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Ian Darling is in the arena
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Ian Darling is in the arena
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“I realised that unless I was prepared to get into the arena I’d actually never be a real artist and I could never call myself a documentary filmmaker. “
Conversations
2 March 2017

Ian Darling is in the arena

Interview by Berry Liberman
Louisa Eagleton

Berry Liberman on Ian Darling

In October I flew to Sydney to spend a day at the Opera House witnessing the very first Good Pitch2 Australia. If ever I needed an infusion of hope, this was it. Gathered in this iconic, awe-inspiring place were storytellers, philanthropists, business folk and politicians.

Seven filmmakers had been chosen to pitch their documentaries to the influential audience, asking for support. It was EXTRAORDINARY. In a few hours two milions dollars was raised, deep relationships were forged and invaluable social and political goodwill was garnered around some of the most pressing issues facing  Australia today.

It was a powerful testament to the capacity of storytelling to move us and remind us to be better and braver. At the centre of it all was Ian Darling, the ringmaster, hitting his stride as he brought filmmakers around the table with folks they wouldn’t normally be in the same room with—all because of a deep belief that for real and lasting change to take place, we must be having conversations with unlikely partners.

I first met Ian at a breakfast in support of the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Al Gore tour. Since then I’ve always known him to be where the real game changing work is taking place. Whether it’s for the environment, youth homelessness, child welfare, you name it, Ian will most likely be there creating an activist film or campaign around the issue.

But it wasn’t always this way. As a young man, Ian did what was expected of him. He played the part of sportsman, studied the “right” subjects at university, moved into a career in finance and did very well. On the outside he was successful, but on the inside he harboured a burning desire to be an artist. Twice he walked through the revolving doors at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) for an audition, and twice he walked right back out again—a secret he kept for many years.

At the age of 38, after a year of soul-searching and time away from his business, Ian found the courage to live the life he was always destined for. Fast forward to today and the Ian I’m talking to no longer hides any of his talent. From businessman to filmmaker, there are no apologies for the many hats he wears. His deep commitment to supporting robust storytelling that informs, heals and connects people has also seen him build a retreat in Kangaroo Valley in the NSW countryside.

It’s a two and a half-hour drive down from Sydney and I’m bowled over by the beauty of the natural landscape. As we venture into the valley I’m gripped by a spiritual energy, an echo of the generations who inhabited this land before us. It feels fitting that a space has been created here for artists, activists, thinkers and doers to come together to create and share stories around building a better world. For me, it’s been profoundly moving to witness these gatherings—and to witness the vision of a remarkable leader and a wonderful man I’m very proud to call my friend.

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

BERRY LIBERMAN: I was lucky enough to bear witness to the extraordinary success of Good Pitch at the Sydney Opera House. But maybe you can start by explaining what it is.

IAN DARLING: It’s an event that lasts a whole day where we build a community. In many ways it’s a  force for good. We ended up with a room of about 350 like-minded people—from not-for-profits, the business community, philanthropists, filmmakers—all coming together around seven documentary projects, seven really powerful stories. Each filmmaker had a half-hour slot to present their film. And they showed a trailer but they also had to talk about their motivations for the film and how it could affect social change. Then we had a table of eight to 10 members from the community. And as moderator I went around seeing how each of them could work with the film.

What came out of the day?

Well, it was extraordinary. I think we created a safe space where people could share, and where people felt comfortable to publicly give. Over the course of the day we created over 60 new coalitions. And there were extraordinary offers of pro-bono support for the films. We also raised over two million dollars in philanthropic funding.

Wow.

And that was both for completing the films and kickstarting their outreach and community engagement campaigns. That was a first. Because the government funding bodies don’t provide funding for outreach. That’s why it’s so important to get private support.

So you can actually make an impact. A lasting one.

That’s right. One of the original Good Pitch films was Invisible War, about rape in the military. Through the outreach they were able to get that film to the White House, and suddenly legislative change happened. That’s the heart of it. An amazing feature documentary that will move people and shift them to action.

For the past few years you’ve been on adventures in search of something. Is Good Pitch it?

