The other day, as I was finally cleaning out the box in my garage labeled “FLYABOUT,” I came across a piece of scrap paper. “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home — Jerry Kooyman,” it said. I thought back to the moment when my pilot buddy had made that comment. We had just run for cover under the wings of our airplanes, and slashing down rain was about to seriously change our plans of circumnavigating the continent of Australia. I remember that his comment sounded intriguing to me, but I didn’t quite understand what he meant by it.
Seven and a half years later, I have finished Flyabout, a documentary film about that same trip. Part of me still can’t believe that I am done. I worked on this movie for so long that I eventually ended up having to change the head credits because they still showed my maiden name. I now have two small children. When I went to Australia, I was practically still a child myself.
In 1998 I was a young, eager script supervisor who had worked in the film industry for a while, always knowing that one day I would direct a movie myself. But none of the fictional ideas I had come up with ever seemed good enough to me to be turned into that first film. In the meantime, completely unrelated, first I, and then my dad, had gotten a pilot’s license. And soon thereafter we finally fulfilled our dream to visit Australia.
“Now it makes sense to go there because we will be able to see the whole continent,” my dad said. Most people who travel by car end up only seeing the East Coast between Sydney and Brisbane, maybe take a trip up to the Barrier Reef. But we wanted to explore the rest of Australia, the part without all the tourists, the outback. And co-piloting a small single-engine airplane allowed us to do exactly that.
I got to know Australia from the air. A lot of the images in my memory and in my movie are of the amazing shapes and colors the continent is blessed with. Sitting in a Cessna 172 feels a little bit like riding a bicycle through the air. It’s very immediate. You feel like you can reach out and touch the puffy clouds outside your window, the flock of running sheep or the breeching whale beneath your wing. So, in addition to traveling to parts of the country many Australians have never even seen, I got to enjoy them from a unique perspective.
Later on, as I read more about Aboriginal culture, I learned about the so-called “song lines” that are spread out across the country as a result of the creator beings singing their songs of creation. I know they didn’t have airplanes 40000 years ago; but nevertheless, the way they describe their country and how all living things are connected through lines, it seemed to me as if they were able to look at it from the same bird’s eye perspective that I was.
The idea to capture this perspective on film first arose as I replaced the battery of my still camera in preparation for the trip down under. I stopped and said to myself: “Wait a minute. I want to make a film. Why search around for a narrative idea when I’m about to depart on this literally once-in-a-lifetime journey myself? The story I should tell is right in front of me.” So, even though I had no experience making documentaries and I wasn’t exactly sure what my story was going to be about, I went out and bought myself a small digital video camera.
In the weeks following, as I flew around the continent, I literally had my right hand on the wheel while holding the camera with my left. Inspired by Ross Mc Elwee’s Sherman’s March, I used the camera as an extension of my eyes. I just aimed it where I was curious to look, and I shared my thoughts and feelings with it as if it was a friend I was writing home to.
Weeks later, back home surfing through my modest 25 hours of footage, I felt like I hit a brick wall. Yes, I had returned with many images of people, animals, aerial views of landscapes and tons of planes taking off and landing. But the only definitive goal I had gone to Australia with, namely to find out more about the Walkabout, I hadn’t achieved. And it wasn’t like I had suddenly become a whole new person. Nobody even had a crying meltdown at the end. How could I ever turn this into a compelling documentary?
Nevertheless, I went ahead and taught myself how to edit on a friend’s old Media 100 system that is so obsolete today I am still amazed I was able to coax my movie out of it seven years later. And I spent months and months cutting down, sorting and writing hypothetical treatments. And that’s when a good friend of mine made a key comment: “Sometimes a story is about the fact that you DIDN’T find what you were looking for, but you found something else instead.” And lo and behold, as I kept chiseling away at the bulk of images, searching for what I had REALLY learned from the experience, there was the story for my movie.
I’m so glad I didn’t give up. My heart is filled with happiness and pride as I look at the finished film now and all the things I learned along the way. No film school could have done a better job of teaching me how to shoot, edit, make a movie on a shoestring budget of $10,000 and, most importantly, how to tell a story.
So here I am, roughly 2708 days after Jerry and I were standing underneath that airplane wing in the rain, and I smile as I’m beginning to understand that what he meant was as true for our Australian journey as it has been of making this film: “Every day is a journey and the journey itself is home.”
— Monika Petrillo
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