Sunday, March 20, 2022

farewell film poem to life

memory film: a filmmaker's diary:  

 An immersive film poem about transformation and ‘the personal is political’

Digitising the Super8, Christina Peacock NFSA 2017
Digitising the Super8, Christina Sparrow,  NFSA  2016
       
 memory film: a filmmaker's diary is based on my Super8 archives filmed over three decades 1974-2003. The film is an expression of the passage of time, as well as a historic document reflecting personal and political issues of each era. Currently in post-production, the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA Canberra), acquired and digitized the super8 collection during 2016-2017.  The film is unique as its legacy harks back to the silent movie era; the film has no speaking voices, no interviews and no narration. Its story is told visually and poetically, with images and music and sound.

memory film is currently at rough-cut stage (80mins); editor Lindi Harrison (ASE) worked with me to edit the current 80min rough cut and trailer.  I am currently working on permissions with people (and places) who appear in the rough cut, along with clearing text/quotations permissions. There is a guide music track and we will be licensing quotes from the those musician/composers in this edit. Egyptian Australian oud player, Joseph Tawadros has generously provided the track for the memory film trailer (while we work on raising the post production budget for the film); a number of his tracks are in the rough cut, along with Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, Canadian cellist Zoe Keating  and Australian ensemble, Chaika.

The impulse for this film comes from the Japanese death poets. In Japan elders and (Buddhist monks) write poems to express their feelings about the transience of life and the inevitable passing of all things (jisei: “farewell poem to life”). Householders write poems as a gift to their children – a legacy of beauty and insight gathered over years. I like this idea– the contemplation of ageing and approaching death, yet brimming with the lightness and beauty of life. 

I borrow moonlight
for this journey of a
million miles
(Saikaku 1730)

A friend gave me Yoel Hoffman's book Japanese Death Poems years ago and I always carry it around - thinking, ruminating, writing - gradually realising that I could make a film in the spirit of this poetic tradition. Then I discovered that video artist Bill Viola has done just this! So then, everything is perhaps borrowed! The other filmmaker I return to in the vein of death poetry film-making (and the use of the home movie archive) is Derek Jarman and his innovative film Blue that he made when he was in hospital dying (1994). Yet, ultimately as Thacker in his essay Black Illumination: Zen and the poetry of death writes, quoting death poet Toko: 

Death poems
are mere delusion
death is death
(Toko 1795)

Preparing the Super8 for NFSA
2016 Preparing the super8 for NF&SA 

What I know about the content of the film – it is composed only of my Super8, filmed between 1974-2003. A layer of the film reflects films I have made and the politics of each era: Maidens (1978), For Love or Money (McMurchy, Nash, Oliver & Thornley 1983), To the Other Shore (1996) and Island Home Country (2008).  Why the title: “memory film”? Film, unlike creative forms like painting, sculpture or writing, is ephemeral. Like theatre and music it, too, is passing by. The movement of film through the gate of the camera, through the projector, (both film and digital), parallels the movement of life – its transience, its flow; watching film we experience time passing, and like the mercury of old we cannot really hold it still. Also some of the Super8 is degraded with time; the colour might have faded, mould has eaten away at the celluloid; the body of the film is ageing, as is mine. I will not hide it. These fragments of life on my 137 rolls and 9 composite reels of Super8 trigger my memory as it fades with age. 

The Super8 original is preserved and catalogued at NFSA

The production context for the film is the School of Communication, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) UTS, where I am a Visiting Scholar. Marcus Ekermann, FASS MediaLab, is technical consultant. I edited a first assembly (3.5hrs) and editor Lindi Harrison (ASE) worked with me to edit the current 80min rough cut and trailer. 

                                         Squatting at the Lyndhurst Estate, Glebe, Sydney 1976

All this happened. Yes, I was in the women’s liberation movement; I had a share in women’s land; I marched against the war in Vietnam; I filmed Super8 on the set of Journey Among Womenon Anzac Day, Australia Day and the Aboriginal Awakening ceremonies; I loved women and men; I have a husband, children and grand children and I had a therapist; I bow to my meditation teachers. And yes I made these films. Here is the evidence, it was real, I filmed it. memory = film. And so, I share this “farewell film poem to life” (jisei), tenderly with you.

