Some films exist outside of the realm of cinematic excellence or narrative glory—some films exist in a space of advocacy, with the intention of telling a necessary and oft unheard human story. Shot over 27 years in Perth, Andrew Wiseman’s trilogy of documentaries about Richard Rook—a now 37-year-old man with a severe intellectual disability—and his family, is one of these such films. Wiseman’s final film in the trilogy, On Richard’s Side, finds its focus on Richard’s captivating and inspiring mother, Deidre Croft, and her joyous struggle as Richard’s carer. With empathy, respect and intimacy, Wiseman’s 27-year working relationship with Deidre uncovers what it means to be an unpaid carer, bringing to light the experience of more than 2.8 million Australians nationwide. On the back of its first screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, I chat to Andrew about this decades-long trilogy.
How did you come to be in contact with Richard, Deidre and Charlie initially?
The history of this film and this trilogy goes back a fair while. In 1989, I was working at the Film and Television Institute in Fremantle, and my brief was to assist local filmmakers to get their projects made. Deidre Croft just walked in the door one day and said that she had a son Richard, who had a severe intellectual disability and she wanted to make a film about mothers who had kids like Richard and whether she could she get some assistance.
What happened after that point was I spoke more with Deidre, I met with Richard and after a while I thought their story was pretty compelling and I wanted to centre it in a way around them. The first film had some other participants and we looked at something called the mothers camps, which were camps run for mothers of kids with one form of disability or another. That’s the way the project kicked off, so it’s very much motivated by Deidre.
Wow, that seems so ‘classic Deidre’—she’s a very strong woman. What was your reaction like when she came in, what were your first thoughts, if you can remember back that far?
Well, it is a while ago now—27 years the project has been up and running. Deidre is a very intelligent, articulate and eloquent woman, and that makes it a joy to work with her and to interview her for the project. She has also a great deal of experience not only through being a mother of a son with a disability but also in her work as a journalist and an advocate within the area of disability. So she really knows a great deal, both from lived experience and through her advocacy work, all of which makes it easier to have access to her thoughts and her world, which, as a documentary filmmaker, you really look for.
I think I said in my review that she’s the perfect documentary subject because she is so articulate and so open—like that first scene, where she breaks down reading those diaries—it’s so intimate, and she’s so willing to go there in front of you. What was it like working with someone that open, that articulate—apart from being a joy to work with, was that rough for you emotionally at all? What’s that process been like for you as a filmmaker over this 27-year period?
It’s an interesting question—overall, the project has been a delight to work on and to work with Deidre and the other participants. Now having said that, obviously from the filmmakers’ point of view there are challenges as well – the sheer length of time involved is one of the factors that plays into both the strength and the challenge of making a documentary like this. One of the pleasant difficulties—if I can put it that way—of having someone who is so articulate in front of the camera is that nearly all of the material is highly usable. The editor Uri Mizrahi and I estimated that, over the three films, there is about 250-300 hours of footage. So it’s a lot of raw material to work through.
One of the questions I get asked which I think is quite pertinent—and is allied with the one that you just asked– is how have I changed as a filmmaker across those three decades, or what I have learned in particular from these three films. There’s a whole range of ways of answering that, but two particular things come to mind. The first is that what has come home to me is that care needs to be shared, and it needs to be shared across a lifetime. That care isn’t just about one moment for people who require a great deal of care. I suppose that’s obvious in a way but having observed Deidre and Richard and others that has really become quite crystal clear for me.
The other point I’d like to make is that while Richard is non-verbal and can’t speak, another key thing for me is that he is someone who contributes to those around him in many, many ways. They just happen not to be the conventional means by which most of us communicate. That became very clear to me as well: that his energy, his openness and his complete honesty in the moment is a way that he contributes to those around him.
I think that really echoes that message that Deidre was focusing on in On Richard’s Side where she talks about the value that people see people with disabilities having in our society. Her conceptualisation of it is that Richard promotes empathy and caring in other people and that’s a really rare thing. I mean, it’s quite a personal question, but how do you think this whole process has changed your perception on disability?
I had made a couple of documentaries prior to the first one, Driving With Richard, in the area of disability. I’m interested in films and stories which investigate human levels of ability and how people cope with life. I didn’t have children when I made the first film and subsequently had two kids of my own, so I think that placed an interesting perspective around my filmmaking approach. I think that allowed me to converse with Deidre in a slightly different way.
On a purely statistical note, I’ve become aware in the making of the third film that around about 2.8 million Australians are estimated to be working in unpaid caring roles. One of the things that comes home to me here is that these stories about caring and disability don’t lie at the margins of Australian society. These are not special stories. There are a whole range of very specific stories, of course, but universal themes tend to emerge from each one, and one of the notes I think we can make is that one in roughly eight Australians is involved in an unpaid caring role of some form or another. So this is a very common challenge for many Australians.
Such an important film to make, then, from that carer’s perspective and from that very common challenge. I think that’s such an important thing to talk about because people don’t really talk about that carer experience much. Has it been challenging for you, as a fellow parent, watching Deidre go through that and be in that carers position?
Well, Deidre has been a primary carer for Richard for many years of his life—not all of the years of his life, because his dad Charlie took that role for many years. What I think is really unfortunate is that some of the activities that Deidre would have liked to have been involved in or to have continued with, have been compromised because even though Australia has been doing quite well in this space, it could do a great deal more to assist people like Deidre.
