Documentary filmmaker Robert Nugent has debuted an experimental mockumentary on new streaming platform Prototype

A still from Robert Nugent's Picnic Places. Picture: Supplied
A still from Robert Nugent's Picnic Places. Picture: Supplied

For Canberra documentary filmmaker Robert Nugent, the recent slowing-down of the world has allowed him to complete a dream film project - Picnic Places - a short experimental film debuting this week on the new film website Prototype.

Nugent's documentary Night Parrot Stories was lauded on its release in 2016, and this new film is drawn from discarded footage, photos and notes taken on the cross-Australia expedition Nugent took to collect footage of the elusive Night Parrot.

"I found myself on my own, driving across western Queensland, the Great Sandy Desert, stopping at these roadside stops with old abandoned memorials or playgrounds," Nugent says.

"I found myself becoming obsessed with their engineering, coming up with my own narratives for why they were there because the plaques explaining them had usually been stolen." He saw these places as "Colonised landscapes, with the colonisers as aliens who have arrived, engaged with the landscape, and left these artefacts behind."

Picnic Places is science fiction, told as a mock-ethnographic documentary with a Polish-language voice-over, asking what future scientists might make of our world today.

The platform it makes its debut on is Prototype, the brainchild of Radio National and Guardian film critic Lauren Carroll Harris. It serves a curated collection of original commissions from artists and filmmakers - the kind of esoteric stuff you might usually see on gallery walls and exhibitions, rather than in the finals of Tropfest.

A still from Robert Nugent's Picnic Places. Picture: Supplied

A still from Robert Nugent's Picnic Places. Picture: Supplied

Lauren Carroll Harris's prescient idea for Prototype pre-dates COVID by two years, but it has come to fruition in an era with people hungry for content and artists needing new platforms and income sources.

"I had a hunch long before COVID came that the business side of the art and film worlds weren't serving either art or audience, not meeting this digital cultural moment" she says.

A still from Robert Nugent's Picnic Places. Picture: Supplied

A still from Robert Nugent's Picnic Places. Picture: Supplied

"If this year has shown us anything, it's that the exhibition and distribution systems are broken, with this expectation that audiences are expected to come to them."

With arthouse and feature films served well on existing platforms, and new streaming services like QuiBi exploring the high end of the short film market, Carroll Harris champions experimental works.

"The kind of stuff I love is non-narrative, leaves behind any convention of plot, character, three-act-structure and redemptive ending," she says, speaking from the Sutton, NSW property to where she has recently made a tree-change.

"Over the years I've thought the most stimulating, thought-provoking work was at the experimental end of the spectrum," she says, "the end least supported by government funding or cultural policy. I could hear myself complaining about it but I was sick of waiting someone else do something about it, I had all these contacts I'd met through my work, people like Arcadia Films said they'd lend a hand as well."

A still from Robert Nugent's Picnic Places. Picture: Supplied

A still from Robert Nugent's Picnic Places. Picture: Supplied

Carroll Harris was inspired by US filmmaker Todd Haynes who said, when starting his Apparatus Productions, that he wanted to change the idea that "experimental was synonymous with excruciating".

"I want the message to be that video art is great, that experimental film can be accessible, that we can create this small space on the internet for thinking and push the work out into the broader popular culture."

The kind of stuff I love is non-narrative, leaves behind any convention of plot, character, three-act-structure and redemptive ending.

Lauren Carroll Harris

Prototype launched in June 2019 with a series of original commissions from artists and filmmakers whose work Lauren Carroll Harris had enjoyed covering over her years as critic and writer. "Usually I'm commenting on their works, but this commissioning process just brings me into the process at a much earlier point."

Carroll Harris approached Robert Nugent, being a fan of his Night Parrot Stories, to explore his unused footage to see what short films might be discovered within.

Nugent says he has loved the opportunity to move from long-form documentary to experimental short film, to play with sound and produce his own sound mix.

"Working in the short form I haven't felt constrained by the usual conventions," he says. "I've had the freedom to experiment with ideas, particularly to push how voice and text dance with image when in documentary I find the text sometimes 'steps on the toes of the image' but here I can play with the cinematic language."

In addition to his lauded documentary work - including the 2007 film End of the Rainbow and 2011's Memoirs of a Plague - Nugent's career has taken him to Afghanistan and Cambodia working for the United Nations, and Alice Springs working for the Central Land Council. His tenure in Canberra was about to come to an end when Coronavirus placed his plans for a project in Sydney on hold, and so the commission was timely.

The concentrated block of work finishing Picnic Places now over, Nugent says he is expecting the reality of the coronavirus era to kick in. "I'm a bit sorry I finished the film actually," he jokes, "because I expect I'll be bouncing off the walls now."

  • You can subscribe to Prototype at youaretheprototype.art.
This story A surreal tribute to picnic places first appeared on The Canberra Times.