Clear sky
The way I came by once
I now go back by
(Gitoku 1754)

my sister's garden, Blue Mountains: 
country of the Dharug,  Gundungurra & Wiradjuri nations














Wednesday, January 5, 2022

“the river of souls”

                     
           mizuko kuyō (水子供養) 
 water child memorial

Mizuko Kuyo, a Ritual for Unborn Children
Japanese Buddhist ceremony for those who
have had a miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion

 
Last year I was interviewed for the documentary film Brazen Hussies (2020, dir: Catherine Dywer). The crew spent a day filming with me. Later, when I saw the edit of my account of an illegal abortion I had in 1968, I found it confronting. For many reasons – perhaps because the inner work I have done around abortion was not incorporated. Or perhaps because it is still an emotional and layered site. So be it. Its not my film. I accepted the edit - as I felt it was a historically important account of womens lack of power over our own bodies in that 1960s era.  Then, I happened upon this essay, Brazen Hussies and the weaknesses of the women’s liberation movement by Diane Fieldes in Red Flag (May 14 2021).  It triggered emotions again linked to my memories and trauma. I especially took issue with Fieldes’ factual mis-representation of my illegal abortion and also her simplistic class analysis of it. So I decided to write about it to connect with the deeper resonances of abortion for myself and other women.  Here is Fieldes paragraph in full: 



For middle-class women like Jeni Thornley, who is interviewed in the film about her undoubtedly unpleasant experience, an unwanted pregnancy meant going to Sydney and having the abortion at a posh clinic in Macquarie Street once you’d paid £300the mark of the procedure’s illegality being that you had to go at night instead of during the day. For working-class women, as Communist Party member Zelda D’Aprano outlines in horrifying detail in her autobiography, it meant scraping together a much smaller sum but with much greater difficulty, and surrendering yourself to the hands of a backyard butcher.

 Unfortunately, Fieldes has misconstrued my interview in Brazen Hussies to suit her one-dimensional class analysis. She has no idea of my class origins, my  personal life or the circumstances of my illegal abortion. In fact my abortion was not in a “posh” Macquarie St clinic.  It was at the infamous Heatherbrae Clinic in Bondi; a clinic that operated at night to avoid police raids due to the fact that abortion was a  crime; a clinic to which desperate women from all classes across Australia and New Zealand sought an abortion; whats more, even if my abortion had been performed in Fieldes “posh clinic”, what does her dualistic argument offer us in understanding the emotional, traumatic inner space of womens illegal abortion experience across class? As Simone de Beauvoir  so clearly articulated in The Second Sex (Alfred Knopf, 1949, p. 489):

"it is difficult to imagine abandonment more frightful than that in which the menace of death is combined with that of crime and shame."

In fact Fieldes’ rather crude class based analysis of my “posh” abortion, juxtaposed against  Zelda D’Aprano’s horrifying...working class abortion is demeaning to womens shared, usually traumatic experience of illegal abortion. Moreover, it is the collective, shared experience of women, and our concerted political work, that led to the potent national Womens Abortion Action Campaign organising across class lines to decriminalise abortion. This act of solidarity ultimately provided access to safe, free legal abortions for women, initially in women’s health clinics (then, later in clinics such as Preterm) right across the country – and to this day. These clinics, like Leichhardt Women’s Community Health Centre, were created specifically to focus on womens health needs in a broad social and political frame, across class.

Fieldes rudimentary class paradigm is one of the reasons I left the Socialist Labour League  in the early 1970s and became more deeply involved in women’s liberation, navigating the feminist maxim “the personal is political”. Subsequently, some years later, I found psychoanalysis, recovery programs and Buddhism to be necessary and vital companions, along with feminism, on the lifelong journey of liberation.

I want to pay tribute to African American writer and feminist  bell hooks (1952-2021) at this point as she discusses feminism in such an insightful way – illustrating her desire to bring feminism to everybody. A recent obituary by Sarah Leonard (2021) bell hooks transformed feminism articulates this clearly:

“More than three decades earlier, in 1984, bell hooks (author and activist) had already sliced through those questions in her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Feminism’s aim is “not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privilege women over men. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives. Most importantly, feminism is neither a lifestyle nor a ready-made identity or role one can step into.”

By defining feminism so precisely in lucid and welcoming prose, hooks issued a challenge to all of us to participate in overturning what she frequently called the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” She also provided me with my own understanding of socialism by making clear that you can’t practice feminism while leaving the brutal hierarchies of capitalism intact. She referred in her writing not to the feminist movement but to “feminist movement.” As in, you get up and go....In short, the range of hooks’ work expressed a desire to bring feminism to everybody. It expressed her belief that feminism really could transform the whole world, and that each of us has a part to play (Subtext17th December 2021).

I finish this short piece with another image of the Mizuko Kuyo Ritual for Unborn Children as the abortion experience is profound and also involves spirit. Fieldes’ description of my 1970s abortion in Red Flag stirred up many emotions  – not only because the assertions about my abortion were factually incorrect, but because there is no acknowledgement of the depth of such an intense body/mind/spirit experience - one that unites women in our journey towards liberation. 

Recently I read about this documentary“Mizuko”: Visual Exploration of the Grief & Search for Healing  (dir: Kira Dane &  Katelyn Rebelo); it  explores the cultural, spiritual and personal implications of misuko – holding a memorial service for ones unborn child. I have appreciated this water child memorial ritual for some years; it is such a healing ceremony that offers a way beyond the sad struggle of the pro/anti-abortion/pro-life debate that plagues our western societies.

