This paper was presented on 28 August 2002 as the Annual Longford Lyell Lecture, organised by ScreenSound Australia, at Chauvel Cinema, Paddington (NSW, Australia), and is published here with permission.
I imagine Lottie Lyell became a producer for much the same reason I did – that she wanted to ensure that an idea would really become a feature film. For it is the producer who is ultimately prepared to take responsibility for a film – to find the money for a script to be written and to support the writing of it, to find the budget needed to actually make it, to employ the director, the actors and the crew and to be there at the end to make sure the film finds a distributor so it can be seen in theatres. Lottie Lyell Cox (1890–1925) along with her acknowledged acting talents was a filmmaker.
Her contribution to the films, made always with Raymond Longford, encompasses the crafts of screenwriting, editing, art direction, producing and directing. A 1921 interview opens with “Meet Lottie Lyell – Director” and continues “She is helping Raymond Longford now in directing instead of acting and is enthusiastic over her new work”. The actress Marjorie Osborne said of Lottie “I like brains in a woman and she has them. Her work on this picture is more on the directing side than the acting. She assists Mr. Longford and the two of them have plenty of healthy argument when their ideas about a scene are different.” Lottie herself says:
We are just cutting and titling The Blue Mountains Mystery (Lottie Lyell and Raymond Longford, 1921) and haven’t been able to think of anything else for ever so long. It is nearly finished though. Of course it has taken a good while to make, but it’s a very big picture, and you can’t rush through a production like that without spoiling it. (The Picture Show, November 1, 1921)
How that obsessive enthusiasm reminds me of my own intense relationships with every film I’ve produced and of course of the single minded visionary determination of the women directors with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work – of Gillian Armstrong, of Jane Campion, and of Shirley Barrett. Lottie says, “Ten years I’ve been in pictures and hope to be always in some way or other” (The Picture Show, November 1, 1921).
In 1922 Raymond Longford and Lottie Lyell formed the Longford-Lyell Australian Picture Productions Company. Lottie was co-director, co-producer and co-writer. This was the first great wave of independent filmmaking in Australia – a time when Australian stories found their voice – albeit in silent films such as A Woman Suffers (1918), The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and On Our Selection (1920). However in 1927, two years after Lottie’s untimely death, minutes of evidence to the Royal Commission into the Moving Picture Industry in Australia reveal a fear for the local industry being swamped by imported films and Australian independent productions being refused screenings in favour of overseas (Hollywood) films.
Ironically the results of the Royal Commission gave an incentive to local production but the coming of sound led to more technological and financial barriers. As the silent era closed in 1929, the first major prosperous and culturally expressive era for Australian film had ended.
In the ’20s there were no boxes or barriers to women working in film as evidenced by the life of Lottie Lyell – a single woman who pursued a profession. In 1921 Louise Lovely had spoken out for an Australian film industry with wholesome family appeal saying that women were establishing themselves as economically independent “not as an alternative to marriage and raising a family but as a necessary fall back post war and to make their lives more interesting” (Virgins, Vamps and Heroines: The Women of Australia’s Silent Film [pro: Marilyn Sue Dooley, 1997]). The McDonagh sisters went further and used their own money at least initially. Isabel McDonagh addresses the Royal Commission:
Who produced your picture? My sister and I were responsible. We engaged Mr Reshner as director, my other sister Miss Paulette McDonagh wrote the scenario. We started against great opposition. All our friends advised us not to proceed with the venture but having confidence in ourselves we persisted and I think succeeded.
She goes on to say that the amount stated as the cost of the film of 1000 pounds “did not include lighting, the use of our own home as a studio or any salaries for myself and my sister but the remaining cast were paid.” (Minutes, Royal Commission, 1927-8, 926-7) Once again I am reminded of the manner in which my contemporaries began making films. Isabel McDonagh tells the Commission that although she has been fairly successful in exhibiting her film through JC Williamson Films Ltd, that generally exhibitors say that audiences are prejudiced against local films. She supports a quota system to force exhibitors to show a proportion of Australian films and the proposal that there be cash prizes for the best Australian film and scenarios produced each year. – a precursor to the AFI’s (Australian Film Institute Awards) perhaps, although they haven’t found a way to provide the cash prizes yet.
Only a couple of women are listed in productions from 1933 to1969 such as Alma Brooks as associate producer of Racing Luck (Rupert Kathner) in 1941 and Joy Cavill as associate producer and co-producer on three films from 1958-1969 as well as Elsa Chauvel of course working with her husband Charles.
