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Melbourne independent filmmakers

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Irene Proebsting


Field Recordings

by Irene Proebsting

This article was originally published in Cantrills Filmnotes, Issue nos. 85, 86, 1997.

We live in a world awash with images, but we keep on making more images. I continue to record my surroundings to try to create a meaning from my past and present experiences.

The construction of my films are like a series of snapshots or glimpses which probably comes from having a long involvement with photography. I view these films as an extension of the fractured and montaged photo-based compositions and digital collages that I make.

I have also been working on a computer piece incorporating animation and interactivity entitled "Escape from station E" which I hope to complete later this year. The digital work is very slow going compared to filmmaking which I find to be more spontaneous.

I have worked in collaboration with Barry Brown on several projects and he has manufactured the audio attachments that accompany the following films.

Ash deposits at shutdown

Yallourn Power Station

Delwyn Hewitt, a photographer and former colleague, had organised a photo-shoot in the decommissioned Yallourn Power Station—which had been built in 1924—and was one of the first State owned power stations in Victoria. The building and surrounding cooling towers and conveyors were due to be demolished and we wanted to document the industrial complex before it disappeared from the landscape. After a hearing in 1994, the Historic Building Council had agreed to its demolition deeming it too costly to restore, and citing the amount of asbestos in the building as a major concern.

We donned our hard hats and Richard Heath, who was part of the decommissioning crew, took us through the turbine hall, which spanned the length of the remaining C- E Power Stations.

Richard had worked in the power station when it was operational and was intimately familiar with the various turbines, generators and boilers, some of which had simply been turned off at shutdown. Rain had fallen through cracks in the roof and the disused machinery had begun to decay. Most of the tessellated floor tiles had been removed and mossy puddles of water reflected the predominant angular geometry of pipes, roof trusses, and window panes.

Some of the asbestos, which had been used extensively throughout the buildings, had either been removed, or loosely contained with large sheets of foil insulating materials.

As more former employees who had been exposed to the asbestos over a 20-30 year period became ill, the Asbestos Related Diseases Support Group was formed to make people aware of the dangers of asbestos, and to provide assistance to families affected by this disease. There were claims in the media that compared the situation in the Latrobe Valley to Chernobyl or Wittenoon, labeling the area "Death Valley".

At one point I recorded an interview with a former shift fitter whose work had involved cleaning asbestos off steam joints and was consequently often covered in a snowstorm of the material. He had written a letter to the local paper entitled ‘LV asbestos time bomb ticking away’ outlining the fact that the workers had never been told of the dangers even though the State Electricity Commission (SEC) must have known about asbestos related diseases since the 1920’s. He was suspicious of my motivation for the interview, and could not believe that I wasn’t representing any group and therefore wasn’t as forthcoming as he had been in his letter. However, some parts of the dialogue may be sampled and collaged for an expanded study at a later date.

My father had given me a Belfoca 120, a tiny Canon 318mm, and Bell & Howell cameras. I used the Canon (which had minimal functions) to film inside the power station, and was surprised that it worked so well in the low light. Yallourn Power Station is filmed in obliquely framed rapid bursts, punctuated by occasional pauses.

After having worked for the SEC from 1980-89, I was ‘restructured‘ out of a job along with about 10,000 other SEC workers in massive Government cutbacks. (see Industrial Vesper #11, Cantrills Filmnotes no’s 79,80)

Staring at the sun

Phillip Island was shot while staying with friends in the summer of ‘95.

Mostly filmed at the beach, it begins with views along the coast at the Nobbies and then diverges into an aqueous abstraction. Starkly patterned reflections ebb and flow, sometimes with force, then linger as the tide turns before rushing out again.

These scenes are punctuated by holiday activity. There is a brief scene where a child stands arms outstretched, crying in frustration. Dechlan had never been to the ocean and cried out in horror as his mother entered the water into which he dared not follow. His tiny arms were begging her to come back, and no amount of reassurance could pacify him until she re-emerged. Another child digging with his plastic rake is filmed in staccato rhythm with only his lower half visible. There are also three fractured gestures of dad standing at the waters edge resulting in a certain slapstick as he comically scratches his head.

This follows into the evening on the foreshore at Cowes. The beach at dusk. In semi-darkness the circular motion of children spinning around on a swing, the camera following Dechlan up and down the slide, and people move away self consciously as they hear the sound of the camera.

The next morning was spent moving among rock pools filming compositions of seaweed, rock, sand, water and more reflections. The tempo slows with the film ending after lingering on a lone seagull resting on one leg in the morning sun.

A landscape sideways

When the girl was sixteen she told her mother that she was pregnant. The mother arranged an appointment at the Bertram Wayner Clinic and the girl attended on the appointed day. They would tell the father that they were going shopping.

