The words “Gallipoli” and “Anzac” have many meanings and hold great significance, as the conflict helped to define the trajectory of our nation and answer the question of who we are as New Zealanders'.
Leanne Pooley’s boundary-pushing animated documentary 25 April follows six New Zealanders’ experiences during the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915, a brutal campaign, which led to the deaths of thousands of young men and women on both sides of the conflict
Under-equipped, and under-supported, the Anzac troops were deployed in Turkey for what ended up being a conflict with massive casualties on both sides.
In the film, each character tells his or her story through the use of animated talking head interviews, created using motion capture with live actors. These stories are then brought to life using stunning graphic novel-like animation, which helped recreate footage of the events.
The stories told in the film are a result of a year of research, which saw Leanne and her team pour over hundreds of journals, notes and letters from those who were present at Gallipoli throughout the conflict.
Pooley then identified six characters with distinctive voices who could help tell the story of Gallipoli, from Bay of Plenty carpenter George Tuck to Manawatu farmer John Persson and New South Wales nurse Muriel Wakeford - ordinary individuals who manage to overcome the horrors of war while still holding on to their humanity.
Pooley hopes the concept will prove attractive to the younger generation, who have been boosting Dawn Service attendances and making pilgrimages to Anzac Cove, with the goal of understanding the conflict and commemorating our Anzac's.
In support of the New Zealand release of 25 April, and the and commemoration of Anzac Day, I sat down with Leanne to discuss how the film came about. You can watch the interview above, or read it below:
+ Can you talk about how this project came about and how you got involved?
Leanne Pooley (LP): The original idea was to make a film about Gallipoli, as it’s such an important part of New Zealand’s sense of national identity, but it’s quite a tricky place to go because Peter Weir’s film ‘Gallipoli’ kind of dominates the feature film spectrum, so the producer, Matthew Metcalfe, decided that he wanted to do something unusual.
He and I were working on another film at the time, 'Beyond The Edge', about the conquest of Everest, and he asked how I would feel about working with him on an animated documentary, and that was really what had interested me. If it had just been an ordinary documentary I wouldn’t have been interested, but the idea of taking the story and having the opportunity to bring the people who were at Gallipoli back to life with animation was very exciting to me as a storyteller.
+ How did the choice to use an animated style come about? What was the reasoning behind it?
LP: The decision to animate was multi-fold, one was we didn’t want to do a full drama – partly because we wouldn’t have had the money to do it properly – and partly because Peter Weir’s film has cornered that market, and we didn’t want to do a traditional documentary – partly because it is black and white, and it had been done… It didn’t feel like it would take the story any further than it had already been.
In addition, the producer had seen a well-known documentary to cineophiles, ‘Waltz with Bashir’, which is an animated documentary about the Lebanon war, and was very moved by that film and thought we could do something similar with Gallipoli. I had also seen that film and agreed.
The brief to the wonderful animators at Flux Animation was that we wanted to see the brushstrokes and embrace the fact that these characters were drawn – we wanted it to have a graphic novel feel and not a cartoon feel.
+ Why documentary? What do you think it can do to the telling of the Gallipoli story that a narrative film cannot?
LP: I’m not sure that it adds anything more than a narrative – it’s more achievable than from a fiscal point of view, to be frank – but this is an unusual thing, there’s been lots of conversation about whether this is truly a documentary or not because it is entirely reconstructed, so when we premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, we were in the Foreign Film section rather than the documentary section, but I believe that it is a documentary personally because it is absolutely rooted in the facts of what had happened in the words of those who were there, so I think that is by definition documentary.
But we were able to play with the narrative because of the animation, because we had the freedom to illustrate thing any way we liked, and that freedom allowed us to tell the story in a more imaginative way. Animation, from a director’s point of view, is extraordinarily freeing, because everything is possible. So in the film I can use visual metaphor to help tell the story – when our soldiers talk about the British navy leaving and their feeling of abandonment, I can illustrate that with ships sailing away that turn into birds… There’s a scene in the film where blood turns into poppies… it allows me to tell the story in a way which is affecting and couch the horror in a way that is palatable and also touches them emotionally in a different way.
