Focus on MDFF #2: Tunnel Vision

Director Ivan Hexter writes exclusively for Cinema Australia about his documentary, Tunnel Vision which is screening at this year’s Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.

Article Written by DP Ivan Hexter

Documentaries are usually created by filmmakers who fully embrace their subjects. They are driven by a passion to tell a story about someone or something that really matters. Other times a story will come to you and you just have to follow it. In the case of Tunnel Vision, the story came knocking on my door, and it wasn’t a polite knock. It arrived unannounced when a noisy rig started drilling a 30 metre deep hole near my home. A huge boring machine was geo-sampling the terrain. The core sample data would be given to the successful tenderer to build the planned $18 billion East West Link toll road. So began 18 months of filming.

A few days later local citizens, turned activists, decided to take matters into their own hands. They entered the drilling work zone in my street and asked the contractor to stop. Citing safety concerns, the workers downed tools and departed. It was a small victory but heralded big things to come.

It wasn’t long before things started to escalate. Police became increasingly involved, mainstream media got excited, citizen and activist numbers grew, politicians became increasingly agitated and vocal on the issue, and a state election drew closer every day. It became a powerful drama.

Documentary subjects, like nature, evolve organically and respond and change to the circumstances encountered.  But unlike nature, which is largely predictable, anything can happen when humans are involved. And it did.

The people involved in this infrastructure battle formed two starkly opposed sides. Those for whom easing congestion meant building more mega-roads and those for whom it meant having world-class public transport to take cars off roads.

The front line of the growing community campaign to stop East West was the Tunnel Picket group.  Although there was plenty of activism elsewhere within local councils and community organisations, the core picket group of around 50 people delivered the action and campaign traction. They got heard. Free-to-air television was all over them because of the increasing drama that played out in confrontations with police. The Tunnel Picketers were hard-core activists. Nothing was going to stop their determination to win.

As filming continued I seriously doubted a community win was possible. The forces opposing them were massive. The LNP government was spending millions promoting East West with spin and outright lies. They increasingly sort ways to get protestors off the streets and out of the picture.  Vested business interests condemned campaigners too. State Labor wasn’t much help either. Their position was that if government signed contracts they’d honour them. Some mainstream media, most notably Murdoch publications, mocked and derided key campaigners as ‘serial pests’ – professional agitators who were jeopardising jobs and a project Melbourne desperately needed.

The reality out in the community was very different. The picketers and campaigners represented a broad cross-section of citizens. They were rightly concerned about Melbourne’s liveability, the environment and the sustainability of infrastructure solutions. They knew that you don’t ease car congestion by building more roads. 50 years of doing that had proven the case. If you’re car dependant, more cars will fill and clog-up whatever roads you build.

As the protests heated up the police became disturbingly aggressive towards picketers who were picketing test drilling works and disrupting the business activities of organisations linked to the project. During police confrontations a number of protestors were injured. Several needed ambulance and hospital treatment.

Being in the thick of it with a camera I got to know many protestors personally. I was close-up with police too. A few senior members increasingly took an interest in me, particularly when I was pointing a camera toward them. I had been asked about my identity on a few occasions. On one occasion a senior officer walked up close to my lens and suggested I’d done enough filming for the day. In return I enquired if he’d done enough policing.

Experienced campaigners had advised supporters that phones or other communication devices might be ‘tapped’. If you can secretly know what your opponents are thinking and planning, you can likely intervene more successfully. I’m unsure if it’s true, but I was told that one indication of a phone tapping was seeing your battery quickly start to drain when the phone wasn’t in use. I certainly noticed this on a few occasions, so I’d simply power off.

An unexpected surveillance activity also seemed to occur on my home computer system when a new wireless network suddenly appeared on the connections nearby. It called itself the Police Surveillance Network. Not very subtle I know. I suspected they’d set up transmission in a privately owned warehouse next to my apartment block. I had previously filmed police using the space to rest up and refill their stomachs. Their wireless network remained on my airwaves for several days.

