Though Australian documentary filmmakers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson operate in the direct-cinema tradition of Frederick Wiseman, shooting hundreds of hours of intimate footage on politically oriented subjects, they usually come to focus on the individuals, not the institutions. Their newest and best documentary, Facing the Music, is also their last as partners on film and in life: Anderson died from cancer in March, at the age of 51. A graduate in sociology from Columbia University, she recorded the sound while Connolly manned the camera. Sound is forefront in Facing the Music, wherein University of Sydney professor of music Anne Boyd’s rapid radicalization is intercut with her students’ classical performances and, climactically, her own.
Connolly and Anderson first garnered international acclaim for a post-colonialist trilogy set in Papua New Guinea coffee plantations (First Contact, Joe Leahy’s Neighbours, and Black Harvest); they tend to focus on political animals, struggling to accumulate power, who come to realize they’re at the mercy of others above and below them. Their best-known film, 1996’s Rats in the Ranks, is a revealing, often hilarious exposé of low-level politicos in the Sydney suburb of Leichardt, seen through the smiling machinations of Larry Hand, a Machiavelli-lite mayor running for re-election who gave the filmmakers free rein to capture his petty, um, hand-twisting.
Hand’s analogue in the graver, more politically committed Facing the Music is Boyd, a preternaturally conservative department head. We are introduced to the frumpy yet fierce composer before her first-ever union meeting, as she proclaims striking to be “not dignified” and “tacky.” (She shouldn’t talk: The music department’s collective wardrobe is hideous. Veteran associate prof Winsome Evans, for one, sports a tie-dyed Led Zeppelin T-shirt.) With decreased public funding, though, the overburdened head confronts more cuts than a deli at lunch rush, and soon is turning away cars on the picket line. Still, she refuses to protest for merely personal economic reasons. Most profs answer the traditional “What do we want?” chant with “Job security!” Boyd, clutching a broken megaphone, squawks, “Quality!”
In a meticulous style that often appears offhanded, the directors chronicle Boyd’s journey step-by-step, pausing to eavesdrop on the teacher talking to herself. But the film encompasses more than one woman’s struggle: Like many professors in the new educational order, Boyd is ill-prepared for her administrative duties. Few social scientists are able to enliven an issue like Connolly and Anderson, and few documentarians have their dramatic intuition. In one scene, Boyd takes out her mounting frustrations in a tutorial with a chubby student (who bears a strong resemblance to Boyd’s other whipping girl, Winsome). Instead of trailing the professor as she fetches a conciliatory cup of tea, the filmmakers remain fixed on the crying pupil until, as we watch in astonishment, she rips up her composition.
Plunged into the nasty world of faculty politics, where few still share her old-fashioned beliefs in the greater service of higher education, Boyd is likewise confronted by the irreconcilable truth that it’s best to start anew. A tragic heroine as stubborn and out of sorts as Beethoven, she can’t comprehend that it’s the system that’s morally bankrupt, not the minds of the few in charge, even as she’s lecturing to her students that Western composers are subversive by nature. Connolly and Anderson end with the images and sounds of students performing their graduation pieces under a series of somber, heartbreaking titles, and the music that Boyd has urged her students to write, with the purpose of “getting closer to God,” justly has the plaintive feel of a funeral dirge.