Vale Sarah Watt

Sarah Watt at the 2005 AFI Awards, where she won the AFI Award for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for ‘Look Both Ways’.

Sarah Ann Watt
30 August 1958 – 4 November 2011

Sarah Watt, the much-loved and award-winning Australian artist and filmmaker, has died at the age of 53 after a long battle with cancer. Her death has deeply touched many people, both within the Australian screen community, and among readers and viewers familiar with Sarah’s uniquely personal and beautiful work.  Her death is a great loss to the Australian cultural landscape and of course, most of all, to those who knew and loved her personally. Here at the AFI | AACTA we extend our sincerest sympathies to Sarah’s husband William McInnes, and children Clem and Stella, and also to all those friends and colleagues who will most miss her generousity and creativity.

Sarah’s first feature film Look Both Ways (2005) introduced her talent to a wide audience. A touching story about six characters dealing with grief and fear, the film skillfully mixed animated sequences in amongst live action, to evoke interior states of mind with poignancy and often surprising humour. The film won the AFI Award for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor, as well as winning numerous other accolades, including the Discovery Award at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.

Justine Clarke and William McInnes in ‘Look Both Ways’.

Although Look Both Ways was a breakthrough work, Sarah was already well established as an internationally recognised artist and animator. Her 15-minute short animation Small Treasures (1995), based on her own experiences of losing her first child, won the Baby Lion for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival that year. Other acclaimed animations followed, including Local Dive (1998),  The Way of the Birds (nominated for the AFI Award for Best Short Animation in 2000) and Living With Happiness – which won the AFI Award for Best Short Animation in 2002. These handpainted animations were uniquely fluid and deceptively simple. [Watch clips from Living With Happiness and Small Treasures here on the NFSA’s Australian Screen website.] They often featured a woman narrating in an unassuming Australian accent, detailing her personal experiences, fears and joys, with great dollops of self-deprecating humour. A love of nature and, and particularly the ocean and the sky, and the creatures inhabiting them, recur in many of the works.

There is a refreshing honesty and modesty evident in both these short animations, and in Sarah’s feature films, photographs, paintings and written works – a  reverence and respect for small and seemingly ordinary moments and objects. This can be seen in Sarah’s second feature film, My Year Without Sex, a portrait of Australian family life, with all its mundanity and chaos made precious by a brush with mortality – again drawing from her own personal experiences.

Despite a busy family life and advancing illness, Sarah continued to work on many scripts, paintings and projects. These included writing a book with her husband, actor William McInnes, Worse Things Happen At Sea; as well as making and exhibiting her photographed drawings on canvas (which were displayed at Post Industrial Design in her local West Footscray). As her friend and film producer Bridget Ikin, who produced Look Both Ways and My Year Without Sex, said in the Sydney Morning Herald,  ”Every ounce of her being was creative, she couldn’t stop… She was a truly original creative person, always quick to see the funny side and full of compassion. I loved how she always could open up fresh ways of looking at the imperfections of our families and ourselves.”

As a film journalist, I had the privilege of interviewing Sarah twice over a period of years, having sought her out because her work had struck me as uniquely authentic and also genuinely beautiful.  Both interviews were long, funny and inspiring meetings over a succession of coffees. Sarah is well known for her generosity with her time, her insights and her encouragement of fellow artists and writers, and these were in evidence as she shared her experience of combining creative work and family life. A driven artist, ambitious for the work, she managed to be completely in love with her family, and honest about the struggles involved in finding time, space and childcare. She created that space for herself and in a recent newspaper piece (an extract from her book), she wrote of the beauty of that world, and her reluctance and resignation about leaving it as her death grew imminent.

The notice in Melbourne’s Age newspaper on Saturday 5 November, from Sarah’s family described “A life of courage humour, intelligence, generosity, honesty and grace.”

On Saturday, 12 November, ABC2 will be screening a selection of Sarah’s Watt’s films. Don’t miss them.

8.30pm – Look Both Ways | 10.10pm – Small Treasures  | 10.25pm – Local Dive  | 10.30pm – Living With Happiness


Sarah Watt’s AFI Awards and Nominations

2009 – Nominated – AFI Award for Best Original Screenplay – My Year Without Sex

2005 –  Won – AFI Award for Best Direction – Look Both Ways

2005 – Won – AFI Award for Best Original Screenplay – Look Both Ways

2001 – Won – Best Short Animation – Living With Happiness

2000 – Nominated – Best Short Animation – The Way of the Birds


2009 My Year Without Sex – Feature. Writer/Director
2005 Look Both Ways – Feature. Writer/Director
2001 Living with Happiness. 6 min. Animation. Writer/Director/Producer
2000 The Way of the Birds. 24 min. animation. Director
1998 Local Dive. 4 min. animation. Writer/ Director/ Producer
1998 Derwent Envy. 15 min. Co-Writer/ Director/Producer/Co-producer
1995 Small Treasures. 15 min. animation. Writer/Director/Producer
1993/4 The Web, series 1 & 2 5 min. animations. Director

Sarah as an artist – quoted from Retrospect Galleries Qld

“Sarah Watt studied fine art, majoring in painting and photography, at Phillip Institute in 1979-81 under lecturers such as Dale Hickey, Peter Booth, Mike Brown and Betty Churcher.

For the next 10 years as a practising artist, she entered art competitions (finalist National Art Award, NSW Travelling Art scholarship, winner Matarra Pastel prize), was represented in various group shows (Women in Art Wollongong city art gallery) and had solo shows in various small galleries. She supported herself by working as a community arts worker, actor and performer before returning to study at Swinburne Institute in 1990 to study animation in an attempt to corral her practice in fine art, music and theatre and the emerging digital arts.

Graduating with Best animated film and best post grad student awards, her student film Catch of the Day was selected in competition for the prestigious Annecy animation festival in France, beginning an international career in film that has garnered her critical and commercial success and more than 40 major awards, for films such as Look Both Ways, My Year without Sex and Small Treasures, including best short film at Venice and best feature at Toronto.

Sarah has continued to create art; highlights include work exhibited at Adelaide Festival centre, Victorian Arts Space, Dromkeen, Womens Gallery (solo show). Writing and illustrating a children’s book, Clem Always Could (Hachette), profiled in the Taschen published Animation Now, and represented in the permanent collection at MOMA, New York. Her most recent exhibition Home and Away, was a commercial success at Brightspace, Melbourne.

Whist having a seemingly varied arts practice, Sarah has been exploring the big picture themes of life – mortality, happiness, how we create meaning for ourselves, using the canvas (or celluloid or paper) of the small picture – the domestic world in which she lives in Australia.”

Other Links

Sarah Watt at the Internet Movie Database

Comments: Please leave a comment below if you wish to write a short tribute or memory about Sarah Watt and her work.