A few weeks ago, Australian actor and filmmaker Damon Gameau, who has just won the AACTA for his first feature-length documentary That Sugar Film, opened the 2015 Tropfest Roughcut series to talk about resilience and the importance of continuing to create in the face of challenges.
Gameau spoke to SBS Movies about the effects – positive and negative – winning Tropfest in 2011 has had on his career, and what led him to write, direct and be the protagonist in That Sugar Film, in which he offers himself as guinea pig in an experiment to prove the tragic effects of sugars hidden in our everyday "healthy" foods, like fruit juice, low-fat yoghurts and cereals.
Damon Gameau, who has enjoyed a successful career as an actor in acclaimed movies such as The Tracker (2002), Balibo (2009), as well as in TV with Love My Way, Underbelly, won Tropfest in 2011 with Animal Beatbox, a catchy stop-motion animation of cutout animals produced for a grand total of $85. To his surprise, Gameau won the top prize, but he quickly faced backlash when other filmmakers accused him of having plagiarised their videos.
Despite being deeply affected by the controversy, Gameau learnt how to get past it: "It really steeled my resolve and inspired me to make more things. [...] It made me realise it’s not ever as big a deal as you think it is in your own head, and once it’s happened, you just get through it, you move on and you make your next thing."
Far from discouraging him, his Tropfest experience pushed him to continue telling his own stories, something he had aspired since working as an actor alongside acclaimed directors: "I was lucky enough that my first ever film as an actor was with Rolf de Heer (The Tracker). He was just fantastic, I really got to learn what filmmaking can be, the amount of integrity that it can have, and how it can affect people and influence people’s lives. Same with Robert Connolly when I made Balibo: I found that a very enriching experience again, to see what role film can play, even into a political agenda."
Dameau's film certainly managed to strike a chord with the audience, and since its release last year, That Sugar Film has become the highest grossing documentary in Australia and New Zealand of all time and has been shown in various parliaments and schools around the country. As he was himself about become a parent with partner Zoe Tuckwell-Smith, Gameau endeavoured to make his film as entertaining for children as possible, with fun graphics and animations.
"The topic of sugar lets you really push the boundaries, and sugar as an aesthetics is really colourful and rich, like Willy Wonker. But also I knew that we really wanted to get this message to children and to families. [...] We really wanted to make sure we made it as broad and commercial as possible, so that people out there who wouldn’t normally see documentaries like this would actually go and watch it."
He also managed to enlist the help of famous faces like Hugh Jackman, Stephen Fry to star in humourous sketches peppered along the movie, a task which turned out surprinsingly easy: "I think they really responded to what we were trying to do, they could see the intention of the film was to get through families and kids. I think everyone was really aware that increasingly children are getting obese, children are getting Type II Diabetes, and we have to do something about that, because that’s a bit of a failing on our part, our generation – we kind of let those kids down a bit."
Despite already working on new ideas for his next documentary, Gameau feels that the health and food world will always be part of life: "I’ve learnt so much about nutrition in the last few years, it’s very hard to walk away from it, so I’ll certainly pursue a couple of ideas that have already come to me, or have been offered in terms of that space, but at the same time I work on another project that absolutely nothing to do with food."
Looking back on his experience, the advice he would give to a young filmmaker is to really believe in one's project: "It’s very important that you’re very passionate and committed to the story you want to tell, because you will face some challenges and you might try and get knocked off your path, so you really have to believe in what you’re doing."
Having worn many hats while working on his film, Gameau realised that it was also really important to embrace collaboration: "Sometimes you want to go it alone, and we think we know what’s best, but really the key is to surround yourself with very open-minded and talented people that also share your vision. It just makes the whole process a lot more enjoyable, and when you can share it all together and all combine and tell a story on the same page, then you feel it’s gonna be much better for it."