How cinematographer Michael Wilkins’ small corporate job for a local City Council evolved into the acclaimed documentary it became  by Michael Wilkins 

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A scene from the documentary ‘Homefront’ – DOP Michael Wilkins

What happens when you destroy a war memorial and what do you put in its place? These questions faced Arts Officer, Colin James, and Project Manager and Artist, Amanda Gibson as they looked for ways to replace the much-loved Greensborough War Memorial statues, in outer Melbourne.

The genesis of the project for me was filming a ceremonial fire to farewell water-damaged war memorial sculptures that had stood in a local Melbourne park for the last twelve years, and had rotted from the inside. The sculptures had been carved from cypress pine by local Melbourne chainsaw artist Leigh Conkie. Leigh’s friend, International chainsaw artist Hikaru Kodama, was engaged to carve most of the replacement sculptures due to his unique ability to capture emotion and movement in his carvings. 

The film began as a small job to document the project in a linear way over ten minutes for Banyule City Council. When the enormity of the project, including the sensitive consultation and engagement with Veterans, Aboriginal Elders and local community, revealed itself I felt it was a story that needed to be given the right amount of time to tell properly. As a result we filmed interviews with seventeen people including Vietnam, Afghanistan and WWII Veterans to help give some background and context to the meaning behind the sculptures. 

What began as a seemingly straightforward short-form documentation of a sculpture project, became an exploration of the meaning behind public art and the power of community engagement. Homefront evolved into a forty-eight minute documentary, shot over fifty-five days, with a timespan of over twelve months. 

A scene from the documentary ‘Homefront’ – DOP Michael Wilkins

The two visual hooks for me were capturing the inspired carving of Hikaru Kodama, and the remarkable blacksmithing of Roland Dannenhauer. The two, alongside local chainsaw artist Leigh Conkie, created some exceptional work under the creative lead of Melbourne artist and designer Amanda Gibson, who is also the film’s producer. I originally met Amanda while working as cinematographer on Andrew Garton’s documentary Forged from Fire (2019) which followed the creation of the Blacksmiths’ Tree for nine years following the Black Saturday fires of 2009. The tree is a ten metre tall sculpture with over 3,500 hand hammered leaves contributed by local and international blacksmiths. Amanda was also the creative lead on that sculpture project. 

Homefront, begins with the burning of the old statues in a ceremonial fire. What unfolds, through interviews with local war veterans, are narratives of terrible injuries, paralysing fear, humour, and love. Homefront is a rare insider’s view of a sculpture project where the people at the heart of these stories drove the design.

The film was shot on my Sony F5 with a mixture of 4K and 2K in S-Log2 for a 2K DCP cinema delivery, and a 1080p television master. The B-camera for interviews was a Sony A7S. Due to budget limitations I used a mixture of Canon L series primes and zooms. I’ve been shooting 2:1 aspect ratio on a lot of my corporate work for a number of years and thought that would work well with the subject matter. All the drone footage was shot on a DJI Phantom 4 in 4K. 

Homefront has just had its run at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival where it was nominated for Best Melbourne Documentary, and a sold out community screening at Greensborough Hoyts in Melbourne. We’ve had overwhelmingly positive responses from veterans and their families at the way their stories have been told. The film has also been acquired by SBS-TV for three years and will get its first television broadcast at 3.00pm this coming Remembrance Day, 11 November. After that it will be available on SBS on Demand.

Michael Wilkins is a member of the Victorian branch of the ACS.

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