Pi­o­neer­ing Women re­dis­cov­ers some of the great cinema cre­ated by Aus­tralian women in the 1980s and 90s, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

Atale of com­mu­nism and rab­bits. A teenage boy’s dream of a car and a girl. An art-house noir west­ern. A fem­i­nist ter­ror­ist heist movie. An in­ner-city mu­si­cal. There’s noth­ing pre­dictable about Pi­o­neer­ing Women, a Mel­bourne In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val se­lec­tion of Aus­tralian movies from the 1980s and 90s.

It in­vites us to think again about film his­tory, women di­rec­tors and movie plea­sure.

“What struck me was the di­ver­sity of sto­ries and gen­res,” says the fes­ti­val’s artis­tic di­rec­tor, Michelle Carey, who co-cu­rated the pro­gram. “And there’s some re­ally fun stuff, which you don’t al­ways get in fea­ture film­mak­ing these days.”

Defin­ing the bound­aries, she de­cided to look at films made in the last decades of the 20th cen­tury in the wake of Gil­lian Arm­strong’s tal­is­manic My Bril­liant Ca­reer. For Carey and her co-cu­ra­tor, Alex Heller-Ni­cholas, Arm­strong was an ob­vi­ous in­clu­sion.

There’s Starstruck, Arm­strong’s sec­ond fea­ture, an ex­u­ber­ant mu­si­cal star­ring Jo Kennedy; then there’s High Tide, the 1987 film that re­united the di­rec­tor with her Bril­liant Ca­reer star Judy Davis. Here, Davis is Lilli, a singer who goes on the road to pur­sue a rock ca­reer while her ado­les­cent daugh­ter (Clau­dia Kar­van) is be­ing raised by her mother. Lilli re­turns to the coastal town of her youth, ob­serv­ing from a dis­tance the child she has no knowl­edge of. It’s a film, says Carey, that even Arm­strong’s ad­mir­ers have not of­ten had the chance to see.

Pi­o­neer­ing Women grew in part out of a MIFF pro­gram from last year. Carey cu­rated a se­lec­tion of films by women di­rec­tors work­ing in New York in the 70s and early 80s, rang­ing from the dry wit of Elaine May’s A New Leaf to the fu­tur­is­tic fem­i­nist re­bel­lion of Lizzie Bor­den’s Born in Flames. It was a pop­u­lar pro­gram, Carey says, and she was in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing a sim­i­lar theme this year. She had been struck, look­ing at past MIFF pro­grams, that rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women fea­ture di­rec­tors didn’t re­ally be­gin un­til the late 70s.

Heller-Ni­cholas had won a fel­low­ship to do re­search at the Aus­tralian Film In­sti­tute Re­search Col­lec­tion. Her project cov­ered a sim­i­lar his­tor­i­cal mo­ment; to­gether, they be­gan to ex­plore what the pe­riod had to of­fer.

The se­lec­tion was a straight­for­ward, or­ganic process, Heller-Ni­cholas says. Some films were ob­vi­ous in­clu­sions, some turned out to be ex­hil­a­rat­ing dis­cov­er­ies. She went on her own “trea­sure hunt”, as­sem­bling a list of ti­tles and hunt­ing down copies to watch.

There were many more films made by women dur­ing that time than she ex­pected to find, she says. As she tracked down copies, the me­diatheque from the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for the Mov­ing Im­age be­came her home away from home. She drew on the re­sources of “VHS nerd” friends, in­clud­ing one who has more than 10,000 in his col­lec­tion.

“I was call­ing up peo­ple to ask them to look through boxes of video­tapes in their garage and ask­ing, ‘Do you have this?’ ”

Heller-Ni­cholas has set up a web­site, Gen­er­a­tion Starstruck, that con­tains ma­te­rial on the films she found and is still find­ing. The web­site Senses of Cinema — Carey and Heller-Ni­cholas are among its co-ed­i­tors — also has ma­te­rial on the MIFF pro­gram. When it came to sourc­ing prints to screen, the Na­tional Film And Sound Archive had ev­ery­thing avail­able: two films, Celia and Starstruck, are newly re­stored.

Among the sur­prises for Heller-Ni­cholas and Carey were Lau­rie McInnes’s Bro­ken High­way and Su­san Lam­bert’s On Guard.

“They floored both of us,” Heller-Ni­chols says. We thought, where have they been all our lives, why have we not heard of these films?”

Bro­ken High­way was the first fea­ture from cin­e­matog­ra­pher McInnes. She won the Palme d’Or for best short film at Cannes in 1987 with her film Pal­isade. She was in com­pe­ti­tion at Cannes again with Bro­ken High­way in 1993 — the year Jane Cam­pion took out the Palme d’Or for The Pi­ano. An­other Pi­o­neer­ing Women film, Tracey Mof­fatt’s BeDevil, was also at Cannes in 1993, se­lected for the Un Cer­tain Re­gard sec- tion. Bro­ken High­way, shot in rich black-and­white, stars Aden Young in a tale of mys­tery, des­o­la­tion and vi­o­lence. It is un­like most other Aus­tralian films of its time, Carey says — the clos­est com­par­i­son she can make is with Jim Jar­musch’s sin­gu­lar west­ern Dead Man.

