Drawing out the Truth

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As New Zealanders mark Anzac Day, animated documentary feature 25 April opens. Around 8,000 NZ soldiers were killed or wounded during the campaign; the equivalent number today, given population growth, would be over 35,000. What’s worse, New Zealanders were only a very small part of the whole thing. Australians suffered over three times as many casualties, the British over nine times as many.

But for all their shock value, statistics and maps cannot give you a sense of what it felt like for the unwitting youngsters who found themselves at Anzak Koyu after signing up in a wave of patriotic enthusiasm a few months earlier.

Director Leanne Pooley set about bringing those personal stories to the screen in the feature project 25 April. She was well aware that this history had been traversed many times but was attracted by producer Matthew Metcalfe’s idea to step outside the typical war documentary built around old men reminiscing and do something different.

There’s nothing wrong with those traditional docos, but Metcalfe’s idea was to approach 25 April as an animated film, a choice that meant they could throw off the constraints imposed by what footage was available.

Instead, 25 April explores the experiences while they were fresh, before they became coloured and moulded by all that came later. The film does this by interpreting diaries and letters that the men and women left behind, written when the writers didn’t even know who would win the war or when the nightmare would end.

Those writings were bought to life by six actors, using the words of five soldiers and one nurse in an animated interview format created from the diaries. From those interviews, Pooley edited and structured a narrative, and intercut them with accompanying sequences. In this respect, the film does follow a conventional documentary structure.

A true story
In Hollywood, the based-on-a-true-story feature can be as out of touch with reality as the 1915 Lords of the Admiralty in London were with the campaign as it unfolded in Turkey, but Pooley stresses that although the film is animated, this is a true story. The ethics, techniques, and truth of documentary making apply. With Pooley, you get a sense she would never work any other way.

“The only time we changed anything in the diaries was sometimes to make it sound less formal because they wrote in a very formal way. Sometimes we would make it more conversational but we didn’t ever want to put words in somebody’s mouth. That wouldn’t be fair, for example, if they were critical,” says Pooley.

“In particular Bowler (one of the soldiers) articulates that at the beginning he went away believing he was serving King and country, but felt completely betrayed by Britain and really felt strongly that New Zealand needed to look to itself in the future. The film has that trajectory too.”

Yet the task was to make a compelling film, so the selection of material was crucial. For a year, a team led by Kieran McGee scoured hundreds of diaries and letters searching for the right individuals who would tell the story of what it felt like.


 

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