I never intended to inject so much of me into this article, but there was a meta-quality to the documentary that felt necessary to explore it through a meta-examination in a piece like this. Often I would merely cut and edit the interview and publish it as a podcast and be done, but this interview felt different.
I’m rambling. I’m uncentered.
Focusing on the film itself, I wonder how much of the myth of Leunig rubbed off on Kasimir. Leunig is softly spoken, so much so that he almost anticipates you leaning in to hear him better, pulling you in with quiet, gaining empathy and compassion by his introversion and insecurities. He’s keenly aware of the public’s perception of him, and in turn, is keenly aware of the need of being in control of his own story. Given his views and opinions and are out in the open via his catalogue of cartoons that operate as his mode of communication, he has become a public figure that opens himself up to scrutiny. But he can choose which acts of antagonism to engage with. Outside of the management-operated profiles that exist to push his latest cartoons, Leunig has minimal social media presence. Yet, his cartoons create a frenzy on social media because of his perspective on society.
Kasimir clearly worked hard to gain the trust of Leunig, to allow him to document his life. Early in the film, the rather meek Leunig sits in a café pondering what a documentary on his life would look like. The camera is framed in a cautiously tabloid-media-esque style that hints at an invasion of privacy. It watches, observes two people talking in open privacy, the fake safety and comfort that a venue like a cafe delivers. Everyone is in their own minds, so naturally nobody is listening to what the table over is talking about. But, we can see how uncomfortable Leunig is, and in turn, we are tuned to be empathetic to his tale.
Google tells us the controversies surrounding Michael Leunig, with a late 2019 argument between him and his sister exploding into the media via cartoons. This upsetting argument occurred too late to be considered for inclusion within the film itself (it had initially screened at MIFF in 2019), but that’s not to say that there aren’t other controversies that arise in Leunig’s career. The famed anti-vaccination cartoon is given a guernsey, with Kasimir appearing to attempt to interrogate Leunig over the cartoon by showing tweets from Hannah Gadsby decrying the cartoon. But there’s little interrogation from Kasimir into the man himself.
Yet, what’s said and unsaid left me learning about Leunig as an artist, and in turn, I learned about Kasimir as a filmmaker. I mention to him that this is probably unexpected on his behalf, but for me it worked, making the film a complete whole because of its reflective nature.
Kasimir comments on this, saying:
That’s good to hear, because it was an unexpected fragment. I only included the moment of me editing the film, which is kind of strangely meta because it seemed to speak further, or seemed to illustrate Michael’s character further in his relationship with me, and the broader world. His relationship with me felt like a kind of microcosm or something of his broader relationships.
I’m frustrated with myself for not pushing against Kasimir more, to find out why he didn’t push against Leunig more. It’s a circular action. I respect Kasimir. Kasimir respects Leunig. Yet, by all of us engaging in this respectful action, we’re failing the one area we should all ultimately be respecting: the audience.
And, in many ways, just like Michael Leunig has consented to having a documentary made about his life by Kasimir Burgess, I am now doing an interview with Kasimir Burgess at his consent.
But film media is a different beast than a documentary. We’re often distanced, hated, feared. We are othered by the industry we work to celebrate and hold up high. It is expected of us to go for the hard questions and push and interrogate our subjects.
Foolishly, I make a self-deprecating joke about how hard it must be to put a film out into the world, being subjected to public opinion, and the ire of ‘us terrible critics’. The allotted time is up when I make this faux-pas.
Maybe I needed another coffee.
He responds kindly, saying:
It will be, because, there’ll be people who don’t like seeing filmmakers impose themselves on a film, let alone a film about an iconic artist. But I think filmmakers just have to use what ingredients they’re getting, and for me it felt like there was some meat on the bone in that dance between filmmaker and subject.
Kasimir allows the conversation to roll on, I feel he’s enjoying this discussion and as such I decide to ask him about his fascination with the human condition. I’m curious about the conversation that Kasimir wants to have with the art of cinema.
Fell explores a father and family torn apart by death, looking at the grief and loss that consumes him. The Leunig Fragments presents a man conflicted by death and loss and legacy. Leunig didn’t attend his parents funerals – a reasoning I believe that his family would gladly elucidate if they ever decided to discuss his life, maybe Mary Leunig’s cartoons hint at the forced extrication Michael went through.
He talks about a tree he planted as a kid, now towering in suburbia, dwarfing us all. It is its own legacy, its own icon.
I knew that Michael was preoccupied with death, and mortality, and I knew that Michael was an iconic artist nearing the end of his life and it was interesting to me what perspectives he might have on his own life and, and the meaning of life, more broadly. So it felt very timely to explore that and a main preoccupation of the film I guess is how do we grapple with the ephemeral nature of our own lives, and in the face of death, what’s important? Is it connection and love and heart and imagination and all those things I think are important and celebrated in the film.
