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A fly on the wall might observe what Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson observed at Leichhardt Council back in 1995, but could he edit it into a gripping 97 minutes that is Rats In The Ranks, asks Andrew L. Urban as he talks to Connolly about the mammoth cutting job, on the eve of the film’s release on DVD.

After he and his partner Robin Anderson had finished a 10 month shoot deep inside the ranks of Leichhardt Council, Bob Connolly spent five months trying to edit the first 10 minutes of Rats In The Ranks, back in 1995. When he finished, he “chucked it out and started again”; he was grappling with how to tell the narrative and wasn’t happy with how it cut up. It took another year or more to edit the hundreds of hours footage down to 97 minutes (94 on DVD), including the last five months with editor Ray Thomas. But when it was released in 1996, it seemed the effort had been worthwhile: the film was an instant success.

"a remarkable fly on the wall documentary"

Rats in The Ranks is a remarkable fly on the wall documentary shot during Mayoral elections for Leichhardt Council in Sydney’s inner West, observing the political process at local council level at close quarters. Incumbent Larry Hand is popular with the rate payers, but they don’t vote for the Mayor: the 12 councillors do, and after three years of his tenure (including the first two unopposed), some of them are after the job for themselves. Can he get seven votes?

“Editing is my strength,” says Connolly, talking about the film as it is released on DVD, almost 10 years after its first theatrical release. (It ran for five months in cinemas around Australia.) “Robin was great in the field …”

For those who are unaware of their work, the background to this team of filmmakers is important. In 1980 Connolly left the ABC to work independently with Anderson, producing First Contact (1983), followed by Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (1989) and Black Harvest (1992). Set in the PNG Highlands and shot over ten years, these 3 films won 30 national and international awards, including an Academy Award nomination for First Contact. All three won the Grand Prix at France’s prestigious Festival Cinema du Reel, and AFI awards for Best Documentary. Their last film together
was Facing the Music (2001). It too won the AFI Award for Best Documentary, and was voted most popular film at the Sydney and Brisbane Film Festivals. (Connolly’s wife and professional colleague Robin Anderson died aged 51 in March 2002.)

What they learnt on those arduous New Guinea shoots of people in conflict on their native land, they were able to adapt to inner city councils. Connolly says it taught them the importance of “time and attitude … it’s the attitude of absolutely observing, without an agenda, without judgement. And time … you have to invest time. I reckon 95% of Rats In The Ranks was shot in the last three months, but we had to shoot for months on end to get it all.”

And then came the tough decisions: “cutting out some of the best stuff in the whole bloody shoot.” Sitting in one of the ABC atriums in Ultimo, Connolly is an unfussed, down to earth figure, and his speech is even. But his face is animated as he recalls the making of one of the most talkedf about docos ever made in Australia. “It’s really about us as political animals,” he says, “not really about politics. It transcends the issues of local Government.”

His problem at the start was that there were two narrative strands he could identify, and no doco can happily accommodate two. He regards the editing work like a sculptor approaching a block of marble. “You just keep chipping away at it until you get what you want.”

As we talk about the task of editing documentary as distinct from drama, Connolly quotes a sentiment originally expressed by noted Italian born filmmaker Lina Wertmuller: “The mark of a filmmaker is to cut out the best scene of the film if by so doing it improves the film overall.” The other thing he thinks doco makers must be careful of is “overcontextualising”. He says you have to know what to leave out and let people imagine. In effect, it’s the old rule of “start in the middle.”

The first rough assembly was 12 hours long. “You’re constantly trimming down, and the choices narrow. We spent a hundred hours with Mayor Larry Hand in his office, and we built up a trust he didn’t share with anyone.”

At one stage when his secretary came in during a sensitive phone conversation, Hand stopped talking and asked her to leave. But Connolly and Anderson were there throughout.

"the hardest and most enjoyable thing"

For Connolly, making these docos are “the hardest and most enjoyable thing I’ve ever done and I’m really glad it’s out on DVD – it’s a much better format than video tape.” His only regret is that the ABC didn’t have the funds to include any bonus material on the DVD; maybe a Special Edition sometime?

Published March 30, 2006


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Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson

Rats in the Ranks DVD

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