Anna Broinowski on #MeToo, making films and money

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Author, filmmaker and academic, Anna Broinowski's new book, Datsun Angel, is a rollicking memoir based on her travels as a hitchhiker through outback Australia in the 1980s. Here, she talks about her life, loves, and learning.

Tell us about your early years.

My childhood was peripatetic.

Author, filmmaker and academic, Anna Broinowski's new book, Datsun Angel, is a rollicking memoir based on her travels as a hitchhiker through outback Australia in the 1980s. Here, she talks about her life, loves, and learning.

I was born in Tokyo and went to nine schools in Burma [now Myanmar], Iran, the Philippines, Canberra and Japan.

I liked humanities subjects and loved theatre - I still remember being Rat 4 in a play about a pumpkin on the icy roof of my British kindergarten in Tehran, playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady in middle school in Manila, narrating Joseph's Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in my rough-as-guts public high school in Canberra, and playing a mosquito in an ancient Kyogen play in the American School in Japan, where I graduated.

But I didn't want to be an actor. I wanted to be the Australian prime minister.

I had a big ego as a kid. I thought I was invincible.

You're a filmmaker, author and academic. Tell us about your career trajectory.

It's been entirely accidental.

When I started at Sydney University, I was on the correct trajectory for Australia's top political job: Arts/Law, distinction average, mediocre but committed debater, success-oriented mindset, and diligent tennis player.

Then one day, curious to find out what non-college students were up to, I dropped in on a casting session in the Holme building's mouldy cellar, where the post-modern renegades of SUDS (the uni's dramatic society) wagged lectures, staged working-class plays and smoked.

I stopped attending tutorials and threw myself into SUDS full-time. You could do that in the mid 1980s - tertiary education was still free.

In third year, now happily failing law, I auditioned for NIDA and was rejected because I had no life experience. That's when I decided to hitchhike to Darwin.

I was kidnapped by two truckies and survived. That trip changed my life.

The second time, NIDA let me in. I discovered I was way too wooden to be a film star but loved writing and producing my own work.

Five years into my fairly unremarkable stage career, playing corseted ingenues around Sydney, I wrote a napkin pitch with my brother for a whacky documentary called Hell Bento!! about Japan's otaku, rockabilly, biker, queer and yakuza subcultures.

It was full of nudity, drugs, morphing sushi and apocalyptic imagery, the kind of thing no broadcaster would touch in a pink fit. But luckily, just after I had faxed the pitch, SBS's head of non-fiction received a call from the Australian Film Commission about a new fund for unusually innovative projects.

[He] gave us $250,000, made me producer, and my filmmaking career was born. I've spent three exhilarating decades documenting real life. I'm passionate about it.

The academic thing is more recent; I completed my PhD partly out of guilt over the extraordinary learning opportunities I avoided at uni.

The highs of your career?

Watching 2000 people laugh and engage with Hell Bento!! in Sydney's State Theatre in 1995 was the first high, because I realised that I could reach more people, and change how they feel and think about the world, through film. I've made eight documentaries since.

Interviewing the original superman, Christopher Reeve, hoax author Norma Khouri, the brilliant Noam Chomsky, my aunt Dr Helen Caldicott, powerhouse Marcia Langton, Tetsuo: The Iron Man director Shinya Tsukamoto, non-binary pioneer Norrie May-Welby and the late Senator Ted Kennedy have all been highs, as have filming North Korea's top directors, composers and actors in Pyongyang, far-right Senator Pauline Hanson, and former PM John Howard - each of whom inhabit the fractious cultural and political terrain I like to explore.

As for gongs, there's a row gathering dust in my study - AACTAs, a Walkley, a Writers Guild of America thing - but my favourite is the carved wooden elephant I was given by a Moscow film critic, who drily informed me the hole inside is 'for burning bad reviews'.

Adulation and acclaim are delicious, like a gourmet feast - excess makes you sick.

After two years' flying, even first-class sometimes, to glamorous festivals in the Middle East, Europe and the US for my most commercially successful film Forbidden Lie$, I grew fat and lazy. I'd forgotten how to be a filmmaker, which is the most enduring high.

And the lows?

In hindsight, the lows have been highs because they've taught me how to be a better artist and human, though they never feel like it at the time.

