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documentaries notes: synopsis - theatrette

The Choice (2006) Riot or Revolution (2005) Why Men Pay For It (2003) Life is Too Serious (2001)
Big Hair Woman (1997) We're All Independent Now (1995) Deadly Hurt (1994)
The Great Australian Dreaming (1992) Big People Small People (1991) Something You Call Unique (1989)  

Love's Tragedies

Where the Idea for the Film Came From

As an independent producer you spend a lot of time dreaming up new ideas for films and pitching them to the broadcasters. I had been pitching other ideas to a commissioning editor at the ABC including a film about a big story at the time - the Hindmarsh Bridge affair. It would have been a timely examination of the relationship between black and white Australia. Sadly, after months of research and writing of several drafts of the script, the film fell over. At the same time, the commissioning editor said he had just received a copy of a BBC doco about adultery and he thought we should do our own Australian take on the subject. He asked if I would be interested. I thought, well, all ideas are a creative challenge and, in this game, you don't knock films back when they get offered to you. This thing of a film project being initiated by the broadcaster, rather than by me pitching an idea, has only happened twice in my career - with this film and also with Why Men Pay For It (SBS, 2003). Strangely, on both occasions, the films were about sex and love whereas the films I was trying to get up were political. I wonder what that all means!

The Four Main Characters

Who in their right mind would go on national television and talk about their personal experience of adultery? Well, one Helen, Erwin, Naomi and John - that's who.

Helen is the Catholic mother of six children who's 28 year marriage ended as a result of her husband's persistent adultery. It is now 10 years since they finally broke up. While her face wears some of the pain of it all, she also speaks with great dignity and wisdom. Early in the film we hear her say -

"Adultery kind of sucks. It sucks the very life blood out of a relationship. You stop being spontaneous, because you're not really too sure what it is that turned him onto this other woman and off you."

In contrast to Helen, the "left woman", is John, the man who was left. John is an old rock 'n roller. When he stopped playing in bands he built a very successful business hiring equipment and studio space to others in the music industry. John's 20 year marriage ended when his wife began an affair with the builder who, ironically, was erecting their new dream home on the Gold Coast. John was expanding his business into that state when what was to have been the beginning of a new life for he and his wife turned out to be, for him at least, the beginning of the end.

Unlike Helen, John was not graceful in defeat. He has become so bitter and twisted by these life shattering events that he has now effectively dedicated his life to stamping out adultery in Australian society. He wages a lone and futile war against the forces that he sees promoting and propping up adultery. We are introduced early in the film to John's obsessive and belligerent style with these words -

"I don't believe it is correct to go with someone else's spouse, I don't believe it is correct to break down a family unit, I don't believe it is correct to break down the home, the family home, I don't believe it is correct to be a part-time parent, I don't believe it is correct to take children away from grandparents. I don't believe it is correct to take parents, grandparents, home and family and marriage and life and stability from children. That is why I will continue to fight."

And fight he does.

Next there is Naomi who gives an insight into the bewilderment felt by a bright, educated young woman who thought her parent's marriage was ideal until, after 25 years, her father suddenly announced he was leaving them all for another woman. The sensitive Naomi expresses her pain and confusion in a most heartfelt way throughout the film. Her grimace tells it all as she says in the opening sequence -

"When I knew this woman was there, in my house ... in the house that I'd grown up in as a child, all my memories, where all my friends have been, she was sleeping in my mother's bed, just to know that, that she could touch and see my things."

Finally, our fourth main character is Erwin. In contrast to the other three who could all be described as "victims" of adultery, Erwin is a "perpetrator" - and what a happy adulterer he is. Speaking still with a rich Hungarian accent, Erwin is a kind of new age latin lover type. His unashamed chauvinism will either have you rolling around the floor in fits of laughter or throwing things at the screen. He kicks off his story by telling us it was fate, that he was compelled by destiny to continue what turned out to be a 6 year affair with one of his wife's private students, a young woman 20 years his junior. Erwin says -

"The moment I made love to this woman, I knew that it's wrong, (but) it was a magnificent experience, I was in seventh heaven. And I knew, but a little voice inside said you have to go through this."

Balancing the 4 main characters in the film are 3 commentators:

Bettina Arndt is a well known journalist, writer and social commentator. She has written probably more than anyone else in this country on the subject of adultery. In the film she reflects on a range of issues including the "dangers" of men and women now working alongside each other in the workplace, as she puts it - "fighting the bears at the coalface together". After the Wilde quote, hers is the colourful comment that kicks off the program. She says -

"This is the biggest thrill most people are going to have offered to them, I mean it doesn't compare to whitewater rafting or bungy jumping, I mean the great passion in your life, and not at 18 when you really don't appreciate it but at 45 when you've been doing the right thing and earning - going out and supporting your wife for 20 years. Now, it gets offered to you; this chance for the roller coaster. Who could resist?"

Prof. Roger Short is a biologist and head of the Perinatal Research Centre, Royal Women's Hospital, Melbourne. Prof. Short has done extensive, world class research into animal mating systems, and brings to the film some valuable reflections on the biological differences between men and women. Short's comments are never just science however, and the way in which he explains the biological basis for human love is one of the memorable moments in the film.