+ And how did you find the experience of using motion-capture?
LP: 25 April is made up of three components in terms of animation – there’s motion capture, there is 2D or drawn animation, and there is 3D animation which is computer generated – so all of those different forms come together.
Motion capture was used in the ‘interviews’, which happen throughout the film with characters who were actually at Gallipoli, and these interviews were done by taking the diaries, memoirs, or letters of those individuals, then turning those into interviews which were then given to actors, and we captured them using motion capture.
The reason for that is I knew that the actors would then be able to fully embody the experiences of these young men and women who were at Gallipoli, and their performance would bring another layer to the film. I’m so glad that we made that decision because the actors were extraordinary, they took these people’s lives and they really ingested them, so when I was interviewing them they brought things to the table that I could have never imaged, and so if I tried impose it on an animation without knowing what was coming from the inside I don’t think it would have been truthful.
But every time their lips quivered on the verge of tears, that’s real – that’s real emotion coming from inside the actor – and that translates to the animated character in a way that is more honest than if we hadn’t tried to go down that road.
+ This film is very much about its characters and you selected six stories from what must have been hundreds of hours of research, how did you go about selecting stories?
LP: The research period for 25 April took a year – so there was a year of research before we started to animate anything. That involved reading hundreds and hundreds of diaries. I knew from the get go that I wanted to choose individuals that could tell their own stories – I didn’t want to impose the story on them, I wanted it to be the actual reflects of people who were there.
So we read diaries, letters, and memoirs, and we were looking for certain things – we were looking for individuals who could articulate more than just the facts. One of the things we had with a lot of the diaries – the classic sorta Kiwi diary – was like “It was hot”, and “Joe died”, and they didn’t say a great deal about what they were actually experiencing, so I looked for individuals who not only talked about what was happening, but also talked about how they felt about what was happening and how that impacted them as individuals.
So I was looking for diaries with more emotion in them, and I was also looking for certain moments in the story… I needed for one of my characters to have been there at the beginning, and I needed for someone to be there at the end.
I wanted to cover certain elements of the actual Gallipoli experience – it was eight months, and there were key things that happened over the course of that eight months – so I wanted to have characters who were there for certain things… like, there is a moment in the campaign where the ship the Triumph sinks, when that happened there was a palpable sense of fear among the troops as the battleship had been supporting them, so I needed one of my characters to talk about that in his diary.
We were really careful to only use the words of the individuals; we didn’t want to put words into anybody’s mouths, I didn’t want to put somebody somewhere that they weren’t – so I needed to find individuals who could articulate things that I knew where important about the story – and that was a challenge like I said earlier, it took a year of research to find these stories.
+ How important was it to get the story of the everyday New Zealander in your film?
LP: I think we were really lucky because as we were using the actual diaries of the Anzac's we were in the moment and in the ordinary, and in the ever day experience of Gallipoli with these young men, and we could bring them back to life in that moment because it was animation.
Often in war films you’re actually hearing old men talk about something that was a long time ago, and you’re hearing those stories through the filter of time. Because these diaries were written on the day – written amongst it – I had the opportunity to have my animated characters be young men, because they were young when they said those things, it gave it an immediacy and it set it in the place of the ordinary soldier.
We intentionally didn’t want it to be the famous soldiers who we’d heard before – I didn’t go for ‘the Malone’s’, or the names that we are used to hearing, I looked for soldiers and a nurse who were ordinary individuals dealing with a terribly extraordinary moment in history, and explaining what it meant to them, because I think that will connect with ordinary New Zealanders today.