Yeah, I think so. I was searching for something that would create a community. Many years ago we set up the Documentary Australia Foundation, and that was a really important part of the journey. It was a vehicle with charitable status that enabled foundations and individuals to give. And we spent a lot of time raising awareness about how to use storytelling in philanthropy.

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #42 of Dumbo Feather

But I think there’s nothing like bringing people together face-to-face as a community to show the importance of collaboration and what can happen when you’ve got shared values.

So I guess I was searching for something that would have this profound cocktail of creation. It didn’t dawn on me straight away that Good Pitch was it.

When you decided to bring Good Pitch to Australia, how did you go about it?

I went to things like the Do Lectures, TED and Sundance. I went to summits and producer labs around the world. I took from all of that and used it to build on the Good Pitch model. The Shark Island Institute at Kangaroo Valley was an important element. We brought the filmmakers down here for two four-day labs before the Good Pitch event. We took them out of their comfort zones to a place that’s safe and inspiring and ripe for collaboration. That’s never been done before in the Good Pitch model.

Exciting.

We thought we could go the next step of getting them together to discuss their pitches and outreach programs by taking them off-site, eating together, sleeping in the same lodge and just having all day and night to share ideas and stories and concerns. By thetime we got to Good Pitch we had seven teams that were not only going to give great presentations on the day, but who really understood how to work with the philanthropic and not-for-profit communities and what they could do with their films. They were so deeply invested in where their film was going to take them.

And the rest of us.

Right. And you could feel it on the day.

You could feel these deeply committed filmmakers who were going to do whatever they could to make an impact with their films.

It’s hard to explain the emotion that built over the course of the day, what we felt in  the room. The stories spanned so many important issues so by the end it was like we’d had this profound national conversation. And ceremony. When one thinks of ceremony and sitting around in circles and what that’s represented for thousands and thousands of years, this is actually just getting back to basics. The thing that really worked was getting unlikely allies together, getting business people sitting at the same table as environmentalists, artists, not-for-profits and filmmakers. I think that’s what gave us hope.

Absolutely. There was so much hope in the room.

What also worked is that it didn’t feel like another talkfest. I hate conferences, period. To me they’re too one-way. You get a lecture and leave. Whereas everyone in the room at Good Pitch had to ask themselves, “What can I do? How can I help?” And not everyone had the means to give financially. But everyone had the ability to say, “I know someone who may be able to use this film.”

You actually had the different levels of giving: someone giving $200,000 in a pledge, and then a woman giving $1000 because she felt compelled to.

There was one wonderful gentleman who  had 15 grandchildren and gave $15,000 to a project. I think that humanises it as well.  We never wanted it to be something where people felt a particular donation was too small. At the end of the day we had to raise a lot of money unashamedly and we never knew what was going to come.

I think everybody agreed that for too long we’ve been telling a very despairing, very destructive story of humanity.

I think people weren’t afraid to confront the difficult stories. Sometimes when you immerse yourself in the world of storytelling, you can feel quite hopeless. Because the stories are so heavy. But we felt the opposite—that if we provide a platform to tell the stories and contextualise them with humanity, create an outreach program, a campaign, then we can shift the consciousness. A story about domestic violence seen through the eyes of the perpetrator is complex and confronting for a whole lot of reasons, but we felt if we can’t have a conversation like that at Good Pitch, where can we?

Ah! The rain’s just hit. So beautiful!

Isn’t it great? It’s a big tin roof. One of the nicest feelings in the world for me is going to sleep under a tin roof when it’s raining.

We’re looking at the southern highlands of New South Wales here— it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. How did Kangaroo Valley come to be?

I guess I’ve always believed in the power of bringing people together. I remember coming down to Kangaroo Valley for the first time about 20 years ago and feeling a real sense of spiritual energy and artistic freedom. We’ve had a little shack down by the river for many years which we’d come down to on weekends and holidays with the kids. It’s just a really simple place where there’s no TV and we get back to good old-fashioned conversations and board games and playing in the river. There’s something nice about that simplicity.

I’ve spent a lot of time walking in the bush and climbing mountains and walking across deserts, and I think I’ve always had my biggest thoughts when I’ve been out of the cities.

