The first dedicated film magazine I ever bought was in March 1988, Issue #68 of the Australian publication Cinema Papers. Nick Cave was on the cover to promote the release of John Hillcoat’s Ghosts… of the Civil Dead: I was far too young to see the actual film, so as a wannabe teen goth this was the best I could get away with under the watchful eye of my diligent, ratings-conscious parents.

Cinema Papers magazine

Cinema Papers #68 (March 1988)

I’m pouring through back issues of Cinema Papers at the AFI Research Collection housed at Melbourne’s RMIT University, and seeing the cover of this magazine is like being struck by lightning. The experience is as emotionally overwhelming as finding a cache of lost family photographs: I’m shocked at how deeply each word and image on every single page is embedded within my memory. The tone of Cinema Papers was less the pop-promotional copy that I was used to reading about film at that age, and delved, often quite deeply, into both the production side of Australian cinema and into more rigorous, even academic criticism. Flicking through these old issues of Cinema Papers, the latter is not lost on me as the names of many contributors during this period are familiar from my years studying film at La Trobe University, also in Melbourne: Geoff Mayer, Anna Dzenis and long-time Senses of Cinema editor Rolando Caputo all had a very direct impact on my learning of and passion for film and film writing.

Flipping through this particular issue of Cinema Papers, however, one name stands out to me now even more than Nick Cave’s. Philippa Hawker edited the magazine from #61 (January 1987) through to #75 (September 1989), including the Ghosts… of the Civil Dead copy that enthralled me so completely as a wide-eyed adolescent. Hawker’s is a familiar name to anyone in Australia with an interest in cinema; having written for decades for Fairfax, she is now a film critic for The Australian. I first saw Hawker when she gave a guest lecture to undergraduates at the University of Melbourne in the mid-late 1990s, and I was everything that ghastly cliché of the inspired young person evokes: wide-eyed, star struck, and ready to do what this person does, to be who they are, to be what she represented to me at that precise moment.

Even then I had a cursory knowledge of the ‘big names’ of women’s film criticism – Pauline Kael and Molly Haskell first and foremost – but seeing Hawker when she spoke to this class of equally agog undergrads was the closest I had come to realising that this was something women could actually do in Australia. I of course was not alone in seeing tribal elder Margaret Pomeranz on The Movie Show (the iconic film criticism programme she co-hosted with David Stratton), but in terms of an actual career, television was (and frankly, still is) at somewhat of a distance. This was long before the Internet so the only real way that the aspiring writers I knew then felt we could publish regularly was through zine-making, or writing for the street press or uni newspapers. Self-publishing and the street press option was the direction in which I took my first fledgling steps into writing a few years later.

This pre-Internet culture of Australian film criticism is something that fascinates me: it was where I had my first exposure to film crit, but I very much grew into writing in the late 90s and early 00s at a time where online film writing was clearly usurping its hard copy ancestors.  This in large part is what lead me to the AFIRC, where I am undertaking a research fellowship into women’s film criticism in Australia across a number of key publications (including Cinema Papers) from 1980 to 1999. Titled “Hidden in Plain Sight”, this project seeks to explore the intersection between women’s film criticism and women’s filmmaking practices in Australia during this period. I want to know my own professional history: what were women film critics writing about before the Internet in Australia? Who were they writing for? Was there a visible connection between women writers and films made by women here, especially during this period when there was such a notable spike in directors including Gillian Armstrong, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Jane Campion, Tracey Moffatt, Pauline Chan and Nadia Tass? The stroll down Cinema Papers’ memory lane is my first stop in sniffing out the answers.

Cinema Papers magazine

Cinema Papers #37 (April 1982)

A personal reflection on the history of Cinema Papers in the 10-year anniversary issue in March 1984 by Scott Murray1 (another Senses of Cinema editorial team alumni) succinctly reveals the magazine’s origin story. Its name a conscious riff on Cahiers du Cinema, it was born at La Trobe University and edited by Philippe Mora in 1967. In this form, it lasted only one issue before Mora went overseas to focus on his career as a filmmaker and artist. Murray rebooted the project at La Trobe in October 1969, its contributors then including another iconic Australian filmmaker, Richard Franklin. Yet another – Corinne Cantrill – wrote a letter to the editors soon after, suggesting that those behind the publication spend their money on making movies, not doing “yet another little film magazine”. From what Murray suggests, many heeded the call and did precisely that, and it was not until 1973 that the project was again rebooted. In 1979, it shifted from a quarterly to bi-monthly publication, until July 1983 when publication again ceased for financial reasons linked closely to broader instabilities in the Australian film industry at that time. In the tenth anniversary issue, Murray announced the selling of Cinema Papers Pty Ltd to MTV Publishing Ltd., who produced the magazine during – what for me at least, from a purely subjective perspective – its heyday.  A drop in sales in late 1999 saw the end of Cinema Papers in practical terms, despite an attempt to reboot it in 2000 with editor Michaela Boland,2 and it ceased publication in 2001.