For instance, Deidre has had to pull back from paid work—she was a long way into a PhD but had to pull back because of her time commitments with Richard. I think it’s unfortunate that a country as wealthy as Australia can’t meet the needs of carers who are in a position like Deidre and meet all the needs of somebody like Richard. With the rollout of the NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] it seems to me like a terrific piece of public policy and I hope it works a treat—because I do think that we really should, as a nation, be able to look after our most vulnerable better than we do.
That really goes back to that message that you and Deidre were espousing in the film, that people with disabilities encouraged a sense of empathy and caring in us, but that same empathy and caring does need to be extended to the carers, because it is one of the most challenging jobs in every single way. I think you really nailed that carer perspective in On Richard’s Side, the bittersweet nature of it all. Deidre clearly loves Richard so much but there is what she calls that reality principle, which she just summarises so well.
I find that a very powerful scene. Another line I quite like is from Di, who at one stage says to Deidre, as a carer, “If you sink, he sinks,” and that notion that it’s not in anyone’s interest that you become completely run down as a carer. As an individual carer you have to take some responsibility for looking after your own health, but you have to be assisted in doing that by friends, family, business and the community. It’s that circle of friends that Deidre has been trying really hard to put in place over the last few years that I find a really positive step. But not everyone has the energy and the capacity to do that as well as Deidre appears to be doing it.
That scene of her with everyone in the room—the last man standing scene—it was really powerful to see that in the context of what she had been feeling and seeing how important that moment must have been to her—that was one of the scenes that really got me. That must have been quite gratifying for you to watch, seeing her come to that place.
Yes, that was one of the first scenes we shot I think, in the third film. That’s one of the key themes of the film—this particular film looks at the question that Deidre asks: what happens to Richard when she is no longer able, for whatever reason, to be his primary caregiver?
Touching again on that relationship that you had with Deidre, Richard and Charlie. What kind of impact do you think that had as the trilogy took shape and progressed over those 27 years? Do you think that as you got closer to them over time that the third and second films were say, markedly different to the first one?
It’s really hard to tell because they are filmed over such a long time. I live in Melbourne, they’re in Perth, and after the first film I kept up some contact which obviously led to making the second one. We had intermittent contact after the second one and were discussing with both Charlie and Deidre whether there was a reason to make a third one, and for a long time we didn’t think that the story had changed sufficiently to warrant a third one; but Deidre rang me up at the end of 2013 and said there had been substantial changes in their lives and why don’t we make a third chapter?
I think on a filmmaking level, I was keen in the third film to try and be alive to the lightness and the joy in their lives, as well as depicting some of the more challenging moments. It’s loosely in an observational style, although there are some areas which are a little more constructed than that. But overall I wasn’t trying to editorialise, I was trying to provide a canvas where Deidre’s story and Richard’s story could find a place. So I was trying to step back where possible and just let the natural flow of events happen as much as you can as a filmmaker.
Have you got any future plans for any future films with Richard and Deidre?
Not at this stage. Who knows what will happen down the track, but for the moment these are the three films. I worked very closely with editor Uri Mizrahi—he was also the editor on the second film, Wonder Boy, and he is an integral part of the production and the design of the final piece. I think on a documentary like this the director and editor work very closely together, ideally, and he’s absolutely fundamental to the final look of it.
Another thing to say about this third film is that the financing structure was a bit different to the other two in that Film Victoria and Screen Australia were involved, as well as the Good Pitch Program and their partners the Documentary Australia Foundation, and that allowed us to access some philanthropic money and terrific sponsors and donors. The Impact Campaign is run by a woman named Marylou Verberne: she’s been terrific to work with over the last year and a half and it’s her task to embed the Impact Campaign and make sure it runs successfully, and so that’s a really crucial part of the next stage of the film.
So all of this not only allows us to finish the film, but also now to have a bit of money in addition to roll out the film through the traditional distribution outlets and to let it roll on for a bit longer. The strength of that is that hopefully the film and, indeed the three films, can now have a longer shelf life and a deeper impact.
Absolutely. It’s such an important film for people to see. I guess the easy route when making a film like this would be to focus on Richard, because it is an easier story to tell, but to go that step deeper and to capture Deidre and Charlie’s experience is great. While so many parents like Deidre are so emotionally present, it’s a rare opportunity to have one pretty much come knocking at your door and say “make these films with me”. It sounds like it’s been a wonderful opportunity for you.
Absolutely. Yeah, I couldn’t have told you all those years ago that when Deidre walked in through the door that we’d make three films over nearly three decades, but big projects start in strange ways.
One of my favourite quotes in filmmaking is a line that’s attributed to Robert Flaherty, one of the early documentary filmmakers, who made Nanook of the North and Man of Aran amongst others, and he is alleged to have said that the longest distance between two points is a motion picture. Just suggesting that it does take a long time to make something, but I think he suggested it not in a gratuitously negative way, but that good stories sometimes take a long time to tell.
What’s it been like for you, Andrew, to potentially say goodbye to Richard, Deidre, Charlie, this whole project, after so many years?
I don’t think I’ll be saying goodbye in the sense that I’m sure I’ll still have some contact with Deidre and Richard and some of their friends and family. Whether we make another film or not, I’m not sure. But you do need, at some point, to stop editing, you need to get to the end point and we’ve done that and I am very happy to have this film together. But of course the real life story rolls on beyond the borders of the film, so it will be fascinating to see what happens in Richard and Deidre’s life form this point on, and we will just see if there is another story down the track.