There’s a history of congregation here too. The original tribes of the area came to Kangaroo Valley as a place of ceremony. And there was something encouraging me internally to see what could be done by bringing people together.

It feels like a shared space. It’s a real gift to community. I guess I’m still a little haunted by something you said to me earlier—that you don’t feel you have a story worth telling.

It’s funny. I’m suddenly getting more nervous as the interview goes on thinking, My god, I still haven’t been able to give any value. You’ve come all this way. And I still don’t have the story in me. Being a documentary filmmaker, I love having these conversations on the other side. But I’ve never felt I’ve had a story to tell. So it’s quite confronting. But I think also some of the best projects I’ve done have been ones where I’ve gone out of my comfort zone. And this place we’re sitting in took far more courage to build than I realised, because I couldn’t articulate how it was going to be used. I just knew that if we created these circles the art would do the rest.

But you’ve strayed from the question. Why don’t you think you have a story worth telling?

Perhaps ‘cause I feel there are many layers to that question.  One is I’ve had an incredibly fortunate upbringing. And I think that though I’ve been given such an extraordinary education and I’ve grown up in a happy home and I’ve had a degree of success in business, I don’t know I’ve actually achieved anything that profound, made much of a contribution. It feels very much like a work in progress. Maybe it’s a bit like my film—I don’t like talking about the films I’m making until they’re completed. Would you share your essays or interviews with me while they’re still in production?

Yes I would. [Laughs].

Okay. Well, I guess I’ve learnt that too—that’s it’s so important over the journey of the film that I’m not precious, and I get as much feedback as I can.

What would success feel like to you? When would you have a story to tell?

I think I’m feeling much more comfortable because over 52 years you’ve had so many more encounters and experiences. And I think in terms of the people I’ve met, some I’ve potentially helped in tiny ways, I’m more comfortable talking about success. Like, I know that I had a hand in the success of Good Pitch, which was so nourishing.

You were the reason it came here! You were the one who activated a whole chain of impact.

And I think Kangaroo Valley enabled us to take the model to a higher plane, you know?

Do you feel proud?

I’m really excited about this because it’s been used in ways that I couldn’t articulate but I dreamt of. Seeing people supporting each other. Seeing people sit around the fire in the courtyard until late at night talking about how they might improve society.

Seeing people experience the pure joy of conversation. I think that’s something we don’t place enough emphasis on, and something I’ve learnt from you guys: the art of conversation. I think we’ve lost the art of conversation. Previous generations took it for granted. In many ways that’s at the heart of Good Pitch: starting new conversations and taking them to the next level. It gets back to the fact that we don’t need another talk-fest. We’ve been working in silos in business, in philanthropy, in the not-for-profit sector, in film.

We’ve all been self-interested, not prepared to work together, and right now the state of the country and the world is reflective of that.

Taking collective responsibility is really the only hope we have for any of these  social issues, whether it’s here or the Middle East. I guess this is a microcosm of what needs to happen.

Tell me about the turning points in your life.

Well, one of the first conversations where I remember articulating what I wanted to do was in 1968 and I was six. I had this great friend, Mark, and his grandfather was one of those really wonderful people who took an interest in young people. He said to me, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to be a filmmaker.”

No! You were only six…

And he was really encouraging. He and his wife were these interesting bohemian raconteurs, and their dinner parties were something you’d only dream of today. Maybe it was actually witnessing their dinner parties at a young age—when I was so impressionable—that made me see the value in coming together now.  But anyway. His philosophy really stayed with me. And I made my first film with a friend of mine when I was eight. It was called, Hooray, Hooray, The Holidays Start Today.

[Laughs].

I was never that academic at school. I really had to struggle to get through. But I always remembered every single word of the school play. I knew everyone’s lines. So, you know, not only did I want to make films, I wanted to be an actor too. I always felt so alive when I was on stage—they were the most magical moments at school. I think my expected path was to do commerce and work in business and get an MBA and to a degree I wasn’t questioning of that. But I knew that my heart was in some area of the arts. I think it’s really irresponsible, unless contextualised, to say to someone, “Follow your dreams and all will be fine.” Because while I had my interests and my dreams, I hadn’t experienced enough to know where my passions lay. It’s all very well that I really wanted to be an actor. But I think also having enough broad experiences so you can keep questioning and defining your path is important. I’m sure when you left school you wouldn’t have been able to articulate that you wanted to do what you’re doing and have the impact you’re having through business and storytelling.