The relationship with Joan for instance, his childhood teacher and mentor, was important because it helped to illustrate some of those ideas in a really beautiful, emotional, immediate way. This is someone who only has, you know days to live, who’s teaching Michael now towards the end of his life how to die. She’s still teaching him, this amazing woman who had nurtured his cartooning as a child is now holding him and looking into each other’s eyes and is saying their goodbyes.
That was very poignant. That was the first scene that was the first thing that we filmed. I shouldn’t call it a ‘scene’ but you know that was the first…
I interrupt, offering a word, fragment.
…yeah, with Joan and Michael. So, it kind of, how do you say it, set the tone? Like, ok, right, this is what matters to Michael now, and I’m going to follow this as a major thread. And then of course Michael with the seizure. And really confronting his own situation, his own friends are dying and you know his relationships are falling apart…
Kasimir apologises. I’m trying to be discreet, sorry.
I completely understand. There is a trust, a bond, an understanding between filmmaker and subject, between a family that has unaddressed issues that maybe don’t entirely need to be figured out in a public medium.
We go deeper, as I ask Kasimir about the film being as much about him as it is about Michael Leunig. I let him know that I learned a lot from this particular film about meeting your idol, about learning about their life journey. I comment about the realm of privilege I live in being able to talk to filmmakers like Kasimir. I mention how I learn continually from their work and from talking to them. I mention how it does my head in sometimes.
Kasimir hesitates. It’s a big question that demands deconstruction.
A big, big lesson in filmmaking, with this being my first documentary, was kind of throw your plan or preconceptions out the window and be prepared to embrace whatever presents. Coming from drama where you know you can script and control and really pre-empt, this was kind of exhilarating and scary in that way. It just, I guess it is picking up fragments, trying to catch moments, and then weave together a narrative from often disparate ideas. So that was a big, big lesson for me. And I think I’ve learned to maybe be a freer, more improvisational filmmaker.
In terms of master class in self-expression and creativity and being kind of prolific and outspoken, I guess these are all things that I’ve always loved about Michael’s work. It was inspiring to witness him drawing, for instance, and at the same time getting lost in lots of ideas and then finding something and then nurturing and building it up. And then you think, oh wow, he spent an hour on this, you think, this is going to be the one for the deadline… and then it’s in the trash can.
He is a perfectionist, and I guess I learned not to be too precious with things and to play, and just keep pushing yourself to be better. It’s a lot like the editing process.
I chime in, asking him about the difficulty of filming, and how you capture so much footage, only to return to the editing suite and realising that it’s not going to work. I ask about the heartbreak that comes with this.
Kasimir starts to tell a story about the big expectations of going to film Michael doing ‘whatever’, and then he stops. He realises it’s an inappropriate story and edits himself.
This is hours and hours and hours, hundreds of hours of footage. 0.1% of it makes it into the film. Never [stop] rolling was a motto… I had to keep reminding myself don’t turn the camera off because you never know where the moment will be, and it’s usually not where you were planning it to be in. Often times, you will think you’ve got the greatest moment of the most beautiful shot and you just can’t find a home for it and we can’t force it. You have to kill those darlings.
And another upside of having Michael Leunig as a subject is that he is incredibly articulate and eloquent and has a really philosophical and poetic worldview. There were so many ingredients, so much to work with in the edit, this film could have been maybe another hundred options. I’ve literally had many, many versions of the film. It was just the one that kind of rang true, or felt to have the right balance of perspective. Mine, Michael’s. The various other people who speak about Michael and his work, and finding that balance between exploring Michael’s work and the socio-political pieces, and the whimsy, and the humour, there are so many aspects, and such a duality to Michael, there’s that soft work, and the whimsical work, that might celebrate the smallest moment in nature, and then there’s that kind of cutting, political insight, and that can happen in the same week from the same newspaper. But to make the film, and to find a home for both of those voices was a challenge.
Interestingly, just like Leunig, Kasimir asks me to edit him respectfully. I hope I have. I really don’t need to, given his considered, measured, and thoughtful answers. There are moments where a story sits on the tip of his tongue, waiting to be told, but he pulls back, recognising it’s not his place to tell these stories.
And maybe that’s why The Leunig Fragments doesn’t explore Leunig’s families problems with the artist himself? Because they aren’t Kasimir, or Michael’s, stories to tell? What stories are contained in this secretive family? Does the fact that Michael Leunig is deemed to be a National Living Treasure – one of only 79 in Australia – preclude any chance of privacy for the family, or for Leunig himself?
The Leunig Fragments never strays into the realm of investigating what being a Living Treasure entails, nor does it suggest that being one denies the chance for any deep interrogation.