Every documentary puts you through an intense low at some point, because you're playing god with someone's life and they've trusted you to share it with the world.

Film-making is inherently deceptive - from how you frame something to the words you omit, you're manipulating reality.

Datsun Angel is making big waves. What made you turn your teenage travel diary into a book?

After I survived my kidnapping by the truckies and made it to Darwin and back unscathed (or so I thought), I packed away my diary and got on with life. Two things made me revisit it again.

I was going through some old boxes looking for a new project after making a science documentary for the ABC and stumbled across the diary.

I couldn't believe the insane, death-defying things young me got up to, and the eccentric misfits we hung out with.

And with an adventurous daughter the same age I was when I made my life-changing journey, I wanted to know if the misogyny, madness and danger I encountered in the '80s would be the same for her now.

The second reason was the #MeToo movement, which popped up on my Facebook feed in 2017.

Without thinking much about it, I posted about the truckies. I became obsessed with other women's posts, thousands of which were more horrific than mine.

I embraced the new sisterhood MeToo created that the individualist, anti-civil rights mindset of the '80s had destroyed.

At a dinner with some old SUDS mates, I recounted the kidnapping story and finally cried. I'd had PTSD for three decades. I refused, and still refuse, to identify as a victim.

But writing the book was a way of supporting the critical focus shift MeToo has catalysed: from the abused to the abuser.

When you look back at this time, what do you wish you had known?

Nothing to be honest. When I hitchhiked at 19, I was intellectually precocious with the EQ of a toddler.

I was ignorant and arrogant, an atrocious combination. My certainty that nothing could get in my way, that no-one could impede the glorious path I'd set myself, helped me survive the kidnapping.

But I had a universe of things to learn. About kindness, about authenticity, about my privilege and others' lack of it. The trip stripped away everything I knew of the world.

It showed me the things I was chasing were meaningless. There's a yin-yang rule on the great open road - for every decent stranger who gives you a lift, the other's always a f***wit.

My companion Andrew Peisley and I survived by busking Slim Dusty songs in pubs for counter-meals and cashing his dole cheque in towns along the way. We met extraordinary characters, both generous and hostile.

One of our most unforgettable rides was with two petty criminals in a stolen Commodore from Perth, who set up camp with us on Queensland's Airlie Beach for three days.

By the end of it, I truly believed the best-things-in-life-are-free trope, that all I needed was honest friends, the wind in my hair, and a glowing campfire around which to share stories and sing.
Having to survive in Sydney eradicated all that. But I'm glad I got to experience it.

What early money lessons did you pick up from your parents?

Sensible things. Never use credit. Spend less than you earn.

What effect did that have?

I take risks creatively but never financially. I never self-fund my films.

Instead, I secure investors and producing partners up front, and make sure the budget includes a liveable wage. I feel strangely conflicted about being extravagant.

A financial turning point? 

Saving enough as a freelancer to buy my first flat at 29, a tiny, converted boiler room at the bottom of a 1920s Coogee block. It cost $98,000.

I've relied on bricks and mortar, not stocks, ever since. I'm appalled my daughter's generation could work and save as hard as I did, but never get this opportunity.

Best investment you've made?  

My current house, which was an investment in my daughter's childhood.

We wanted an old-school neighbourhood where kids could walk to each other's homes and the corner shop, and cycle to the park. It meant leaving the coast, but I don't regret it.

Worst investment decision you've made? 

Signing away the back-end revenue on my films to other people.

There is a saying in the movie business that if your film makes money, there's something wrong with your distributor.

How would you spend your last $50? 

That's a tough one. If I knew anything about plants, I'd by enough seeds to nurture a village.

I'd probably shout my beloveds to an old-school feed of salty hand-cut fries and Aussie burgers with the lot (beetroot and grilled pineapple) on an empty, windless beach.

Your next challenge? 

Maybe it's impossible but... a sci-fi using deepfakes.

Finish this sentence: Money is good for... 

Producing work that helps us be better humans in an increasingly tech-obsessed world.

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Vanessa Walker is the managing editor of Money and one of the hosts of the Friends With Money podcast. She is a journalist, author and former editor in chief of Houzz. Vanessa has a Bachelor of Political Science and post graduate studies in journalism. Connect with her on LinkedIn.