With the help of inspiring teachers, filmmaker and VCA alumna Gillian Armstrong built the foundations of her cinematic career in the classroom.
When director Gillian Armstrong began her first year at Swinburne Technical College in 1968, the world was changing. She saw her classmates defer to fight in the Vietnam War, protests ignited in the streets and Swinburne (later to become the VCA) was breeding a new, fiercely independent and innovative generation of art students. When we asked Gillian what it was like to be studying during this time she put it simply: ‘It was amazing.’
Since graduating in 1971, Gillian has directed countless films including High Tide (1987), Little Women (1994), Oscar and Lucinda (1997), and Charlotte Gray (2001) and earned awards and nominations along the way. As she looks back to where it all began, she can see that an important idea hasn’t changed. ‘What makes VCA unique is that it has the philosophy of an art school,’ she explains. ‘We were encouraged to find our own unique voice and to find ways of expressing ourselves creatively.’
Gillian and her classmates weren’t actually allowed to make a film until third year – the university didn’t have enough equipment at the time to provide first and second year students with the opportunity. However one lecturer took a shine to her during her second year.
‘We had a wonderful history of film lecturer, Jim Harris. He was passionate about films from all over the world.’ Harris saw Gillian’s hunger to get out of the classroom and shoot on film, so he took the risk of sneaking a camera out of the university for her. ‘I really wanted to make something.’ Her four-minute short Four Walls allowed her the opportunity to test out basic cinematic theories she was learning in class. The belief the lecturer had in his students, paired with Gillian’s fast-growing passion and understanding of cinema, provided her with the confidence to tackle her third year and continue on to the newly established Australian Film and Television School (now the prestigious AFTRs).
She remembers her years at Swinburne as a time when lecturers shook up her preconceptions and encouraged her think for herself. Her classmates, too, offered endless inspiration – she studied with other film greats including Danish-Australian filmmaker Esben Storm (Round The Twist) and cinematographer Malcolm Richardson who shot both Gillian and Esben’s work. ‘We were pushed to find our own personal strengths and weaknesses. We were encouraged to find a fresh way to tell stories and it was all done in a nurturing environment.’
In terms, of what’s next for filmaker, she doesn’t like talking about projects she’s currently working on; she’s concerned she’ll curse them if she does. But we can confirm that her film making days are far from over. She’s currently in pre-production for a film about the Australian-born Oscar-winning costume designer Orry-Kelly. She has set out to put the spotlight on the designer, who has a low profile in Australia, despite designing for blockbuster films Casablanca, Oklahoma! and The Maltese Falcon.
Since sparking her career with a simple short student film, and becoming an internationally respected director, Gillian is still finding fresh ways to tell stories.