What a difference a year can make. In 1999, 20-year-old Amiel Courtin-Wilson of Melbourne, Australia, shot his first feature-length doc, Chasing Buddha, on a shoestring budget. The film, about his aunt Robina, a Buddhist nun, won rave reviews on the festival circuit as well as several awards, including the Dendy Award for best documentary at the Sydney Film Festival. So, when Courtin-Wilson embarked on his next doc project, Islands, in 2000, it was no surprise that things took a turn for the better financially. For starters, Courtin-Wilson didn’t need to borrow equipment and tape stock like he did for Chasing Buddha, which had a total budget of AUS$82,000 (US$42,000), including post-production. ‘The shooting budget for Buddha was literally non-existent,’ says Courtin-Wilson. ‘[For Islands], we’re looking at [a total budget of] AUS$125,000 (US$65,000). The development money we got for it was about the same as the shooting budget for the whole of Chasing Buddha. It was strange to get a wage; we ended up spending all of it on the film because we weren’t used to getting paid.’
Islands was commissioned for SBS Australia’s ‘Hybrid Life’ strand, a space allocated to commemorate Australia’s 100th year. The film went to air July 2001. Islands is a personal documentary about Courtin-Wilson’s best friend and filmmaking partner Vincent Heimann (who is half-Samoan, half-German) that relates his family’s experience of coming to Australia.
Last November, Courtin-Wilson took Islands to the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival in New York. There, it had two sold-out screenings and was selected to travel to 50 different cities across the U.S. with the American Museum of Natural History Margaret Mead Traveling Film & Video Festival. Says Courtin-Wilson, now 22, ‘All in all, it was much more of a success than we imagined.’
Courtin-Wilson has worked with Heimann on films since they were in high school and in 1997, they formed the Melbourne-based production company Go Group. Both are credited with writing and directing Islands, while Heimann is usually in charge of cinematography for the films. He will shoot some of their upcoming doc Pigeon Holes, about aboriginal actor and cat burglar Jack Charles. SBS and Film Victoria have provided funding, but Courtin-Wilson is shopping for further support.
He plans to enter Pigeon Holes into the pitching forum at Toronto’s Hot Docs in 2002 and predicts the film, budgeted at about AUS$250,000 (US$130,000), will take a year to complete.
Courtin-Wilson has some experience as a producer – he produced Chasing Buddha with Andrew De Groot and Lynn Maree Milburn – and he will also produce Pigeon Holes, along with De Groot, Milburn and Rohan Timlock of Melbourne’s Ghost Films. ‘I learned early on, from speaking with other doc-makers, to try and have more leverage in the funding process, to coproduce or get a producer credit on the work just to have more control.’
Other projects on Courtin-Wilson’s roster include a series of short documentaries for the SBS website and a dramatic film called This is Block, that incorporates documentary footage about homeless teens in Melbourne. Courtin-Wilson started out with narrative films and eventually fell into making documentaries. ‘I never planned to make docs. In Australia, there’s a tendency to be pigeon-holed as being one or the other. I don’t see much of a distinction, really. It’s whatever the story dictates.’
Whatever the theme, Courtin-Wilson will continue to make films – whether narrative or documentary – for a long time to come. ‘I tried to drop out of high school when I was 14 to make films full-time, but I wasn’t allowed, so I stuck to making films on weekends with Vincent. I haven’t wanted to do anything else, really. It’s all I’ve ever imagined doing.’