When it was over she didn’t want to sit in the recovery room with the other women.

She said she felt ok.

On the way home we stopped along Malvern road and had milkshakes.

It took two hours to get home. When we arrived dad didn’t even notice that we had come home without any shopping.

My intention had been to make a film documenting my three siblings, and I planned to visit first my brother, who is a public servant and a Mormon church president, a sister who was pregnant with her third child and making a living with her partner from Roo shooting, and another sister who rides a Harley Davidson and sells artifacts at bike meets under the name ‘Skulls, Rings and Things’. An interesting contrast, I thought. However, as things often don’t go to plan, or fate intervenes, the precious filming I had done at my brothers was ruined during processing.

Mayana resulted from the visit to my sister who was pregnant. I met her at the Deniliquin hospital where she was due to have an ultrasound. The procedure was fairly simple with my sister lying on a bed while jell was smeared on her stomach enabling a sonic device to glide over her exposed skin. The signals from this device transmit images onto a screen. We could see the various parts of the foetus on the monitor, and the doctor pointed out the limbs, spine and head.

This was the first of three rolls of film that were shot and shown in sequence. All editing is in camera as I am not interested in cutting and recombining film at a later stage. Although I am interested in transforming elements, as in Mayana (remix), where sections of Mayana were transferred to video, and along with images from outer space and microscopic biology were refilmed onto super 8.

After the examination we drove 200km to Booligal—situated on the Lachlan River in Southwest New South Wales—where my sister lives with her family. I was captivated by the vastness of this semi arid country where every direction offered up evidence of life and death. This landscape is an integral part of their daily lives, particularly as their income depended on shooting kangaroos that inhabit the region. Government quotas are granted to land owners who employ roo shooters to kill kangaroos and the carcasses are prepared for the pet food industry. This activity is always carried out at night into the early hours and it was my sister’s job to gut the carcasses, but thankfully, after she had the kids she was exempt from this task.

I was invited along on a shoot, but felt it would be too traumatic and chose instead to film evidence of the killing, such as the bloodied truck used for the hunt, the meat cooler used for storage of carcasses, and the many skeletal remains of emu, kangaroo and wild pig which littered the area.

Mayana is also a diary of daily events; shopping, visiting friends, driving to Hay, feeding the dogs, but an undertone of desolation and loneliness is evoked by the landscape.

Circulating heavy fluid

The predominant feature of Water Music is a distinct overtone of the colour blue which I think occurred by having the camera’s light function set to artificial light while using Kodachrome in broad daylight.

The waterfall is located in the Tooronga Valley, near Noojee, the town where I grew up and where my parents still live. Although there was once talk of damming the valley, this never occurred, and the area has remained basically unchanged since I was a girl.

I drove with my father along the Tooronga road towards the falls. As children we used to fish in the river and ride our horses along the same road. There are two waterfalls, the Amphitheatre and Tooronga, which combine together at the foot of the hill to form the river which meanders through the valley and connects with the Latrobe River.

Filming began a few hundred metres along the Amphitheatre falls where the water cascaded down the slippery rock-face with a massive force. I was interested in the different textures created by the water splashing onto the rocks, or flowing over the rocks forming extended streaks and swirls. I also manipulated the lens to create a defocused effect, softening the linear movement of the water. I used a tripod for the first couple of minutes which were filmed at the top of the falls, then changed to hand-held down near the footbridge as it was possible to get closer to the water.

While I was finishing the last few seconds of film a woman appeared in the middle of the water, heading up-stream, with a man following a short distance behind. My father called out to them to warn them of the dangers as there are deep cervices beneath the water, and to his knowledge a young boy, who years earlier had gone missing and was never found, had possibly drowned in one of these holes. The pair, who were dressed in light summer clothing, were obviously in dispute. While he wanted to walk on the track beside the watercourse, she insisted that she would stay in the water, and he kept following her. They ignored the warning and as I had finished filming we headed back across the footbridge to the car.

It reminded me that years earlier the township of Noojee had stopped and workers from the forestry and sawmill had joined with the police and Search & Rescue to look for a missing child. My sister and I, along with other women from the town, made sandwiches and coffee in tents which had been erected in the car park at the base of the falls. Out of the pouring rain the wet and hungry searchers welcomed the nourishment. It was a time when the community pulled together, and after the child was found the highest parts of the walking track were fenced off.

Other films include Newport Open Day, Mayana (remix), Six sequences for Jordan, The Trades Assistant and Noojee.

Irene Proebsting, 1997.
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Melbourne independent filmmakers is compiled by Bill Mousoulis