Family Confidential featured in The Weekend Australian

November 13-14, 2010 review

 

HEARTH AND SOUL

"I'm not in this for the money; I'm just naturally nosy and I love a good story," says Laurie Critchley, executive producer of the remarkable new ABC series Family Confidential. Her new show follows some of Australia's most famous, influential and controversial families who reveal the private histories behind their well-protected, spin-doctor-protected public facades. "And I cherish the way that we get inside the stories of these national figures and get the opportunity to know them while we still have a chance," Critchley says.

Her cultural contribution as a TV filmmaker is awesome, but she remains little known to the public. She's best known for her role in creating the ABC's flagship family history program Dynasties, which ran for six series and picked up the inaugural Logie award for best documentary series in 2006.
That series represents 20 hours of biographies that capture the inside stories of influential families such as the Ainsworths (pokie billionaires), the troubled Ansetts (once of the airline), the Ashtons (of circus fame) and the Myers (department stores). Critcltley says she's a great reader of obituaries, hut often finds herself saying aloud, "Oh shit, we missed that one.”

Her TV biographies represent a stylish body of work, a bunch of intense, short feature films, visually arresting and often inventive, but inhabited by real people. In this series, Critchley goes behind the headlines to uncover the family stories of notable clans such as those of retail king Frank Lowy, Jimmy and Jane Barnes and their extended musical tribe, the Hemmeses, the enterprising and tightly knit fashion retailers, car legend Bob Jane and those Aboriginal powerhouses, the Mundines.

Critchley obviously is a persuasive woman; her films give you the impression she is capable of coaxing her subjects to do things they would never do under any other circumstances.

"It's often very hard to explain to families what we're doing because we're driven by what we discover from the conversations we have with them and the family archive, which they generously donate to the production," she says, adding that her subjects have no control over what goes to air. "We try to find what seems to be the defining line running through that family, as they see it themselves."

Critchley's working method is to become, for a short time, a participant in her subjects' world while staying outside it as a critical observer. She understands just how different TV is to prose history, appealing to both the heart and the mind.

She has given us an unparalleled body of work about the family -the extended, blood-related connection of kin -which typically represents the individuals' picture of the world, their links with the past, notions of values, views of what is comic or tragic, and their senses of destiny. And she shows the way social conditions and family dynamics affect the children of one generation and are then carried on through time to affect the children of following generations.
Few of our documentary filmmakers are as adept at eliminating any false hypotheses about their subjects, narrowing the emotional target and zeroing in on it. Like a good short-story writer, her No 1 rule is "show, don't tell". Critchley achieves a familiarity, an intimacy with the people whose lives she records in such detail; she tells her stories through character rather than communicating facts through interview and too-obvious voice-over.

In the first episode of the series, which looks at Lowy, one of Australia's wealthiest and most powerful men, at an extraordinary turning point in his family's history, she reveals how tragedy can be carried from one generation to another.

It's a great story, written and directed by Critchley, and it makes you think that so often on TV real people are so much more interesting than fictional ones. Scratch the surface of anyone who has made some kind of contribution and the result is usually fascinating, even in a shortish half hour. ("Frank kept saying to me that he was sure he was worth at least an hour," the director says.

Lowy, 70, was born in the former Czechoslovakia. A Holocaust survivor, he left eastern Europe in 1946 to fight in the Jewish underground in what was then Palestine. Fighting Arabs during the day, he studied accounting at night. Immigrating to Sydney in 1951, the cheerful, dapper and highly inquisitive Lowy was penniless and had little English. The parents of his future wife, Shirley, with whom he was to have three sons, asked her at the time: "What are you going to do with this refugee boy? How is he going to support you?"

He first found work in a factory and later in a sandwich bar, then worked as a truck driver, distributing goods to food shops. In 1955, together with a fellow Holocaust survivor friend named John Saunders, be opened a small delicatessen in the booming migrant suburb of Blacktown. But Lowy and Saunders had bigger ambitions and soon opened the shopping centre business that would become Westfield. Lowy was indefatigable and relentless.

Shirley - formidable, earthy and often a little droll - enters Critchley's story at this point, as the one who held the family together while Lowy relentlessly established his businesses. Not that Lowry is particularly repentant. "I was absent from nowhere; wherever I had to be, I was," he says, smiling with a touch of the dapper, roguish younger man who became so obsessed with business as well as with his beloved Hakoah soccer club. It's a great moment.

While be shaped his three sons in his own image as they worked with him in his corporate empire, there was a deep sadness in Lowy that eventually made him sick. At 11, he was a young boy trying to function in a family whose father had disappeared, taken by soldiers to Auschwitz one morning and never heard from again. The boy never stopped waiting.

Critchley's film, drawing on associate producer Jill Margo's biography of Lowy, Pushing the Limits, reveals how he found out what happened to his father and how it affected him in his drive co-financial success. “I don't know how Frank will feel about seeing himself so vulnerable on TV because it is a very different side to Frank Lowy," - Critchley says.

Wordsworth described poetry as "felt thought", which gives us a clue to the way the best 1V documentary filmmakers deal with ideas, especially when, as in Critchley’s films in this series, the result is so brief. She understands the weight of too many facts causes TV films to sag, collapsing the narrative current.
The calm narration of Edwina Throsby only occasionally interrupts the flow of reflection, which is orchestrated with a beguiling arrangement of personal photographs and archival film footage. The stylishly agreeable photography of Paul Costello's observational camera makes a telling contribution, following the family at several crucial clan meetings and gatherings. These are the series' set pieces and you sit there and wonder at how the families allowed such access.

There are moments in the Lowy story that border on the voyeuristic but the family seems to welcome the presence of Costello's camera crew. It never transgresses the borders of taste or ethical journalism. While Critchley may reveal the skeletons in a subject's closet, she doesn't drag out the bones and rattle them.

Be warned, though: there is a sequence in the Auschwitz concentration camp, to which Lowy has donated a restored authentic railway cattle freight car similar to the one in which his father travelled to his death, that had me in tears. Not easy to do these days.