David Elliot-Jones on interactive documentary Convenient Education

On November 16th, one day before the International Student Day, SBS launched the interactive documentary Convenient Education. Directed by the first-time filmmakers David Elliot-Jones, Louis Dai and Lachlan McLeod, the documentary tracks the journey of a group of Indian students from Jalandhar, India to study in Australia in seeking a better future.

For the co-director David Elliot-Jones, documentary is a way to tell stories that are relevant to everyday people. “There is drama in real life. It takes a bit of unraveling.”

Convenient Education is a film about the education sector in Australia, a multi-billion dollar industry that has attracted numerous young foreigners and has contributed greatly to the nation’s economy. The story begins in Jalandhar, a city dedicated to oversea studies, a place gathering a variety of language schools and agencies. It then follows the heartbreaking journey of the dream pursuers from overseas who enroll in vocational colleges and train themselves to do the jobs that the Australians do not want to do in order to get the permanent residency, and who have experienced serious discriminations.

Elliot-Jones, Dai and McLeod met in the University of Melbourne when they were doing their Arts Degree. Convenient Education was their first commissioned project.

“The idea began in the university when we had part-time jobs working with lots of Indian students,” Elliot-Jones recalls. “We learnt a lot about the issues that affect international students, particularly the students going to vocational colleges. During the time, there was a big main-stream media focus on the violence. We thought there was so much going on below the surface: the issues of violence, exploitation, housing and many others. They all come down to migration issue in the end. So we wanted to see how Australia is marketed in India. We all went to Punjab, where lots of Indian students came from to study in Australia. There, the permanent residency in Australia is advertised. That sparked our investigation.”

Spending more than three years on this thirty-minute project, Elliot-Jones believes that it is the strong interest in the topic that lies behind all their efforts.

 “It affects lots of people who are now our friends,” he says. “I think it is a story that needs to be told but hasn’t been told to a full extent. A lot of viewers who did not know much about the story are shocked. We need to raise the issues of exploitation and human rights, particularly for the temporary residents and international students. They can’t vote. They don’t have basic entitlements as we do. When there is injustice for them, there need to be some ways for the concern to be raised.”

Besides the documentary’s touch on one of the most debated issues in contemporary Australia, Convenient Education is also characterized by its interactive way of story-telling. The film is accompanied by extra images and profiles. Commentary is also made possible, allowing the audiences to share insights along with the procession of the film.

However, when the three directors started planning on the project, they were thinking about making a feature-like film. After working on it independently for a year and a half, they came into contact with SBS and the idea of making it an online documentary with interactive function was brought to agenda.

“The online thing interested us as well,” Elliot-Jones says. “SBS encouraged us to meet Chocolate Liberation Front, which is a transmedia production company who later on was responsible for all the interactive design of the site and the management of the project.”

“The documentary tells the emotional journey that a lot of students went through. It tells you the story of our largest industry. It also tells you about our reliance on immigration. To cover these three things, we want it to really inform and at the same time affect people emotionally. That’s why the format of the online documentary actually suits the content quite well.”

For Elliot-Jones, instead of disturbing the continuity of the storyline, the interactive documentary allows the viewers to access certain materials.
“I found that many people watched the documentary and came back to watch the Extra part,” he says. “I don’t think it is distractive. For instance, when I was watching a documentary online, I watched, paused it and went to Wikipedia, searching the topic because I’m really interested in some facts. I would be prompted to know more about it. With the Extra section in our documentary, we don’t want to bring the viewers away from the story. We want to prompt them instead.”

“We wanted it to be strong and dramatic as traditional documentary. But it should also provide extra contexts according to the viewers’ interest. You access the Extras at various points in the documentary when certain materials become relevant. Part of the reason for us to do so is that we did so much research and there were hundreds of hours of footage that we took.”

Convenient Education is the first project that the three young directors worked on. For Elliot-Jones, the main challenge is that none of them went to film school and they had never made any feature films before.
“We learnt lots of lessons the hard way,” he says. “Initially we made mistakes but through this process we are much better at it now. In terms of the production, we had to sacrifice some context and information for emotion and drama, which I believe was very important. We have researched for several years. We knew so much about the topic. So the story is massive. But we learnt that you really need to make the story compelling. Moreover, through making the film, we learnt to be specific niche within the production effort, which is very beneficial. I learnt to be more of a writer, producer and manager whereas Louis was dedicated to the editing role and Lachlan is more of a director.”

Following the release of Convenient Education, they established their own production company Walking Fish Productions. Their works vary from short films to commercial pieces. At the same time, they realized that they are particularly attracted to documentaries.

Elliot-Jones believes that the advantage of documentary is that it is real.

“Since it is real, people tend to care about it given that it is relevant to their own lives. Documentary has the capacity to convey lots of meanings. They are important in the same way as journalism. It is a way making a topic, a story or an issue relevant to people who might never have considered it before.”