I was very fortunate that I became interested in making films at the end of the ’60s and in the early ’70s. Whilst a student at Sydney University, I had met the Australian director Phillip Noyce who already had met independent filmmakers Albie Thoms and Aggie Read when they came to speak to the boys at Barker College on Sydney’s North Shore about filmmaking when he was in his final year at school. The idea had taken form that you could make a film by hiring a camera, getting a group of people together and creating a personal expression.
The beginnings of a substantial revival came therefore not through the occasional co-production but from a movement of young people shooting 16mm underground films that ranged from works of documentary and fiction to the avant-garde (Virgins, Vamps and Heroines: The Women of Australia’s Silent Film).
There was the Carlton Cinema Group in Melbourne and Ubu Films in Sydney which developed into the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative in 1969. Early Sydney Filmmakers Co-op screenings at the Yellow House artists’ commune in Kings Cross and also at the Third World Bookshop in Goulburn Street were illegal because the premises were not licensed as cinemas.
In 1970 after much lobbying by people such as Barry Jones, Tony Buckley and Phillip Adams, amongst many others, the government under John Gorton established the Australian Film Development Corporation with a grant of $100,000 for the setting up of the Experimental Film and Television Fund and a further $100,000 for the start of a film school.
Once these films started to be made along with the early independently financed films it became necessary to find a way of exhibiting and distributing them. Although the co-op was initially managed from the terrace house in Annandale where Phil and I lived and he acted as the Sydney Filmmaker’s Co-op manager and where screenings were sometimes held in a room upstairs, fortunately a building was soon found from which the acquisition, distribution (theatrical and non theatrical) and promotion of independent films could occur and from which a news letter Film News was published. “Behind these aims were attempts to create a different kind of film industry based on low capitalization, co-operative production, distribution and exhibition systems and radical approaches to film aesthetics” (Jennifer Stott in Blonski, Creed, Freiberg, 118).
The great excitement was the re-commencement of full-time screenings in May 1973 with a grant from the Interim Council of the Film and Television School and the opening of a cinema downstairs from the distribution offices in St Peters Lane, Darlinghurst, from which co-op members presented their latest films to the public at nightly screenings. I’m embarrassed to say that I personally made the curtains for the cinema but hasten to add that I was also for a time on the steering committee for this formidable and articulate collective and eventually had my own films screened there. Some of the filmmakers exhibiting there were Peter Weir – showing his short film Homesdale (1971), Jim Sharman with Shirley Thompson Versus The Alien (1972), Albie Thoms’ Sunshine City (1973) and Gillian Armstrong exhibiting her first short film The Roof Needs Mowing (1971). One of my short films was shown as part of a program about life in school, including Jane Oehr’s Stirring (1974), a sharp and provocative film on corporal punishment at a boys’ high school, Ken Cameron’s first film Sailing To Brooklyn (1974), which chartered the growth and limitations of an affair between a school teacher and one of his female students, and Showtime (1978), the short film which I directed, Sandra Levy produced and Jan Kenny photographed, written by Margaret Kelly, from a short story by Gwen Kelly, about the school system’s reaction to an affair between two women teachers. I remember vividly screen printing the posters with Jane and Ken at the Tin Sheds off Sydney Uni for this short season.
In many ways however this encouragement which the Co-op gave towards freedom of personal expression and the practical experience in exhibition and distribution which made making a film and having it shown possible would have been limited if it were not for the presence in the Co-op of some strongly politically motivated women who created the Sydney Women’s Film Group in 1971 “as a logical extension of feminist access to other media.” (Jennifer Stott in Blonski, Creed, Freiberg, 118)
The SWFG aimed to produce and distribute films on subjects which conventional media had ignored, and their initial emphasis was on instructing women in production skills. The group’s first project, Film For Discussion (1973), was commenced in 1971, but one of its first to be released was Woman’s Day 20C (1972, directed by Margot Knox, Virginia Coventry, Kaye Martyn and Robynne Murphy), a semi-dramatised subject that quietly and despairingly showed the everyday constraints upon a housebound woman living with two small children and addicted to barbiturates. Film For Discussion (directed by Martha Kaye (now Ansara) and Jeni Thornley, among others in the SWFG) portrays a young woman frustrated by work and family attitudes which she comes to regard as claustrophobic. Almost painful in its acute observation and restraint, Film For Discussion presents situations which the SWFG members felt had shaped them as individuals – the rigid drudgery of office work, the ordeal of a family dinner, and the frustrations of limited conversations with fiancé and parents. Film For Discussion was distributed in North America and Britain, and became one of the most widely shown of all Australian short films.
