Some of the better selling videos available from ABC Shops are compilations of stunning environmental imagery - largely from the archives of the Natural History Unit - edited to a classical music soundtrack. Sunlit waves dissolve to a spectacular sky of golden clouds as Beethoven swells and crashes in the background, pastoral passages introduce fields of wildflowers or schools of colourful fish. 'Visual wallpaper' according to David Jowsey of ABC TV's Indigenous Programs Unit. Jowsey is Executive Producer of Empire, a film in which director Michael Riley has also combined natural images with a music soundtrack, but for the sake of a 'political' message rather than relaxation.
The first indication of Empire's more challenging conceptual framework is the opening shot: a panoramic blue Australian sky is half-mixed with a staring human eye. A succession of stark outlines and primary colours is observed by that eye in the sky - ancient time, recurring seasons and intuitions of the Dreaming emerge from the landscape's vivid textures. Ants in the red dust, soaring eagles, bleached bones and inland lakes are juxtaposed with religious symbols and colonial references.
Along with Ivan Sen's Journey and Katriona McKenzie's Box, Empire was produced and broadcast as ABC TV's contribution to 1997's Festival of the Dreaming. Although Empire differs from the other two films in that it features no images of people, only disembodied hands and eyes, Jowsey sees Riley's vision of landscape as conveying an important social message.
Riley himself sees that message as clear; although compromised by white culture, particularly Christianity, Aboriginal connection with the land is connection with a living spirit and as such will always regenerate. A long close-up of sun bleached, cracked clay being soaked by rain provides an almost tactile affirmation of this truth - one can smell the heat and dust, and sense the relief of the earth as individual raindrops splash in the dirt.
The shot holds for a dangerously long time - from the impact of the first raindrop until the clay turns to mud. This stylistic courage helps Riley avoid cliché and predictability - neither his images nor his message, after all, are new. It is not surprising to learn that he directed Empire according to a detailed story-board - Riley is an acclaimed still photographer. The opening frames of each shot are classically, conventionally composed; it is in the subsequent graceful, yet unpredictable, camera movements that his skills as a film maker are revealed. Rather than working in the service of familiar narrative imperatives, the camera takes its own time and follows its own instincts in exploration of things-in-themselves. A wonderfully fluid crane shot tracks down and around a dead tree. An achingly slow pan, from an old wooden fence stretching archetypally into the distance, follows the soft focus horizon to an empty frame suffused by quiet, brown light. To share in Riley's communion with this landscape we need to respond from our own silence.
In finding that silence we are aided by the absorbing score of composer Anthony Partos - delicately paced, softly industrial sounds enhanced by layered choral lines that would not be out of place in liturgical chant or contemporary trance. In 1997, then Commissioning Editor Paul Grabowsky had envisaged three films driven by sound as being the ABC's contribution to Festival of the Dreaming. For Empire, Jowsey commissioned a score from Supersonic, a new wave film music production company of which Partos is a founding member. In a model of contemporary artistic cooperation Riley then story-boarded and shot Empire, after which the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra recorded the soundtrack to a live playback of the film's pre-edited images. The overall result typifies the polished interpretative work for which this small orchestra is increasingly sought by Australian and international film and television producers.
Towards the end of Empire, representations of earth, water, fire and air dissolve into a portrait of the Virgin and Christ child set against a starry blue sky - an image once common on cards handed out at Catholic Sunday Schools, or in the homes of pious Italian immigrants. I would have expected such an image to be confronted, even mocked, by the power of the Australian landscape. It's not. The background blends with the blue of desert skies and inland lakes, the reds and greys and golds find echoes in the plumage of a dead rosella and the faith in Mary's uplifted eyes resonates with the quasi-religious soundtrack. I mentioned my surprise to Michael Riley. "That's right," he said. "It's all meant to fit together."
The constituent elements of Dreams of Return - an Australian Film Commission funded CD-Rom dealing primarily with the experiences of Timorese refugees living in Australia - were also, no doubt, meant to fit together. Shaped by Michael Buckley and the team from Cross Cultural Design around performance and cultural work developed by members of the East Timorese community at the North Richmond Community Health Centre, it combines indigenous Timorese storytelling, drumming and dancing with contemporary movement, music, song and text. Serious social issues are addressed - invasion, repression and torture, the politics of asylum and Australia's debt of honour to the Timorese. Poignantly, the dreams of those who have never been back are contrasted with the complexities of life for those who have made a return visit to their occupied homeland.
Dreams of Return is my first encounter with socially conscious art on a CD-Rom. My initial concern was that the congruence of complex political messages with aesthetic considerations was problematic enough, without the extra challenges imposed by the limitations of current multimedia technology.
Primary among those limitations is, for me, the obligatory abrupt breaks between sound and vision sequences. Ironically this requirement is closely linked with multimedia's much lauded potential for user interactivity, but the resultant distraction from the flow of information constantly calls attention to the technology itself - preventing user absorption in even a non-linear narrative structure. Design and programming, however, can minimise such disruptive effects and Dreams of Return is an impressive effort. Traditional and contemporary Timorese music is skilfully looped and exquisite traditional images function as transitional devices - a hand gracefully closes around a flower, a dancer spins in slow motion, inviting the user to enter the next sequence, and interwoven lines of text offer conceptual bridges over edit points. Further reinforcement of the work's unity is provided by the colour design - dominant browns and reds fade in and out, blending with the remarkably effective black background, all overlaid by white cursive script.
The weakest element is the performance footage - single camera coverage in poorly lit community halls is not ideal video - but the linked interviews with refugees and artists and narrative sequences of text and imagery work particularly well. Memories of recent violence provide a sometimes shocking counterpoint to readings from traditional narratives presenting the spiritual framework and complex kinship patterns permeating Timorese culture.
An investment of several hours with Dreams of Return is repaid with an awareness and appreciation of East Timorese culture and politics unavailable through any other single media format and, in my case, a deepened sense of our national, and humanitarian, obligation to the East Timorese.
Copies of Dreams of Return are available from the director price on application ph (03) 9417 1137