And that was one of the things that stuck me with the diaries – it didn’t feel one hundred years old – they felt like young people who you could talk to today. Their anger, their frustrations, their fears, were all understandable and relatable and they could have been people who were writing now.
+ The choice that was made to use the talking head interviews so soon after the conflict really added something to the story. What was the idea behind that?
LP: There was a lot of conversation at the beginning about where those ‘interviews’ were taking place and at what stage, and to be honest, initially I did have old men who were talking about the past because as a documentary filmmaker that is what I was used to.
It was actually the suggestion of Dave Gibson at the Film Commission who asked “Well, why should they be old?”, and then of course we thought, no they shouldn’t be old because the words were written when they were young, so we wanted the speaking of those word to be as close to when they were written as they could be, so we decided that the interviews would be held just after they had come back from the war – this was actually me giving this to the actors – so this is basically young men and women coming back from the war who had gone through this experience and I really think that that was the right thing to do because, A) it is more honest because it is close to when their actual words were written and B) it’s more original and hadn’t been done a million times because when you’re not animating you don’t have that opportunity.
+ How did you go about structuring the script to develop a cohesive narrative? What were the key points in the conflict that you felt you needed to include?
LP: We were looking for individuals who were present for important moments in the campaign – so I obviously wanted some of my characters to be there rights at the beginning, I needed someone to be there at the end.
There’s a famous battle that New Zealanders were involved in called ‘the Daisy Patch’, it became known as the Battle of Krithia, that was a really important battle early on in the conflict that a lot of New Zealanders were at, and they spoke a lot about it in their diaries and I wanted to make sure that at least one of my characters were there, and it turns out that three of them were there.
Also the sinking of the Battleship, ‘The Triumph’, was an important moment for these chaps on the hill because they saw The Triumph as their protector, and when it sunk it was like losing one of their friends – one of them actually says that in the film –so I wanted to make sure that I had that moment.
There was also an armistice declared, both the Turks and the Allies were allowed to bury their dead, so they stopped their conflict for a day so everyone could go out and bury their dead, so this was an opportunity for the two sides to meet each other. The Turkish soldiers and the Kiwi soldiers would come face to face and share a cigarette while they were collecting their dead and a lot of they talked about that in their diaries as being a pivotal moment where they realised that these people on the other side of the hill were actually just young men as well. So I really wanted at least one of my characters to be present at the armistice.
I had read hundreds of diaries and I needed for my characters to reflects what those hundreds of men had said.
+ Who should watch this film and what is the message that they should take away from it?
LP: When we started, one of the things we asked ourselves is, “Why are we making this?”, and “Who is this for?”. One of the things that was part of that conversation was that every year at Anzac Cove, hundreds if not thousands of young Kiwis go to that service and the Dawn Services are attended by young people and families and people looking to connect to something that had happened a hundred years ago.
+ What do you think that Gallipoli and the Anzac's mean to New Zealanders?
LP: I think it’s really hard to say that Anzac means one thing or another, that Anzac means something specific – it might mean something different to you than it does to me – but I do think that people are looking for a connection to the past. New Zealand’s a young country and its sense of self is still evolving in lots of ways, and I think that sense of self is tied to recent history – to World War I and II – but getting a grip on who we are as a country is hard.
So I think they look for specific events sometimes, and obviously Gallipoli has become one of those events that people connect with and it gives them some sort of sense that it is part of our history.
+ What do you think that the events at Gallipoli say about New Zealand?
LP: One of the things that the film tires to do is look at what Gallipoli meant to New Zealand at the time and afterwards. There has been a lot of conversation about whether this is where we formed our sense of self, and some people say no, but it was really interesting reading the diaries as it did come through in the diaries that there was a palpable shift among these young men – they went into the war absolutely believing in King and country, and a lot of them came back having shifted about how they felt about that – they felt a much closer allegiance to the Australians and what they experiences with them at Gallipoli than they did to their British masters who they felt betrayed by.