At the end of Murray’s article – an fascinating record in its own right – is a remarkable list of all the contributors to Cinema Papers across its first ten years. From the perspective of a researcher interested in the history of women’s film criticism in Australia, the numbers indicate that of the 265 contributions over that first decade, 63 were written by women. But oh what women they were; the calibre of contributors is a veritable who’s who, with names including Martha Ansara, Ina Bertrand, Barbara Creed, Susan Dermody, Debi Enker, Miranda Brown, Sandra Hall, Dorothy Hewett, Solrun Hoass, Liz Jacka, Jennifer Sabine and Meaghan Morris, just to name a few.

Looking ahead to the time period of interest to me in the 1980s and 1990s, from Issue #25 (February 1980) to Issue #130 (June 1999), approximately 1/8 of feature articles from this period were specifically on women directors, producers, cinematographers or actors, or an explicit aspect of women’s film and television making. In contrast, from Issue #57 (May 1986), to Issue #130, approximately 1/3 of total contributions were made by women critics. Perhaps even more revealing was an ongoing critics poll that ran from Issue #73 (May 1989) through to Issue #130, published under a variety of titles, such as “Dirty Dozen” and “Critics Best and Worst”. Here, current release films were given a score out of 10 by a list of critics working at a range of recognisable media outlets. An average was taken, providing a clear snapshot of critical responses to a huge amount of films receiving cinema releases in the country during this period. Except for some early polls (in issues all edited by Hawker, coincidentally) where Sandra Hall, Tina Kaufman and Hawker provided scores, Hall was the only woman critic out of generally nine to twelve polled until she was joined by Barbara Creed (then writing for The Age) from Issue #103 (March 1995). This becomes even more interesting when breaking down the gender of filmmakers whose films were included: of what I counted to be the 1018 films polled during this period, 93 were made by women. Hall rated in a seemingly fair, even manner, regardless of the director’s gender, yet the same cannot be said for all of her male colleagues: the 3/10 average of one particular male critic of films made by Australian women during this period was glaring, particularly in instances where the films in question are now broadly deemed classics of the era.

Cinema Papers magazine

Cinema Papers #125 (June 1998) – with Ana Kokkinos’s Head On (1998) on the cover

Taking a step back, however, while there might be a temptation to cast sweeping generalisations based on these figures, to deny the broader context that has an obvious, immediate impact on these numbers is less than productive. For starters, these numbers do not reflect how Cinema Papers compares to other Australian print media at the time, let alone broader stats about the number of women in the workforce more generally, or even those who worked in journalism and/or the film industry. There were, of course, also a number of men writing – and writing very well – on women’s films throughout Cinema Papers’ history: outside the big women-made films like Gillian Armstrong’s Starstruck (1982), male writers with male editors wrote a number of significant feature articles championing women’s filmmaking and role in the industry more generally. These include a notable article by Graham Shirley in 1985 on the documentary Don’t Call Me Girlie (Stewart Young and Andree Wright, 1985)3 that “zeroes in on women in the film industry, charting their contributions to Australian cinema, off-screen as well as on”,4 and a three-part series on women in film that ran from Issue #35 (November 1981), including interviews with key industry figures including Di Drew, Jane Oehr and Rivka Hartman.

What was clear by the early 1990s, however, was that things were changing for women in the Australian film industry. In April 1993, Fincina Hopgood (another one-time Senses of Cinema editorial team member) responded in Issue #92 (April 1993) to a 1992 report by Eva Cox and Sharon Laura on women in the industry that was commissioned by the National Working Party on the Portrayal of Women in the Media (NWP) and the Australian Film Commission:

The figures speak for themselves. Women have come a long way in the film industry since 1974, when they made up only 13.6 per cent of feature film crews. Today, they represent some 39 per cent of film crew, but the fact that this figure is still below the proportion of women in the workforce as a whole (42 per cent) is indicative of the continuing struggle women face to secure themselves equitable employment in the television, video and radio industries.5

A few years later in 1998, Des Partridge excitedly wrote in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail newspaper that “if there’s something that sets Australia’s film industry apart from world cinema, it is the number of female directors”. He continued,

You could almost name America’s film directors on the fingers of one hand but you’d need more than 10 digits for a line-up of successful female Australian filmmakers of recent years.6

