with the actual un-sustainable problem of consumerism.
What capitalism and corporations are doing is taking people who understand the imperatives to fight climate change and convincing them that these individual consumer-based solutions can solve the problems, but when you look at the figures they just can’t. So this corporate strategy (that’s becoming the environmental status quo and it’s the one that Al Gore puts forward) is actually a suicide strategy that will lead to catastrophic climate change.
If you’ve seen ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, you’ll notice at the end they list the things you can do to help stop climate change. If every person in the world did everything on that list, we would still be headed towards catastrophic climate change. It’s a salve of conscience rather than a genuine attempt to mitigate climate change.
It’s a green wash when our environmental leaders put up things like this that are actually not going to bring about real change. Politicians put forward the soft option. Maybe they think they’re doing what needs to be done. Maybe they think that if they just introduce climate change to people in a soft way, in an approachable way and give them things to do that are not too demanding, that that will get them involved as a start and they could later ask them to take more profound and effective action to mitigate climate change.
I think that’s bullshit. We don’t have time and that’s actually just lying to people about what’s really going on. It’s patronizing and I think we should trust people enough to tell them the truth.
I don’t know if we will be able to stop a catastrophe or if we’ll have to talk about adaptation after the event instead. People who are putting forward this softly-softly approach are all about what’s realistic and what people will realistically adopt, but they don’t seem not to know what can realistically stop climate change and if we’re going to ask people to do something we may as well as them to do something that has a hope in hell of actually having an effect!
Biodiversity will get really diminished but the planet will go on. The sun might lose its heat and we might be doing this for nothing, but it’s not worth it when you think of the suffering people will have to endure if we ignore this current climate problem. It’s probably not a good idea to be nihilistic about it.
My next project is about climate change. Making an animation that will explain the science of climate change in a clear concise way to an adult audience. I met the makers of the ‘Story of Stuff’ recently in San Francisco and we had some really good discussions about this new medium of educational online animations.
My project will be similar to that but half the length and explain just the basic principles behind the science climate change. It’s a kind of entry level pathway to the hard science. I think it’s really important that for people who are making decisions about how to respond to climate change, to actually understand what’s going on.
I don’t think people at the moment generally have a good understanding of the science so the solutions that people are putting forward are either overly simplistic or rigid and don’t actually correlate to the real problem. The reality is that if we have any belief in a functioning democracy at all, then we have to be properly informed about things like the science of climate change to, as a society, make competent decisions about how to respond to that.
There were some problems with ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. For instance, it’s not free to distribute, it’s under a copyright model. It’s too long and takes a big time commitment and it has a whole lot of surrounding commentary that is not necessary for a basic understanding of the science climate change. By the time it was completed it was already out of date.
Climate 101 will be under a creative commons license, free to share and distribute, 7-10 minutes long, it will be updated as new science emerges, and it will be clear concise and engaging with scientific integrity. We’ll be able to translate it into many languages because there’ll be no live action, ie. no-one talking to the camera.
I hope, like the ‘Story of Stuff’, it can get widely distributed and be seen by as many people around the world. I think the ‘Story of Stuff’ got seen by something like 7 million viewers and it’s a 20 minute animation about the consumption cycle! So having an animation that explains the scientific principles behind the most profound challenge of our time, I think, has a high chance of success.
I got involved with The Centre for Sustainability Leadership (CSL) while working for them on a filming tour of the UK. We filmed a whole bunch of scientists and luminaries Robert Watson (ex head of the IPCC) and some inspiring activists and campaigners on climate change.
That was a really eye-opening experience and through that work I applied to the CSL course and the Future Sustainability Leaders course and I’m currently doing that. It’s great for me as an artist to be exposed to a way of thinking and an environment that’s perhaps more focused on the skills to speak and incorporate language and create business proposal for projects - which are not traditionally things that artists or film makers learn.
It’s really useful to gain those skills. It’s not a personal self-discovery course. It’s about working towards practical outcomes and knowing certain things about yourself and how you operate and where your energy is best placed. It helps you to be more effective and it helps you identify your strength but it’s not a touchly-feely course of getting in touch with your inner sustainability leader.
For CSL to work, you need to be sure you have the time to commit to it on a weekly basis. The other thing is that you’re expected to develop a project with other people, but having a clear idea of the change you want to see in the world and actually seeing how you might work towards that will help you get the most out of doing a CSL course.
[Puts tongue in cheek]
I’m going to start a Facebook group soon to convince my friends to move to New Zealand and start a survivalist compound in the back hills of the South Island. Like the ones in the US , who seem to be a bunch of nutters. They’re off the grid and can survive completely without our modern systems.
Slowly but surely the radicals of the environmental left are becoming more and more like the survivalists in the American Appellations and maybe that’s a good idea… it would be nice to go back to New Zealand and take my friends with me.
[Removes tongue from cheek]
But first I’ll create the Climate 101 animation!