The SWFG followed these early films with a series of discussion screenings.
For a middle class girl from Sydney’s North Shore in her early 20s as I was, these screenings and discussions were consistently challenging and developing, both in their subject matter and the variety of forms their expression took. The number of women’s films at the Co-op increased to over 200 and from early films like Size 10 (1978) by Susan Lambert and Sarah Gibson, Maidens (1978) by Jeni Thornley and Jackie McKimmie’s Stations (1983), Jane Campion’s short films were added as well as works from abroad like Sally Potter’s The Gold Diggers (1983).
The emphasis on de-mystifying the technical aspects of filmmaking was one of the strengths of the SWFG. Members were instrumental in planning conferences, implementing training workshops and organising film festivals – Womenvision in 1973, the Women’s Film Workshops a year later and the International Women’s Film Festival in 1975 (Adams and Shirley).
They also lobbied successfully for a course for women at the Australian Film and Television School along with women from the AWBC – a group of women at the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) who had formed a Women’s Unit and were lobbying there to gain access as producers and directors in drama and documentary from the more traditional education and children’s departments. Sandra Levy (now Head Of Television at the ABC), TV director Jan Punch, film director Di Drew and myself were all eventually able to direct for the drama department of ABC TV and doing this course – learning to lace up projectors and cameras, story board and gain experience working with actors – gave us the confidence to push our way through a male dominated system.
The SWFG also lobbied amongst others for a women’s film fund. I was asked by a journalist recently whether I felt that I had been discriminated against by men in my career and replied somewhat glibly that on the contrary I’d received considerable support from men – from Phillip Noyce, who helped me with my early films, from Albie Thoms, who inspired me at the Sydney Film Co-op and gave me my first job in television on the ABC’s GTK in the young people’s department, and whom I assisted on their films Backroads (Phillip Noyce, 1977) and Palm Beach (Albie Thoms, 1979) during my holidays, and by Christopher Muir, the Head of Drama at the ABC, who gave me my first producing job on the 20 part series in the drama department “Sweet And Sour” – but without the influence and political lobbying of these women I don’t believe I would have had the subconscious conviction that I liked that collective involvement with an idea, that I could make films, and that what I wanted to say, even if intimate, domestic and personal in scale, was just as interesting as the mythic male legends. Here are some excerpts from the SWFG meetings:
MINUTES: WOMEN’S COURSE: 1,000 pamphlets have been distributed for the course to be held at the Film School commencing in March. The selection panel was discussed including the consideration that the commercial side of the industry should be represented. Union representation was discussed. Eventually it was decided that the selection committee should include representatives from: The Film School, Women Media Workers, The Women’s Film Group, AWBC, the AT&AEA as well as Liz Knight, the co-ordinator of the course. Martha made the point that at this stage there have been courses for people with no experience at all and suggested that this course should be a development from this point, i.e., that people should already know what is involved in filmmaking who take the course. It was suggested that a possible criterion for selection be that people have something that they want to say on film rather than a desire to build a career.
Danny raised the example of the Women’s Film Workshop held at the Co-op to suggest that experience be given in a number of areas instead of specialization in only one. This helps to de-mystify film as well as enable people to discover areas which they may like to train further in later. Liz answered that the brief was for a general course with pressure for specialization courses after this, i.e., just in sound or editing etc. Films are to be produced at the end of the course as well as film exercises during it. This was felt to be a good idea since working towards the reality of a finished product results in fuller knowledge.
Danny suggested that women with production experience but a particular interest in technical areas should be encouraged because of the small number of women working in these areas in the industry. The question of whether the course would have a political bias was raised. It was considered that the fact that the course has arisen from a feminist demand should be noted by way of a statement prefacing the application form stating that the course arose from pressure by women, i.e., a request by the Sydney Women’s Film Group for 50% representation of women on the full time course at the Film School and pressure by Women Media Workers. It was agreed that this sentence would be included on the application form, “It is expected that during the course a critical approach will be taken to the status and image of women in the media.” The proposed fee was then discussed. Eventually it was agreed that the Sydney Women’s Film Group would object in principle to a fee for women for the course because of the economic difficulty involved for many women, and because of the low amount of money spent by the Film School on training for women in the past (Only $6,000 for the 1974 Women’s Workshop and $6,000 now).” (Minutes, Sydney Women’s Film Group, dated only Tuesday Jan 11)
I celebrate those women for enabling me and many others to undertake that course.
