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A Moral Position
by Bill Mousoulis

Bill Mousoulis

When you give up pretending, manipulating, you already have an image, a language, a style. When, to kill the industrial structures of cinema, you leave the sound stage and shoot on the street, like someone who lives and belongs there, you discover as a result that you possess a style. The language, the style of neo-realism are here: itís the result of a moral position, of looking critically at the obvious.

- Roberto Rossellini (1)

In my head, it is always Cinema Year Zero. Not in the sense that the history of cinema has been overrided or forgotten, but in the sense that my attitude to cinema is always fresh. Indeed, the last 100 years of films (which include 20 years of my own work) are as crucial to me as any other element that constitutes my make-up as a film-maker. As a cinephile, the films of Bresson, Godard, Rossellini, Scorsese, Akerman and many others have clearly influenced my own work. But, when Iím making a film, I wilfully "forget" my masters. I donít want them with me at that point. I revel in the pressure that a clean slate can bring. Godard often mentions Mallarméís "white page" (2), how it always confronts the author, and therefore how it chances the creation of something new (and can anyone dispute that Godard himself has indeed created a "new" cinema?). And that is why, in my head, I will a pure white screen into existence. Itís a romantic gesture (for many layers of cinema are always under that top white layer), but also a rational one (for to copy or re-do something is to divest it of its meaning or power).

When I first started making films, however, that blank screen was there for me in a genuine sense. It was 1982, I was 19 and unsure what vocation I wanted to pursue, and even being a film nut was something that happened for me just that year, not earlier. Like a vision, a particular image came to me, and I wrote a little script, utilizing that image as the closing shot. And so Iíd made my first film by the end of that year Ė an 8-minute Super-8 film. I cannot emphasize enough how this first work was composed on a "blank screen" Ė I knew no other film-makers, I knew nothing of any "Super-8 scene" that may have been around, I used my relatives as actors, I hadnít studied film at all, I didnít even know that film schools existed. I simply bought a camera and made a film. This may sound romantic, but at the time it was simply pragmatic, existential Ė me being me.

In the year after, 1983, I did my first (and only) film course (a 3-week R.M.I.T. one), I became a member of the R.M.I.T. Super-8 Club, I met other film-makers, I showed my films to audiences. I attended my first Melbourne Film Festival, seeing my first Robert Bresson film. I made Super-8 homages to films such as Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967) and Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette, 1974). I learnt how to use my equipment better. I applied to the Swinburne film school, and got knocked back. A history had begun for me that year Ė the history of my connection to cinema. But, to re-iterate once again, my 19-year history does not weigh on me Ė I feel as light now, in 2001, as I did back then. I will leave my great "remembrance of things past" for my deathbed (although it is true that, like everyone else, I suffer several deaths a year anyway).

The difficulties and challenges I face in 2001 are obviously different to the ones I faced in 1983, or even 1993. As you would have gathered by now, I am a writer/director who passionately pursues his own line of film work. Most of my films (including all four features) have been totally self-financed. I have not offered (or even contemplated offering) my skills as a "director" to any production company or agency. Obviously, my mind revolves around my work (its various thematic, stylistic, formal parameters), rather than concerning itself with how I can "crack the industry".

From the outside, it may seem that I am a frantic and intense film-maker, desperately and courageously making films at any cost (and that also means "cost to reputation", as no-budget features always have flaws in them). From my perspective, however, Iím actually going at a leisurely pace. For example, I havenít as yet tried to get a fully-funded feature up (with all that entails Ė key players locked in, pre-sales, investors, etc.). The closest Iíve got to this is having a couple of feature scripts developed with AFC funds. Even the features Iíve actually made, to me they were fun Ė ways of playing, learning, questioning. The latest one, Desire (1999), was shot on 16mm. and edited on video, for a total cost of $8,000 (now this is true "scrounging around" Ė deferred wages, of course, but also borrowed equipment, out-of-date film stock, 2:1 shooting ratio, etc.). The funding bodies werenít interested in completing the film, but this year, two years after it was edited, it has screened at Cinema Nova in Melbourne as part of their "NovaDose" programming, and at the 10th Brisbane International Film Festival. More importantly, simply making the film meant that I could develop my style, my overall cinematic concerns. (3)

