I have been collaborating with author and filmmaker Ceridwen Dovey on a storytelling project for the Australian Museum. Part of our process involves interviewing scientists and archivists about their experience working with threatened species. Ceridwen was inspired to write the script for ‘Captives’ after a session at the Australian Museum library looking at platypus and echidna archives. We were shown glass plate photographs and a film from the Harry Burrell collection, depicting bare-chested naturalist Burrell digging into creek beds in search of platypus burrows. His intention is to better understand these remarkable semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammals by studying live creatures, rather than dissected specimens. Throughout his life Burrell was a fierce advocate for platypus conservation, while hacking into burrows and extracting puggles (baby platypus) from nests. History renders him a complicated character.

Burrell’s background as a vaudeville performer lingers in his flare for drama; the film gets deeply weird when the camera pans to him petting a live platypus in his custom-built ‘platypusary’, his head and hands visible through a glass dome and forearm-holes.

To visualise Ceridwen’s script, I took a ‘hands-on’ presentation: a paper theatre performance using archival images. Hacking into Burrell’s archive mimics his hacking into the river bank. Revealing my hands in the frame acts as a reminder that all archives are constructed, all stories assembled from fragments of the whole.

The first iteration of this work was performed at the Read to Me (live graphic storytelling) event This Must Be The Place at Darling Square Library (Sydney) on 13 August 2023. The recording below was created after, with support from Gabe Clark and Jason Benedek. The music is ‘Platypus Rag’ by Anes Sadikovic.

The film won the inaugural Shooshfest Silent Short Film competition in May 2024. Judges Liz Doran, Mark Joffe and Alexei Tolipoulos were unanimous in their decision, commending the powerful script writing and clever use of silent film tropes to tell a complicated historical narrative.