Walking in to Gillian Leahy’s office, you half expect to see Baxter, her best friend, brown Labrador and recent muse, wagging his tail. Leahy, who is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ Media Arts and Production and Music and Sound Design programs, has been working at UTS for over 30 years.
She began teaching here, as she puts it, during a more radical time when casual lecturers and students would sit-in on the fluffy floor in the Vice-Chancellor's office, and when students put broken filming equipment down the middle of Broadway to make a political statement.
The excitement at the time was palpable. But, Leahy quickly adds, “I wouldn't say it's not exciting now. It's exciting in different ways.” When Leahy started at UTS, the university had much smaller classes, and was still teaching film on 16mm. Now the technology is vastly different – digital and always changing.
Leahy fell into filmmaking through her involvement in women’s liberation, and that early exposure, she says, still informs the way she views filmmaking. “I always think filmmaking is ideological in some way. It's either presenting a way to understand the world, a way we should change the world, or about something that is wrong with the world.”
As a young filmmaker, Leahy started out by working as a clapper loader and sometimes a focus puller in the feature film industry. She soon became adept at the art and from there went on to win an Australian Film Institute award for My Life Without Steve – an intimate portrait of a woman grieving and accepting the demise of a relationship.
Leahy’s latest film is Baxter and Me – a biopic that has recently enjoyed success at the Sydney Film Festival. It is equally a paean to the history and everyday life of Sydney, as well as a study of her relationships with her canine companions. Critics have lauded Baxter and Me as ‘impressive’, and it has been nominated for the Documentary Australia Foundation Award 2016 – a prestigious competition that acknowledges excellence in documentary production.
Leahy’s advice for young filmmakers is twofold. “Treasure the true connections you make here, because they will be the ones that help you when you leave.”
And, “Filmmaking is an industry where you do have to put yourself forward and be prepared to take knockbacks, but that's another reason why you need the support of friends that you might make here, and later on in the industry. Remember everyone you work with is a potential supporter.”
And if you’re wondering about whether Baxter got to walk on the red carpet, the answer is yes. Several times in fact.