Interview: Douglas Watkin on Ella

Charlie Lewis

Douglas Watkin’s documentary Ella is the hypnotic story of Ella Havelka, following her journey from her rural upbringing, via Bangarra, an Indigenous contemporary dance company, to being the first Indigenous member of the Australian Ballet Company. It’s a stirring look at dedication, culture, identity and sacrifice. To call it inspiring would do a disservice to its nuanced and complex take on its subject. I had the chance to chat to Watkin and explore the behind the scenes of Ella.

CL: Tell me – how did the project come about? 

DW: My producers actually approached me regarding the project, about 2 or 3 years ago, because Ella was on their radar. Actually – going back a bit – at the time I had already established a relationship with Bangarra dance company, and I was filming some of their shows. So because of my background in the arts, filming dance in particular, I guess I was an obvious candidate to push the project forward. So then I approached the Australian Ballet, just saying, “Hi, I’m Douglas, these are some of the things I’ve done, and I’m interested in one of your dancers.” So we set up a meeting and it sort of went from there.

CL: What was it that initially drew you to Ella as a subject? Were you already familiar with her work?

DW: Yes and no. She was always on my radar; when you have Indigenous people succeeding in their craft, they’re your people, you know? We’re few and far between, so you’re always aware of them. There’s always someone who knows someone who knows someone. So she had also been involved in Bangarra, and we both knew the artistic director there, Steve Page. So we kind of already felt connected in a strange way, we had the same peers.

CL: I noticed that often the film will just let performance footage run without giving the audience a great deal of context – was it a conscious decision to let Ella’s dance tell her story as much as her words do?

DW: Yeah, very much so. It’s sometimes a bit of risk, because with a lot of documentaries, you’ll have voice over, or text, to really direct the audience, and sometimes the director will put themselves into the work, to really reinforce the focus. But for me, I really just like to let things play, let people draw their own conclusions, their own interpretations. So in that way, it becomes more of a docu-drama, almost a theatre piece, rather than a straight documentary, as such.

CL: Another theme I sensed in the film was that of being torn between two worlds – do you think that’s a risk for any Indigenous person pursuing a career in a traditionally European medium like Ballet?

DW: The thing is with indigenous people is – we can adapt to any culture, but can other cultures adapt to ours, you know? I mean, as a filmmaker, people ask me, “Are you an Indigenous filmmaker?” and it’s like, “No, I’m just a good filmmaker who has Indigenous people in his films”. So for me, it does feel like your walking in two worlds. Actually, it’s three worlds, because you have the mainstream world, your cultural world, and then the ballet world is something else entirely – it’s not exactly normal!

CL: Your background is largely in documentaries and creative non-fiction – are there any plans to pursue drama in the future?

DW: For filmmakers to survive, especially in this country, you kind of have to do everything. I’m actually working on a drama feature as we speak, which has development through Screen Australia and I’m also working on a VR project. The thing for me is, and maybe this sounds a little full of myself, but if you give me any visual medium, I’ll do it. For me it’s all about storytelling. When people ask what’s the difference between documentary and drama – it’s kind of a fine line. Which is what I wanted to do with Ella, there is that drama, tension, the same peaks and troughs you find in drama. So for me the same principles of storytelling can be applied to anything, whether it’s a drama or a documentary.

What I hope people will take away from Ella are the different levels of meaning from the story. There are a lot of different things people can take from the story. You could see it as a success story, a story of achievement. But some people look at it and think “well, maybe she’s better than the ballet”. Or some people say she doesn’t get the same family warmth from Bangarra that she’d get from the Ballet. So it’s interesting, the whole point of the documentary is give people perspectives. So there is definitely that sense of achievement, but there’s a difference between achievement goals, and achievement dreams. So I think in many ways, her journey is just starting and who knows how it will unfold. But I really hope people take those layers away from the film – whether the decision to stay with the Ballet is a good one, or if she should perhaps do her own thing? So an interesting point – she says that that Bangarra do a lot of low floor work, and she prefers being high and on point with the Ballet. But then you see the last dance she does, and where does she end up? On the ground. So people will take different things away from Ella and I think that’s the good thing about documentaries. They can really evoke those feelings.

Image courtesy of Wildbear Entertainment 

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