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Australia (MIFF 2015 , Australian Showcase,MIFF Premiere Fund)
Directors: Lynn-Maree Milburn, Richard Lowenstein
“Illusion is the first of all pleasures.”
Provocateur, artist, performer: Peter Vanessa “Troy” Davies was a chameleon. Using layers of identity at will, Davies charmed his way through a lifetime of secrets and lies, prostitution, art, HIV, abuse, incest and gender subversion, leaving a legacy of unanswered questions, influential performances and reams of enigmatic home video. Ecco Homo is a psychological detective story and a testament to a social history rarely documented on film.
In the MIFF Premiere Fund-supported Ecco Homo, filmmakers Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein (Autoluminescent: Rowland S Howard, MIFF Premiere Fund 2011) attempt to come to grips with the truth behind this elusive figure. Burrowing deep into his troubled childhood and ascendant art and music career (including collaborations with U2 and INXS), this is an emotive portrait of a man who could never come to peace with himself, but who found in chaos the key to his creative soul.
Ecco Homo is one of five MIFF Premiere Fund-supported films for 2015. We caught up with directors Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein to ask them a few questions about how they met the film’s unique subject, their personal interest in Melbourne’s counter-culture scene of the 70s and 80s, and more.
Tell us your story of how you first encountered Peter Vanessa “Troy” Davies and how he became part of your life.
Lynn-Maree: I met Troy when we were both in our early twenties. It was a memorable occasion: I was sharing a flat with a girl called Christine and she had gone missing – the word was because ‘she had fallen in love’. Her sister and I went to scout. Apprehensive, we climbed through a tall sash window of an old house into a sparsely furnished room. Our mutual friend lounged amiably between a young, foppish boy called Sam Sejavka, and another vibrant, shining, strangely vivid creature called Troy.
Suspicious by nature I glowered for some time while the others talked, watching for clues to confirm my formulating doubts. Troy noticed and made eye contact and a concerted odd effort to engage, which was very unusual at the time when 99% of people tried to be ‘cool’. I saw notes of mischief, charm, music, play, chaos, no inhibition and a deeper layer of mystery. Creative sparks flew from him in all directions. He gave me butterflies that fluttered over the realms of possibility. Spooky Little Boy Like You, the song by Lydia Lunch, started playing in my head and remained the theme song for my encounter with Troy. I was excruciatingly shy but I knew I had stumbled upon a unique individual.
Richard: I met him through Lynn-Maree.
You have so much first-person material on Troy. Did he present himself as the subject for a doco that you’ve been planning for decades, or was it just that he was so good in front of the camera you were naturally drawn to filming him?
Lynn-Maree & Richard: Troy was great in front of camera. He would always end up in some small or big way in everyone’s music videos or short films; there have been three short films with Troy as their subject.
We were always intrigued by him and found his energy, his engagement with life and people phenomenal. There was something quite rare and astounding in the way his desires lead him toward people, situations, objects, substances, knowledge, in how much he was always aspiring to something. To us he was like a character in a book, a Jean Baptiste Grenouille style of character, fromPerfume by Patrick Suskind, a book he adored and a character he related to intensely.
At first he was more a part of a number of creative teams working behind the camera but always making cameo appearances – with us perhaps dreaming of writing a script for him – but also cognizant that he was a subject that required documenting. So we began to consciously work towards documenting him over time, as Troy continued to evolve and reveal how unique he was: an unusual being intent on exploring that very thing; identity, with a very deep story within.
Everyone seems to have a different version of the truth about Troy. Were you intending to capture the ‘real’ Troy, or more concerned with uncovering his shapeshifting identities?
Lynn-Maree & Richard: To us the real Troy is indelible on every frame, just as he was always Troy. It’s just that he has so many facets, so many playful and skilful urges to test, to challenge, to baffle, combined with a desire to confound constraint, perceptions, prejudices and assumed opinions. He had accumulated such a resource of expression, through his visual appearance, his voice, character and personality traits, manners, ways of speaking and engaging that he either could not resist or could not help but slip fluidly between these modes. It is that quality that we hope we illuminate in some way – so not so much uncoverin, but rather celebrating as being part of a complex personality.
The complexities revealed within Troy’s family relationships were confronting. What choices did you have to make about managing that material?
Lynn-Maree & Richard: We think the main choice was in finding/creating the delicate framework where some objective truth about the family relationships could shine through while respecting the ‘truth’ of Troy and his two brothers, Adam and Andrew. The material needed to balance like so many dew drops on a spider’s web – created over so many years – in and of itself an amazing reflection of the creatures that wove it.
Troy’s familial relationships were such a part of who he was – his own story mysterious and obfuscating as it was – we wanted this to be a part of it too. The choices we made were about how the different threads converged and accumulated; we wanted to show the questions more than the answers, without casting too much doubt on the truth of Adam and Troy – to show alongside their truth their inherent nature as storytellers and perhaps even reveal some of the ingenious coping mechanisms they had created for themselves and employed in their lives.
We didn’t want to condemn Andrew outright, as that was not our place. We wanted to allow his interview to sit within the context that all three brothers had a different story of the family, a different experience, and yet both Troy and Adam shared the story of abuse at the hands of their elder brother Andrew. The three brothers present their stories and respond to each other and the audience is able to be both judge and jury.
As filmmakers, coming to a singular conclusion and revealing it within the film was of far less interest to us than exploring the mystery of the world described by Troy and his brothers in their own ways. We feel that the end result is close to the truth and more complex than the filmmaker’s judgment would be.
Troy seemed to be in an ongoing search for new outlets for his creativity. If he had lived longer where do you think he may have gone next?
Lynn-Maree & Richard: Troy had found a great love and outlet in his handcrafted art works. If he was well enough, we believe he would have created a prodigious body of visually conceptual artworks, developed along the lines of clockwork or mechanical, arcane works based on the themes of life and death, and pain; spiritual and physical and, last but not least, erotic.
If he not only lived longer but was well he would have ventured into theatre and also into fully immersive works such as whole conceptual rooms where an atmosphere was created and questions asked about truth and what lies beneath the surface when faced with survival, jealousy, fear, love, hatred or desire. And the audience would of course be rewarded with deliciously ingenious consequences, all being part of the artwork. Troy would remain anonymous but be watching from behind some mirror on the wall.
Ecco Homo is a further chapter in your body of work that has drawn on Melbourne and its counter-cultural scene in the 70s and 80s. Why do you think it was such a creative time that spawned such unique and memorable characters?
Lynn-Maree & Richard: There was something about the collision of the strange alienating aesthetic of Australia at the time – the strange rules, manners, narrowness – and this sudden appearance of an exciting and intriguing creative alternative that was (or seemed at the time) more aesthetic, more free, more curious, more daring, yet somehow not enough, but just enough, to create a spark in the imagination in a way that it could build.
We thought the conservatism was bland and limiting at the time but not crushing. It was as if there was a sudden beating of a drum and those creative, ingenious characters were called to gather and there seemed to be no end to what could change, be made better, explored; no limit to what could be achieved creatively.
Perhaps this generation was the right one to react to the stultifying staidness of the times. It was as if they were filled with the collective (albeit a minority) unconscious dissatisfaction combined with all the repressed dreams for something more exciting, and they burst forth like so many dark flowers.