While one might query the technical precision of Partridge’s declaration, certainly the excitement in his piece is clear, and there is no argument at all that this was an impressive moment in the history of Australian women’s filmmaking. Feature films made by women in Australia between 1990 and 1999 – not including shorts or documentaries – included The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990), Aya (Solrun Hoaas, 1990), Proof (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1991), Breathing Under Water (Susan Murphy Dermody, 1991), The Girl Who Came Late (Kathy Mueller, 1991), Waiting (Jackie McKimmie, 1991), The Last Days of Chez Nous (Gillian Armstrong ,1991), Seeing Red (Virginia Rouse, 1992), BeDevil (Tracey Moffatt, 1993), Dallas Doll (Ann Turner, 1993), Hammers Over the Anvil (Ann Turner, 1993) Broken Highway (Laurie McInnes, 1993) Gino (Jackie McKimmie, 1993), Traps (Pauline Chan, 1994), Only the Brave (Ana Kokkinos 1994), Talk (Susan Lambert, 1994), Vacant Possession (Margot Nash, 1995), Dating the Enemy (Megan Simpson Huberman, 1996), Mr Reliable (Nadia Tass, 1996), Floating Life (Clara Law, 1996), Love and Other Catastrophes (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1996), Love Serenade (Shirley Barrett, 1996), Road to Nhill (Sue Brooks, 1997), Thank God He Met Lizzie (Cherie Nowlan, 1997), The Well (Samantha Lang, 1997), Oscar and Lucinda (Gillian Armstrong, 1997) A Thousand Acres (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1997),  Amy (Nadia Tass, 1998), Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998), Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998), The Missing (Manuela Alberti, 1999), Soft Fruit (Christina Andreef, 1999), Strange Fits of Passion (Elsie McCredie, 1999), Strange Planet (Emma-Kate Croghan, 1999) Dogwatch (Laurie McInnes, 1999), Envy (Julie Money, 1999), Holy Smoke! (Jane Campion, 1999), Feeling Sexy (Davida Allen, 1999) and Me Myself I (Pip Karmel, 1999).7 This was, in short, an extraordinary moment in Australian film history, not only for women filmmakers, but for women film critics, too.

Cinema Papers magazine

Cinema Papers #130 (June 1999) with Davida Allen’s Feeling Sexy (1999) on the cover

Cinema Papers magazine

Cinema Papers #63 with Gillian Armstrong’s High Tide (1987) on the cover

Partially this may have (again) been a response to the changing times, women increasingly leaving the once-assumed domain of the home to pursue satisfaction elsewhere, but the much-discussed broader inequalities facing women filmmakers8 and women film critics9 today make it difficult to simplify as an uncomplicated progress-marches-on narrative. Even more importantly, while it might have been the allure of Nick Cave that first drew me towards the glossy Cinema Papers at my local suburban Canberra newsagent, its visibility during that period does not of course render it the only publication of note. In an email chat, Adrian Martin passionately – and very rightly – underscored the importance of the film criticism channels that were not so obvious during this period, in “a vast spread of ephemeral art magazines, art college publications, gallery catalogues, film-centre program notes in Adelaide and Perth, political journals, avant-garde events, music & culture mags, super-8 group newsletters, etc.” Women might not have dominated the more official outlets during this period, but they were writing and publishing the shit out of it: Martin’s breathtaking dossier dedicated to the early work of Vikki Riley (1962-2012)10 is a key exhibit for anyone wanting to prove the intensity, intelligence and incisiveness of Australian women’s film criticism, then or now.

The research for this article was undertaken as part of an Australian Film Institute Research Centre Fellowship.

 

Endnotes

  1. Scott Murray, “A Personal History of Cinema Papers”, Cinema Papers #44-45 (March-April 1984) pp. 41-48.
  2. Michael Cathcart, “Cinema Papers”, Arts Today programme, Radio National 3 March 2000 www.abc.net.au/rn/legacy/programs/atoday/stories/s122966.htm.
  3. For Australian readers, Don’t Call Me Girlie is available to view through Ronin Films: https://www.roninfilms.com.au/feature/665/dont-call-me-girlie.html
  4. Graham Shirley, “A Woman’s Place”,  Cinema Papers, 52 (July 1985), p. 36.
  5. Fincina Hopgood, “’What Do I Wear For A Hurricane?”, Cinema Papers 92 (April 1993) p. 26.
  6.  Des Partridge, “Women Call the Shots”, Courier-Mail, 9 September 1998, p. 43
  7. I explore these films in-depth at my website Generation Star Struck: Women’s Filmmaking 1980-1999 https://generationstarstruck.tumblr.com
  8. See, for example: Nigel M. Smith. “No female film directors from two major Hollywood studios through 2018”, The Guardian, 22 April 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/apr/21/hollywood-paramount-20th-century-fox-no-female-directors
  9. Emily McCarty, “Why It Matters that Male Film Critics Vastly Outnumber Female Film Critics”, Bitch Media, 11 July 2016 https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/why-it-matters-male-film-critics-vastly-outnumber-female-film-critics-hearken
  10. Adrian Martin (editor), “Vikki Riley (1962-2012): Early Writings”, Screening the Past, 35 (December 2012) www.screeningthepast.com/issue-35/

About The Author

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas has published five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with a particular focus on gender politics. Her books include Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Film: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2014), a 2016 monograph on Dario Argento’s Suspiria (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series), a 2017 book on Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 as part of Wallflower/Columbia University Press’s Cultographies series, and in 2018, a book on Robert Harmon's 1986 film The Hitcher, published by Arrow Books. She is currently working on books including 1000 Women in Horror, a book on art and intertextuality in giallo cinema, and co-editing a collection about the film work of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press's ReFocus series. Alexandra was an editor at Senses of Cinema until March 2018.