It was in this context of the early days of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op that Gillian Armstrong came from Melbourne to Sydney. Gillian had enrolled in a course in art at Swinburne Technical College and applauds the tendency in art schools at the time to encourage women as well as men to find their creative voice. One of the subjects taught by Nigel Buesst was film and Gill remembers the three girls on this course getting together to practice lacing up a projector or a bolex after hours so that they wouldn’t look incapable compared with the young men on the course. Gillian finished the course having made the graduation film The Roof Needs Mowing – a surreal comedy about the desire to escape suburbia with memorable images such as the mother sitting on a clothesline and a boy (her friend the photographer Stuart Campbell) sitting in a bath of baked beans with his sister. Gill recalls that after Swinburne she applied to the ABC in Melbourne for a job but that while the boys were all interviewed for jobs in camera, sound or stage management, she was asked what her typing speed was.
However Fred Schepisi had been an assessor at Swinburne and offered Gill a job at Film House as runner or tea girl on his portion of Libido (a 4 part film dealing with various aspects of love). After a year in Sydney during which she worked in editing at Kingcroft, Gill was one of two women in a group of 12 students selected for the Interim Training School for the Film School – the other was Robynne Murphy, a member of the Sydney Women’s Film Group. The scheme was run from a floor of an office block in Chatswood and the students had the budgets to make three films during the year. The students as a group approached a number of authors for the use of their short stories to be developed into films and amongst Gillian’s was One Hundred A Day (1973) – a portrait of women working in a shoe factory, from a short story by Alan Marshall. It was shot in black and white and its confident use of images and sound evidenced Gill’s clarity in very early developing her distinct cinematic aesthetic. Gill wasn’t overtly governed by political aims as were the women in the Sydney Women’s Film Group but her consistent interest in strong female characters was there right from the beginning. She said at the time “I wanted to weasle (my) way in there and affect people emotionally”, and one remembers vividly the rapidly changing close-up shots of machines pounding the hardened shoe leather accompanied with their roaring and grinding noises, Leila and her friends using the lavatory as their only meeting place, the friends Sadie and Mabel waiting nervously on the couch, chewing gum, smoking and clutching their handbags tightly with the sound of the instruments of Leila’s abortion in the background, and later, still waiting, erupting with a fit of raucous giggling, Leila sitting in the last toilet in a row and finally suddenly convulsing forward, her body doubling over in agony – a shot which is then frozen for a few seconds. Gill had an ability to reveal the plight of women in trouble and the deep friendships and camaraderie that develops when women share oppressive conditions, always without heavy didacticism and with a sense of humour – and in these early films she strongly revealed the visual style which she would develop in her feature films.
At the end of her film school year in 1974 Gillian was invited to the Grenoble International Festival of Short Films along with another graduate Phillip Noyce, and I went too. The three of us decided to spend six months travelling the world and meeting as many filmmakers as we could. I had been teaching English and Art and also Film at Cleveland St. Boys High but had my short film made from an Experimental Film Fund grant, I Happened To Be A Girl, under my arm. However I envied those two, their film school graduate status and did not want to return to teaching when I went home. Gillian recalls how impressed many of the contacts we met overseas were with the government funding for film in Australia which we talked of – as people still are nowadays when we mention our government support in the form of the Australian Film Finance Corporation. By the time we had returned, there was a move to have longer shorts – 50 minute films – funded and Gillian was able to make The Singer And The Dancer (1977) starring Ruth Cracknell, again from an Alan Marshall short story dealing with the dreams and aspirations of a young woman and an older woman both trapped by domestic life. When this was finished she was actually able to get it commercially released along with Stephen Wallace’s Love Letters From Teralba Road (1977), starring Bryan Brown and Kris McQuade, when they were blown up by a distributor and screened at the Union Theatre at Sydney University.
In 1975 Gill made another significant early film. Smokes And Lollies was one of a series of films made by the One To One Film Unit under Penny Chapman’s leadership at the South Australian Film Corporation. This was a unit set up to assist women by enabling a number of films to be made on women’s issues with women as directors, editors and on camera. This film led of course to Gillian’s long involvement documenting the lives of the three young girls who were the subject of this documentary. She returned to Adelaide every seven years, following the girls into adulthood with 14’s Good 18’s Better (1980), Bingo Bridesmaids And Braces (1976), and Not Fourteen Again (1996).