And there was a journey that these individuals went through, it is the beginning of a sense of New Zealand as a country separate to ‘Mother Britain’, if you like, and a couple of the characters in the film articulate it really specifically. And a few people say, “No, that is revisionist, you’re making that up”, but I read a lot of diaries and that was something that came through certainly to me and its one of the messages of the film – Gallipoli was the beginning of New Zealanders looking to themselves and knowing that they needed to count on each other rather than counting on Britain who they thought had let them down.
+ Your film is rich with day in the life anecdotes – how did that come about and why was it important to do so?
LP: We spent a lot of time in the research time trying to make sure that throughout the film the scenes were as realistic as they could be. We used a lot of references – visual references – we did research on things like what sort of flies were at Gallipoli, my sound designer made sure that the sound of the gunfire was the same as it would have been in 1915.
We want the audience to go on a journey with these young men, animation gives me the opportunity to put the audience in the heads of these young men at certain points in the film, and so the experience that you would have as an audience is as close to the soldiers as possible – so the sounds, the smells, the flies, they should all be as real as we can make them – so the audience’s journey is as close to the journey of these young men as I can make them in the cinema.
+ How do you think New Zealanders should be observing Anzac Day?
LP: I think Anzac Day is a moment to acknowledge our history, acknowledge those who have made sacrifices, acknowledge what has come before, and maybe think about what it did mean and the time and what it means now.
I don’t want my film to be some glorification of war – some glorification of Gallipoli – it wasn’t glorious, it was a terrible cock-up from day one to the very end, the only thing that went well was the retreat and these guys are heroes because they were ordinary individuals who kept their humanity in the face of horrific circumstances.
+ What is the difference between working with animators and actors?
LP: It’s really interesting – the biggest learning curve for me was that working with animators was almost exactly the same as working with actors. When I would speak with my wonderful animation director, Raymond McGrath, about what I would like my characters to do… if I said, “I need my individual to walk from here to here”, he’d want to know; where was he before, how fast is he walking, is he tired, is he nervous, what does he want to do?
There’d be a million questions about what the character was doing just like you would expect from an actor. In order for that character to be brought to life truthfully, there’d need to be all that in the head of the animator, and the animators do talk in terms of performance – it’s really fascinating – and you know that Ray would sometimes drive me crazy by asking millions and millions of questions, but you know that every question was about making it more truthful.
+ What makes a good documentary?
LP: One of the things about good documentary is it should be exactly the same as good fiction film-making. You should have a story which has an arc, you should take your audience on a journey. If you know that Gallipoli was terrible at the beginning of the film and that is all that you take away, then you haven’t learnt anything at all, you haven’t gone on a journey and I’ve stolen 90 minutes of your life that you’ll never get back.
Good documentary film-making should have characters that you identify with, shift in tone and pace, and hopefully you get a smile every once and awhile – there should be ups and down – just like there should be in good fiction film-making, if not I haven’t done my job as a filmmaker… That’s the rant I give to students at least.
+ What does this film mean to you?
LP: I’m extraordinarily proud of the film, I think the work that the animators at Flux did – every frame is a piece of art and it’s special and embraces the story and at the same time as acknowledging the horror the somehow finds the beauty in it – and there are so many beautiful moments that the animators achieve in the context of a terrible terrible event.
So I’m really proud of it and the reaction from the audience that we’ve had so far at the Toronto International Film Festival and in other film festivals – the response, the emotional connection that people made with individuals in the film Is what I’m proudest of – its like that they forgot after 10 minutes that they’re animated and they connected and just listened to what they had to say and went with them on this journey.
That’s satisfying as a filmmaker as all that is all that you can really hope for, and we hope that that is the dame with the audience in New Zealand.
Leanne Pooley and Tim Woodhouse will present a special Anzac Day screening of 25 April on Monday at 5pm at Auckland's Rialto Newmarket cinema. The film opens in selected cinemas nationwide on Thursday.