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Stalking Curtiss Wright

It was ten-thirty in the morning when I arrived back at the 1946 Curtiss Wright I’d stalked the previous day.

This time it was at the invitation of her owners, Robbie and Georgie, after they found the note I’d sticky-taped to their trailer door.

Of course the twins, who never sleep, decided to do a double cycle. Worried I would miss my chance to take a peek inside before they departed their curbside camp, I sprinted eight blocks, pram in tow.

I found a shady tree next to the trailer, parked the pram and crossed my fingers my boys would sleep long enough for me to have a chat.

And thank goodness they slept. Robbie and Georgie turned out to be kindred spirits.

According to Robbie, buying Abeona – this incredible 1946 Curtiss Wright – was a serendipitous moment. Named after the Goddess of journeys, the 22-foot aluminum trailer is now home to their mobile production studio, Silver Pod Productions.

“Georgie and I had been looking for a space to work out of. We thought maybe a shipping container that we could move from place to place. Then me and George found a bus on eBay.  We looked at it and looked at it, it looked right, it was the right kind of age, pre-1970s, school bus and it was beautiful. And we put a bid down and won but then were told the reserve wasn’t met. I was confused and disappointed, but I was all the way in London, Georgie was here in Melbourne, and I said well we just have to go back to square one.”

“The next day I went to Convent Garden and they had a 33 foot flying cloud, so polished, so beautiful and they were serving mulled wine out of it. I just said to myself “this is what we’re meant to be looking for.” And I called Georgie that night and said “you’re looking for Airstream.” The next day she looked on the trading post and she found this 1946 Curtiss Wright and it had been on the Trading Post for less than a day. If we had procrastinated one day it would have gone.”

Not a lot is known about Abeona’s life before she arrived in Australia, but what is known of her history is tragic.

“A couple had her imported to northern NSW and their dream was to do her up and travel around Australia. And they were very excited and they made a start in earnest, they got as far as stripping everything out, and then the husband tragically died. And she couldn’t carry on the job, it was heartbreaking for her. So then it stayed in storage for 4 years, before it was polished up (and advertised in the Trading Post). Then we found her, put the deposit down, and took the Combi up to Byron Bay, which is a lovely pilgrimage to make, to pick her up.”

“So then we knew we wanted to work in her but then we had the job of building the space so it suited us with everything that we needed. We’ve done everything ourselves. I’ve done all the electrics and we’ve customised everything ourselves, so its experimental, there’s risk in there. That cupboard next to you, that’s the only original piece we had.”

“She had no indicators, no brake lights, all the wiring was so old. Terrifying when I took some of the inside panels off to look at how she was. She’s got character, she’s obviously been cared for but she’s got some dents and she’s very old. We had her checked out before we brought her down from Byron by someone impartial and the belly pan’s all good, the floors all dry, no rot, its all solid. So we were excited. Whatever happened we weren’t going to let her slip through our fingers. So special.”

“She’s made of World War II Aircraft. At some point in history, the fantasy is that she was flying over the factory where our Combi was built. They reclaimed pieces of aircraft. Its so magical. I like how nomads have claimed these things back from the war as well. So the Combi, the Nazi design that went into Volkswagen but now its of course hippies that have claimed it for love and peace. And then we’ve got a big bit of bomber, Aircraft history that we’ve reclaimed for nomadism.”

And true nomads they are. Based in a country town in Victoria, the couple have travelled all over Australia with Abeona, pulled by a faithful purple Kombi named Aurora.

“We did that from scratch as well. We had no house when we bought the Kombi, we had no car, no house, and the Kombi didn’t go. Georgie likes to say, you throw your heart out and then run to catch it. And if you do that, you get used to living like that. And you can have an exciting experiential life, rather than just getting caught up in the same stuff all the time that people get caught up in.”

“She’s got a two litre engine, the strongest Kombi engine you can have. She struggles. Hills aren’t her best friend. But in the short term, they’re a perfect fit. They work so well together in terms of storage space, we’re very happy but I don’t want to put too much pressure on Aurora.”

Setting up their production company has been a long road, but Robbie says they have now found the perfect balance between bread and butter work and the more altruistic documentaries that inspired them to start filming together in the first place.

“Me and Georgie come from slightly different backgrounds. I studied film and video production in London and I did that for quite a number of years. I always wanted to communicate something important but I wasn’t sure what at that point. And Georgie’s background is community development, so she did International Community Development. And then when we met in 2004 we realised there are so many really important social messages that need to be highlighted and how exciting it would be to try to get that middle ground together by using technology to bring out a message. So in 2005 we started playing with video.”

Their first major project was to film a Ni-Vanuatu male circumcision ceremony, at the instigation of a Professor from Melbourne University.

“Roger Short, a Professor at Melbourne University took us under his wing. He works on lots of projects with reproductive health. When missionaries came to South Pacific they cancelled out lots of the normal practice so as a knock on effect HIV/AIDS is a massive issue in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands but not in Vanuatu, so they were doing a study into why and they found there was a correlation between male circumcision and the uptake female to male of HIV was dramatically decreased. So he sent us there to find out what we could. Because Georgie had had experience teaching in Vanuatu when she was 18, we had contacts there and we spent time there together to work out what was happening on the ground and we managed to be the first people to record a Ni-Vanuatu circumcision ceremony and that was bought by the World Health Organisation and put into the Royal Anthropological Society archive.”

“Just getting a taste of something so important, inspired us to continue working together. Though after that initial high, we struggled for four years trying whatever we could, finding as many people as we could who could help us do something, propagate some ideas that were important. We worked with health care primarily and tried to  work on a community development focus.”

“We just continued in that vein, wanting to take on projects that are helpful and emotionally based projects but also instructional. Then that gravitated towards Aboriginal Health as well. As an immigrant myself to Australia I feel a huge debt of responsibility to give to the people who we took this country from, especially coming from England myself. So working with Aboriginal communities has been challenging but ultimately very fulfilling.”

“I love doing the work that we do and trying to do a little good wherever we go. And now we’re incorporating the Airstream into our working practice it really makes a difference in terms of publicity. Our clients can work with us in there, its really important to me because the collaborative process is really important. It earns us a lot of freedom as well. Our time is our time. We don’t have 9-5 jobs but we treat this as a full-time job and that can take us working well into the night if we have to or not if we don’t need to.”

And Abeona and Aurora have been well-received everywhere they go.

“It’s an oddity, especially in the desert sun she stands out. And because of the shape, because of the clean lines. The lines, the curves, they’re such friendly shapes. We haven’t been ill-received by anybody, anywhere. No one has tried to break-in, no one has tried to vandalise her. It’s easy to scratch a horrible eye-sore. It’s easy to not appreciate something that’s just been banged out and has a life-span on it. But she (Abeona) is sixty-six years old, the Combi’s in her mid-40’s. I think people innately respect beauty and its not just mass-produced rubbish like everything we encounter in the society we live in. I have a few tricks up my sleeve as well.”

And with that, Robbie turned on the row of bubble machines wired to Aurora’s roof.

10 Comments »

  1. Having visited Robbie and Georgies wonderful Combi, was great to get the whole back story on the Airstream. I look forward to seeing her in all her glory when I visit Melbourne next September

  2. I’m lucky enough to have been in the Airstream and it’s a very special space, and they are very special people.

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