These films, often shot in close-up, showed Gill’s interest and genuine esteem for her female characters and gave insight into intimate, revealing details which indicate the trust the families had in Gillian. One remembers, for example, teenage Josie recollecting that she sent herself extravagant baskets of flowers to the hospital so that she could be like the other new mothers.
The ’70s also saw the emergence of a number of women who as Sue Milliken recalls became producers because they too just wanted to ensure that an idea would become a film. Pat Lovell secured the rights to Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) by handing over “all the money in my bank account – $100” (Lovell) to secure a holding option on the film rights to the book and invited a young Peter Weir to direct it having met him when she worked as an interviewer on the Today Show. Pat recalls going to a demonstration with Peter in 1972 against Jack Valenti, President of the Motion Picture Association of America, who had been invited to Australia and the unified front put on by the industry at the time who feared that Australia would become just a back lot for Hollywood. She conjectures that the Whitlam government’s resolve to aid filmmakers in 1975 with the formation of the Australian Film Commission rather than the interim bodies may have been assisted by this show of solidarity which I too remember. In this atmosphere in the ’70s Jill Robb worked as associate producer on The Fourth Wish (Don Chaffey, 1976), Jane Scott as associate producer on Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1977), Pat Lovell as producer on Break Of Day (Ken Hannam, 1977) as well as Picnic At Hanging Rock, Joan Long as producer on The Picture Show Man (John Power, 1977), and Sue Milliken as co-producer of The Odd Angry Shot (Tom Jeffrey, 1979).
It was Margaret Fink as producer of The Removalists (Tom Jeffrey, 1975) who was to employ Gillian Armstrong as props buyer in the art department. Margaret says she was impressed by Gillian’s short film One Hundred A Day (1973) with its obvious visual flair. She had secured the rights to Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career in 1965 and a decade later decided to take a chance with this young female director. This was to be the first feature film to be directed by a woman since the 1930s and Margaret put her together with screenwriter Elanor Whitecombe, designer Luciana Arrighi and line producer Jane Scott. They chose of course Judy Davis to play Sibylla alongside Sam Neill and the film was the 1979 entry at the Cannes Film Festival and the winner of 11 AFI awards that year. It also secured a British Academy Award for Judy Davis.
In 1987 Gill added another film to her impressive repertoire working with some other women whose work in film we should celebrate. The wonderful High Tide produced by Sandra Levy was an original screenplay by our national treasure Laura Jones whose reputation in Australia, working with Gillian as well as Jane Campion on An Angel At My Table (1990) and Portrait Of A Lady (1996), and with Sandra again on Samantha Lang’s The Well (1997), has grown to the extent that Laura is in demand to write films in Europe and the US as much as she is here. High Tide starred Judy Davis in a moving portrayal of a woman unable to care for her child as a young mother and forced by circumstances to meet that child again as a teenager. Once more Gillian explored the emotional complexity of a woman’s life and its contradictory urges, amongst them the desire for self-expression. Judy Davis won the US National Society of Film Critics award in 1989 and became the first of a number of Australian female actors to enhance our national identity in the world’s eyes – followed by amongst others Toni Collette, Rachel Griffiths, Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett. I found myself ripping out a magazine interview with Rachel Griffiths in Australian Style recently in which she points out again how absolutely fundamental government support for the arts has been – this time for theatre:
Australians working on the world stage at the level we’re at now is all about public funding. It’s all about 30 years of free drama school and film training. It’s all about supported theatre. It’s all about the fruits of that investment…. Cate nails Elizabeth, why? Because she came out of NIDA, did 15 plays in which she was incredible, learned to absolutely get her muscle….Because in America they don’t have subsidised theatre and they don’t have the drama schools we have that are basically the same as the British system. We produce great craftspeople and it’s very focused on voice and on body and on intellectual analysis and vigour and so we get Judy Davis, Geoffrey Rush and Cate Blanchett in Oleanna, the most stunning thing I’ve ever seen….Two years after they’re at the Oscars”. (Australian ‘In Style’, June 2002)
In 1990 I left the ABC after eight years as a producer in the drama department at a time when the funding of Australian content of quality was considered essential as a responsibility of the national broadcaster. This had given me the freedom to work with many exceptional writers and directors but I wanted to produce a feature film and I had two fabulous projects that I was dying to make. The first of these was The Last Days Of Chez Nous (1992). I had already made a film at the ABC written by Helen Garner which I had convinced Jane Campion to direct. It was called Two Friends (1986) and was about the disintegrating relationship between two teenage girls as their life unfolded in different ways. Helen Garner’s writing has always entranced me in its depiction of the details of relationships between men and women and women with each other and she now had an idea about a household, “Chez Nous”, in which a woman and her daughter and her French husband were joined by the woman’s sister returning from overseas. Helen and I had been working on the script and its depiction of contradictory loyalties and perverse betrayal but we didn’t have a director. I formed the idea of asking Gill whom I hadn’t really known intimately in the last few years despite our travelling days so long ago.