   Mizuko kuyō water child memorial service

Japanese Buddhist ceremony for those who have had a miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion 



Postscript

For the record, Zelda DAprano was a sister in the free safe legal abortion struggle, and a colleague. We were privileged to document her equal pay activism in our feature film For Love or Money: the history of women and work in Australia (McMurchy, Nash, Oliver & Thornley, 1983). Distributor Ronin Films









Sunday, January 2, 2022

Current documentary writing 2022

 In Press: Book chapter: ‘The enigma of film: memory film: a filmmaker’s diary‘, Constructions of The Real: Intersections of Practice and Theory in Documentary-Based Filmmaking, (eds.) K. Munro et al., Intellect Books Series: Artwork Scholarship: International Perspectives in Education, 2022.  

Grading the Super 8, Christina Sparrow, National Film & Sound Archive, 
                                                                                Ngunnawal (Canberra) 2016.

This chapter is written from within the production process of memory film: a filmmaker’s diary, currently in post-production and crowd sourcing via DAF:


Composed entirely of my own super 8 filmed between 1976-2003, acquired and digitised by the National Film and Sound Archive in 2016-17. It is a film poem about history, time and impermanence inspired by the tradition of the Japanese Death Poets, who wrote their poetry about the transience of life (jisei: ‘farewell poem to life’) as a gift to their children – a legacy of beauty and insight gathered over years. A textual layer of the film reflects my earlier documentaries and the politics of each era: Maidens (1978), For Love or Money (1983), To the Other Shore (1996) and Island Home Country (2008); these four documentaries all utilised Super 8 from my Archive. The process, and the film itself, reflects not only an essayist approach, but at times, it is a meditative text – keenly linked to both an art practice and a lay Buddhist meditation practice. The film's production process, supports my essayist–meditator’s approach – an approach not driven by narrative, story and character, but rather by an intuitive process, form evolving through practice – ideas developing through the materiality of image and montage – supported by an innovative use of music and sound design as the film’s major structuring device. 

In Press: Book chapter: ‘“We are not dead”: Decolonizing the Frame’ –  First Australians, The Tall Man, Coniston, First Contact and their predecessors.(ed.) E. Blackmore et al., The  Routledge Handbook of Indigenous Film. 2022.


Bullfrog and family, Coniston (2012)

As the settler nation state of Australia continues to colonize Aboriginal people on the territories and waters that the British crown illegally possessed in 1788 what kind of contribution can film and media works make to decolonization? This article discusses several documentary films and series (with foundational films from the 1970s) that take on the decolonizing challenge: Blackfella Films’ historical series First Australians (Perkins & Cole 2008), their investigative documentary The Tall Man (Krawitz 2011), their reality TV series First Contact (Sharkey & Weekley 2014), and Coniston (Batty & Jupurrurla Kelly, 2012), produced by PAW Media and Rebel Films. These programs have been produced across different modes and genres, with varying degrees of collaboration between their creative principals and Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal participants. In this chapter I suggest that these projects influence both their participants and audiences (television, educational and online networked communities). In their analysis of racism and the long-term consequences of interminable colonizing by the settler state, these documentaries move viewers to ‘step outside the colonial dome of thinking’ (Everett 2008).








Tuesday, September 14, 2021

'For Love or Money: Conflicting Temporalities'

For Love or Money: A history of women and work in Australia is a feature documentary by Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley released in 1983. This feminist classic was digitally restored from original film materials by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia in 2017. The film has been in active distribution for over 40 years with Ronin Films and is available on VOD, DVD and DCP.

Newcastle Barmaids, Tribune, 1962
Newcastle Barmaids, Tribune, 1962 

The following essay, 'For Love or Money: Conflicting Temporalities' is a revised and edited extract from Felicity Collins, “The Experimental Practice of History in the Filmwork of Jeni Thornley”, uploaded to Screening the Past Issue 3, 29 May 1998. 

 The most synthetic of all art forms, film is the space in which the representative and symbolic birth of a female person can can take place through the reconstruction of her history. (Barbara Kosta, Recasting Autobiography, 1994: 164)  

In a belated reading of Claire Johnston’s influential work as a 1970s cultural activist, Meaghan Morris attempts to clarify the paradox of feminism’s constructive approach to social change in the face of its skeptical approach to history. She argues that feminism’s difference from other radical political and aesthetic movements is characterised by modes of action “to bring about concrete social changes while at the same time contesting the very bases of modern thinking about what constitutes ‘change'” (“‘Too Soon, Too Late’: Reading Claire Johnston, 1970-81,” in Dissonance: Feminism and the Arts 1970-90, ed. C. Moore, 1994: 128). Morris’s essay is an attempt to think about what it takes for feminist forms of action (which include festivals and seminars, essays and films) to redefine (as well as survive) historical change.

