Making documentaries since 1992, Oren Siedler’s most recent production, Bruce and Me, is the autobiographical story of her relationship with her father who “behaves like no one else … he’s a criminal who steals just enough to get by.” Over coffee in Toronto, JWR asked her how this project got off the ground.
I’m a regular at IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival, held in Amsterdam every November) where I got to connect with all kinds of filmmakers including Ed Barreveld. He saw my Red Sand Blue Seas the year it was accepted into competition, and had listened to my pitch of Bruce and Me, but it wasn’t ‘til I left him some of the early transfers that I really caught his attention: he called me within hours, wanting to help make the film.
Turning the camera on yourself and your family can be risky. What challenges did you face?
This is not a film you can make in your 20s. You need to be middle-aged to look back properly and not worry about what others might think. The camera always gives you an excuse to go behind the scenes, but for this project I was the only one who could gain the trust and access to the family. My grandmother wouldn’t have let anyone else in the house. With such a personal film, except for editing, there can’t be any distance between the creator and the subjects. So I took on as much control as possible (director, writer, camera) and shot footage for years, whenever time and finances permitted. I enjoyed the experience. Now that the film is completed and scheduled for broadcast and other film festivals, I can look back with amazement that I’d get paid to tell my life story.
And what a life it’s been! Born in New York into a decidedly non-conformist family, immigrating to Australia after your mother divorced Bruce and remarried, what drew you to filmmaking?
When I was twelve, Bruce gave me a camera. I was hooked right away and thought I was good. My first boyfriend was a filmmaker so I experienced all aspects early on. During my studies at Sydney’s University of Technology, we spent many hours deconstructing the work of others, but overall my time there was more creative than technical. Once I graduated, I felt ready to tackle any subject from religion to relationships so made six films over the span of a decade before feeling ready to tackle myself.
Knowing how “lucrative” independent documentary production is, how else did you make your living between projects?
Mom insisted that I begin violin lessons when I was nine. And I’m glad she did. I’ve been a member of the Cape Barn Quartet since its inception over five years ago. We play Baroque and Classical repertoire for weddings, receptions and special events. It’s far more enjoyable than my experience with the Sydney Youth Orchestra—not nearly as frustrating. With chamber music, every part is different: if I don’t play it, there aren’t a dozen others to fill the gap. I also have a number of students; once I’ve got them through the basics, I pass them along to a colleague who pushes them further.
Beyond IDFA, what are the other important festivals for documentaries?
Hot Docs (Toronto), Sundance and Berlin are at the top of the list, but I will also show Bruce and Me at this year’s Adelaide Festival (February 2005). It just missed the cut at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), but with so many entries there’s always a numbers’ game; although it’s harder to deal with rejection when it’s such a personal film.
What’s on the horizon?
I just want to continue making films. I’d rather phase out my teaching and never have another 9-5 job again. Lots of projects are brewing—there’s a cult in Oregon that intrigues me. But whichever one comes next, I know from making Bruce and Me that if I really focus, I’ll be rewarded in special ways: time, energy and life. JWR