Armstrong burst into the world of cinema with her debut feature, ‘My Brilliant Career’ in 1979. She has directed 25 documentaries, short films and feature-length movies in less than 40 years, is the first President of the Australian Director’s Guild and has received a Member of the Order of Australia for her services to the Australian Film Industry.
The series ‘The Inspiring Story of Us’ follows outstanding every-day Australians; ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The film documents the honesty, humility and generosity of its subjects.
MiNDFOOD interviewed Armstrong ahead of the release of ‘The Inspiring Story of Us’.
Thanks for speaking to us today. I just watched the movie this morning, I think it took about two and a half minutes for the tears to start coming. It was a beautiful film.
Oh wonderful. Well it’s their stories. We are just the humble conveyers that are trying our best to put it together in a form that would take you in. I’m very honoured to have been able to do that. There are more stories, of course, that we haven’t had time to put in but I think we are still proud we managed to get around twenty and they’re a great mix across Australia. I was amazed at how some people just talk into their camera, or their mum or their boyfriend filming them and were so honest, and generous and told some great things from the heart. We had no idea what we’d get. So I was really amazed. And it is really beautiful shooting.
What struck me about the film was how in one of the last couple of minutes, one of the people had written ‘if somebody says to you that you cant do something then turn around and tell them that you can’. I suppose that kind of resonated, as the root of this story and that exact theme.
That was Kheloud, who is the art therapist for disabled children. There are some wonderful things that came from [the film] like ‘put your good deeds in the dark and your bad deeds in the light’ and a lot of people have come out of it counting how many months they have left on this planet [see film for reference].
All the participants are seeing it today for the first time, because it goes live tomorrow so we wanted them to see it first and I’ve never met them. So I’m really looking forward to their reaction when they see not only themselves but they see everyone else because I think they are a wonderfully inspiring group, the whole lot of them.
I loved the fact that it was a crowd-sourced venture and that these people had just as much input in the product without being there. But I loved that it was an insight into their lives, and you included what other people exclude as bloopers or outtakes and it made these people so much more approachable, so much more believable.
That’s what you should notice, which is hard during this stuff. I mean some of them were so conscientious. They didn’t have a director there; normally I’m there in a documentary, so if someone doesn’t answer the question properly we can sort of put it to them again or say ‘do you want to reword that’. So they really did a fantastic job and of course, they said what they wanted to say and filmed what they wanted to film. We were delighted when we saw for instance on day one Mike put the iPhone on the ground and drove the truck over it. And Ryan, with the drones and go pros, did some shots walking around his house with the camera on his head. That in the end that was the exciting thing, seeing all the different styles and ways they filmed themselves or their husbands or boyfriends or partners or mothers filmed them. So it was a thank you to everyone. Whoever the person was running around at 5am and filming them. It’s a great thank you to those kind people that helped.
It’s important that you’re profiling these amazing, incredible Australians. Today we’re overcome with oversaturated and unfiltered images of worldwide conflict and violence. How important are films such as The Inspiring Story of Us in reminding Australians that we are a nation of extraordinary people with stories that inspire us?
Absolutely, and it’s that we can be them too. I think that that’s part of it. I think that what comes through is that it’s not just a story about all these do-gooders. What’s interesting to me is why do they do this? Monica [Monica’s doggy rescue, one of the film’s subjects] gave up a high paying career. The Green Team in Canberra, Green Shed, they all had other careers and they came together with that concept. They’re helping things not just go back into landfill. At the same time, they have a whole scheme that they have to work to make profit so they can then donate a certain amount to charity. I mean that’s an extraordinary business model, which I think is such a great example to other people. They also employ a number of intellectually disabled people there and they pay a proper wage. You just think, well they are just simple things that so many businesses could do. The fact that they are happy to be flexible so that University students can have a part-time job in their business, while they are trying to study for exams and things like that. If other companies did that how many other students could they help? Of course it’s wonderful to see there are inventors and scientists and Russell Jack in Bendigo, where the Chinese Museum is, he fought to get something on that told, the Chinese story in Australia. But out of it all, I really got a sense that they actually had very satisfying lives. And as Jane says about her embroidery and yarn bombing, I could do such a tiny thing that brings pleasure to people.
