Doco of the month: The Leunig Fragments
9 July 2019 at 8:20 am
Who is Michael Leunig? Wendy Williams talks to Kasimir Burgess about his new film The Leunig Fragments and why despite being at the centre of the doco the famous cartoonist remains as elusive as ever, as part of a series profiling powerful documentaries in partnership with Documentary Australia Foundation.
“There are two conflicting themes in every artist, the desire to communicate and the desire to not be found. I think that’s me.” – Michael Leunig.
When Kasimir Burgess was five or six years old he discovered Michael Leunig’s work on the bathroom door of his parents house.
The cartoon he found, Gumboot Theory, showed a figure reading an instruction manual and trying to get into his gumboots. He had built an elaborate contraption, complete with pulleys and leavers, to lift him over the boots.
“I didn’t really know what it meant, but it made me curious,” recalls Burgess.
“It ignited my imagination and creativity. That is an incredible purpose of art in our society, in our culture.”
Leunig is an Australian cartoonist, writer, painter, philosopher, poet and provocateur, whose commentary on political, cultural and emotional life spans more than 40 years.
He was declared a national living treasure in 1999.
But while his work is familiar to people across the nation – appearing in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald – the man behind the pen is somewhat of an enigma.
Burgess’ debut feature documentary, The Leunig Fragments, provides a revealing portrait of Leunig, offering glimpses into the creative process that lies behind the whimsical cartoons and characters – The Duck, Mr Curly and Vasco Pyjama – that have both entertained the nation and been the target of considerable criticism.
While the Leunig Fragments reveals a depth to Leunig that has not been seen on camera before, the man remains somewhat elusive.
There are no big bombshells about who Leunig really is.
“It’s just seeing him vulnerable in those moments with Joan [his former teacher] where he’s really revealing his humanity, his fragility, which actually says a lot,” Burgess says.
At the beginning of the film, the audience sees Leunig discussing making the documentary. He says: “I hope the process of making this film starts out here and then it gets lost.”
Leunig has previously said in interviews that becoming lost is part of his creative process.
“And he kind of willed the production to become lost,” Burgess says.
Part way through filming Leunig even disappeared – due in part to health scares including a brain seizure.
This forces Burgess to step into the film himself, in a bid to “keep up the momentum” and give audiences a glimpse of the “difficult yet dynamic dance” between a subject and a filmmaker.
You see Burgess editing footage he has already recorded, leaving Leunig voicemails, and even posing as Leunig.
“I didn’t plan to be a part of the movie I was kind of brought into the process because Michael would take time out so to speak, he would disappear and go into his creative bubble, to work and heal himself,” he says.
Even when Leunig is on camera, there are times that he is visibly uncomfortable at being put under the microscope.
After being filmed sleeping on his day bed, Leunig tries to put this feeling into words and make clear the distinction between being a subject and an object.
It is indicative of a level of trust between Leunig and Burgess that Leunig agreed to do the film, which was initially proposed as a year long project, but ended up being nearly five years in the making.
Both were adamant it wasn’t going to be a fluff piece.
“[Leunig] was very cautious about not wanting to do a kind of sycophantic biopic but rather something more prismic, something that was more nuanced and dynamic and nonlinear. More like an art film in a way than a childhood to old age highlights reel. He didn’t want that and I didn’t want that either,” he says.
“It needed to be something that was a bit curly.”
The final film weaves together interviews with Leunig, interviews about Leunig, and recreations of his memories.
It is not a chronological telling of Leunig’s biography rather fragments of a life – a series of vignettes evoking the colours and smells of his childhood, time spent with his teacher, Leunig smiling while painting in his studio or sitting alone at his kitchen table with a cup of tea.
We see Leunig the son, the father, the friend, the pupil, the artist, the performer, and there are moments of sadness and loneliness, as well as humour, joy and Leunig’s characteristic whimsey.
Burgess says he expects everyone will come away from the final film with something different, depending on what stage of life they’re in.
A younger audience in a more creative stage of life may be inspired by how outspoken Leunig is.
If they’re older, it might make them reflect upon their own relationships and the importance of making the most of every moment – a journey Leunig is going through on screen as he comes up against separation, illness and the death of loved ones.
But Burgess hopes audiences see that Leunig is in all of us.
“His story is so universal. He even said when he watched the movie, ‘it’s not necessarily about me, it’s just about being a human being’,” Burgess says.
“Michael is a bit of a mirror to society and to our culture, that is his gift in a way – to make us contemplate more deeply our own relationships and our impact on the world.
“From the smallest little creatures to the biggest socio political issues, he kind of grapples with everything and it can be confronting to look into that mirror that he provides. But I think it’s deepening our consciousness in some way.”
More than a biopic, the film, which recently had its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, is best described as an art film that celebrates the connection between the arts, humanities and community.
While the final film is different to what he had expected it to be, Burgess insists he is relieved that it is.
“It’s something that can stand a second viewing,” he says.
“It’s open to interpretation. It raises as many questions as it gives answers and that’s the kind of film that I usually like to watch or engage with.”
The Leunig Fragments will screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2019.
Each month Pro Bono Australia and Documentary Australia Foundation present a Doco of the Month, profiling powerful documentaries with social impact at their heart.
Documentary Australia Foundation is Australia’s only not-for-profit organisation that fosters social change through documentary storytelling.