An Interview with Alejandra Canales
By Peter Galvin
“Personally, I don’t see a difference between documentary and fiction films,” explains filmmaker and teacher Alejandra Canales.
“They are both cinema.”
Canales, who is Head of Documentary at the Sydney Film School, explains that the essential values of storytelling are the same between the two forms of fiction and non-fiction film.
“The important things are the same,” Canales said. “The various story elements meet in this sharing space with an audience.
Amongst the many rewards of teaching she explains is watching how emerging filmmakers develop a unique vision for their work. This is one of the best things about film school – it’s an ideal place to “develop a voice.”
Canales is particularly proud of the fact that SFS can boast a history of success in producing documentary filmmakers whose work has been widely seen on the national, and global festival circuit. These include the films of SFS grads Maya Newell (Gayby Baby) and Gracie Otto (The Last Impressario).
This tradition continues with the 2016 Antenna Documentary Film Festival. Beginning in Sydney on 13 October it will travel to Melbourne and Brisbane later in the month.
The program features How History May Come, a deeply personal animated short produced in the SFS Diploma program in 2016.
Written, directed and narrated by Olesya Mazur, a Russian national, it is a personal history that recalls the tragic impact of the Great Famine of the 1930s on her great-great grandparents in the USSR.
Canales latest short For the Kids will also screen. It tells the remarkable story of a couple from the mid-north coast of NSW who spent the last 25 years caring as foster parents for vulnerable kids.
Canales, who has been involved with documentary for more than a decade, said that she did not set out to be a filmmaker. Her career began working in theatre and advertising in her native Chile.
There she began experimenting with documentary and developing a very personal relationship with the form.
“I know it’s a cliché…but what I found once I started making documentaries was that life really was much weirder than anything you might possibly imagine,” she said.
For Canales what she discovered once she began working in non-fiction film was a ‘special tension’ between the ‘subject’ and the filmmaker.
“It was that uncontrollable aspect of dealing with a ‘lived reality’,” she said.
That is, she said, documentary filmmakers have to have a constant sense of improvisation…going with the moment, thinking on their feet and responding honestly and openly to the unanticipated event.
“For me that is really appealing.”
For Canales the importance of documentary as an art form has to do with,
“leaving an imprint about the way we live in a particular time.”
“You get inspired when you teach a lot,” she says of her SFS experience. While respectful of journalism and investigative reportage, Canales feels that documentary is an opportunity to explore themes with a strong point of view that has nothing to do with objectivity.
Which is to say that for Canales the tradition of ‘documentary’ is rich, varied and personal.
“I have this fire inside me where I try to approach each subject in an individual way – you always bring something of yourself to each film,” she said.