Filmmaker Weaves Stories of Hope and Humanity

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Helen Newman in the editing studio. Photo credit: Natalie Ord

Albury based award winning filmmaker Helen Newman hasn’t moved far from the place she was born, but her craft has taken her across the world to bring her stories of passion to a home audience.

Border Cafe caught up with Helen to talk about her move from classical music to filmmaking; how her craft helps her to make sense of the world and why she is giving people access to two of her ‘passion projects’ for free.

Helen you trained in classical music in piano. What influenced you to move from music to film?

As a child the opportunity to be creative was in the family piano that existed in this house, and I think film making is just another form of being creative. My classical training underpins how I see film and also how I edit film.

Classical music demands rigour, and demands that you can really be in the moment, in the space for hours at a time to train; editing is like that.

Also classical music is a fine weave, especially the Baroque, so I feel like when I am telling a person’s story or a collective story that’s what I am doing – I am weaving together all of these threads. So it uses the same part of the brain in some ways. And then there is the rhythm; it’s just that sense of pacing and timing that I think my background in classical music has probably helped with that.

Shooting for Spiral Mind. Photo credit: Natalie Ord

What draws you to the stories you tell? Or do they sometimes come to you?

Sometimes they do come to me, but I am drawn to stories that are about hope and are about humanity. I think that the important element for me is that I get my sense of being okay and being empowered by feeling that I am making a difference somewhere. That I am being a force for positive change. If I wasn’t doing that I’m not sure I would be able to make sense of my world. In fact I am sure I wouldn’t be able to do this.

Two of those stories are Cambodia’s Daughter and Apna Ghar (Our Home) – how do they fit in to your film making career, and how did they come about?

What I try to do is to make a living, and then I will do what I call my ‘projects of passion’ and they’re the ones that really give me a real understanding of why I exist. They’re probably the core of why I’m a film maker because it’s giving voice to people who don’t have a voice. It’s allowing connection which is really important for me.

As to how they came about, I was advocating for some refugees: I was there as a social activist – not a filmmaker, but there was a filmmaker there. I picked up a camera and realised that that camera could be a voice for people without a voice, so that’s where it began. Giving voice is the through-line for these.

Helen in Sadr City, Iraq.

You’ve offered to make these documentaries available to groups and schools for free? What’s your thinking behind that?

The thinking behind that is wanting to gain support for the organisation that I made the films for. I spent some time with large NGOs (non-government agencies) and learned that often that’s not the best way to create change at a grass roots level. So then I decided that what I wanted to do was to create change.

If I spend my time waiting for films to be accepted for broadcast, or waiting for films, I may not make the change in the time.  I have found that the best way was to work with organisations that are passionate, honest, honourable, empathic and effective, so that’s what I do.

I give my time back to organisations that are making a big change at a very effective grass roots level, so in the end I become a part of the change agency. That’s really important to me.

(Above, a trailer for Apna Ghar)

Locally, you’ve just started a very interesting project with Wiradjuri elder, Aunty Nancy Rooke and you’re using virtual reality (VR). Can you tell us more about that project?

We’re at proof of concept stage.  What that means is that we have a couple of scenes that are almost finished in 360 and I will now take those to some funding bodies to try to get funding to finish.

I” want that to be my next storytelling tool because it is potentially so powerful and it’s going to become more and more part of our world.”

I was so not convinced about 360 film making because I saw it as potentially being an isolating process. You stick your headphones on, you throw your headset on, you’re on your own, but then I watched a couple of documentaries through the headset and my level of emotional engagement was so much greater.  I want that to be my next storytelling tool because it is potentially so powerful and it’s going to become more and more part of our world.

I was really, really lucky to have a VR company in Sydney say they were happy to take me on board, so they’ve gifted me resources and time and staff to film various scenes in 360 in VR and now we’re crafting those into a very short story.

The story centres on Auntie Nancy, her memories of growing up by the river at a time when she was living with a lot of traditional elders.

She has a lot of knowledge that is passing very quickly and my aim with this is for little Johnny to pop that headset on, and for a few minutes to be transported in some way to the world Auntie Nancy grew up in; a world where the river was clear, where the Wiradjuri mob would meet for Corroboree and trade beads and necklaces and the healing was traditional.

This is what she talks about – this lifestyle that we don’t have memory of and that our children will have even less memory of or even knowledge of.

And there’s another local person who will be the subject of a short film, A Spiral Mind that will be screened on ABC TV.

I was really thrilled to be one of eight regional filmmakers to obtain funding through Screenworks to create a short story around an artist with a disability.

Kurt is a jewellery maker who has a mental illness. He has a lot of heart expressing himself and it’s such an honour to travel with someone who lives so consciously and with good intent.

Read more about Helen’s work at nomadfilms.com.au

Schools or groups interested in screening Cambodia’s Daughters or Apna Ghar can contact Helen: [email protected]