It’s unexpected. But it was always there I think.

So I wasn’t saying, “I want to be a social impact documentary filmmaker and create these incredible circles.” It had something to do with storytelling. And I felt that being an actor was perhaps the purest way. I wanted to tell stories through the prism of someone else.  So at university I was doing a lot of plays still. And a number of my friends from school and university went off and applied to NIDA and got in. And there was a yearning there and a disappointment that I actually wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do at that point in time.

What were you doing?

Commerce. And not that engaged with it.

It was what was expected?

Yeah. And it was the path of least resistance. I was really accepting of the status quo and that seemed like the right thing to do. And my eyes hadn’t been opened to what perhaps I could do. But while I felt totally comfortable on stage, I was actually a very shy person at school. I think one of my fears may still be entering a room of strangers and wondering where to go.

I feel much more comfortable speaking in front of 2000 people than I do walking into a group of three or four.

I’m getting much better though. Perhaps because I do feel—this is where I’m going to contradict myself—I do feel more comfortable with my own story, that I can have a reasonably instructive conversation with a much broader group of people than before.

Because you’ve taken risks.

Had a lot of experiences. But I think the reason I was so passionate about being an actor was having this shared experience with a group of people who you are listening to and interacting with. And affecting the way an audience feels. Plus, I really believed I had inherent skills. I felt I had a sense on stage. I could tell when someone was drifting and when they were going to miss their lines. So I went to NIDA and walked in the revolving door at that stage.

How old are you at this point?

Final stages of university, so 21, 22. I walked in, and walked straight out.  I suddenly felt I was trespassing in someone else’s life.

That’s so sad! You’ve just told me how engaged you were in that part of yourself and that space.

I also thought I was a very good footballer and as soon as I started playing at university level I was pummelled on the field and realised I was fooling myself.

So why did you go straight out the revolving door?

A number of reasons. One I now realise is that to be a great actor you not only need incredible skill and energy, but also a great willingness to fail. And I was obviously too afraid to fail on that level. What if I’d gone through that process and was rejected? I’ve learned to thrive on rejection now as a documentary filmmaker. Because you have to. I also think my innermost fear was having to reveal this to my father.

What did you think he was going to say?

It’s interesting because phrasing it like that I realise I never had the courage to have the conversation. I think he would have been incredibly questioning. He would have felt it was the wrong thing and I would be giving up an enormous number of opportunities in the business world and the ability to provide for the family. But I never had that conversation. So it was all in my mind.

Are you sorry now you didn’t have that conversation?

It’s hard to know because now I’m doing what I’m doing and feeling so in the zone, or in flow, everything’s turned out okay. I can have pretensions about where I felt my talents lie, but if at that moment I was too scared to fail and even too scared to have the conversation, I wouldn’t have been able to develop the scar tissue that was necessary.

So you launched yourself into the world of finance?

And I had a wonderful four years with—I believe the terminology was— a “stockbroking firm slash investment bank.” Two in New York and two in Melbourne. It was interesting, because I was a research analyst and I did a number of corporate videos. So rather than just the written word, I tried to sell the prospects of these companies in video form as well. Then at that same time I was thinking,  Do I go on and do an MBA or do I have another crack at NIDA?

Oh my god! After those four years?

Yeah. And that revolving door was still there. And it propelled me out again.

You did exactly the same thing?

Walked in, walked out. But also I’d been accepted into this wonderful business school in Switzerland called IMEDE. And I felt this was going to be another journey and platform for doing something different. More tools for the toolbox. I was with 65 students from 29 different countries and it was just this wonderful melting pot.

And you were really inspired by Warren Buffett there.

Yeah. There was this seminal 1983 report he wrote, and it was a business language I’d never come across. It just seemed so simple and so human. And he seemed so caring. Yet he had the best investment track record around. It wasn’t either or.

It was someone who could do the right thing by his community and his shareholders and empower his management teams to make the right decisions.

