The life and career of Frances Calvert

On 2nd September 2018, filmmaker, producer, and lecturer Frances Calvert passed away unexpectedly. Co-Director Sabrina Wittmann remembers.

A few months ago, my fellow DUB colleagues and I got some unexpected and very sad news: Frances Calvert - director, producer, and long-time acquaintance of Down Under Berlin - had died unexpectedly in Sydney on 2 September 2018, while visiting Australia from her home in Berlin, after completing an annual teaching commitment at the Yangon Film School in Myanmar. Frances had been a steady factor on many Australian related events I’ve been to in the last couple of years, and I had talked to her many, many times in my capacity of being a co-director and team member of Down Under Berlin Film Festival, at which Frances was an avid guest, too.

Meeting Frances had always been a joy – and even if almost a year has passed since her untimely death, I’d like to let her family, friends, and colleagues know that she and her unique character and personality is and will not be forgotten here in Berlin. Her name twin and founder of Down Under Berlin, former co-director Frances Hill says: “It was a great pleasure to have met and known Frances Calvert. Through the Down Under Berlin Film Festival I was able to see Frances' films Cracks in the Mask and The Tombstone Opening, both unique and important stories that I probably would not have known otherwise. Frances' passion for film, for the stories and people from the Torres Strait, and knowledge of many different kinds of art was inspiring, contagious even, you could feel her joy for her work and the arts, it was unstoppable. I was so looking forward to seeing her next project be realised, and always impressed with her persistence and her energy in making it happen. I am glad to have known her and miss her passionate spirit.”


It is true what this Frances says about the belated Frances Calvert – you could feel her passionate spirit in every discussion, her literacy and deep knowledge for history, films and the arts, as well as her ongoing curiosity for people and stories. To me, Frances Calvert was a very articulate, yet genuine and kind person, with a cheeky look in her eyes. The last time I spoke to Frances, she was still working on her latest film project Buena Vista Australia, a documentary about the explorations by Luis Váez de Torres, the first European to navigate the Torres Strait in the early 1600s. The project had been on hold for a while but Frances was still eager and passionate to work on it – and her anecdotes about her experiences while working on the project in Spain, where she had secured backing for the film, were witty, smart, and entertaining as ever.

I knew that Frances was a lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies (Film & TV) at Potsdam University, taught students of production at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF and had created several documentaries in the past. I also knew that she was around my mother’s age, turning 70 years in 2020 – as she smirked about the aspect of age from time to time in our conversations. What I only vaguely knew was the range of her extensive travels in South-East Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, and her decade-long interest in and years of involvement with Torres Strait Islanders. Frances was permitted to film on the island reserves and made three documentaries there: Talking Broken - A Portrait of the Torres Strait Islanders (1990), Cracks in the Mask (1997) and The Tombstone Opening (2012) – the last two had been screened at Down Under Berlin in 2011 and 2013 before I became part of the festival.

Andrew Pike, Managing Director of Ronin Films, with whom I was in contact in my first year at Down Under Berlin, wrote: "In addition the three films that Frances made in the Torres Strait, there were others that were not made, and to which she devoted many months and sometimes years of research and development. In particular her last unmade film, called BUENA VISTA AUSTRALIA, I believe would have been her crowning achievement in the Torres Strait. (…)Reading the project outline, one can see Frances’s qualities there – intellectual curiosity, down to earth pragmatism in film production terms, and a strong sense of outreach in terms of the audiences she wanted to reach. One section of the immaculate pitch document carries this remarkable heading which I’ve never seen before in 40 years of reading pitch documents. It reads: “The Philosophical and spiritual uses of this film.” That Frances would want to talk about her work in this way to investors and arts bureaucrats and TV broadcasters tells us a great deal about her and her exceptional approach to her art."

I think Frances Calvert did not only have an exceptional approach to her art but I found in knowing her, she was an exceptional individual as well. Thanks for our conversations, Frances, and farewell.  


All images © Katarzyna Mazur

Sabrina Wittmann has been Co-Director and board member of Down Under Berlin since 2015. With a background in Social Sciences and Cultural Management, she has been working on numerous cultural and media events as program and event manager.