Monday, November 9, 2020

"A list of things that quicken the heart"

memory film: a filmmaker's diary
a film poem about impermanence

Digitising the Super8, Christina Peacock NFSA 2017
Digitising the Super8, Christina Sparrow,  NFSA 2017

memory film: a filmmaker's diary is based on my Super8 archives filmed over three decades 1975-2003. 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.

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)

Preparing the Super8 for NFSA
Preparing the Super8 for NFSA

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)

What I know about the content of the film – it is composed only of my Super8, filmed between 1976-2003. A layer of the film reflects films I have made and the politics of each era: Maidens (1978), For Love or Money (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 an Honorary Research Associate. Marcus Ekermann, FASS MediaLab, is technical consultant.  I have edited a first assembly (3.5hrs) and am now working with editor Lindi Harrison. We are currently editing this down to a 75min 'rough cut'; and a trailer. Then in 2021 I plan to raise the post production budget for the final edit with the editor, composer and sound designer. The film will have a multi-platform release of film festivals, broadcast television, galleries and online. 

                                         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 Women, on 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)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Journey Among Women #me too

Journey Among Women, 1977 (Tom Cowan, dir. and John Weiley prod.) is currently part of a retrospective of Australian feature films, Film Continent Australia, screening 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 do the contributions of the feminist 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?

Jeni Thornley, camera assistant, 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,  gave evidence 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 evidence.

UniSA 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 analysis suggests they, too, recognise the film's complex legacy:
"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 memory=film, (in development) is being constructed almost entirely from my 143 rolls Super8 collection. It's interesting, too, that in all these films the journey towards liberation continues to unfold.

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 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
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 appreciated the film. I felt more fondly towards the film (40 years later), being less in the feminist rage part of my mind, and more able now to see the complex multi-layers in the text.  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 essay, I read an interview with Tom Cowan on the making of the film which helped me understand his original intention more keenly:
"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 Johnson, Journey Among Women
Super8 screen shot


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
mb 0414 9908951

Monday, March 11, 2019

Intertextuality in Margot Nash's 'The Silences'.

Last year Margot Nash invited me to introduce her personal essay film The Silences as part of her farewell seminar program: Stepping into the Unknown - The work and legacy of Margot Nash in the School of Communication, FASS, UTS, December 6-7 2018.

Still from The Silences
I was happy to participate as a colleague and friend of Margot's and also because The Silences is a very special and tender film. Margot has given much in her teaching at UTS over many decades, so it meant a lot to be part of this significant moment in her life's journey. As well, I am a practitioner of the personal essay film and love this form of film-making. Autobiographical and essay filmmaking were so much part of Issues in Documentary, (a post-graduate unit I taught at UTS during 2002-2013), so I like to keep connected to the genre. Personal documentaries have really flourished in the last few decades with the impact of digital technologies and social media; there is now a significant corpus of texts.

Here are the edited notes to my talk:
"Firstly I am going to contextualise The Silences in its genre or mode and then talk a little about the film itself. The Silences takes it place in the rich and diverse genre of the essay film, the autobiographical film and the personal film. As well, we can place it in the dynamic tradition of women’s and feminist filmmaking which erupted during the 1970s women’s liberation movement – which Margot and I were both so strongly involved.

International filmmakers working in these modes were influential on our own filmmaking, too. From the 1950s-1960s French New Wave, with master essayists Agnes Varda and Chris Marker; the New German filmmakers, Helma Sanders-Brahms and her film Germany, Pale Mother and Jutta Bruckner’s film on her mother, Do Right and Fear No-oneto name just a few. 

Margot Nash, Jeni Thornley with Agnes Varda
 Creteil Women's Film Festival, Paris 1999
The development of such personal films was extensive over subsequent decades with American filmmakers like Michelle Citron and her film Daughter Rite,  Canadian filmmakers, Anne Claire Poirier with Tu as Crie and Sarah Polley and her film documentary The stories we tell – influencing Margot's thinking around the The Silences.

Still from Tu as Crie
In Australia, many  women filmmakers have been increasingly drawn to this expressive mode of autobiography – its subjective and personal style allowing for deep introspection, often crossing the borders between fiction and nonfiction, public and private, by using  an array of self- reflexive techniques. These films include my own 1978 film Maidens, along with many other local films.