Gill was at the time working in America but I sent her the screenplay which she liked as I hoped and did assume she would and followed this up with photographs and cards over a period of time trying to entice her back home again. Fortunately she eventually agreed to direct the film and when she returned to Australia we began a series of meetings with Helen in my lounge-room in Leichhardt which at the time was my office. I no longer had the security of the ABC’s support systems and became one of the many independent producers working alone and pondering daily how to raise the money to make this film happen. This was in the early days of the Australian Film Finance Corporation and once again I was to benefit from the lobbying of Australian filmmakers for government funding. The FFC had initiated a film fund in which five films would be fully funded with the returns being amortized and The Last Days of Chez Nous was chosen as one of these.
When I had known Gillian as a 21-year-old she was quite formidable in her forthrightness. I imagine that being the first woman to direct a feature film over a number of decades whilst still in her late 20s took a great deal of determination, and since I wanted to ensure a good relationship with her whilst still being able to express what I thought, I resolved to be unfailingly polite and supportive. I remember her saying early on – if you want to talk to me about something you don’t like, make sure you tell me what you do like first. This was very good advice which I’ve followed ever since and revealed to me something I’ve been reminded of on every film I’ve made since – that creative people are actually very fragile in terms of their work and need constant encouragement and validation. Gill and I had a mutually respectful and affectionate relationship over the production of the film, intensified by her support of me when I became pregnant for the first time during the early pre-production. I gained an insight into the dual priorities of women producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, actors and other film workers, as they combine motherhood and work when I viewed the rough cuts from a hospital bed two days after giving birth. The Last Days of Chez Nous was nominated for 11 AFI Awards including Best Film and Best Director, and won Best Actress for Lisa Harrow, as well as Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor from the Film Critics Circle of Australia. Gillian of course went on to continue directing feature films with strong female protagonists: Little Women (1994), Oscar And Lucinda (1997) and Charlotte Gray (2001).
The other film I had in development was Jane Campion’s screenplay for The Piano (1993). Like many people I saw Jane’s short films at an AFI screening at Film Australia and sat bolt upright in my seat in admiration at her bold visual imagination and perceptive appreciation of the comic, absurd and often perverse exchanges made in intimate moments between people. Jane’s unusual aesthetic and amusement in revealing details of people’s behaviour not generally observed did not immediately appeal to everyone and she has often recalled that at film school in Australia she was advised that some of her short films were not worth finishing. She also recalls that of those that did enjoy her work none took up the opportunity which I did to give her a job – but I applaud the fact that the ABC drama department had the budget and the policy to enable tele-features like Helen Garner’s Two Friends to be made at the time. Jane was a rebellious and independent spirit for a bureaucratic organisation like the ABC and not easily intimidated by male camera operators who warned her that she should be careful “not to cross the line”.
When the film was completed a scout for the Cannes Film Festival, Pierre Rissient, whose visit was assisted by the Australian Film Commission, encouraged the selection of Jane’s three short films, Peel (1982), Passionless Moments (1983), and A Girl’s Own Story (1984) along with Two Friends, into the Un Certain Regard section at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, and Jane and I with our friend Janet Patterson – the designer of Two Friends and later three time Oscar nominee for her costumes on The Piano, Portrait Of A Lady and Oscar And Lucinda – set off on a long drive across Europe to the Festival. At Cannes we were shepherded around by Pierre and I had the first of many festival experiences, always tinged with excitement but also disappointments, frayed egos and tears by someone at sometime. For Jane there was disappointment at some badly presented sub-titles and a mistaken perception that the audiences didn’t like the films, but as Pierre said “it isn’t how many people like a film that matters, but who” and on the last night Peel won the Palme d’Or for best short film. Sally Bongers photographed this film and A Girl’s Own Story. Peel is sub-titled “a true story, a true family” and is centred on our friend Katie Pye and her brother and his son – a family of redheads with strong wills to match and a battle over the throwing of the peel of an orange onto the road. For me the film has a visual and conceptual sense of confidence with its short form and the ability to depict so much about the politics of a family from an apparently trivial occurrence.