Which then makes it fascinating when Michael Leunig disappears from Kasimir’s life for a period of time. Communication runs dry, and filming becomes seemingly impossible. As such, Kasimir dons a wig and imitates Leunig’s mannerisms, sinking himself into the mind of Michael Leunig, just so he can get coverage shots to fill out the film. I ask Kasimir about how this came about, and what kind of difficulty arose when needing to portray his own subject:
I think he sort of set it up for me from the beginning when he said, there are two conflicting things in every artist that is the desire to communicate and the desire to not be found. I think that’s me. That was his line. And another line: ‘actually, I hope we get lost during the making of this film’. So there was a signpost from the beginning where he was, I guess, telling me that he may retreat, but that there was a kind of assurance that he would return. That there would be action, and movement, and story, and then a lull.
It’s this kind of dance between the subject and the filmmaker which is quite dynamic and painful and difficult and beautiful and all those things. So yeah, look, if I look back, he did signpost that it wouldn’t be easy, and that it would take time, even if at the time I had this naïve idea of the film taking one year.
It was always going to take five years, I think, because Michael, because he needs his space and he had the brain seizure as well, so he takes time out to heal.
I’m not sure if that answers your question.
If you’ve interviewed someone before, you’ll hear that answer a lot. “I’m not sure if that answers your question”. Even if it’s the simplest question, you can get an answer that doesn’t address what you’ve put forward at all. Maybe this is a sign of me being unprepared, of being a haphazard, conversation driven interviewer. Maybe I’m not framing my questions properly.
I think of a moment in The Leunig Fragments near the end of the film, where both the subject and the documenter start to feel exhausted. Kasimir has been on the receiving end of 10 months of radio silence from Leunig. Leunig on the other hand has suffered a brain seizure, and his marriage of almost twenty-six years is ending. If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised that Leunig was even married, given how little his relationship is presented in the film.
Leunig meanders around his studio, eventually picking up a piece of paper. He pierces a hole through it, and stares at Kasimir with a wary glare. The observer has become the observed. It’s easy to get the impression that this is exactly how Leunig wants to be seen or remembered. As an eye, staring at the world, safe behind his paper and illustrations. Those drawings can talk for themselves, so why does the mind that they escaped from need to add to their legacy?
But Kasimir didn’t answer the question about becoming Michael. So, I probe again. I remind him of the meta-moment about him wearing the wig, imitating Michael’s mannerisms. I suggest that the only way of truly knowing him is to become him.
In a way, as they say, documentaries are as much about the maker as they are the subject. You cannot help but to explore some of your own preoccupations through your subject.
Speaking more literally about becoming Michael, it was quite a desperate act, to actually dress up as him, put on the wig, practice the walk, there was a lot of pressure from certain funding bodies and investors to show something. And you think, ok, how can I just keep some momentum on this project? To keep some positivity and not, just, you know, feel as though maybe I’ve lost my subject. I had a hope that he would return, and obviously he did, but it was just a way of continuing somehow, but yeah it is a bit desperate and a bit funny looking back on it now, and a bit naïve. But yeah there are quite a few shots of me in the film.
I try to allay his concerns and worries but saying that it’s not naïve at all. I remind Kasimir that you don’t anticipate that this kind of stuff is going to happen. I ask him how he deals with the challenges.
Do you just abandon the project? Which is what I considered several times, just put it in the too hard basket.
Okay, well let’s go and talk to some other people in Michael’s life. Let’s keep filming me as Michael in various places that he’s describing in the movie. And, you know, I guess it’s a playful unexpected turn of events. And I hope it’s not too irreverent. I hope Michael appreciates the whimsy in that act. But yes, the end of the day, it was, it was just a simple question I had to ask myself, which was is this a viable project, can I keep going. Is there a solution to this problem and that solution was to become Michael for a little while.
There’s more that I should have asked Kasimir about the film. I’m fascinated by the woman covered in Leunig tattoos. I wish that we were given a little more time with someone who clearly is within the cult of Leunig. I’d have liked to have known her perspective on the Leunig controversies.
But, like most interviews, these are things that come to mind long after I’ve wrapped up the phone call. And, no doubt, just like Kasimir who wanted to be in Leunig’s kitchen when controversies erupted and he was not given the chance, the moment has passed.
As with all interviews, I thank the subject, and awkwardly wrap up the call with a few ‘I hope you have a nice day’-like remarks.
I sit in front of my computer for a moment, feeling just the same way I felt when the film wrapped up: conflicted. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m grateful for the chance to discuss a film with its creator, but the subject matter leaves me perplexed and, again, conflicted. I put away the notions of comparing myself to Kasimir, and Kasimir to Leunig. I ask myself, would I do the same thing? Would I probe and poke at someone I call my idol? I know the answer, just as you do too.
I save the recording, I file it away, and I get up and make a coffee and go on with my day.
The Leunig Fragments is in Australian cinemas from 13/02/2020.