Still from Maidens
Essie Coffey’s My Survival as an Aboriginal, Corinne Cantrill’s In this Life’s Body, Mitzi Goldman’s HatredTracy Moffat’s auto-ethnographic Night Cries, Gill Leahy’s My Life without Steve. More recently we have Sophia Turkiewicz’s Once My Mother, Su Goldfish’s  The Last Goldfish, and Jane Castle’s documentary (currently in post production) about her filmmaker mother Lilias Fraser, When the Cameras Stopped Rolling; and not to forget, William Yang’s unique autobiographical performance and film works, Sadness, in particular.

The Silences enters this corpus of innovative films and shares, too, many of their textual strategies–piercing into the heart of repression – the filmmaker peeling back layers one by one – to gaze directly into the mirror of self, family and society.  Frequently, in these films, there is a personal, subjective narration – the “I” voice. And often they are inter-textual, drawing on film and photographic sources from the filmmaker’s personal archive and film work.

Agnes Varda’s Beaches of Agnes and Sophia Turkiewicz’s Once my Mother are distinctive inter-textual films, as is The Silences. In The Silences Margot draws on her own family photographs and skilfully weaves scenes from her previous films, such as Vacant Possession, and takes, if you like, a second look at these texts, in the context of her family and its secrets.

We, the viewers, might now experience the original text on a deeper layer, looking back along with the filmmaker’s probing, self reflexive, gaze. This inter-textuality reveals, as Margot writes (quote) “the psychological context in which the earlier films were produced, allowing the viewer to understand the relationship of creativity to experience”. 

I also suggest that this intertextuality – because it involves juxtaposing excerpts from fictional films into the documentary mode – produces what documentary theorist Stella Bruzzi refers to (quoting Vivian Sobchack) as “the charge of the real”. Now we read fiction as documentary evidence of family trauma – such fleshy bodies – viewer, filmmaker and persons filmed – all joined together; this affect is striking in its intensity.

Sophia Turkiewicz (R) and her mother (L)
Susan Sontag, when writing about Hans Syberberg’s monumental film, Our Hitler, a Film from Germanyrefers to Syberberg’s process as undertaking “the work of mourning”, after Freud’s famous essay Mourning and Melancholia (1917).

Still Our Hitler
Here Syberberg develops an aesthetics of repetition and recycling. It takes time to work through grief, argues Sontag – a process of remembering, repeating and working through (Freud, 1914)

In The Silences we sense this aesthetics at work too; certain key images in family photographs are examined and re-examined for clues – the clues reverberating into the excerpts from Margot’s archive of constructed dramatic films.

Still The Silences
Sontag’s reflection on duration is also relevant to Margot’s way of working. The Silences was self financed and produced over some years, outside any traditional film financing organisations and linked creatively alongside Margot’s UTS affiliation and several artist/filmmaker residencies, both local and international. The film is really made in the spirit of independence – free from the so often formulaic expectations that the state financing bureaucracies and broadcasters impose. As well, it requires a lot of trust and stamina to work in this way; and so often films produced like this really do have a unique quality.

The introspective autobiographical essay form, which women filmmakers seem particularly drawn to, also offers what scholar Frances Lionnet calls a ‘space of possibility’:  a space to reflect, to consider anew. Here the filmmaker sees her own personal history implicated in larger social processes – marking a dynamic shift where she becomes the agent of transformation.
Still Beaches of Agnes
 The intention and capacity to look directly into the trauma of the family is served well by the personal essay form, too. The very definition of essay is “to try”, to weigh up, and in a film like The Silences this reflective and reflexive process forms Margot’s inner landscape. This is an intimate journey into Margot’s family history and we move with her to a deeper understanding of the silences buried deep beneath the surfaces of family life. 

Documentary film theorist, Bill Nichols, in dialogue with the home movie essayist Peter Forgács said,  "I experience your films as a gift, an unexpected act of generosity or love..." And I feel that too about The Silences. We are really privileged tonight to join with Margot on this journey and to watch the film with her here! Thankyou."

Still The Silences
Ronin Films  is the distributor. You can stream the film via their site or buy the DVD from them.

Dr. Jeni Thornley
Hon Research Associate
School of Communication
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
University of Technology, Sydney

11 March 2019

Monday, April 23, 2018

Militarism, Projection and Anzac Day - a few reflections.