Filming continued as the impact of the campaign grew. The message of Train Not Tolls resonated with many in the wider community, particularly those in outer suburbs for whom decent public transport was long overdue. I filmed several campaign ‘caravan tours’ in outer suburbs where locals were angry about the long neglect of their public transport needs and the spending of many billions on a tollway that offered no benefits.

One Tunnel Picket campaign initiative involved activist Sue Jackson taking hundreds of photographs of community members holding small placards with slogans like Rip Up The Contracts; We Want Better Public Transport; We Want Trains Not Toll Roads. This photomontage became a powerful visual statement on what communities wanted.

By the time of the Victorian state election approached momentous change had occurred. The Government had signed contracts plus a secret side-letter guaranteeing compensation to contractors if the project didn’t proceed. Polls were showing that the community campaign had reached unprecedented proportions in shaping the election results in many seats.  The Greens were polling big numbers in inner city electorates and Labor was clearly under threat of losing seats.  Suddenly Labor did a U turn, announcing they would not honour the signed contracts. They knew they were in big trouble otherwise.

Suddenly the 60 plus hours of footage I’d shot looked like it could become a film with a positive ending for the community. My focus throughout had been documenting the campaign through their eyes. It now looked like they might win.

On Election Day that outcome was confirmed when a new Labor government gained office. The Liberal-National Party coalition’s strategy for re-election had unravelled. It was the first time in 60 years that a first term government had been thrown out of office.

I filmed the local community street party celebration that followed. The community was understandably jubilant. So was I. Against impossible odds we’d won.

Now came the big challenge. How might the story be best structured and told? Obviously it was the community’s story; their insights and experiences. Free to air television broadcasts had also been recorded during the 18 month campaign. Mainstream media, unlike me, had access to the key political players. Key media also expressed editorial perspectives and in the case of Fairfax published investigative stories that shaped community understanding and perspectives. I felt this was crucial to the telling of the full story. It also allowed proponents of the project, most notably the premier and senior government ministers, to have their say via several media interviews and events. Throughout the campaign I’d also downloaded a number of government funded ‘informational’ videos that promoted the alleged benefits of East West.

So I commenced editing. Parallel with this, original producer Marion Crooke and I launched a crowdfunding campaign on Chuffed. We raised around $15,000, mostly through the generosity of local community organisations and supporters. The Documentary Australia Foundation were also introduced to the project and agreed to support the film through their website. They offer tax deductable charitable status which potentially was a plus for some donors. Over the next 5 months I cut together a 60-minute film. It included around 5 minutes of television news segments from every free to air networks bar SBS.

I wrote to the networks detailing the footage used and seeking their permission to use this in return for an appropriate screen credit.  Channels 9 and 10 agreed to this. 7 and 2 declined. They required payment.  I had reviewed Australian copyright law and believed the news excepts in the film could be included without payment, under the so called ‘fair usage’ exemption for material that was ‘news reporting’ and that additionally was to be included in a film that had significant public interest benefits.

I was wrong. Negotiations commenced. Initially the networks concerned wanted in excess of $40,000 for the non-exclusive international rights to their news footage. Both myself and the projects new producer Bessie Byrne, were gobsmacked. We had also included 30 seconds of historic footage shot by Australian Cinesound News in the 1960’s. We discovered this footage, and indeed all of Australia’s prime newsreel footage of this era, was owned by British Pathe. They wanted around $10,000 for the non-exclusive rights to use this footage.

We negotiated further. With the meagre budget all we could afford to purchase were the festival rights to use such footage. The situation right now is that the film will not get public global release unless we can pay around $19,000 to these entities.

We hoped that through festival release the film might attract further interest and financial support to help finalise rights.

We’re proud of the film. It’s an important testament to people power.

Tunnel Vision was first screened at the Australian Environmental Film Festival and was nominated for best documentary feature.

We are excited about the film’s forthcoming screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.

Hope to see you there.

Tunnel Vision screens on July 16 at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Tickets and details here.

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