What were your experiences of business like?

My first was during the ’80s bull market where all these corporate raiders were poaching on companies that had good values and stripping them down and getting rid of people. I guess
I was questioning whether this was the way business happened. Discovering Warren Buffett was one of those “ah-hah!” moments where you read something that is so counter to what was happening in the industry. He was this wholesome guy who many Americans knew, but not so many Australians. He was one of my business heroes.

And so we jump forward to your late thirties. You’ve been married, had children. You’ve had huge success in business.

I don’t know whether it was huge success. I came back from business school and helped set up a private investment management business. I guess it depends on how you value success. It was financially rewarding. I think we created a great franchise. I learnt an enormous amount personally. I had great enjoyment going over to Warren Buffett’s meeting every year, which doubled each time. By the time I made the film Woodstock for Capitalists there were probably 25,000 people attending.

Woodstock for Capitalists?

Yeah, that was an interesting turning point. Because when our youngest daughter was born, I was just in pre-production to start filming.

So hang on. We’ve got to go back. How did you find yourself in filmmaking?

I guess the storytelling bug was still there. I loved seeing lots of theatre and watching films and documentaries.  And I thought, If I don’t make a film now I never will. But to make a film you need a good story. And after going to Warren’s meeting in Nebraska for all these years, I suddenly saw it right under my nose. I wanted to know what was taking people to the middle of America to see this guy in his 70s talk about business. In many ways I was also trying to examine my own behaviour because whenever we went over there, we’d eat at the same restaurant he did, order the same steak.

You were a groupie!

Absolutely. And it became quite obvious on that journey and especially during the making of the film that it was about shared values more than money. You could have gone to any meeting in New York. It didn’t have this broad church of people. They would line up for hours to get their autograph and photo taken. It was a joy! And I felt that was worth capturing on film. Warren Buffett once described it as “a really fun home movie.” And it was. Now it’s a home movie we share with millions of people around the world. The thing I love is how it impacted the family. The Buffetts would apparently screen it at Thanksgiving for years. And Warren’s wife, before she died, wrote me a letter. I felt the tears in her eyes saying, “Thank you for understanding Warren. And thank you for treating him with respect ‘cause he’s a great person.”

This feels quite defining. You’re a businessman and a father and all the things that were expected of you growing up. And then you put a toe in very different water.

Yeah. This bomb had gone off and it was one of the most joyous experiences. I remember having that difficult conversation with my dad. You know, at the ripe old age of 38. That’s how weak I am.

Why weak? I think that’s normal.

Well, there are different types of bravery, but feeling fearful about a conversation with my father—who was the gentlest, most understanding person—was weak. And it was a big moment saying to him, “I want to be a filmmaker more than I want to manage a funds management business.”  Hearing myself say it made me realise that’s what I wanted to do.

What did he say?

He wasn’t comfortable with it. But I think he realised that if I was having that conversation then I’d thought it through very thoroughly. And after really questioning the whole notion, he never once dissuaded me from doing it ever again. I wasn’t absolving my responsibilities. We’d set in place an incredible investment company. There were people far more passionate and capable who were going to take the reins. One of the things my wife and I always dreamt of was giving our kids an extraordinary experience so we took them out of school at ages eight, six and four and drove across the States and Europe and home-schooled them. It helped me to make the physical shift from being a businessperson. It was a really empowering thing. It reminded me of that scene in The Motorcycle Diaries where young Che Guevara and his companion rode away on a mission, and there was this sense of freedom. There are very few times in life when you have that sense of freedom. One of them is after you leave school. Then usually after you leave a job, or university.

What was the response from people in the business world?

I did feel when I entered the documentary space, especially making a film about a businessperson, that I was looked upon with great suspicion. And I think equally there was this assumption that I’d go in, make this film, get it out of my system and go back. But I knew in my heart that it was a point of no return. In the film space I felt like an imposter for many years. I would hear comments like, “It’s alright for him. He’s come from the business world. He doesn’t have to struggle. What does he know about documentary filmmaking and the stories we’re telling?” I think that gave me the courage of my conviction—this is what I really wanted to do. Which helped in the hard times. It’s bloody hard making a film.