Dear Reader, I wrote this blog for Anzac Day in  2014. I re-post it as it is as relevant today as then. To work towards peace is for me the path. I honour our Grandpa who fought in France; he was no lover of war- and his letters home to our beloved Nana are testament of that. So, rather than a photo of him in war uniform I post this photo of him diving from the bridge at the Gorge, Launceston (he is 3rd from our left).

Freud wrote his essay 'Remembering, 'Repeating and Working Through' (1914) on the eve of World War 1. Although not addressing the specific politics of war and Europe, in the essay he suggests that what is repressed will repeat endlessly and project itself onto other places, people and things, unless one undertakes 'the work of mourning'.

During World War 2 in 1938 Freud and family members escaped the Nazis by re-settling in London; four of his sisters died in Nazi Germany's concentration camps (see The Nazi Who Saved Sigmund Freud).

German psychoanalysts Alexander and Margarethe Mitschterlich subsequently applied Freud's insights to Germany in their book The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behaviour (1967). Here they discuss why the Holocaust, the war crimes, and national guilt was not dealt with adequately in post-war German society: 'The Mitscherlichs confronted Germany with a bitter testimonial that many found difficult to bear: Germans, they wrote, are indifferent and lethargic; they lack empathy for the victims of the Nazi genocide and are caught up in "nationalist self-centeredness.' 

 'Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes'
 (Brecht, Life of Galileo, 1943)
As the war drums beat all around and on this Anzac Day 2017, I sense the need for caution; we need analytic thinking around war and violence (in all its forms) at this time; our mainstream media and government offer little deep analytic thinking. Lest we forget all who suffer in war – the victims and the perpetrators on all sides. Let us not go down the path of an uncritical patriotism. Let us not forget that the military take-over of Aboriginal lands by the British, from 1788 on - and the war waged by Aboriginal warriors - is not acknowledged officially by Australia or the Australian War Memorial.

To our dear Pa
I honour and remember our Pa (Mum's dad) who was a Digger in World War 1. He wrote many letters home with details of the war and how it affected him and others - fellow soldiers, nurses, civilians. Perhaps his story has contributed to me becoming a pacifist.

Our Pa, (Tom William Butcher) and his postcard sent to our Nan
in Tasmania (Wynne Ila Lette), from France 10th Dec.,1917 
I have never marched formally on Anzac Day (one day I will before I die to honour Pa). But I do feel strange about it. I don't relate to nationalism, patriotism or war; and the fact that the military take-over of Aboriginal lands by the British from 1788 on-and the war waged by Aboriginal warriors - is not acknowledged on this day. Why? Some of these difficult issues have been addressed by journalist Michael Green in an essay 'Lest We Remember: the Australian War Memorial and the Frontier Wars'. 'It follows an ongoing argument concerning Aboriginal Warriors who lost their lives in the wars against colonial forces'.

'no we don’t want to be stuck alongside you mob,
we had to fight you'. 
Jim Everett, pura-lia meenamatta
'Near the end of his latest book, Forgotten War Henry Reynolds makes a demand: the Australian War Memorial must commemorate the frontier wars. The book examines Australia’s violent colonial history, and reaches into some of our most challenging public debates – about land rights, sovereignty, and reconciliation...I also spoke to playwright Jim Everett, a Plangerrmairreenner man, of the Ben Lomond people in northern Tasmania. ‘If they asked me, I’d say “no we don’t want to be stuck alongside you mob – we had to fight you”. If we want to remember our heroes, then we should be doing it ourselves,’ he says. ‘We should be dedicating a part of country to our fallen heroes – perhaps we could mark it with a rock. I don’t like the idea of statues.’
Jim Everett (arrested) while protecting the kutalayna site, April 2011

"In memory of all women of all countries, 
raped in all wars" 

The only time I ever went to an Anzac Day March was when women marched under a banner: "In memory of all women of all countries, raped in all wars" c1981. I filmed it on super 8: the women's faces with gravitas and dignity marching straight into the waiting police paddy wagons, as the Anzac Day organisors wouldn't give permission for us to march with that banner. The great unspoken of war.

 Canberra 1981 (?) (re the red circled person in the pic- I have no idea who it is!). 
For further discussion see Catriona Elder's essay, ' "I Spit on Your Stone": National Identity, Women Against Rape and the Cult of Anzac' ;  it is also in Maja Mikula's book (ed), Women, Activism and Social Change, Routledge, London, 2005, pp. 71-81.