Don Parham is a well regarded documentary filmmaker who has, since 1989, written, produced and directed an eclectic mix of TV docos on subjects ranging from serious socio-political issues to history, arts and religion. His production company also has a long track record in producing corporate, education and training videos. Parham has written a number of published articles and essays, and been guest speaker at conferences, workshops and tertiary institutions. He also did a stint in the mid 1990s as a presenter on ABC-TV, where he introduced two prime time, weekly documentary series.
Don Parham began a Bachelor of Education at Melbourne State College in 1977 where he did Media Studies under Arthur Cantrill. Parham was not much interested in experimental filmmaking and transferred to Rusden State College at the end of first year, excited to be in a film course “that had Steenbecks and Arris and where you could make real 16mm films.” He completed his degree there in 1980 with majors in Media Studies and Politics which equipped him more than he realized at the time for his future career as a maker of socio-political docos.
Parham never planned to teach, even though the B.Ed gave him the licence to do so. He had done as many film, video and photography units as possible in his course and as few as possible education units which he said were wasting his time. However, many years later, as a filmmaker for whom researching and writing became an important part of his armoury, Parham was thankful that the Rusden course had forced him “to rediscover the art of writing.” After Rusden, Parham freelanced as a photographer until he set up Parham Media Productions in 1986, which he has run ever since.
Directing Deadly Hurt
Parham’s first three documentary films were on social justice issues related to the distribution of wealth in Australia. The titles in this trilogy are - Something You Call Unique (1989, 48 mins, SBS), Big People Small People (1991, 2 x 58 mins, SBS), and The Great Australian Dreaming (1992, 55 mins, SBS). Five of his nine films since then have basically explored the relationship between men and women from many different angles. These include: Deadly Hurt (1994, 56 mins, SBS) about domestic violence; We're All Independent Now (1995, 56 mins, SBS) about relationships, marriage and divorce; Love's Tragedies (1998, 55 mins, ABC) about adultery; Why Men Pay For It (2003, 52 mins, SBS) about men and prostitution; and The Choice (2006, 52 mins, SBS) about abortion.
In 1996 Parham experimented with a new genre – an ‘ethnographic docu-comedy’ called Big Hair Woman, shot in Papua New Guinea, starring Mary Coustas as ‘Effie’ and produced for Network TEN. Life Is Too Serious (2000, 55 mins, ABC) was an arts doco about the Australian composer George Dreyfus and Riot or Revolution (2005, 55 mins, ABC) is a history doco about the Eureka Stockade,1854. Parham also directed Forgiven People (2013, 22 mins, Network 7) an Easter special about faith and forgiveness. His latest film is Smithy (2016, 130 mins, ACC-TV), a feature length biographical doco about the Rev Dr John Smith, founder of the iconic 70s Christian bikie club, God's Squad.
We're All Independent Now
I did most of my theorizing about the documentary form very early in my career. As I made my first few films I was always analyzing what I was doing and why. I think one of the imperatives that has driven my approach to documentary filmmaking is the importance of engaging both the head and the heart of the audience. As Blaise Pascal said, “We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.” From the start, I seemed to be interested in a space that was somewhere between what I saw as the ‘headcentric-ness’ of current affairs programs (like the ABC’s ‘Four Corners’) and the ‘heartcentric-ness’ of a lot of ‘worthy’ docos that seemed to be overflowing in bleeding heart empathy for an individual’s story at the expense of hard-headed analysis of the issues. I wanted to make docos on social/political issues but I wanted to do them differently to this.
I also loved the ‘permission’ you had in the documentary form to do opinion and do art. I saw myself as an artist, an auteur. I had quickly outgrown photography because there wasn’t enough bang for my artistic buck. In contrast, I saw documentary filmmaking as “a pizza with the lot” – a most wonderful art form that combined the image with sound and music and, most importantly, writing and ideas. Making films made me feel like the conductor of an orchestra. This meant I was not much attracted to ‘observational’ film-making. By the early 90s, as far as I was concerned, the glory days of cinema verite, with all its subtlety and intellect, were over. In the age of the handycam, ‘ob-docs’ now had more in common with vacuum cleaners than the fine art of cinema verite. The aim was to suck in all that random material and empty the bag (of tapes) on the editor’s desk for him or her to sort it all out. Artistic vision seemed to often be missing.
