MDFF Exclusive: Looby

Cinema Australia Original Content:

Keith Looby.

Article author: Sean Murphy, Producer

“Tell him I said get fucked.” The response came as a surprise – why was this person so worked up when asked about Looby? 

To me, Australian painter Keith Looby was a gentle old man; a softly-spoken family friend whiling away his days in a backyard studio. Sure, I knew he’d won the Archibald, exhibited at MOMA in New York and more besides – but that was a far cry from his quiet life in Sydney’s northern suburbs.

Still, this contradiction confirmed it: we had a story. And that story became a film.

In fact, the project was my father’s idea. A long-time producer and director at the ABC, he befriended Keith way back in the 1970s. Dad watched on with puzzlement as his mate went from toast of the town to persona non-grata, unable to exhibit in even the smallest galleries.

Upon retiring from Auntie, Dad decided to get to the bottom of things. He would make a film about Looby and discover why this brilliant man was banished. Copenhagen-based filmmaker Nick Garner (Oberon, Das Superpaper) came on-board, so too veteran TV director Iain Knight (ABC, SBS).

Then came cancer. Some six months into production, Dad passed away, pummelled by a malignant prostate.

Resurrection (1964).

After months of mourning, the team rallied: we would finish the doco, solve the mystery.

What we uncovered is a story of brutal art world politics; unexpected and unbending conformism in an industry we once thought of as creative and daring. Through it all, Keith remained a singular figure: a maverick in the best and worst way.

The results of Looby’s iconoclasm leaves us gobsmacked still. From masterpieces rotting in storage to relationships in shreds, the film traverses the blowback meted out to an artist who lived against the grain. 

Yet there is hope at the core of our doco. Hope that, love or hate the man, audiences will fall head over heels for art that deserves more than a second look.

The world premiere of Looby will be held at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival at 2:00pm Saturday, July 27 at Cinema Nova, Carlton. Details here.

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