The impact of years of economic rationalism on tertiary education is the theme of this quite remarkable documentary by the team of Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, whose previous award-winning work includes a trilogy of films set in Papua, New Guinea — “First Contact” (1983), “Joe Leahy’s Neighbors” (1989) and “Black Harvest” (1992) — plus the widely seen study of grass-roots politics, “Rats in the Ranks” (1996). Using as their focus Anne Boyd, head of the music faculty at the U. of Sydney, the filmmakers have been lucky enough (or intuitive enough) to record the radicalization of a conservative woman. Although a specific and powerful portrait, “Facing the Music” could represent events taking place right now in education in many parts of the Western world and should be widely accepted on the festival circuit and, later, in ancillary. In Australia, it will receive a limited theatrical release before scheduled TV network screenings. Pic is a rallying call to governments and funding bodies to see where their rationalist policies are leading — in the dumbing down of a whole generation of young people.
We first meet Professor Boyd, a celebrated composer, as she supervises student auditions. As head of the highly regarded music faculty at Australia’s oldest university, she is passionately devoted to teaching and to her students. Accordingly, she is not impressed by union calls for strike action on the first day of the new semester. Reluctantly attending her first ever union meeting, she pours scorn on the radicals, telling them teachers should love their work, even if they’re underpaid, and disdainfully rejecting the idea of a strike as “undignified” and “tacky.”
The strike goes ahead, and she, and other members of her staff, quietly slip past picket lines and conduct classes as usual. But the reality is that government cutbacks over a 10-year period are placing the university in an impossible squeeze (in Australia, higher education has always been government funded). Facing a deficit in her department of $70,000, Boyd and her head of administration are forced to cut corners in any way they can. One sad/funny scene shows her telephoning Australia’s largest bank in an optimistic, but hopelessly inept, attempt to gain sponsorship for music scholarships.
Already stretched almost beyond endurance, Boyd finds herself teaching 20 hours a week instead of the usual six, as well as running the department and working on her own compositions. Obviously something’s got to give.
The pressure radicalizes Boyd. When the union proposes more strikes, she does a complete turnaround and embraces the idea, leading the demonstrators and manning a picket line to stop traffic in and out of the university. She and others attempt to present a petition to the vice chancellor, and Boyd is devastated when he refuses to accept it.
Later (offscreen), she is rebuked by the authorities and (onscreen) is shown, in her office, reduced to tears. Eventually, with her budget slashed by 50 percent, Boyd is forced to resign. End titles explain that the very future of the faculty is in doubt. When they started shooting “Facing the Music” (on DV, transferred in post-production to 35mm), Connolly and Anderson could not have known how their central character would be transformed by events. They were lucky indeed to have been able to cover such a powerful personal and political story, and the result is an outstanding piece of documentation.
Alongside the theme of Boyd’s political radicalization are fascinating scenes of her at work composing a new aria and teaching her students. She comes across as a woman so obsessed with her work that she has been barely aware of outside events that would impact so heavily on her life, and on the lives of those around her.
In the end, she emerges as a quite unforgettable character. “Facing the Music” isn’t only an outstanding documentary — it’s also a powerful personal drama.