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 distributor Ronin Films and is available on VOD, DVD and DCP.

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 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.

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 when he begins with Benjamin’s claim that the epic as 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.”

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 becomes 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.

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 ofupwardly 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 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?

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.) 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.  https://www.roninfilms.com.au/feature/13428/silences.html

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

11 March 2019