Gunnar Isaacson, director Cultural Centre, Queanbeyan, 1998
Gunnar Isaacson - check your 1963 ABC TV program for the first and last time you saw his name in print. Yet Isaacson's camera lit your television screen with international news and documentaries from the 1950's to the 1980's.
Now 77 (he expects to retire at 80), still self-effacing but a dynamic organiser, Isaacson has directed his enduring interest in children - famous in his travel documentary series Stina's Diary, featuring his own family and children they met in countries all over Europe and Asia (and repeated in 1963 under the title Gunnar Isaacson without his knowledge) - into the Cultural Centre Queanbeyan Inc (CCQ). In Studio 17, provided by Queanbeyan Council without rent, Isaacson uses garage sale video equipment and a small acting space to help young people put their theatre and media interests into practice.
His work, using CCQ membership fees, sponsorship from local businesses and project by project grants from Queanbeyan Council, focusses on creating real outcomes: the production of a theatre script by a new young writer; making a video documentary of Queanbeyan's recent Youth Festival; documentaries on Queanbeyan's young achievers from Olympic Gold champion rower Megan Still to Tim Stephens of School of Arts Cafe fame.
The essential thing is, he says, that young people must have a chance to go on and achieve without fear or favour; with their own sense of direction.
After World War II, the young Isaacson felt that drive, leaving Sweden for South America, meeting the Swedish King's brother in Buenos Aires to make documentaries. He came to Australia in 1948 after a stint in film school at the College of the City of New York. 50 years on he is proud that his protege, Tom Murphy (1997 Australian Young Shakespearean of the Year), is currently taking courses in the same college before going on to a study tour at The Globe Theatre, London.
Isaacson sees himself as a stimulator of talent, whatever the young person's background, so there is no charge for activities. Most participants are between 16 and 19, but occasionally someone younger - in the present group even an 11 year old - will arrive with the motivation to learn technique and the desire to follow through a project, working in a highly democratic team approach. Isaacson worked closely with well known educator Norman Baker to create what they have called "integrated learning".
Yet until the 1970's, the roving cameraman - the news "stringer" - that Isaacson was worked solo, shooting the news and documentary material on 16mm film with no sound track. It was a shock when one day he found that the next contract required on-the-spot sound recording - and this could only be done with a crew. How could he continue to get the intimate, personalised shots - especially of children - which were his hallmark and central to his concerns with humanity, when two other people would be there watching and recording?
Now, says Isaacson, new technology has come full circle. He moved into work with Film Australia, with many films made for schools which led to a new understanding of education. At CCQ his young colleagues can once again experience solo work, recording sound and vision on video as they go. Look at the ABC's Race Around the World, says Isaacson, and there are the young people with the filmic freedom he had years ago.
Gunnar Isaacson began his recent relationship with young playwrights by taking a street kid to the Australian National Playwrights Conference in 1994. With strong support from ANPC director May-Brit Akerholt and local representative Carol Woodrow (well known for establishing the Canberra Childrens Theatre in the early 1970's - spawning Canberra Youth Theatre and The Jigsaw Theatre Company), young people who might not otherwise have the chance now go to each ANPC Conference, and the ANPC sends young writers' scripts to Isaacson. He uses Queanbeyan Council grants for travel and accommodation for two week workshops at Studio 17 for these writers, often with professional dramaturgs, leading to public readings or workshop productions.
The key to Issacson's method is that the young people see themselves as helping other, maybe less fortunate, young people. Through their theatre script development and video productions, the young provide their own role models. The need for Gunnar Issacson to make this happen, he believes, lies in the young people's need for building self-esteem in a world where governments, sadly, are antagonistic to human values and focus on the bottom line.
The bottom line in Studio 17 is the reverse of a long tradition. Instead of supplying potato chips to go and see someone else's film, when the youngsters arrive here Gunnar Isaacson, the ultimate stimulator, brings out the chips while they plan making their own.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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