click to buy 'Womenvision: Women and the Moving Image in Australia' at Amazon.com(Melbourne: Damned Publishing, 2003)

In her introduction to Womenvision, the editor Lisa French pays homage to an event that took place in Sydney in 1973, an event from which this book takes its name. French describes this event as the “first major [national] enterprise of the women’s film movement in Australia.” It consisted of a weekend dedicated to screenings, workshops and discussions surrounding the issue of creating the conditions for more women to become involved in the moving-image industry in Australia. Such an event was significant precisely because it provided a forum, or a conceptual space within which the exchange of ideas, practices, and experiences could take place; a site in which histories could be shared, perspectives gained, and most importantly from which action could be launched. In the context of world feminist movements, the ‘Womenvision’ event was timely and involved attempts to both reclaim a submerged or forgotten history of women’s past contributions to the motion picture industry in Australia as well as forging ways of advancing women’s contribution to filmmaking in the future. As a publication, Womenvision creates a similar kind of discursive space in which the achievements of the intervening quarter of a century can be put into historical perspective and the imperatives of the present can be identified and discussed by a multitude of women’s voices.

The book contains a wide variety of writing on women’s contributions to and participation in commercial, independent and experimental moving-image creation in Australia from the perspective of both scholars and practitioners. Womenvision is divided into five parts that each reflect upon different aspects of women’s engagement in Australian cinema. The opening section “Setting the Scene” is dedicated to constructing a historical context for the entire volume with the first two chapters by Lisa French and Ina Bertrand providing a historical survey, reaching back in Bertrand’s case to the very earliest founding mothers who, she argued, did not so much serve as great feminist role models for later women filmmakers, producers and technicians, but helped to foster a sense of community upon which later women could look to for strength and precedence. Bertrand writes: “Part of creating that new community, finding a voice and roots, was to learn about other women filmmakers—through printed sources, but films themselves, viewed in festivals and special seasons.” (p. 32) From the 1970s onward, Australian women filmmakers engaged in activities and events that not only afforded a perspective on the local industry but also on international movements in women’s cinema, providing for the remarkable achievements that have been made by Australian women filmmakers over that last three decades. Moving from history to the experience of Aboriginal women in Australian cinema, Marcia Langton’s chapter “Grounded and Gendered” attempts to fill a gap in the scholarship on indigenous women in the industry, noting that Aboriginal women, especially those born in the 1950s and 1960s have been crucial in both documentary, short and feature film production by taking part in the struggle for visibility of the Aboriginal communities and in their unique abilities to engage in cross-cultural debates through the medium of film and in offering alternatives to the colonial views of Aboriginal people. Thematically, Langton identifies common threads through the work of the most prominent of Aboriginal women filmmakers, Tracey Moffatt, Rachel Perkins, Sally Riley, Darlene Johnson and Erica Glynn whose work contains “disturbing readings of colonial history, stark accounts of familial trauma and connectedness” (p. 55) presented through modes of oral storytelling adapted and transformed into cinematic forms, thus creating a complex interrelationship between the traditional and the modern and providing a site for the complex negotiation of women’s stories.

In the second part of the book, “Working in the Industry”, Jane Castle, Virginia Murray and Julie James Bailey present us with some very personal stories of the issues facing women’s participation in the Australian film industry. Of particular note are Jane Castle’s beautifully written personal recollections of her experiences as a cinematographer. Her chapter is a moving and evocative testimony to the physical and tactile world of cinema. Castle situates the developments of cinema technology in the realm of the masculine desire to know and to dominate and manipulate the world around us and writes of the difficulties confronting women in the industry, especially those who would like to produce more positive images of women than those contained in most mainstream cinema. She writes:

There have been countless situations in which I have found myself contributing to stereotypical and distorted images of women; images that crept up on me while I wasn’t paying attention, images that are everywhere and anywhere no matter where you work. Whether I wanted to or not, it was almost impossible to resist the constant cycling of phallocentric imagery whenever I worked in the mainstream. (p. 65)

Castle’s personal desire to counter such phallocentric images is a point of common concern to most of the filmmakers discussed throughout Womenvision.

Australian women have contributed substantially and innovatively to the exploration of diverse film forms, as evidenced by the chapters that make up the third section of the book. Contributions by choreographer Dianne Reid, Lisa French, animator Ann Shenfield, experimental film/video maker Janet Merewether and 3d modeler/animator Fiona Kerr address such film forms as the dance film, short film, animation, art film and the figure of the cybernetic woman. In her chapter on short films made by Australian women, French argues that the short film is an important form in itself for women directors and while it can serve as a training ground for and stepping stone towards feature film production, this is not always the case, with a number of women directors using the short as a vehicle for telling compact and poignant stories.