Jane had shown me a treatment for The Piano while I was still at the ABC but had the wisdom to know that it was a sophisticated ambition for an inexperienced filmmaker and to decide to develop her skills by making the contemporary Sweetie (1989) and the three part biography of Janet Frame An Angel At My Table before attempting it. This meant that we worked on the script on and off for over eight years and that as it happened Jane had to wait for me to finish The Last Days Of Chez Nous before we could start in 1991. Jane’s female heroines have never been conventionally heroic and the determined Ada of The Piano who had willed herself to be mute and whose passion was of an intensity she herself did not understand seemed to touch the unconscious longing of all women to be really known. We took trips to deserted beaches in New Zealand while we re-drafted the screenplay, assisted with development money from the Australian Film Commission and the New South Wales Film & Television Office and finally had a presentation package of the script and some inspirational photographic material of romantic Victorian women, Rousseau paintings, Maori mokos and depictions of New Zealand leisure activities like the women hanging their heads through a sheet as part of a Bluebeard play. We sent this to selected companies who we deemed suitable to finance us and set off on a trip to the United Kingdom and the US for casting and to raise the money. Of course by the time we arrived our presentation boxes and photographic material had been discarded, and the scripts had been photocopied and distributed everywhere and we were being advised that there were A, B and C lists of actors who would get us the finance. It was our great good fortune that Pierre Rissient, the Cannes Film Festival representative who had found Jane’s early films made at the film school and the ABC, reappeared to introduce us to the French company Ciby 2000 and the man who was to become our benefactor Monsieur Bougyues who, in his last years, wanted to finance some special films and filmmakers from around the world. This financing provided us with the creative freedom to cast as we wanted to and although we did decide to avail ourselves of the experience of some American actors, Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel were never the ones mentioned by our would-be financiers as reliable box office material. We found Sam Neill and first time actress Anna Paquin much closer to home, along with Genevieve Lemon and Kerry Walker as Stewart’s Aunt Morag and cousin Nessie and Campion comedic potential as representatives of polite society. We post produced the film in Australia and it was selected for Cannes, this time in the main competition, and in 1993 Jane became the first and only woman to win the Palme d’Or in its 50 year history. She was also nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director, the second time a woman had been nominated after Lina Wertmüller (1). The Piano won 3 Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, having been nominated for 8 including Best Picture (2).
Since the early ’90s we have had a number of women direct feature films, amongst them Shirley Barrett whose short film Jane introduced me to and who won the Camera d’Or for best first feature for Love Serenade (1996) at Cannes in 1996, and Jane Scott has followed my nomination at the Academy Awards as producer of best picture with her own for Shine (1996). The cinematographer Mandy Walker who has photographed many Australian feature films including Shirley’s films Love Serenade and Walk The Talk (2000), The Well, the just released Australian Rules (Paul Goldman, 2002), and Lantana (Ray Lawrence, 2001) has just embarked on her first feature in the US, and Catherine Martin won two Oscars in 2002 for costume and production design. There is a lot to celebrate about significant women contributing to film internationally as well as in Australia. However there is a cautionary note.
This year I went to the film school to address the second year directing students and they were all young men. I have since been told that in the last two years the number of women who applied for the directing course have been no more than 33%. This made me re-consider the representation of women in the Australian film industry. In 1983 a joint report by the Women’s Film Fund and the AFTRS had shown that only one woman had directed features compared with 81 men, that 132 men had worked as screenwriters compared with 16 women, that only 12% of art director jobs had been filled by women. Only four women had worked as editors, compared with 60 men. Only five women had worked at the highest technical level – one as a camera operator and four as neg matches – and on the production side only 15 individual women were listed as producers compared with 87 men. On the other hand, in the supportive co-ordinating production positions women predominated – 86% of production co-ordinators and 83% of wardrobe co-ordinators were women. This report led to the chair of the AFC at the time, Phillip Adams, being reported as saying he had previously been “suffering from the delusion that ours was a non chauvinist industry”.