Here, I draw on contemporary readings of Walter Benjamin’s disruptive concept of history to revisit the 1983 documentary film, For Love or Money (a collective film by Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley). Assembling a vast amount of archival footage and adding a rhythmic and intimate voice-over, For Love or Money was part of a paradigm shift in feminist film-thinking, away from the concept of ‘the spectator’ towards cinema as a public sphere “through which social experience is articulated, interpreted, negotiated and contested in an intersubjective, potentially collective, and oppositional form.” (Miriam Hansen, “Early Cinema, Late Cinema” in Viewing Positions, ed, L. Williams, 1995: 140) 

For Love or Money had its origins when Sandra Alexander, co-ordinator of the 1977  Women’s Film Production workshop, suggested to Thornley and McMurchy that it would be a good idea to get together all the images of women in Australian films and have a look at them. This dovetailed with a request, in 1978, from the organisers of the first Women and Labour Conference to the Sydney Women’s Film Group to make a film of all the archival images of women at work. These apparently modest requests resulted in six years of painstaking work of collecting, cataloguing, and reprinting film and photographic images.

For Love Or Money Filmmakers, Sydney 1983
(photo Sandy Edwards)

The formal challenge of narrating two centuries of Australian women’s history in a feature length film which used over two hundred film clips was further complicated by what Walter Benjamin identified as a crisis in the tradition of storytelling, evident since World War I when “men returned from the battlefield grown silent – not richer, but poorer in communicable experience.” (“The Storyteller” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn and ed. Hannah Arendt, 1970; reprint, 1992: 84). For Love or Money was conceived as an antidote to the exclusion of women from Australian national history, yet the problem of finding a suitable narrative form for communicating women’s historical experience was never fully resolved by the makers of For Love or Money:

"There were times when it got very frustrating because we would have liked to have structured For Love or Money differently. The showreel was great to cut; it was such fun because it wasn’t chronological and I could really play, in the editing, across periods. It didn’t have that dreadful rigid chronology. In trying to find another structure that was not chronological, there just came a time when we had to let go because no one came up with anything; no one solved it". (Margot Nash. Interview with the author, 1 July 1992).

The challenge facing the filmmakers, to find a non-chronological structure, can be understood in terms of the distinction between conscious, voluntary memory and the act of remembrance. Like Benjamin, Irving Wohlfarth contends that modern historiography is a “mere pile of souvenirs” which “substitutes voluntary memory for authentic remembrance”. (“On the Messianic Structure of Walter Benjamin’s Last Reflections,” Glyph 3, 1978: 166). This contention is particularly pertinent to the struggle to produce an authentic, feminist mode of remembrance in For Love or Money. Wohlfarth suggests one path to authentic remembrance via Benjamin’s claim that the epic is the oldest form of historiography, containing within it the story and the novel, and their corresponding forms of memory: the storyteller’s epic memory (gedachtnis) of short-lived reminiscences and multiple events; and the novelist’s perpetuating memory (eingedenken) dedicated to “the one hero, the one odyssey, the one struggle” (1978: 149-50). Distinguishing between the epic genre of the chronicle (associated with oral tradition) and the conflation of chronology with the idea of progress (in the novel), Wohlfarth poses a choice for the historian: “historicism’s universal panorama” or “highly particular interactions between past and present” (1978: 167).

For Love or Money adopts historicism’s “universal panorama” yet fractures it in three ways. Firstly, “multiple events” are narrated from a feminist perspective on the present, challenging standard accounts of Australian national identity built on mateship and the bush ethos. Secondly, the film evokes “particular interactions between past and present” through audio-visual montage-sequences and the voice-over, offering a history of “multiple reminiscences” rather than one of lone heroes. And thirdly, the film’s apocalyptic perspective, on the present (the atomic age) heralds the annihilation rather than the redemption of history.

A feminist, historical temporality is specified at the beginning and in the closing montage of For Love or Money. The opening montage of shots is accompanied by a non-Anglo woman’s voice-over which establishes that this will be a history from below: “We find heroes only in monuments in public parks, but I think the real heroes are us.” The closing montage includes photographs of the filmmakers at work on the film, followed by a compilation of scenes from local feminist films, and a voice-over:

"We go back. We ask what happened then. We find documents, diaries, letters, images. Stories are uncovered. The stories of women’s work.”
Mother and children, Victorian Railways, 1951

Like Benjamin’s historical materialist, the filmmakers understand that historicism favours the victor, and that their task, as feminist activists, is to take the documents preserved by the victor and “brush history against the grain” (Benjamin, 248). This task is made all the harder by the disjuncture between photographic representation and the memory-image. As Kracauer reminds us, the recent past captured in the photographic image can become comic, like recent fashion (“Photography” in Critical Inquiry, 19.3, 1993: 430). A wry montage of marriage proposals from Australian feature films in For Love or Money exploits the comic effect of antiquated images of the recent past, inviting sceptical laughter at an outdated nationalism. This contrasts with the significance of the memory-image which “outlasts time because it is unforgettable” (Kracauer, 1993: 428).