Clau­dia Kar­van is also in Bro­ken High­way: it is one of three films from the pro­gram in which she ap­pears.

Kar­van has a lead role in The Big Steal, Na­dia Tass’s high-spir­ited teen movie from 1990, which stars Ben Men­del­sohn as a high-school kid with a long­ing for the seem­ingly unattain­able: he dreams not only of own­ing a Jaguar but of go­ing on a date with the pop­u­lar, smart Joanna John­son (Kar­van). Both, it turns out, are more at­tain­able than he re­alises, al­though there are prob­lems rang­ing from an over­pro­tec­tive father to a shifty car dealer.

McInnes, as it hap­pens, was the cin­e­matog­ra­pher for Lam­bert’s On Guard (1983), a very dif­fer­ent work.

On Guard is an en­er­get­i­cally ex­per­i­men­tal work, the tale of four women join­ing forces in a heist that is in­tended to sab­o­tage a re­pro­duc­tive tech­nol­ogy re­search pro­gram. It screens with BeDevil Ana Kokki­nos’s pow­er­ful 50-minute film Only the Brave, an in­tense, dev­as­tat­ing por­trait of a pair of teenage girls en­dur­ing dif­fer­ent kinds of abuse. The two short fea­tures make a won­der­ful dou­ble bill, Heller-Ni­cholas says.

Ten­der Hooks — writ­ten and di­rected by the late Mary Cal­laghan — “was also a re­ally lovely sur­prise”, Heller-Ni­cholas says. It’s an in­nercity Syd­ney ur­ban ro­mance star­ring Jo Kennedy and Nique Nee­dles.

“Look­ing at the other Jo Kennedy film in the pro­gram,” Heller-Ni­cholas says, “both Michelle and I like to think of Ten­der Hooks al­most as an in­for­mal se­quel to Starstruck, with her char­ac­ter be­ing the same. There’s noth­ing in the film to sup­port that but I think it’s about Jo Kennedy and her amaz­ing pres­ence.”

Clara Law’s Float­ing Life (1996) was a film both cu­ra­tors im­me­di­ately knew should be part of Pi­o­neer­ing Women. “I was dis­cov­er­ing Clara Law at the same time as I was dis­cov­er­ing Hong Kong film­mak­ers like Wong Kar-wai and Stan­ley Kwan,” Carey says.

Law es­tab­lished a ca­reer in Hong Kong be­fore she re­lo­cated to Aus­tralia. Float­ing Life, the first fea­ture she made here, is a rich and nu­anced de­pic­tion of mi­gra­tion and iden­tity, of a fam­ily at­tempt­ing to de­fine home in a con­text of dis­place­ment, scat­tered across three lo­ca­tions: Hong Kong, Ger­many and Aus­tralia.

Mof­fatt’s BeDevil has a more dis­tinct tri­par­tite struc­ture, a trio of ghost sto­ries set in a stylised haunt­ing land­scape. Carey be­lieves au­di­ences who know Mof­fatt’s ac­claimed pho­tog­ra­phy might be aware of her short films, but not know her full-length fea­ture. “It’s a unique film,” Carey says, “and it’s hard to place it in any con­text but that of Mof­fatt’s other work.”

Celia, Ann Turner’s de­but fea­ture, was an­other key film for Carey and Heller-Ni­cholas. Set in the 1950s, it stars Re­becca Smart as the ti­tle char­ac­ter, a nine-year-old girl rocked by the death of her beloved grand­mother. Long­ing for a pet rab­bit, for­bid­den to play with the chil­dren of the com­mu­nist fam­ily next door, she ne­go­ti­ates as best she can the world of adult hypocrisy, youth­ful ri­val­ries and the power of the imag­i­na­tion.

Bri­tish critic Kim New­man calls it “one of the great movies about the ter­rors, won­ders and strange­ness of child­hood, and a still un­der­val­ued clas­sic of Aus­tralian cinema”.

It’s a film that has an in­trigu­ing res­o­nance with a re­cent de­but fea­ture that was highly ac­claimed over­seas — Jen­nifer Kent’s The Babadook, also a story about loss, child­hood and the bound­aries be­tween fan­tasy and re­al­ity.

There are res­o­nances or con­nec­tions with other films at MIFF out­side the Pi­o­neer­ing Women pro­gram. Kokki­nos’s pow­er­ful 2009 fea­ture Blessed — a mov­ing tale of lost and er­rant char­ac­ters, mothers and chil­dren — is screen­ing as part of a strand de­voted to films sup­ported by MIFF’s Pre­miere Fund. Carey re­gards it as “a re­ally great, un­der­rated film”.

De­borra-Lee Fur­ness is one of the en­sem­ble

A scene from Tracey Mof­fatt’s lit­tle-seen fea­ture

Clau­dia Kar­van and Ben Men­del­sohn in Na­dia Tass’s The Big Steal

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