A battle over St Kilda's foreshore led to an unexpected rise in community activism.
5 Oct 2011 - 1:19 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Nestled between the Esplanade and the St Kilda foreshore, bordered by the heritage listed Palais Theatre, the St Kilda Triangle is Crown Land owned by the State Government for the people of Victoria. When the local council and developers hatched a plan for a $300 million development on the Triangle that would include 180 shops, a hotel, a supermarket, eight cinemas, a gallery and 5,000-patron bars, St Kilda residents became grass roots activists in a David vs. Goliath battle.

My friend and colleague, Rosie Jones, directed and edited The Triangle Wars, a documentary produced by Lizzette Atkins and Peter George. All three are residents of St Kilda and were deeply passionate about the suburb's proposed development. “Lizzette went to a meeting at the Palais Theatre,” Rosie says. “It was the first time the developer had presented the plans in public and people just erupted. It was so passionate and emotional. There was grief, tears and screaming. From that point on, Lizzette and Peter started the film.”

The community's sense of injustice was clear from the very first meeting, when only one out of 100 presenters supported the plans. The council's six-week deliberation period enabled the community to unite into an organised force. “People felt connected to each other,” Rosie says. “There were all sorts of relationships that happened. People suddenly started volunteering their skills. Artists like Mirka Mora and Greg Irvine did paintings that were used to raise funds and there were film nights to raise money. Leading up to the election, the pace just picked up and became more and more exciting.”

Over a three-year process, the filmmakers captured the momentum of community opposition to the Triangle development and the council, including the council elections and the eventual outcome of the plans. Rosie and her team had access to all the major players involved in the battle – the protestors, the council members and the developers – and they made considerable efforts to establish trust with all sides. “I think at the beginning they were wary, as many people are, of filmmakers. It was a matter for Lizzette and Peter to establish that they were trustworthy with everyone, including the councillors and the community. Everyone needed to know that it was a film being made with integrity. That what they said would go no further.”

Extended access to the councillors, in particular flamboyant and outspoken Cr. Dick Gross and developer Steve MacMillan, as well as the protestors themselves, enabled a narrative of a universal battle between residents and commercial interests. “The councillors are publicly elected figures so I guess they feel a responsibility to speak to their constituents — but they went way beyond that,” Jones reflects, “particularly Dick. He's very open, perhaps to his own detriment at times, and he takes it very seriously. He's been known as an outspoken person for all of his public life.”

“In fact, none of the people in the film were like politicians in that they try not to say anything. They were all very frank. We were very lucky that Steve McMillan is a developer who says what he thinks. From his point of view, he'd done nothing wrong. He was arguing for his submissions and following the guidelines.”

Although the filmmaking team had their own, clear views on the development, their aim with The Triangle Wars, was to explore all sides of the argument. “If we wanted to make a protestors' film, we would have spent more time with each of the core group of protestors because they are all interesting people. We decided that wasn't the film we wanted to make. We wanted something that was much more balanced, complex and layered.”

The Triangle Wars is in cinemas from October 6. For more information visit Antidote Films.