At the time of its release in 1983, For Love or Money attracted vocal criticism for the way its first-person plural voice-over : “We remember her labour. We remember that she gave. What we were to each other”. “We” was heard, then, as producing a unified female subject of history and eliding differences between women. A retrospective viewing of For Love or Money offers another interpretation: that the collective “we” of female unity is fragmented into multiple reminiscences which work against the unifying voice of the narrator and against the linearity of historicist time. From this perspective, modernity’s conflicting temporalities (of race, class and gender) undercut the panoramic unity of the first-person voice-over in For Love or Money. Drawing on key events of national history (such as the long struggle for equal pay and women’s rotation in and out of the workplace at times of war) as the sites or loci of memory, the filmmakers organised a wealth of archival images into a new temporal order. This disruptive temporality serves to undercut the panoramic logic of a masculine, nation- building history. The “we” of the narration, then, brings together a multitude of voices.

For Love or Money begins with anthropological footage of Aboriginal women whose stories reverberate with the on-going consequences of their dispossession from the land. Their colonised modernity is a different temporality from that of white, settler women whose historical experience takes multiple forms under convictism, land settlement, industrial, and digital economies.

Aboriginal Day of Mourning, Man magazine, Sydney 1938

The 1890s, the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s constitute significant events in white women’s temporality. While working class women engage in struggles for equal pay, union representation and access to better paid ‘male’ jobs, middle-class women appear in the public sphere as reformers and campaigners.

The influx of a labour force of immigrants after World War II produces the greatest temporal shock since colonisation: southern European rural time is traded for the industrial time of the assembly line and its promise of mobility expressed in the anonymous voice-over, “Sometimes I dream I will be coming out of that bloody factory.”

In the 1920s and again in the 1950s, as the commodification of housework and child care intensifies, women enter new temporalities as consumers of modern, privatised lifestyles. In the 1960s access to higher education propels the postwar generation of upwardly mobile young women (including the filmmakers) into an oppositional public sphere defined by the New Left and the liberation movements.

How, then, is a feminist narration of history to end if not in the present as a redemptive awakening through women’s liberation? In the interests of a united women’s movement, For Love or Money, at one level, attempts to subsume the film’s multiple reminiscences into one temporality. It stages the present as “a state of emergency” (Benjamin, Theses 248), a disruptive “now-time” that appears in modernity’s ultimate eruptive image: Hiroshima. The narrator declares: “We are the daughters of the atomic age: numb, silent, grieving.” While this is a point of unity in the film, multiple endings pile up as different histories are brought to a standstill by the image of the atomic mushroom cloud.

The first of the film’s endings begins with footage of a women’s demonstration, accompanied by a voice-over which seeks “new meanings for work,” challenging “work ruled by profit, efficiency, progress, war.” The film acknowledges its own historicist impasse when its careful documentation of the ninety-year struggle for equal pay ends with the statement, “Progress, but it didn’t really change things.”

The second ending begins with a slow motion shot of women in black, arms linked, faces quietly determined, as they participate in the first Anzac Day commemoration of women raped in war. The voice-over declares, “We are women of the nuclear age. We resist. We place our bodies in the way.”

The Sydney Women Against Rape in War Collective, Anzac Day,
George St Sydney 1983

The image track cuts abruptly to a third ending with a shot of Aboriginal artefacts hanging on a wall, followed by an aged photograph of Aboriginal women. A new voice speaks over the Aboriginal song: 

“Listen to us. Our country is very beautiful. It is our grandfathers’ country and our grandmothers’ country from a long time ago. It is the sacred soil of the dreamtime. Why do you never understand?

A fourth ending begins with stills of the filmmakers, seeking to construct a new, feminist temporality, as they work with images and stories they have uncovered. This ending contrasts the daughter’s story of resistance with the mother’s “story of the kitchen, the story of the clean house.” A compilation of mother-daughter photographs, accompanied by a ‘hymn to the mother’ is followed by shots of men holding their children: 

“We ask what might happen if men learnt the story of women’s work.”

At this point the film seems to be over, but the return of the problem of women’s work and the maternal is displaced by a last-minute reprise of the activist ethos in the resonant image of the Anzac Day memorial march for women: an image that fades, blurs, turns to blue and finally to black. What is the future of this deeply mournful image – an image of feminists born under the sign of Hiroshima, mourning unknown women raped in war?

