MDFF Review: Looby

Directed by Iain Knight and Nick Garner

“It’s a fascinating film, especially in an era of increasingly straitened and conservative artistic standards.”


Written by Guest Reviewer 
Travis Johnson

Acclaimed and controversial Australian artist Keith Looby is the subject of this fascinating documentary from directors Iain Knight and Nick Garner. 

For those outside or adjacent to the Australian art scene, the Sydney-born Looby is probably best known for winning the Archibald Prize in 1984 for his portrait of satirist Max Gillies in character as then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Within the scene, however, he’s infamous for being an outspoken and pugnacious fellow who has alienated partners, friends, and family, as well as the critical establishment at large.

Which makes him a ripe target for biography. Knight and Garner do an excellent job of locating Looby in his time and place – a fiercely intelligent working class kid who came to prominence largely in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, documenting directly and by allusion the tumultuous changes wrought on Australian society in the time, and his own discomfort with the privileged establishment he often butted heads with.

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That establishment also includes the left wing intellectual avant garde known as the Sydney Push, a subject worthy of its own documentary treatment. Looby is remarkable in his ability to pick a fight with pretty much anyone who crossed his field of view.

And for his art, of course. We get insight into what drove Looby to paint controversial portrait subjects and how these choices effectively shut him out of Archibald consideration for years, and also the furore surrounding his numerous works on the horrors of colonialization wrought upon Indigenous Australians.  

It’s a fascinating film, especially in an era of increasingly straitened and conservative artistic standards. Looby is a timely reminder of both the value of questioning the status quo, and the price that doing so often extracts. 

Tommy Emmanuel: The Endless Road will screen at next month’s Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. You can find further details here

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