I do not have the benefit of a more recent exact study to show how many women have produced and directed Australian films since 1979 but an AFI Awards listing shows that in the 22 year period since 1979, of the 92 films nominated, 31 of those were produced by women and 16 of them directed by women, with only three women winning the best directing award in those years (3). I certainly celebrate Jane Campion’s position as the only woman to have won a Palme d’Or and as one of two women to have been nominated for an Academy Award for directing on the international stage but I can’t help but wonder why there haven’t been more.
In Australia we have really benefited from an independent industry which offers an alternative to the male dominated studio system and this has only been possible because of government funding for film and television – may it continue and keep up to date with the increasing costs of production. The affirmative action by women in the ’70s resulted in 50% of the students in the first year of the full time course at the film school being women, and employment opportunities and in-house training available at the ABC benefited producers like Pat Lovell, Sue Milliken, Jill Robb, Sandra Levy and myself – not to mention Jane Campion and other directors like Looking For Alibrandi‘s (2000) Kate Woods.
Let us continue to encourage, through education and training, opportunities and technical knowledge for women as production methodology changes and develops, so that women feel able to get a crew together and make a film. Let’s not forget that of the 611 entries for Tropfest in 2002, only 129 were directed by women with three of those being amongst the finalists (4).
When I look back on the early days of the film industry – for me the ’70s – and at the significance of women in film for me, I remember images of inspiration and power both politically and subconsciously and imaginatively. I remember Sibylla in My Brilliant Career posting off the novel after turning down Sam Neill, the schoolgirls at the end of Picnic At Hanging Rock rising to something more than the known material world – to a spiritually higher place supported by each other. I remember Jeni Thornley’s performance in Martha Ansara’s Film For Discussion as she slowly awakened to the realisation that she couldn’t limit herself to domestic life with marriage as the only goal. I remember Ruth Cracknell and the young girl sitting on a hill in The Singer And The Dancer as a cloud passes over sharing their dreams. I remember the teenage girls in Puberty Blues (Bruce Beresford, 1981) learning how to surf despite their boyfriends’ disapproval, images of economic and physical hardship like the shoemakers in One Hundred A Day, and the deprived single mother Caddie created by Joan Long – images where women supported each other – images of women dreaming that their life had no constraints, no ceilings, Jane Campion’s wild and mad Sweetie climbing a tree desperate to find freedom, looking down on herself as a child, the dreamy little girl who had truth in her heart and no sense of anything in the world that could stop her, and I celebrate that fact that women were able to create those images.
I celebrate also the political activism of women – the fighters, both men and women, who lobbied for government funding, the film school and equal opportunities for women in film and television production and I look forward to the continued development of a distinct Australian feature film industry recognised internationally and noted for the contribution to that distinctiveness by Australian women.
Thanks to Australian Film Institute, Library and Research Services.
Adams, Brian and Shirley, Graham, Australian Cinema: The First 80 Years, Currency Press, revised edition, 1989
Australian ‘In Style’, Interview with Rachel Griffith, June 2002
Blonski, Annette, Creed, Barbara and Freiberg, Freda, eds, Don’t Shoot Darling! Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia, Greenhouse Publications, Vic, 1987: “Independent Feminist Filmmaking and the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative” by Jennifer Stott
Cooper, Ross and Pike, Andrew, Australian Film 1900 – 1977: A guide to feature film production, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1980
Lovell, Patricia, No Picnic: An Autobiography, Pan Macmillan Australia, 1995
Minutes of Evidence of the Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia, June 1927-February 1928, Government Printer, Canberra, 1928
Minutes of Meeting Sydney Women’s Film Group – selected papers, Documentation collection ScreenSound Australia
Murray, Scott, ed., Oxford Australian Film: A Survey of Theatrical Features 1978 – 1994, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995
Photo Play Artiste: Miss Lottie Lyell 1890 – 1925, compiled and written by Marilyn Dooley C., ScreenSound Australia 2000, Alani Publishing, Canberra
- Lina Wertmüller was nominated for an Oscar as Best director of Seven Beauties in 1976.
- The three Oscars for The Piano in 1993 were Best Screenplay to Jane Campion, Best Actress to Holly Hunter and Best Supporting Actress to Anna Paquin.
- From 1979 four women have won the Best Director Award at the AFI Awards: 1979, Gillian Armstrong for My Brilliant Career; 1986, Nadia Tass for Malcolm; 1991, Jocelyn Moorhouse for Proof; 1993, Jane Campion for The Piano.
- The 2002 Tropfest winner was Emma Freeman with Lamb (2001).