Oral History by Ken Berryman

National Oral History Conference

The Art of Interviewing for Film
 Ken Berryman

The National Film and Sound Archive hosted a panel session on the Art of Interviewing for Film as part of the 17th National Oral History Conference, convened by the Oral History Association of Australia (Victorian Branch) in Melbourne, 6–9 October 2011.

Panel discussion centred on the practical issues involved in preparing, conducting and editing audio-visual interviews as well as exploring the conceptual and ethical dimensions of these practices. Key issues included how suitable interviewees are selected for film projects; how filmmakers construct and conduct their interviews for desired outcomes; how material from the completed interviews is selected for inclusion and incorporated into the final film; and how the recording of an oral history interview can have a different dynamic to an interview filmed for a documentary.

The panel session comprised presentations from experienced documentary writers, producers and directors Robin Hughes, John Hughes, Daryl Dellora and NFSA Historian Graham Shirley, followed by an audience Q&A.

Robin Hughes delivers regular workshops and masterclasses at AFTRS on the Art of the Interview, and she discussed some of the psychological, technical, and ethical aspects of conducting an interview for film. She also described her involvement with the genesis and progress of, and interviews for, the Australian Biography project, which has recorded the lives of nearly 80 significant Australians.

John Hughes’s work is usually Australian in orientation, examining art, cultural politics and history. His latest project looks at the filmmakers’ cooperative movement in Australia, and draws on oral history for its recollections and, in part, its analysis. John provided a brief introduction to this project, raising questions about how a filmmaker might best deploy diverse and contradictory interpretations that often emerge in such retrospective reviews of shared, past experience.

NFSA Historian Graham Shirley focused on his experiences on three projects involving Second World War service personnel all produced prior to him joining the NFSABehind the Lines (2001), The Australians at War Film Archive (2003) and Road to Tokyo (2005) – and covered such issues as to what extent interviewees should be ‘directed’ to tell their stories in ways that will aid a documentary’s clarity and thematic approach. He spoke of getting the best out of interviews in ways that include setting aside prepared questions to instinctively pursue what an interviewee can deliver as authentic autobiography, adding that an oral history will serve as a viable alternative to a written autobiography for most people interviewed.

Daryl Dellora spoke of his great enthusiasm for ‘talking heads’ and emphasised the fact that filmmaking is centrally and most importantly a visual medium, requiring a different approach to interview material that might be taken for an oral history project where the final outcome is either the written word or an audio recording. Daryl referred to a number of his documentaries, including his most recent work Michael Kirby: Don’t Forget the Justice Bit (2010), illustrating how his approach works in general and how each specific film demands its own angle of attack.

The panel session was followed by a screening of John Hughes’s feature-length documentary The Archive Project (2006) which examined the work of the Melbourne Realist film movement and its importance to Australia’s contemporary independent film culture.

The NFSA-hosted panel session and screening formed part of a comprehensive program of activities, including workshops, other themed panels and conference dinner, keynote speakers, individual paper presentations, performances, and walking tours. The conference of over 200 delegates was held at the State Library of Victoria and was supported by eight cultural partners, including the NFSA. The next national oral history conference will be held in Adelaide in 2013.