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Open City = Open Cinema
by Michael Filippidis

The completion of a new film by Melbourne filmmaker Bill Mousoulis is always a cause for anticipation. His films, in both Super 8 and 16mm, devoted to the minutiae of everyday life, have earned him both a staunch following and comparisons with Rohmer.

Open City, Mousoulis’ latest work, may create even more expectation than his other works for the simple reason that it is an eighty minute feature length narrative, shot entirely on Super 8. The significance of this achievement will not be lost on anyone with even the slightest experience of using Super 8 film for dialogue scenes.

Filmed on a budget of $2,000 and using a crew of inexperienced but eager first-time filmmakers, Open City is a rebuff to the forces working against the creative aspirations of filmmakers in this country, be they institutional (Waiting for the Godot known as a grant) or personal (plain old procrastination). The script, which was written in the three-week pre-production period beginning on April 19, was based on an unproduced script written by Andrew Preston for Mousoulis in 1990 when a collaboration between the two was in the works. Production began on May 10 and lasted twenty-five days, with a shooting ratio of 2:1. Post-production editing ended on August 22 when Mousoulis sat down to watch the fine cut from beginning to end for the first time. I was privileged to view the film as well at the screening. I was also privileged to be on the set of a few of the weekend shoots and to observe Mousoulis work.

Picture a warehouse-style loft furnished in the fashion of open plan living (pun intended) and calling to mind an artist’s studio. The space is dotted with lights: four "redheads" (800W) and two blinding lights called "blondies" (2KW). The extension leads for these lights create a perilous terrain all around, where one careless step could blow a light or trip you into tomorrow. The space to be filmed is the couch and TV area making up the living room. Clustered around the coffee table are actors John F. Howard (James) and Georgina Campbell (Christina); with them sits Mousoulis conferring over dialogue and camera setup for the next shot. Behind this trio are the patiently waiting crew members; some adjusting their gear one last time before the call for "action" leaves them with a boom mike angled the wrong way or a light set up with a high spot glaring at the camera from some shiny surface. The trio in the middle discuss the details of gesture and nuance that go into an actor’s performance. Mousoulis listens to his actors’ suggestions, agreeing with some points while correcting others that seem too extreme for what it is that he has in mind.

Minutes pass in this way; eventually, after the rehearsals and dry runs of the scene, Mousoulis calls his crew to stand by for a take. A last minute focus check with a tape measure and Mousoulis gets set to look through the viewfinder and pull the trigger. Quiet fills the loft. A moment of silence while Mousoulis checks the framing one last time and then the word: "Action". The actors wait the necessary one second needed for the post-production problem of editing with a one second delay between sound and image that makes Super 8 such a challenge for dramatic narratives. The one sound to be heard while waiting for the actors to speak is the running of the camera. And then it is all over. Everyone breathes again. The actors prepare to do another take (to be on the safe side). Between takes, or when a crew member needs time to fix something, Mousoulis paces, his hands slapping at his side in restlessness as he strives to sustain the moment of inspiration. And so on, till the day’s quota of shots and scenes is finished.

A Melbourne film if ever there was one, Open City revels in the sights and sounds which Melbourne provides the attentive observer. Few films manage to portray Melbourne as it appears to those who live in it as this film does; Melbourne is both subject and object, both character and background. One leaves the film feeling that Melbourne truly does, as they say, belong to us.

The film’s ostensible theme is violence and the ways open to us to deal with it. Cities like the Forbidden City in China where the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred are closed cities, while Melbourne, as a place where nothing much ever happens, is an open city. The feeling of personal freedom and security which Melbourne fosters is in contrast to the oppression which a war-torn city like Sarajevo so obviously displays. And yet it is never as simple as that, as Open City works to remind us.

Stylistically the film is a mixture of styles and influences, ranging from Rossellini, Antonioni, Godard, and even Scorsese. Such an eclectic, though seemingly contradictory, catalogue of directors and styles is kept in balance by Mousoulis, who as a director values feeling over form. But the question of unified style is less important in Open City than the sheer boldness which Mousoulis displays in his narrative structure: midway through the film a central character is introduced, while the story of the two lead characters acts as a counterpoint to the themes of violence and salvation.

Open City is more than just an examination of violence in our time: its style and the sheer fact of its existence in these financially strained times act as a polemic for an open cinema; a cinema where ideas and feelings are not mutually exclusive in the quest for the viewers’ attention. A time of meager national output, when most of what is made is designed to be film festival fodder in the manner of an Australian tradition of "quality", means that now more than ever we have to learn to be an open film culture; a film culture ready to accept Super 8 as one of its own, and a film culture willing to explore other than mainstream practices. For the filmmakers among us, the lesson of Open City is that narrative drama can be done on Super 8. To quote Godard, "Everything remains to be done."

© Michael Filippidis, September 1993
This article was first published in Filmnews, September 1993.

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