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