Yeah!

When you’re there for three years week in, week out, working with homeless kids or telling stories about child abuse, there’s no red carpet. And there’s a huge amount of sacrifice. When you’re out in the dark and the rain, and no one’s bearing witness to it. That’s where you realise that this is what you want to do. And you’re prepared to make those sacrifices. I think you realise in time that it doesn’t matter where your starting point is. But because I came from an incredibly privileged background—see I still have difficulty saying it!

Why?

I don’t know! I think there’s something associated with whether inherited wealth is a dirty word or fortune. I guess in some ways I feel it’s because of my fortunate upbringing that I’m driven and able to tell these stories. I’ve had a great education and I’ve had an incredible business background. I can harness those experiences.

Yeah. I want to talk about your time as chair of the Sydney Theatre Company, and why you suddenly stepped down.

I guess on one level people generally stay too long in positions of power. I think most CEOs and managing directors stay way too long. All politicians stay too long.

[Laughs].

In some instances a day is perhaps too long. I had the great privilege of coming on at a time when my predecessor had set the ball rolling with Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton’s appointment. Which was so exciting. But it was a time where I’d made a decision not to go on any outside boards. I only wanted to create stuff that I had a direct influence on. So we just set up the Documentary Australia Foundation, which I was chairing. When James Strong, the STC’s chair, asked me, it was almost in slow motion ‘cause I had a sense that he might be asking me to rejoin and it was a “no, don’t do it!” sort of thing. But I accepted, and over those three years not only did
I have the privilege of appointing Cate and Andrew, but with them we made the whole company energy efficient, took on new sponsors and recreated a really dynamic and probably the most successful philanthropic department in any arts company. In many ways there wasn’t much point hanging around. I’d done three years, and David Gonski had made it public that he didn’t have any arts company involvement—he was sitting there waving his arms. So I felt it was time to move on, to actually appoint probably the best chair in Australia.

You closed that chapter.

At that same time I was really questioning whether or not I was prepared to make
a big complex film. And I was sitting in the stands one night watching a play and seeing the actors sweat. Seeing people laugh and fall asleep and feeling how these actors must be sensing the audience. And they were down there working their hearts out, at times having tomatoes thrown at them as well as getting the applause. But they were there in the arena.

I realised that unless I was prepared to get into the arena I’d actually never be a real artist and I could never call myself a documentary filmmaker.

Wow. So the performances gave you courage in a way?

Yeah. Seeing those other artists. If they were putting their bodies on the line, I realised that I had to put mine on the line too. I’ve got a short attention span  as well, which doesn’t make for a very good board member. I don’t really enjoy  the process of meetings. Being upfront about this freed me up to not only create  my films but to create this space, to bring Good Pitch here and enable other storytellers to increase the impact of their stories. And whilst I was in tears when I told Cate and Andrew I was resigning, because I was leaving something I deeply loved, I equally had to live my truth. And that took so much courage.

How was your wife, Min, during all of this?

Amazing. That day I resigned I had to pull across the side of the road and just cry and she was on the other end of the phone, so supportive. She knew it was something I had to do.

So the Ian I know is really open and endlessly curious about other people. Were you always?

I always read biographies.

That’s a hilarious answer! [Laughs].

I love questions where I haven’t thought about the answer.  Some things just come out! I think I’ve become more interested in people the more I’ve learnt about what makes the world go ‘round. The more my eyes are opened to the incredible stories out there that weren’t part of my neighbourhood, the more intrigued I’ve become by people’s struggles and journeys and successes.

Asking questions of another person actually makes you fall more in love with the world.

Yeah. It’s curiosity in the world that will open it up to you. Not being afraid to ask questions. So I think that’s really humbling. And being a storyteller now I realise that everyone has a story. I don’t know why I’m so reluctant to tell my own. But everyone does.

And we learn from each other’s stories.

You realise that people have the incredible propensity to survive. And genuinely do good. I think we’ve got to focus on that, and stop ourselves from being too overwhelmed by the negative.

For every bad story there are so many more good ones.

And that’s what gives us strength as storytellers. If we felt despair at the end of every interview we just wouldn’t be able to continue.

