Focus On – Lawrie Silvestrin ASE on “Leaky Boat”
Leaky Boat focuses on the ten-week period in 2001 beginning with the Tampa crisis and ending with the Howard government voted back into office. It tells the story of how Australia “stopped the boats”. How was the story knitted together in the edit?
Leaky Boat is jam-packed with momentous twists and turns. So much happened in Australia and the world during that ten-week period that piecing together such a complex narrative involved a lot of careful whittling. The film was always designed as a “docu-drama” not only because it contains recreations but also because we wanted the narrative structure to allow the story to unfold chronologically through the characters experiences with a keen focus on the emotional and dramatic beats of the film. The initial assembly ran nearly two hours. At that point, director Victoria Pitt and I got out the pin board, wrote a card for each element of the story and pinned them up in assembly order. I do this with every documentary film I edit and it’s a great way to work out how to streamline the narrative. After four weeks the cut was in good enough shape to decide exactly what dramatised sequences we needed and what archival material we had to find. There was a three-month hiatus while Victoria did the drama shoot and we gathered the archival material and then we launched back into the cut. I think it’s safe to say that Victoria and I spent many days just talking about what we were doing and many weeks writing and rewriting the narrative in order to streamline the story. While we concentrated on getting all the dramatic beats in the right places and the pace and rhythm the way we wanted it, gradually the imagery began to find its place and added what Victoria described as a “painterly” feel to the film.
The documentary has a definite point of view. Was this something that evolved through the edit?
Because the subject of asylum seekers and unauthorized boat arrivals is such a divisive topic in Australia, Victoria was adamant that the film shouldn’t adopt a judgmental or overly dramatic tone. The point of view of the film largely comes from allowing the viewer to react to the unfolding events without forcing an emotional response by using too much “film technique”. Music is understated, narration written and delivered in a calm, unforced tone and the pace and rhythm presented in a measured, restrained style. This sometimes went against our natural instincts for drama but in the end it was the right approach for this story.
How did you balance the points of view of the politicians, the navy, the media, the refugees and Australian public opinion?
This was the first time many of the informants had gone on record to tell the truth about what happened and we were confident that the facts would speak for themselves. The balance comes from allowing the story to unfold naturally, finding each character’s place in the narrative and allowing them to speak honestly. Of course, some deeper truths emerge in the juxtaposition of views.
You have a combination of interview footage, stylized imagery, recreations, media and navy coverage plus CGI. How much footage did you have and what formats where you dealing with?
We had a lot of footage! 26 interviewees. Hours of doco rushes. Six days of two camera drama shooting. About 50 hours of archival material to choose from. Camera formats included XD Cam 1080 25p & 720 50p (50Mbsec and 35 Mbsec), Canon 5D, GoPro footage. Archival came on the usual assortment of videotape formats from the turn of the century. We did have some hairy moments though where clips went missing…thank goodness for backups.
What was your favourite experience on the film?
Overall, it was wonderful working on a film that revealed the truth behind this story and stimulated considered public debate. If I had to pick, it was the day we edited the scene at the end of the film of the children staring deeply into the lens with a questioning intensity that gave me goose bumps. Shot almost as an afterthought, it became one of the most powerful scenes of the film.