Sarah Watt’s death leaves Australia’s national narrative without one of its most distinctive voices. It also robs its cinema of a wealth of possible images of urban Australia, the kind that would help forge new and much truer mythologies than the outback legends that have so often dominated the Australian screen.

Sarah, like her near contemporary, novelist Helen Garner (notably, in Monkey Grip and The Spare Room), wrote from an exquisite sense of place and made films that reflected that awareness and mirrored it with a piercing clarity.

If you had only seen a few Australian features of late, you might have felt that the greens of suburban bowling clubs (Sue Brooks’ The Road to Nhill [1997], David Caeser’s Greenkeeping [1992]) or suburban railway stations and workers’ cottages (Look Both Ways, 2005) had emerged as master images, and perhaps almost universal metaphors, for the falling away of that generation which fought in World War II and produced the baby boomers.

Watt’s feelings about the Australian suburbs owe nothing to the disdainful dismissal of suburban living by earlier generations of intellectuals and storytellers:

where we [Watt and her family, including her partner, actor William McInnes] live is in the inner western suburbs of Melbourne, next to a railway line, it’s the railway line that has the goods trains, the country trains and the suburban trains – we get a lot of trains – and we moved here originally ’cause it’s the only place that we could afford, cheapest housing in Melbourne, but we’ve just stayed through inertia, probably, and just gradually, just really learning, you know, just loving the area and making friends and it’s got a lot of really good things about it. (1)

In her first major animation, Small Treasures (1995), set in a local swimming pool (though inhabited by sharks, that great Australian memento mori) it’s Watt’s confessional narration and the sunny  soundtrack of summer noise, that remain in the mind. It is in such highly personal and hand-crafted works, rather than in the possibilities of a perfect mimicry of life that CGI (computer generated imagery) offers, that the real achievements of animated documentary – or documentary in animation – truly lie.

Yet Watt was always aware of the tenuous nature of the animator’s life and on the ABC television program Australian Story noted:

I made the film, Small Treasures, after, I’d made my student films and it was kind of the first big film that I’d made. I got funding, I wrote the script. It was a kind of a personal story and so it was something that I really wanted to craft which is the mood you need to be in to make animations, ’cause you sit there day after day after day just drawing and painting cell after cell or frame after frame after frame…. The best way to make a living as an animator is to have a partner who does television drama for five years. (2)

This direct, honest attitude to her craft is reflected in the tight focus and simple stitching together of her almost but not quite, roman-a-clef screenplays, uninflected as they seemingly are by the intervention of funding body imposed script editors!

Born in Sydney, Sarah Watt completed a Graduate Diploma of Film and Television (Animation) at the Swinburne (now VCA) School of Film and Television, Melbourne in 1990. Her student film Catch of the Day (1990) is marked by the very personal style and preoccupations of her future work.

Her first feature film, Look Both Ways, deals with the story of Nick (William McInnes), a newspaper photographer just diagnosed with cancer and plunged into a suburban shark pool of intimations of mortality, with equal lucidity and frankness. The film’s intermittently hand-painted animated sequences have their origins in Watt’s short works (particularly the award-winning and highly subjective Small Treasures). Both of these films use the same signature “painterly” animation style, although the production methods have evolved. For example, each drawing in Look Both Ways was scanned and then printed out onto water-absorbent paper. Watt then hand-painted all the “watery” sequences before the painted cells were re-scanned, camera moves resolved and the sequences recorded onto 35mm film. This working method has much in common with another animation artist who concentrates on themes of the feminine and mortality, Canadian Caroline Leaf. It makes Look Both Ways an unforgettable visual and emotional trip.

During the filming  Sarah Watt was diagnosed with cancer:

I think there was [sic] quite a lot of times where I thought “Oh, it’s all too hard”. But I didn’t ever want to stop the film ’cause, you know, it’s such a big collaborative thing. ’Cause I knew I had to, you know, have an operation and then have chemotherapy and stuff. I just didn’t know whether I’d be able to pick up again in six months time and actually have the same energy. So actually it just seemed easier to just keep going. (3)

I set out to make a romantic comedy, but the stuff of most people’s lives includes what we think of as tragedy, so Look Both Ways ended up a bit of both I guess… I tried to keep everything as “real” as I could, to allow people to receive the film as part of their own experience, to bring their own lives to it and enjoy it that way. (4)

Feature films became Watt’s focus after the release of Look Both Ways, its success d’estime spurring her into a flurry of creativity and urgency following her diagnosis with cancer.

As with Look Both Ways, her next feature, My Year Without Sex (2009), deals directly and without pathos with the impact that serious illness has on individuals and relationships. The two films were intended to form part of a proposed trilogy.

The storyline is simple, yet deeply affecting. Natalie (Sacha Horler) lives a frenetic (normal), full and busy life: two kids, a job in a nursing home and a husband, Ross (Matt Day), who loves her. Their house is modest and suburban (much like Watt’s own Footscray house from photographic evidence!), a vibrating miscellany of colour and muddle. As for making love, well that requires careful timing – not easy to do in the modern family is Watt’s suggestion. And maybe never is?

Without warning, Natalie collapses with an aneurysm. She wakes up in hospital – the start of her year of troubles and recovery, during which she’s not allowed to do many things: sneezing, straining on the toilet, and in particular, not sex.

Most recently, in the book Worse Things Happen at Sea (with McInnes), Watt tried an even more direct style of storytelling, almost confessional. In her films, she’s always taken her experiences and made the rough edges smooth, infused them with magical, animated daydreams and a deep optimism.

In this final work (along with a photographic exhibition, 3012, at Post Industrial Design in West Footscray), her writing was even more direct: “For the first time, I wasn’t trying to universalise [my life], make it into a story that everyone could relate to. It was just my story.” (5)

In all her films and many interviews, Watt deals with the daily struggles of family, with its attendant crises and explosions of wild fun. Raising a family in a modern city, it seems, now comes with unanticipated difficulties. Indeed her entire oeuvre animates daily triumphs and little disasters with a direct gaze and a sharp wit.

Now, as her home suburb of Footscray slowly gentrifies, it has lost its most spirited and magical storyteller. But those images and her cinema stories are forever.

Endnote

  1. Sarah Watt in Australian Story, ABCTV, 20 June 2005.
  2. “Sarah Watt Interview”, ABC: http://www.abc.net.au/austory/specials/mcinnes/swatt.htm.
  3. Watt in “When William Met Sarah”, Australian Story, ABC TV, 4 November 2011.
  4. Watt, “Director’s Statement”, Look Both Ways Press Kit, Dendy Films, July 2005, p. 6.
  5. Watt in Lisa Power, “When I’m Gone…”, The Age 21 October 2011: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/when-im-gone–20111021-1mbxg.html.