His first film, the 2004 short Boy, was longlisted for an Academy Award. His most recent one, Munted, which premiered at the 2011 Montreal World Film Festival, was selected for festivals in Berlin, Bilbao and Brussels, among others, and was named Best Short Film at the 2011 Lucerne International Film Festival. So who is Welby Ings and why haven’t you heard of him?
Ings grew up in Pukeatua, between Putaruru and Te Awamutu, and trained as a graphic designer, and he makes films by a process he describes as “drawing out” his ideas: there is no storyboard and no script – until he needs something to show funders.
“When making films, I create the worlds and stories in pictures,” he explains. “I don’t write scripts. This is because I see film as ‘talking pictures’. So rather than drafts of scripts, I have hundreds of notebooks full of drawings. This may be why my films are always considered so visually rich by international audiences. Certainly, thinking in pictures takes you places words can never go.”
The drawings in which Ings immerses himself are incorporated into his films either as part of the sets or literally painted into the frames of the film to create an ethereal in-between world that is neither fiction nor fact. He draws with cheap coloured pencils, children’s watercolours (from those little squares in tin trays you had when you were a kid) and even cheaper coffee – the instant sort that has dye in it that stains the paper in beautiful sepia tones. He says that when he’s drawing he inhabits the world of his paintings in three dimensions, and wonders if his visual approach emerges from the fact he did not learn to read until he was 15 years old.
Obsessive about the look and feel of his sets, Ings took two abandoned houses for Munted and rebuilt them to match the pictures he’d drawn. He pulled down part of the awning on an old villa and filled the guttering with weeds, restored a coal fire range with papier mâché, and designed labels for every product on the shelves in the 1960s grocery store that is in the film for a total of nine seconds.
He slept in a paddock while building the sets, and the sounds he heard and the flora he drew became part of the film. The unreliable narrator is a 12-year-old girl, Katrina, who leads us through the story of her friendship with a misfit who may or may not have a criminal past, but is certainly unwelcome as far as the small-town rednecks are concerned.
Actress Ella Edward’s beautiful portrayal of a girl at the point (as Ings describes it) between knowing nothing and everything is well worth the watch. Watching her prepubescent innocence meet a growing cynicism and fear of the world is enthralling, as she merges in and out of Ings’s hand-drawn images, swimming in the local river and cycling to the grocery store.
Ings is also a professor of art and design at AUT University in Auckland, where he is known, when lecturing on design history, for dressing in the costumes and even speaking with the accent and attitudes of the era. He supervises senior research students, while working on his own research.
Ings was the inaugural winner of the Supreme Award for Tertiary Teaching Excellence – some achievement for a man who was expelled from secondary school, suspended from Hamilton Teachers’ Training College and dragged before various school boards for political activity on issues ranging from immigration and Springbok rugby tours to homosexual and prostitution law reform.
When Ings wrote his master’s thesis on Pakehas’ relationship with the land, he gave it to his father, who had been an interview subject for the research. His father asked him why he’d written it in language he couldn’t understand, and so Ings rewrote the entire thesis, and has since then tried to ensure “subjects” of his study are able to understand and engage with the resulting research.
The same approach informs his filmmaking. Boy was part of Ings’s PhD thesis and – as well as being longlisted for an Oscar – won Best Short Film in the prestigious Cinequest International Film Festival and was officially selected in competition for over 50 international film festivals.
His next project, a feature-length film about the relationship between a boy who thinks he can fly and a grandfather who was killed as a conscientious objector in World War I, is told through filmed footage embedded into torn photographic landscapes.
Ings joins a group of artists, academics and storytellers attempting to share appropriately the stories of those who have been previously unheard. In Boy, the text that is incorporated into the images and replaces dialogue includes the line, “in my childhood there were no catechisms or blessings of grace, just things bound by tradition and silence”.
Ings now creates opportunities in which the silence can be broken. What emerges is not a tragic representation of trauma and sadness, but creative spaces in between mainstream structures where the “misfits” find community, love, respect and adventure, despite the rednecks who seek to hurt them and the laws that try to restrict their lives.