Prof. Short sets the framework for his interview by quoting William James. He says, "William James, the American author of the last century had this amazing dream that he'd discovered the secret of the world. And he half woke up in the night and wrote it down and fell asleep again. And when he woke up in the morning here was this piece of paper on which he'd written - Higamous hogamous, women are monogomous, but hogamous higamous, men are polygamous.."

Charles is a private investigator who specialises in cases of suspected adultery. 90% of his clients are women who want him to check up on their men.

Charles was 15 when he migrated with his family to Australia. He grew up in Calcutta, India. His father was of Islamic background, his mother Anglo-Indian and Catholic. This rich mixture of influences goes part of the way to explaining the extraordinary mix of qualities that Charles brings to his work ... and to the film.

He is part cop and speaks in the jargon of a cop, referring to his "cases" and "the subject did this, the subject did that". Like a cop he often finds himself in quite dangerous situations and so has advanced training in kick-boxing and other martial arts. He is confident in his capacity to defend himself. He is also part actor, often establishing direct contact with "the subject" through the clever use of a range of different personas and characters, whatever the case calls for. Most intriguing of all though is when we see Charles juggling other roles - at times Father confessor and counsellor, at other times moralising commentator.

Through all the different parts that make up this most unusual of private eyes we see a man that is not only streetwise but also heart-wise. We're struck by the empathy he feels for his clients, and to some extent for the "guilty" parties as well. As he says in the film - "there's no real winners in this, everyone's a loser."

As was said in the Outline - who in their right mind would go on national television and talk about their personal experience of adultery? Oprah might be able to pull it off but they're Americans and we're Australians - we don't do that sort of thing. We know that over there, there is no demaracation between public and private - the Lewinsky affair proves that. Real Life and television merge seamlessly into one. But here, well, finding people willing to talk about this most private of subjects was always going to be the biggest challenge for this film.

So how did we do it?

Let's be clear about one thing - there was no shortage of people willing to talk to me as such about their experiences of adultery, often sharing the most intimate and gory details. The problem, not surprisingly, was that none of them would do it with a camera rolling.

Finally, after many frustrating months of searching I just happened to be invited onto the John Faine program on 3LO to talk about my new film. Little did anyone know at that point that unless I soon found some people willing to talk on camera I didn't have a film! It was the break I needed. We decided that I could give a little plug on air that if anyone would like to share their experiences with me with a view to possibly being in the film then they could ring in now.

We got about a dozen calls and out of that single interview came the 4 main characters in the film - Helen, Erwin, Naomi and John.

Charles, the private eye I just got out of the phone book. The wording of his ad caught my eye - he called his business - "Check-A-Mate Service"! I rang about three P.I.'s but Charles was the most helpful, interested and eager. He was on my doorstep with an hour of the call, wanting to know more and offering his complete availability.

As it turned out, he was a real find. I realised long ago that by some magical cosmic process, when you make a documentary film some rather special characters often just fall out of the sky and hit you in the head. There is a lovely sense of "meant to be" where you feel that the story unfolding before your eyes is the one you are meant to tell. This is something I always enjoy immensely about the documentary form where life and art merge so wondrously.

In some ways finding people like Helen, Naomi and John who would talk about adultery is not that surprising - they are after all what we might call victims of adultery. Even Erwin, the "happy adulterer" turns out to be, in the end, also something of a victim of "love's tragedies".

I was aware that there was one hole I wanted to fill - I wanted a mistress. I wanted for us to hear the voice of the "other woman". Again I had no shortage of women willing to talk to me privately, none willing to go on camera. One reason I was told a few times was - "If it was just me I'd do it, but it's my mum you see, it would kill her, it would put her in her grave!"

So I came up with a novel solution - I decided to advertise. I faxed an ad through to the Melbourne Age that had in bold type the headline - MISTRESS WANTED! It then of course went on to explain about the film etc. etc. What happened next absolutely shocked me. I was phoned by the Age saying they refused to run the ad because "it was in bad taste"! Such are the hurdles we struggling documentary film-makers have to overcome to make our films.

I was so bemused by all this that I fed the story to the gossip columnist at the Age's competitor newspaper who was delighted to get some dirt on their prudish opposition. After a week or so had passed and he still hadn't run the story I rang him to find out what was happening.

He sheepishly confessed that, just in case, he had decided to check with the relevant people in his paper if they would have run the ad and to his surprise discovered they had the same policy. It seems political correctness is not dead yet ... and I didn't get my mistress.

I think one of the scenes in the film that will generate some controversy is where we show John disrupting an Anglican chuch service and outing a priest he accused of committing adultery. It will probably generate considerable controversy about the ethics of filming such a scene.

When John told me he was going to do this I decided that we would try and film it. It certainly turned out dramatic TV footage and indeed, when Channel Nine ran a news item a few months later about John being charged over the incident, they tried desperately to buy the footage from us. We decided not to sell so that you could see it first on your ABC.

As for the ethics of filming it I would say this ...

For me John, with all his over the top anger and rage, has a rightful place in the film. It is appropriate I think for a culture like ours which is all too ready to trivialise, glamorise, whitewash or ignore the often devastating effects of adultery to be confronted with a difficult character like John who dares to still scream - "this is outrageous"! I think the crazies sometimes are the only ones who are crazy enough to give voice to things that everyone else has completely lost sight of.


Alan Bennett