Over the years, questions of realism, formalism and humanism (in that order) have tugged away at me. From the very beginning, I have been deeply attracted to reality "as it is", i.e. in its phenomenological state (which means not only its surfaces or patinas, but also its spirit or feel). Streets, fields, clothes, peopleís expressions and habits Ė all these exist prior to artistic expression utilizing and shaping them (although, of course, reality is often the "result" of art, not merely its substance). This multifarious and untainted reality thrills and fascinates me more than most films can. Even within the sphere of "realist" or "naturalist" film works, the cinema usually stylizes or limits reality when representing it. Occasionally some films can work miracles, either capturing or (and hereís the paradoxical key) creating something genuinely "real" or "true". And this, as I said, is one of my key impulses as a film-maker. Philosophically, it has something to do with art being the means by which life is saved. "We possess art lest we perish of the truth." (4)

A concern with form is paramount when pursuing any "realist" line as a film-maker. All documentary film-makers know this, the best ones always avoiding being seduced by the notion that theyíre capturing "raw reality". And it is the same with fiction film-makers. That is why, for example, the films of Alan Clarke will always be superior to those of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach Ė whilst the films of Leigh and Loach are often great due to their acting or subject matters, Clarke (now deceased) was able to reap greater rewards due to the way he could push his form (unusual structures, heightened rhythms, etc.). As a scriptwriter, this is always the challenge and excitement for me Ė How do I structure the story? What do I write in, what do I elide? What can I do to make the script unusually "realistic"? Which formal element can I push to an extreme? And then I get frustrated, for I feel like Iím only skimming the surface of the possible, of what I can possibly achieve. Sometimes, on the back of a Kiarostami or a Haneke (or, revisiting the past, an Antonioni or Pasolini), I can reverie the creation of some bold new realist/formalist work. And in my dreams at night, I am often in a cinema, seeing wonders on the screen. But in the cold hard light of day, I sit at my "workstation" (my old armchair), and itís just the same old things that come to me. Itís not easy being green.

What does Rossellini mean when he speaks of having a "moral position", of looking "critically at the obvious"? As usual with Rossellini (and his films), nothing is simple or clear-cut. For example, he equates instinct ("you already have a style") with reason ("looking critically"). Even more provocatively, he says that the former is "the result" of the latter. And he caps this theorizing off by calling the described process "moral". Itís clearly a call for responsibility (although, at the time, in the mid-Ď40s, it was obviously mainly a Dogme-95-like statement in support of Italian neo-realism), for film-makers to be committed and questioning in the face of reality/the world.

And in the face of the funding bodies too, no doubt. And all the other industrial forces, for films are not made in some artistic vacuum. My sensibility being more European and Eastern than Australian/American, I find myself and my work problematically placed in the Australian film landscape. Considering that Australia has not produced a film director of the calibre and type of, say, Téchiné or Ferrara or Wong, it is probably not surprising that a film-maker such as myself has yet to be fully supported. Itís not that Australia hasnít had its fair share of "auteurs", such as Jane Campion (if she counts as Australian), Paul Cox, Ray Argall, Brian McKenzie, Sue Brooks, Rolf de Heer, etc. Itís just that Australian film culture as a whole doesnít revere this type of film-making. (For example, it strikes me that we donít give the attention that is warranted to Clara Law now that she is living on our shores.)

Which means that, for myself, Iíll probably have to struggle along as best I can. But, as I said earlier, film-making for me, as well as being a serious, "moral" task, is also great fun. Thereís nothing else Iíd rather do.


(1) Rossellini interview (circa 1946), in G. L. Rondi, Cinema dei maestri, p.24.    back

(2) See the video work Scťnario du film Passion (Jean-Luc Godard, 1982).    back

(3) For a detailed discussion of the film Desire, see "Homage (No.2) to Bill Mousoulis" by Adrian Martin, Senses of Cinema, Issue 14, June 2001.     back

(4) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, aphorism 822, Random House, New York, 1968.    back

© Bill Mousoulis September 2001
This article first appeared in Metro, No.129/130, Spring 2001.

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