Vehicular movements form the basis for Catherine Simpson’s thematic reading of female journeys in a number of Australian films in the forth part of Womenvision, which is comprised of six academic essays devoted to critical discussions of gender, character and identity in Australian cinema. In her chapter “Performing the Feminine Self: Women and Independent Documentary in Australia,” Meredith Seaman looks at the way women have used film to expose “aspects of their personal histories, self-consciously performing and constructing their identities.” (p. 157) Using works by Corrine Cantrill, Merilee Bennett and Anna Kannava, as the basis for her discussion, Seaman argues that, read in terms of the future rather than through the various histories they present, these films “become powerful examples as active agents in their own lives, and begin to address the circular temporality which is at work in the films as the film-makers juggle stories of their past, present and future in a circular movement.” (p. 165) In other words, the process of filmmaking as much as the content of the films themselves serve as powerful vehicles for woman’s self definition. In her chapter, “Volatile Vehicles: When Women Take the Wheel, Domestic Journeying and Vehicular Moments in Contemporary Australian Cinema”, Catherine Simpson identifies a similar space for the renegotiation of female agency and identity within the context of recent fictional films by Australian women. This space is not so much the road itself, but the space formed by the interior of the car, a quasi-domestic space where relationships are intensified and personal differences either come to a head or are resolved. Using examples from films such as Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998), Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1987), Last Days of Chez Nous (Gillian Armstrong, 1992), Hightide (Gillian Armstrong, 1987) and Jane Campion’s short film Peel (1982), Simpson manages to demonstrate beautifully how these films manage to use this familiar space for personal interior journeys through the magnification and intensification of emotions in what she describes productively as the “volatile capsule” of the car. What we learn from Simpson, is that these Australian women filmmakers have adapted the semantic potential of the vehicle, most commonly discussed in terms of the masculine journey undertaken in the road movie, for their own purposes and turned the car into a space that functions as an alternative to the way the home functions as a site of intensification and conflict in the Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s. The car as a potential site for female agency in effect then parallels the potential of the cinema itself in providing alternative spaces for women to explore issues of gender, character and identity. As a film academic myself, interested in the construction and representation of gender in cinema, this forth part of Womenvision is perhaps the most exciting, and unfortunately I have not space here to examine all in detail but should like to praise the other authors; Felicity Collins, who writes about Australian women’s contributions to the international genre of romantic comedy through the recurring figures of “brazen brides, grotesque daughters and treacherous mothers”; Terrie Waddell’s wonderful examination of the “scrubber”; Freda Freiberg and Joy Damousi’s survey of representations of Greek identity in Australian cinema from the 1970s to the present; and Jeni Thornley’s less academic but no less inspiring personal meditations on psychoanalysis, feminism and cinematic spectatorship pieced together as a kind of diary recording of her various encounters with film as both spectator and participant.

The final section of Womenvision is dedicated to six studies of individual filmmakers with contributions from Rose Capp, Rai Jones, Catherine Summerhayes, Sally Hussey, Lisa French and Mary Alemany-Galway. After the relative breadth of the book’s previous chapters, these final chapters engage in a level of specificity that nicely concentrates and intensifies concerns that have been prevalent throughout. Rose Capp offers a survey of the four short films and one feature by the Australian-Italian director Monica Pellizzari and focuses in particular on the articulation of cultural identity, ethnicity, racism, feminine experience and generational conflict in the bi-cultural experience of children born to migrant families. In her chapter on Clara Law’s Floating Life (1996) Rai Jones draws upon strategies of framing used within the film itself to effectively mobilize the frame as a discursive category through which to understand not only the film’s thematic concentration on migrant experiences and Chinese diaspora but relationship of Law’s work more broadly to established conceptions of Australian national cinema. Jones argues that Law’s work can not productively be discussed within Tom O’Regan’s category of “multicultural cinema” as the “preoccupation with displacement in her work that bridges the two production spaces of Hong Kong and Australian cinema, both open out and situate the meaning’s of transmationality, diaspora and the national in their complex intersections.” (p. 261) In a sense, all instances of Australian women’s filmmaking discussed in this volume could be said in some way to similarly challenge or break down simplistic notions of the “national” to take into account issues specific to women from the context not only of feminism, but gender, sexuality, and ethnicity within both national and international contexts. Included also in this section is a chapter on the Aboriginal filmmaker and artist Tracey Moffatt by Catherine Summerhayes in which she concentrates on Moffatt’s unique and inventive modes of storytelling. This chapter productively complements and builds upon Marcia Langton’s chapter on women Aboriginal fimmakers mentioned earlier in this review. Sally Hussey’s chapter constructed around various interviews with Ann Turner theorises Turner’s work as a complex intersection of queer filmmaking, and allegorical narratives infused with historical-political critique and familial tensions. The penultimate chapter of the book is Lisa French’s informative discussion of a model of collaborative filmmaking employed by the Gecko production team: filmmakers Sue Brooks, Sue Maslin and Alison Tilson. Closing the volume is Mary Alemany-Galway’s discussion of Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) as a postmodern film that posits a series of contradictions that open up a multiplicity of readings of the film. In using various postmodern strategies, Alemany-Galway concludes that Campion “problematises the gothic genre and its associated romanticism and she juxtaposes the divergent truths that are present in the discourse of feminism.” (p. 321)

In a sense, it is possible to say that this is the intention and achievement of many of the contributions to Womenvision, that is to present a multiplicity of often divergent feminist truths and thereby to begin to fill some of the many gaps in scholarship on Australian cinema from the unique, insightful, often witty and at times brilliant perspectives of Australian women moving image makers. Womenvision is an important and extremely worthwhile publication that should be read by anyone interested in gaining a broader and deeper understanding of Australian cinema in general and the long, loving and dedicated contributions that have been made by Australian women to this industry.

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