Women's march against rape, Anzac Day Sydney, 1983
 [super8 frame]

For Love or Money ends in a nuclear present where the cessation of history (and its modernist myth of continual progress) threatens to be apocalyptic rather than redemptive. Osborne is critical of the persistence of apocalyptic narrative in Benjamin’s thinking, especially the emphasis on a “generalized sense of crisis, characteristic of the time-consciousness of modernity as perpetual transition” (Osborne, The Politics of Time, 1995: 157). Osborne revives the discourse of political modernism when he argues for now-time “as an integral moment within a new, non-traditional, future-oriented and internally disrupted form of narrativity” which cannot be co-opted into reactionary refiguration “of history as a whole” (158-9).

For Love or Money occupies a space between historicist and materialist forms of narrative: it draws on multiple temporalities to refigure “history as a whole” in order to bring it within the grasp of the present moment. Yet, the attempt to grasp history in the present (to arrive at a future-oriented ending) is precisely the point at which narratives of crisis, redemption, or apocalypse fall into ruin. This breakdown of historical narrative, in the present, marks the moment of skepticism in feminism’s experimental practice of history.  

 © Screening the Past  

Screening the Past publishes material of interest to historians of film and media, to film and media scholars, to social historians interested in the place of film and media within general history, to film makers interested in the history of their craft or in representing history through their productions, to film and media librarians and archivists. 


Tuesday, August 31, 2021

"For Love or Money" IWD Avoca Cinema 2013

"Thank you it is a real pleasure to be here and introduce For Love or Money. 



I would like to show my respect and acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the Land, the Darkinjung, their Elders past and present on which this special Avoca Cinema IWD event is taking place.

Lyndall Ryan  asked if I could say a few words about the making of the film, its purpose as a feminist film and how it stands today... and I hope Lyndall will also say a few words to on how the film fares today!

So firstly I would like to acknowledge my collaborators,  Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Lyndall (who was the historical consultant on our Penguin tie-in book); also Lyndall’s mother Edna Ryan – feminist activist and labour historian who is interviewed in the film, and whose analysis contributes much to the film’s economic analysis of women’s position.

Really, the purpose of the film was to create a visual, moving story about Australian women’s campaigns for wage justice and gender equality – campaigns for a just society, a civil society.


And we also wanted to make a film that interrogated and subverted the representation of women in Australian cinema. In the 70s there were few female film directors. The depiction of women tended to place women in passive, subservient roles. The daily experiences of ‘real women’ in the work place or at home were ignored.


Making the film
Ours was a spirited and long collaborative six year process - beginning with the 1978 Women and Labour Conference; the groundbreaking work of feminist historians was tumbling out in print form: books, articles – but there was no film that documented Australian women and work with any historical perspective or economic analysis, or that documented women’s radical activism to achieve, the vote, equal pay, property rights, legal abortion and child care.

We began our work in the archives - National Film and Sound Archive. Megan and I saw almost every Australian documentary and feature film produced - and we analysed every film from the perspective of how it represented women - selecting sequences to create the film. Meanwhile Margot Oliver joined us, and with a socialist feminist labour history perspective, starting recording interviews with women across Australia. The impulse was to seek out activist women, like Zelda D’Aprano, Edna Ryan and many others, like the great Aboriginal activist Pearl Gibbs.


Margot Nash joined us as the film's editor and Elizabeth Drake came on board as composer.  We recorded over 35 interviews (film and audio),  printed footage from our selected archival film and photographic collections, did extensive manuscript research and wrote many versions of the script and narration! Through all this was raising the budget to make the film. See the end credits and you will get a sense of scale.

How is the film relevant to today?
Well, first, let’s consider local IWD’s 2013 demands:
stop violence against women
end breastfeeding discrimination
affordable childcare
ratify the migrant workers' convention

And from one spectrum to the other:  In the board room only 5% of CEO’s are women. And in many Aboriginal communities the position of women is totally vulnerable due to both endemic historical racism – white privilege creating exclusionary work place practices; add to that the complexities of domestic violence, poverty – these are basic human rights issues needing urgent attention.

For Love or Money, provides a broad historical and economic analysis, still relevant today – especially our analysis of ‘the double day’ and women’s unpaid work in the home – which we named "the work of loving" in the film.


We analyse step by step – the way gender inequality is structured into the economic system: psychologically laid down in the family…where violence against women  is born…and we are witnessing this today on a horrific global scale.

I think the film is important, too, because it reminds us that advances we make as women can be fragile.

 Currently we have a female PM and some terrific women cabinet members. But a change of government will unfold a different map. Quite a worrying map, in fact, if it happens!



In my view For Love or Money could have a new chapter, Chapter 5, to bring it up to the present. Perhaps as an online collaborative documentary that is open for all women to contribute to - for all of us to tell stories that are relevant today – and to network with each other around our concerns. I see our For Love or Money  facebook page as a stepping stone to this kind of  interactive website; we can all make it relevant to now!