They all said so many wonderful things and I couldn’t put them all in. They were saying things like ‘Just be nice. Think about being nice to people.’ It’s really a good thing to remind us, a society that is hearing so much negativity and terrible issues about cruelty and also a society that in some ways has become obsessed with the emptiness of celebrities. There are things in life that will give you greater happiness and maybe it is just planting a seed and having an urban garden or something. I think that there are such wonderful messages from them. It’s about why and what made them do what they do and what effect is it having on them. A lot of them have made sacrifices but I think you really see that maybe it is a part of the key to happiness. Find something you love or give something back to other people. Just have a bit of compassion and a tiny bit of generosity and do one good thing a month.
What sparked your interest in this project in the first how? What was the primary reason for jumping on board with this project?
Well the CommBank approached me because they’d been doing this Australian of the day project on their website for, at that point, about 7 months and they could see it was coming to an end. So they wanted to make this little crowd-sourced film to celebrate all these wonderful people. The first thing I did was I went online and had a look at all these Australians. I started reading all their stories and I thought they are amazing. They are fantastic, and they’re unique and they’re funny. So I immediately thought that it was a really worthwhile thing and I knew it would be a challenge.
It’s been a fantastic thing and I’m happy I agreed with them that, yes, everyone hears about Australian of the Year, and they’re often people who have had a long history of doing huge things, but people that never get awarded or credited are out there all over Australia and I’m very happy to celebrate them.
I’ve been really thrilled and honoured at how honest and generous they were in shooting really intimate stuff like waking up and having the camera in their homes. I think they’ve been incredibly brave and I’m really proud of them all. I hope when they all see it today they feel happy. I’m very impressed with all of them. I’m all of their biggest fan.
In terms of filmmaking, going back to the beginning to My Brilliant Career, it made such an indelible print on Australian Cinema and is a huge part of your legacy as a critically acclaimed Australian film director. Is your motive today the same as when you made that film?
For me, I’ve always been interested in people. You know, who we are, why do we do what we do. All the films I’ve done, I’ve only ever taken on stories that I believe in and I cared about and I thought underneath there was a message, not ever wanting to hit people over the head. I always want people to laugh and cry. I’ve always felt the sort of films I care about myself have a humanitarian base. I’m not interested in films that are just about killing or revenge. I’m interested in human beings being more positive in life. But also the questions of what makes us do these things and why do people have heartbreak or hurt each other and why do families break up? So ‘people’ stories are my thing and of course, real people stories, that old cliché, are so much more extraordinary than you ever expect and I’ve enjoyed that with all the documentaries that I’ve done. I just find people fascinating.
What words of wisdom or advice would you pass on to young Australians who are yet to come across a passion or an interest that inspires them, either work-wise or even personally?
That’s a very good question because I do feel I’ve been so fortunate in my life that I found something that I was good at, and I am still learning, so it’s a passion that hasn’t gone away. Out of all the other jobs along the way I actually failed at, I wasn’t a very good cinematographer. I’m hopeless at numbers. But I love story telling and I found that. Over the years I’ve had producers say to me, “Oh you have the best job, because you’re the creative.” And I said, “I couldn’t have made this film without your skills as a sales person because you raised the money and I don’t have that skill”. It could be that you’re great at sales. It could be that you’re a really skilful driver. There are so many things. I think I’d say to a young person, and I’ve said it to my girls, you’ve just got to try things because sometimes you go out, you try it and then you walk away and go “Now I know that’s not the way I want to go” so you didn’t fail. You’ve got to consider that these things aren’t failures. You learned something from that. From the beginning, I thought I might be a film editor and it was in that year that I was being trained that I realised I can’t bear to be in the dark all the time, I mean it was the smallest thing. I loved editing but I thought if that’s what I’d have to do all the time then no. I know people say choice isn’t easy because you’ve got to pay the bills and your rent and so on but I think you’ve got to trust your instincts. If you’re in a job where you are unhappy walk away, because it’s your life.
‘The Inspiring Story of Us’ was created in partnership with CommBank. The film is available to watch at www.australianoftheday.com.au.