Directing Riot or Revolution
I was originally attracted to the documentary form as a way of turning life into art because life is art. When I was at college, I remember stumbling across a book by Malcolm Muggeridge called ‘Christ and the Media’. There was a memorable line in it that has always resonated with me. He wrote, “Everything in life is a parable whereby God speaks to us … and the art of life is to get the message.” I liked the idea of exploring ‘the art of life’ via documentary film because it was art grounded in reality, the raw material was reality, the art was the meaning you drew from it. I much preferred this idea to ‘fiction film-making’ as such. I remember in an interview once, when asked if I would like to move on from documentary film to make a feature film, I replied,“Who could be bothered with fiction when life is this interesting? All the tragedy, the poetry, and drama, it’s all there in real life.”
Another thing that has driven my filmmaking is that I’m attracted to conflict – I’ve often said that “unless people are fighting over it, it’s not important.” Perhaps I’m a bit like those maniacs who chase cyclones – I like the excitement and danger of a war zone. But it’s more than that, it’s more to do with something I believe to be deeply true, namely, that when people are fighting over stuff there are very important issues at stake … and our job is to help shed a bit of light in dark places. I consider these conflictual spaces to be natural habitats for documentary filmmakers.
Directing Brian Lipson in Riot or Revolution
I have sometimes described myself as “an auteur film-maker trapped in a ‘television hour’ body.” Although squeezed into the ‘television hour’ format, I feel my docos are in the auteur tradition - authored and often controversial. As Jane Freeman, TV critic for the SMH, wrote in a review of We’re All Independent Now (SBS, 1995), "Parham has a track record of strolling into the lion's den ... the film demands that you argue with it, which is a fine reason to watch it." The Age TV critic, Barbara Hooks, also said of my work, "Don Parham is an extraordinary filmmaker, one of few who can slaughter your most sacred cow and yet leave you feeling challenged and inspired." Reviews like this show my liking for fire in the belly, point of view filmmaking that engages the head and the heart. You’d think that this ticks all the boxes for a documentary film-maker – but there is a twist to this story.
In 1993, after my first three films exploring a range of social justice issues, had screened successfully on SBS and had been referred to by Barbara Hooks as “Parham’s scouring trilogy on wealth distribution in this country”, I felt like changing direction and turning my “scouring” blowtorch on another area of injustice I felt strongly about at the time - the march of militant feminism that had men cowering and intimidated. I made a film called Deadly Hurt (1994, 56 mins, SBS) that took on those I called “feminist fundamentalists”. One day I’ll write a longer piece about the hysterical reactions to the film. Suffice it to say here that this experience was an epiphany for me.
Deadly Hurt launch
Deadly Hurt generated an enormous reaction everywhere - from the press to the Office for the Status of Women to the corridors of SBS where one exec said to me at the height of the furore, “You’re the new John Pilger!” He was, of course, only half right – I had, like Pilger, made a hard-hitting, confronting, polemical film but there was one very important difference ... with Deadly Hurt I had been iconoclastic to leftwing sacred cows, not rightwing, and in doing so, had broken ranks with the leftie tribe that is the documentary community. I later realized it was my ‘coming out’ film because I am, as far as I know, the only conservative filmmaker in this country. This, more than any other factor I think, has defined my films and the trajectory of my career. I remember another comment, perhaps more prophetic, made to me at the time by an EP at SBS - he said, “Mr Parham, remember this – your small truths are nothing compared to their big victories.”
At the end of the day, I suppose I can wear as a badge of honour, these words written about me by my old mate, David Tiley -
“The ABC and SBS already happily support a licensed Right wing
filmmaker. His name is Don Parham, and I work with him on some projects, though
we fight too much about politics to actually accomplish anything on a
controversial film. He always maintains that he is neglected and discriminated
against; I answer that he has made more films in Melbourne than most other
filmmakers; he tells me it is more difficult for him; I tell him he gets more
rope to deal in opinions than anyone else I know.”
DAVID TILEY, Editor Screen Hub
“ABC guidelines - one more skirmish in the
(On Line Opinion, 29 Jan 2007)
- Don Parham, March 2014
Riot or Revolution opening scene(2005)
The ChoiceTV ad (2006)
The Choiceexcerpt (2006)
The Choiceexcerpt (2006)
FILMOGRAPHY * *
Life Is Too Serious
If God Came to Australia (1978, 12 mins, 16mm,
documentary, Rusden, release print stage)