We’d go hide! I’d go hide. Maybe down here in Kangaroo Valley.

[Laughs].

You’ve got three beautiful daughters. What do you want for them?

I want them to be interested and interesting. And do extraordinary things.

What if they don’t?

Well, given they’ve all got the capacity to, I’ll be disappointed for them. I think it’ll be a pity that given their incredible education, the opportunities that they have, I’ll feel sad that they haven’t fulfilled their potential. And that’s not making a judgement. I just want them to feel really satisfied in what they’re doing. I don’t want them to ever be bored. And I don’t want them to not influence someone else’s life—however that may be.

What would you say to 20 year old Ian? He’s sitting right in front of you now.

I would have given myself a big kick up the ass at university and said, “You’ve got the opportunity to really suck the marrow out of this.” I think I wasted my university years academically. I took four years to do a three-year course. ‘Cause I resented what I was doing. I’m really impressed by this generation— when I see what they’re doing at university and how many interests they’re having and how they are abroad. I’m impressed by their level of concern for the planet and their sense of inquiry and their work ethic. The kids who are friends of my kids and my nephews are really good people. I don’t know if I would have said that about me at university. So I think I would have been more rigorous in my questioning of who I was. And maybe I would have thrown rocks at myself.

[Gasps]. You’re so tough on yourself.

Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been motivated by guilt. But I’ve been motivated by having my eyes opened to what’s happening around me, and then I have an incredible sense of responsibility to act. One couldn’t have spent the 10 years I did working with Paul Moulds at the Oasis shelter and not try to make a film about it. And not try to shift government. And not try to influence a whole generation of young Australians to care about homeless people. Once my eyes were open there was no turning back. I feel proud of the fact that that film,  The Oasis, directly influenced government policy. That’s the power of storytelling. We took the plight of young people into the homes of all Australians and backed it up with the first national commission into youth homelessness in twenty years.  There were nights when our film was the first or second report on all the news networks. When I was pulled up by members of the business community about our judgement in programming for Good Pitch the film Frackman, about gas fracking, a lot of them felt  I was selling out, a walking contradiction.

For many years in my new profession as a documentary filmmaker, I’d hidden behind the fact that I had 20 years in the business community.

‘Cause I felt that the two wouldn’t mix and if I was going to be taken seriously as a documentary filmmaker…

You couldn’t have multiple identities.

Especially a business identity. So when I was being questioned about programming this activist film on fracking, I could proudly say, “Well, no,  I don’t think the Australian business community should behave like this.” There’s been such little consultation. And I feel really offended that a company can go in, hide behind the law, railroad people who’ve built their lives out there, and destroy communities by saying, “Well, there’s no proof there are any environmental or health consequences so it’s fine.” A lot of the calls came from people I really like and admire. And they’ve done great things in the philanthropic environment. But when it becomes self-interested everyone puts their blinkers up.

I’m a proud documentary filmmaker. I’m a proud philanthropist. I’m a proud member of many not-for-profits. I wear many hats. And I think combining all these gives me a chance to someday make a profound difference.

Maybe you already have.

Well, when The Oasis came out there were 100,00 Australians who were homeless. There are a 105,000 now. So there’s work to be done.

I know. But we also have to pause and celebrate the work we have done.

We absolutely have to pause and celebrate and I think that’s a great reminder.  I was chatting to a filmmaker who made a beautiful film called Virunga, and they had a victory after the film came out. They stopped a British mining company from mining in a world heritage area. It may have been short-lived, because it has been reported that the mining company’s trying to change the rules and reduce the size of the world heritage national park so that they’re not mining in a national park.

Fuckers.

Fuckers. But that precious moment when the film actually stopped the mining company should have been grabbed and celebrated. Because that’s also the fuel— we all need hope that what we’re doing is making a difference.

And just showing up makes the difference. Because he or she who sits at the table determines the future.

Yeah. So keep interviewing. Because the stories you’re telling are inspiring me and inspiring everyone. Your job will never be done. There’ll always be stories that need to be told. But we need honest accounts of people’s lives, as uncomfortable as they may be.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Louisa Eagleton

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