 For Love or Money is streaming online at Ronin films ; and DVD's can also be purchased via Ronin; also copies of the For Love or Money Penguin  tie-in book are at Ronin.




Monday, April 15, 2019

Journey Among Women #me too

Journey Among Women, 1977 (Tom Cowan, dir. and John Weiley prod.) screend as part of a retrospective of Australian feature films, Film Continent Australia, at the Film Museum, ViennaApril 4 to June 4, 2019.

Nell Campbell, Robyn Moase, Theresa Jack,  Lisa Peers,
Journey Among Women

A 'Complicated Legacy'?
Journey Among Women was a controversial film in its time, and it continues to provoke debate and discussion. The Vienna Film Museum's program indicates something of its 'complicated legacy', referring to the film as a 'borderline case...a wild, feminist historical piece'. SBS's film reviewer, Simon Foster (2009), also suggests the film has been difficult to categorise in his Journey Among Women Review, A brutal, lost Australian classic:
"Journey Among Women is the black sheep of the family. Insanely uninhibited, the convict survival story is too steeped in graphic nudity and violence to sit alongside critic's darlings like My Brilliant Career (1979), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) or The Getting of Wisdom (1978). But it is also too artistically and intellectually noteworthy to be embraced by the genre B-movie aficionados."
In 1976 I was one of two camera assistants on the film and I shared a desire, along with other participants, to be involved in an emancipatory film project about women and freedom. As camera assistant I saw every moment flowing into the camera; yet in the end I witnessed a film that seemed to lean more towards the 'Ozploitation' genre. This is perhaps the film’s 'complicated legacy'. Yet perhaps the contributions of the feminist and professional actors, the co-writer, and the director's original intention, bring an embedded layer of ‘real’ revolt and jouissance into the text, beyond any surface performativity or actual sexism?

 Camera assistant, Jeni Thornley, 
Journey Among Women, Super8 screen shot

In 1970s Australia the women's liberation movement was in full swing, and so the historically true stories of convict women of the 1820-30s, overthrowing their male captors to escape prison and seek freedom in the bush, had potent and mythic resonance. Director Tom Cowan was attuned to this zeitgeist and involved Dorothy Hewett – libertarian, feminist poet, novelist and playwright – as co-scriptwriter. Then he cast the convict women, quite intentionally, from amongst local radical feminist lesbians (some from Clitoris rock band) with professional women actors from the mainstream industry. He combined this with a 'psycho-drama' workshopping approach.

Jude Kuring, Di Fuller, Journey Among Women

Camped out in the bush, eventually this potent mix exploded when several cast members refused to perform in 'sexist' shots (being naked after the escape). The cooks downed tools, and me too. The breakdown in filming evolved into a sit-down discussion of all cast and crew. This was filmed, but not included in the final film.

Nell Campbell, Lisa Peers, Journey Among Women

Does the term, 'wild feminist historical piece' suit this film? In my view, (influenced by Claire Johnston's 1973 Notes on Women's Cinema), a feminist film is when women creatively participate in the development, production and distribution of a film, sharing authorship. In Journey Among Women, the film's gaze, its desire, was in the director and producer's hands; it was their gaze, not the women's gaze; yet, with such a complex film set, was there ever one unified group of women who could have delivered a women's gaze?

L-R Nell Campbell, Robyn Moase, Tom Cowan, Rose Lilley,
Peter Gailey, Jeni Thornley, Journey Among Women

Debates around the film reverberate into the current #metoo movement today. One of the youngest of the Journey Among Women actors, whose role involved being raped in the convict cell, spoke at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2015 (in reference to the 'Entertainment Industry'). She included her experiences and her 'partially nude (topless) appearances' as part of her discussion.

Uni of SA 2018

A Betraying Camera?
Film scholar, Jane Mills, in an essay for the 2009 DVD release of the film, 'Journey Among Women: Special and Electric'discusses the film through the prism of a 'betraying camera'. I find it a most thoughtful essay and was pleased that the producers had commissioned it for the DVD, as Mills' incisive contribution suggests they, too, recognised the film's complex legacy. Mills' writes:
"Betrayal is the theme that keeps rising to the surface in this extraordinary film. Did the director, producer and cinematographer betray the women cast and crew members? Were the women divided amongst themselves, as was rumoured, with the lesbian and radical separatist and the non-separatist women each feeling themselves betrayed by the other group or by women who crossed from one group to another? If you look closely you can see all these questions as well as the answers. By placing betrayal at the centre of concern, Journey Among Women reveals the diversity of ideas and opinions among the cast and crew. What is fascinating is that these fissures can all be seen inside the film's frames."
Jeune Pritchard, Journey Among Women

Outside the film's frames – "the charge of the real"
In 2016 the National Film and Sound Archive (Canberra) acquired and digitised my personal Super8 collection (1976-2003). Of 143 rolls, about 13 rolls were filmed on Journey Among Women. Some of this footage I used in my film Maidens back in 1978 to represent my own intense experience of utopian liberatory feminism, in part catalysed on the set of Journey Among Women in 1976.


