The prized filmmaker returns to the Adelaide Film Festival with his first film in a decade.
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22 Feb 2011 - 5:26 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

After 10 long years away from filmmaking, one of Australia's finest cinematic storytellers, Bob Connolly, is finally back with a gripping new documentary and a new filmmaking partner, Sophie Raymond.

The pair's Mrs. Carey's Concert was chosen as the gala opening night film at the Adelaide Film Festival on February 24. It's a rare honour for a documentary but one that reflects the high regard in which Connolly's work is held within the Australian film community (as well as the investment made by the festival in the doco's production).

The film traces the epic struggle of a group of female school students from Sydney girls' school, MLC, to stage a biennial classical concert in the intimidating setting of the Sydney Opera House. It shows that none of Connolly's powers of observation and innate sense of drama has diminished since his previous documentary, Facing the Music (2001).

The earlier film was co-directed by Connolly's long-term professional and personal partner, Robin Anderson, with whom he'd also made the classic political study Rats in The Ranks (1996) and the acclaimed PNG Trilogy (First Contact, Joe Leah's Neighbours and Black Harvest). But in 2002 Anderson died from cancer. In the wake of the tragedy Connolly did not feel like continuing as a filmmaker and concentrated on bringing up his two daughters, who at the time of their mother's death were only 10 and 14 years of age.

“I couldn't imagine replicating what we had together because it was so wonderful; it was such a terrific way to work,” Connolly says of his disinclination to make another film without Anderson. But slowly things changed. In 2004, he met Raymond, a professional animator and collaborator of Adam 'Harvey Krumpet' Elliot, at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam.

The following year he was asked by his girls' school, MLC, to make a video documenting its Biennial concert at the Opera House. Impressed by the fact the school had three resident composers, he was also struck by the extraordinary level of performance attained by the young musicians. Two years later he came back and filmed the concert again, only this time he also attended rehearsals and saw the extreme level of detail that went into the preparation.

After writing the self-explanatorily titled book, Making Black Harvest (which went onto win a Walkley Award and the NSW Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction), he decided to document the preparations for the 2009 concert as a full-scale, feature length documentary, which took 18 months of filming and many months of editing to complete. By this stage his children had grown older, he recalls. “I was coming out of the tunnel, and had someone who I respected who I could make a film with. It was do-able. Because you just can't make films on your own – not at that level of complexity.”

Footage of the Brahms Violin Concerto from the 2007 event opens the film, providing the curtain raiser for the next concert, which he and Raymond documented with the full co-operation of the school management, staff and pupils.

The result revolves around the struggles of three key players. The first is the eponymous music director Karen Carey, a strong individual who believes in setting high artistic standards and driving her most talented girls to reach them. She emerges as a colourful character in the tradition of Leichhardt mayor Larry Hand (Rats) Joe Leahy (Joe Leahy's Neighbours; Black Harvest) and Anne Boyd (Facing the Music).

Connolly recalls that when he first met Carey he was visiting the school as a parent. He asked a woman on an exercise bicycle if she knew where he might find her. “You've found her. Now who the hell might you be?” she demanded of the taken-aback filmmaker.

The other main 'players' are two Chinese-Australian pupils – Emily Sun, the unconfident and troubled girl picked to play the role of lead violin in the demanding Bruch's Violin Concerto. The second is the rebellious Iris Shi, a reluctant member of the chorus who insists on disrupting rehearsals at every stage.

Though it may look as if Connolly and Raymond fell into the subject for this film, the decision to proceed was made with rigour. Connolly once said the most important thing about making a documentary is finding the right subject. It has to be interesting enough to carry a 90-minute film and be worth spending two years of his life on, and those situations aren't that easy to find.

Speaking from his and Raymond's home in the inner-Sydney suburb of Glebe, Connolly tells SBS Film the situations his human subjects find themselves in have to be “intrinsically interesting” with a strong sense of drama. “We've been unbelievably lucky,” he says of his earlier work with Anderson. “Also, a lot of scenarios we pulled out of because there wasn't enough happening,” he adds, citing a film about the conflict between an Asian businessman and a tribal elder in Fiji he once spent three months preparing to film before he dropped it, realising one of the pair “wasn't that interesting.” Instead he made Rats in the Ranks, after getting involved in a local campaign around a youth hostel and meeting Leichhardt's larger than life mayor, Larry Hand. “I thought, 'this bloke's interesting',” he recalls.

Another happy accident was a chance phone conversation with Anne Boyd, then head of the music department at Sydney University. Connolly had planned to make a film about her struggles as a composer but had dropped it as not dramatic enough. He rang her a year later. When she said, “I don't need to be at work tomorrow, they keep cutting my budget,” he realised a film was there after all. It would just be different to the one he'd previously envisaged.

As Raymond points out, in Connolly's films the central characters are quite public. He adds that other essential characteristics are that they “actually have a conflict, and are flawed and articulate without being pretentious.”

That he's made two films in a row centred on classical music can hardly be an accident, so what's happening there? “I just love music, films about classical musicians,” he says. “To play to a professional level takes an astonishing process of concentration, ability, courage, and so on. In Facing the Music we were able to use the kids' performances almost as a character. They act as a multiplier of the emotional stakes.

You might imagine filmmaking getting easier for Connolly given his level of experience – before becoming an independent filmmaker he made 30 documentaries for the ABC – but he says Mrs. Carey's Concert was a lot harder to make than all the others. The pupils were already stretched in terms of their time and commitment at the school, which meant that on most days, he and Raymond had a window of only 45 minutes in which to film them.

The most dramatic material happened within three weeks of the start of filming. Emily, the girl chosen to be lead violinist, got into trouble – an episode skipped over lightly in the editing. “It was quite a messy time – in the film we just allude to it,” Connolly says, adding, “There was no way that someone was going to suffer” (from being in the film). Another pupil emerged as a rival to Emily and it seemed the competition between the two would be the dramatic lynchpin. That plan bit the dust when the girl left the school.

Filming young women at such an influential stage of their lives meant the filmmakers had to be sensitive about what could and could not be used. Lots of material was shot that couldn't possibly be used for ethical reasons. Connolly says the line was “fairly clear” between respecting the sensitivities of subjects and respecting the strength of dramatic events.

The rebel, Iris, came into it later, when the rest of the students (those outside of the core instrumentalist group) began rehearsing for the concert's choral parts. She quickly became the focus of resistance among girls uninterested in the rigours of classical music.

“With all the other films the narrative line was quite clear,” Connolly says. But this time “the editing took months of hard analytical work to get right” – something that only came into focus when the four-hour rough cut assembly was whittled down to 120 minutes (the final edit is roughly 90 minutes). “It was far and away the hardest editing job I've been involved with.”

There was at least half a dozen side issues they filmed that could have made good films on their own. But Raymond – who says her work as an animator had covered pretty much all professional bases - proved in her partner's view to be a very good editor. Towards the end, two experienced editors came in, including Nick Meyers, who had worked on The Boys (1998) and Balibo (2009), both directed by the Australian film industry's other renowned Connolly, Robert (often confused with his doco-making namesake).

At the time of writing, the filmmakers were trying to arrange a cinema release – something all Connolly's previous films have enjoyed – and coming face to face with the changed realities of independent film exhibition in the 2010s. They were not about to give up lightly. In the meantime, Mrs. Carey's Concert will screen on the ABC (which was a major investor), probably before the end of 2011.


Update
: Mrs. Carey's Concert has since gained a commercial season at the Cinema Nova in Melbourne, starting April 28.

For more information on the film visit www.mrscareysconcert.com