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FACING THE MUSIC

Starring: Anthony La Paglia, Geoffrey Rush, Barbara Hershey, Kerry Armstrong
Director: Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson
Rated: PG

IN the 19th century when the bishops established the Catholic education system in this country, they hoped that it would provide a way for Catholics to rise up the social ladder and influence all spheres of society for good.

The first task was to get the largely immigrant Irish community to be able to read and write. Then it sought to get Catholics to finish secondary school. Then it enabled as many Catholics as possible to obtain a tertiary education. Last year 82 per cent of all students in Catholic schools qualified for university. The Church’s project has been, by anyone’s standards, a stunning success.

Facing the Music chronicles how the effort of helping anyone into an Australian university may be for nothing. This ‘fly on the wall’ documentary walks with Anne Boyd, Professor of Music at Sydney University in 2000. She starts out the year objecting to the planned staff strike because she thinks such action is below the dignity of academics, ‘who should be able to reason and debate these things through’.

As the year progresses and the music department’s budget is cut by another 10 per cent, the fifth such cut in as many years, she is radicalised into action. Facing the Music is about the price we pay when our consciousness is raised and we take a stand.

It was an inspired decision by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson to focus on music. This film would never have worked as well if we had followed a philosopher or a Latin scholar around.

Anne Boyd is no radical. She is middle-class, educated and articulate. It is against her nature to be ‘agin’ the Government.

A great teacher, she loves her subject passionately and is a fine composer. Music is critical to the film’s argument, not for its own sake, but because it demonstrates the principles of economic

rationalism as they have been applied to universities for over a decade.

Music departments are expensive and expendable. The line here runs: ‘What good do they do? How can they make money for the university or the nation?’ This same line has been applied to all academic departments who do not make money, or do not have a clear utilitarian end.

From my direct experience of them at the moment, Australian universities are in serious trouble. Facing the Music is telling a truth that every taxpayer needs to hear.

As accountable as universities have to be, education is about the stimulation of the imagination, the broadening of horizons. This is not an indulgence, it is a civilising movement where an educated society is happy to fund places which develop the mind, heart and spirit of the next generation. Universities are also learning resource centres for the wider community.

Anne Boyd’s story tells us why this country has a brain-drain overseas. Australia will be a very dull and dumb country if all we choose to fund is science, commerce, computer studies, law, medicine or anything else that attracts ‘external funding opportunities’. There is a very human face and social cost to the economic policies of successive Federal Governments and this film exposes it.

Facing the Music is the most moral and human film released in Australia this year. As dry as one might think the subject matter to be, this film is great drama, by turns challenging and very moving. Every character is complex. It has an appropriately rough feel and look. The soundtrack is terrific and it is masterfully edited.

This film also makes you angry. Anne Boyd is no whinging academic rolling in clover. She cares about her work and the toll now being paid from decades of cost costing. For those of us who care about the educational legacy we inherited and want to pass on to our children, this holy anger could be the beginning of better decisions and right action.

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