Christina Sparrow, NFSA Film Services,  2016
grading the Journey Among Women Super8

 In a recent essay (2018) I suggest that this kind of intertextuality, juxtaposing fictional excerpts into the documentary mode (or vice-versa) produces what documentary theorist Stella Bruzzi refers to as "the charge of the real" (quoting film scholar Vivian Sobchack, 1997).  Now we read fiction as documentary evidence – striking in its affect. In fact, my film practice always involves re-cycling images and scenes from my super8 collection in each film: Maidens, For Love or Money, To the Other Shore and Island Home Country. My current project memoryfilm, (in post-production) is  constructed entirely from my 143 rolls Super8 collection. It's interesting, too, that in my documentaries (above) the journey towards liberation continues to unfold as a theme.

In the collaborative feature documentary For Love or Money (McMurchy, Nash, Oliver, Thornley 1983) we juxtaposed the Journey Among Women prison cell-escape scenes, with my Super8 of the wall of the Female Factory in Parramatta, to represent an actual revolt by convict women in 1827. Later in the film we used my Super8 footage of the 1983 Anzac Day March, when the Sydney Women Against Rape Collective was denied the right to march under their banner, "In memory of all Women Raped in all Wars". I filmed the women bravely marching direct into the police paddy wagons.

Sydney Women Against Rape Collective, Anzac Day March, Sydney 1983

The closing scene of For Love or Money uses a close-up of one of the protestors from this Super8 footage. She gazes direct into the camera just before she is arrested, with narration from Dorothy Hewett's 1958 novel Bobbin Up, narrated by actor Noni Hazelhurst:
"She'd seen women fight, she'd seen them unite, she'd seen them show courage and resourcefulness. Give them a clear issue and they cut right through to the bone of it and stood solid as a rock."
Anzac Day "We Mourn all Women Raped in all Wars", Sydney 1983
Super8 screen shot

Postscript
In 2017 I went to a screening of Journey Among Women (Q/A with Tom Cowan and John Weiley) during Sydney's annual Vivid Festival. It was part of a community film event on the top floor of a well known Kings Cross pub. It was a good night and the audience really appreciated the film. I felt more fondly towards the film (40 years later), being much less in the 1970s feminist rage part of my mind and now appreciating the complex multi-layers of this film.  Later I wrote:
"Let's also honour Dorothy Hewett who wrote the screenplay with Tom Cowan and John Weiley. Watching the film, I could sense Dorothy's mind at work and the women actors intense contributions; I really valued the film more than I ever have – rather more as a documentary archive, if you like, than a drama." 
Recently, while writing this article, I read an interview with Tom Cowan on the making of the film which helped me understand his original intention more keenly. Tom says:
"I was living in the bush, in Berowra Waters, and it was so powerful. I happened to read this French science-fiction story  called Les Guérillères (Monique Wittig 1969) about a future society of women - like an Amazon society - who were at war with the rest of society. Somehow in the combination of the wildness and strangeness and beauty of the bush and this story of wild women, I saw a parallel in how we perceived the bush and how the British first saw the bush as ugly. Well, we now see it as beautiful. And how the sort of excesses of radical feminism, when it began, were seen as ugly - ranting and raving and being abusive and so on. But, in fact, behind it were very beautiful things - not just the women, but the humanist ideas."

In Memoriam Rest in Peace –  cast and crew members 

Dorothy Hewett 1923-2002
Co-Writer Journey Among Women
Dorothy Hewett and Tom Cowan
on location Journey Among Women


Norma Moriceau 1944-2016 
Costume Designer  Journey Among Women
Jeune Pritchard,  Norma Moriceau, Journey Among Women    
Super8 screen shot


Michele Johnson 1952-2019 Actor
 Journey Among Women
Michele Journey Among Women
Super8 screen shot

References

Luke Buckmaster (2015), 'Journey Among Women rewatched – savagery in racy revenge drama'The Guardian, 20th December. 

Simon Foster (2009), Journey Among Women Review, A brutal, lost Australian classic, SBS Reviews, 7th December.

Jane Mills, (2009), 'Journey Among Women - Special and Electric': booklet accompanying Collectors Edition DVD, Journey Among Women, Umbrella Entertainment.

Claire Johnston (1973), Notes on Women's Cinema, London, Society for Education in Film and Television.

Benjamin Law and Beverley Wang (2019), 'Going beyond the hashtag with Me Too founder Tarana Burke', Stop Everything, ABC Radio National, 15th November 2015.




Dr. Jeni Thornley
Hon Research Associate
School of Communication
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UTS
http://www.jenithornley.com/
mb 0414 9908951