As this dossier shows, there is a rich and long history of personal filmmaking in Australian independent cinema. The films that belong to this tradition are disparate in many ways, but all are sincere in their conviction that the personal counts. After years of making a mix of films, including those that blur fiction and documentary, independent filmmaker Bill Mousoulis made My Blessings (1997), a formally austere yet honest and soulful diary film. Shot on 16mm, with meagre funds but a clear and abundant vision, My Blessings spans six days in the life of young female filmmaker, Jane Friedman (Marie-Louise Walker), as she awaits the outcome of a script funding application. On the cusp of becoming an established and recognised filmmaker (no longer simply ‘emerging’), there is a lot riding on this outcome for Jane.
As most viewers are aware, My Blessings is a self-portrait, with the character of Jane entirely based on the filmmaker himself. Mousoulis’ original intention was to make a film about a woman; the idea to base the story on himself came later. At the time of the film’s ‘release’, this gender crossover was much remarked upon. For Mousoulis, making this decision was like a “dare”: “I am declaring to everyone that I consider males and females to be equivalent. That equivalence, I know, is a dare (and a complex one), but it is a dare that, sadly, some people have not been able to take up”.1
Placing a female filmmaker at the centre of his film enabled Mousoulis to do two things: clearly signal his film as feminist and pay homage to filmmakers he long admired and felt a kinship with – the Sydney feminist filmmakers Margot Nash and Gillian Leahy and European auteurs Chantal Akerman and Yvonne Rainer. Formally, the film is also highly influenced by feminist works that emphasise the subjective through means such as the highly personal voiceover.
Whilst Mousoulis eschews the notion that males and females are innately different, My Blessings doesn’t dismiss the systemic oppression that women suffer in modern society. Within seconds of its opening, Jane, staring deadpan at the camera, denounces sexist men as “cunts”.
Regardless, My Blessings remains a strange mix of fiction and documentary. Mousoulis cast a female actor to play himself so in effect Jane’s entire being – her thoughts, feelings, disposition – are written by and based on Mousoulis himself.
I wanted to give the female character my own voice, and not what Iimagined would be a ‘female’ or ‘feminist’ voice. I didn’t necessarily want to explore feminist/political themes as such, I simply wanted to privilege a female sensibility in the film, and experiment with my chosen form, i.e. putting myself, a male, within the body of a female. Even if one didn’t know that about the film, I believe one can still feel that rub in the film, whilst watching it.2
The actress herself has noted something similar, “An audience may look at this film and think there’s something quite strange going on but not be quite able to put their finger on what it is”.3 Jane’s gender-neutral dress style, her expressionless demeanour, her overall aloofness might be factors that contribute to that strangeness.
In her essay “Self-Fictions and Film: Varda’s Transformative Technology of the Self in Les plages d’Agnès”, Claire Boyle draws on the work of theorists Vincent Colonna and Michel Foucault to develop a definition of cinematic autofiction.4 Both Colonna and Foucault discovered that autofictional practices were prevalent during ancient times as part of an overall ethos of ‘care of the self’. Unlike autobiography, autofiction involves more than simply recounting the key events of one’s life; rather, it is an act of self-inscription in which “the self makes itself comprehensible to itself and to others”.5 This process can also lead to “a transformation in the self and how it understands itself”.6
In her understanding of cinematic autofiction, Boyle draws on Foucault’s essay “Technologies of the Self” in which Foucault explores “practices which individuals might deploy to regulate themselves and their conduct” to reach higher ground.
[T]echnologies of the self […] permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.7
Many of the films featured in this dossier highlight this process of ‘excavating’ or ‘rewriting’ the self. Discursive forces, that are imposed externally and attempt to shape and mould us, are shed in favour of meanings, attitudes and predispositions generated by the self through a set of reflective and contemplative practices. As a “technology of the self”, cinematic autofictions are a means by which the authoring subject writes the self, working on its own ‘body and soul’, to reach that point of “purity” and “wisdom”.
For Mousoulis, making films is not a commercial imperative but a lifetime project that is existential in nature and that involves constantly playing with cinematic forms to find ways of capturing life’s essence. In My Blessings, he adopts a feminist sensibility to make sense of himself, his place in the world, his response to life’s “curses” and “blessings”.
In his attempt to make sense of his own self, Mousoulis also makes use of the highly personal voiceover in My Blessings to shape the way we view the character. Similar to Gillian Leahy’s My Life Without Steve (1986), it allows us to identify with the interiority of the character, its soul in all its states – isolation, elation, despair. The sparse mise en scene, which for the most part unfolds with stillness and even-handedness, complements the film’s project to highlight the soul of the character/filmmaker. Mousoulis’ identity as a truly independent filmmaker is an example of ‘care of the self’; all of his films are personal attempts at representing ‘reality’. However My Blessings is unique in his body of work in that his filmmaking and personal philosophy is the subject of the film, conveyed in personalised, feminist terms.
Though it privileges a female sensibility, My Blessings shows that, in the end, what counts most and above all are not questions of gender, gender representation or stereotype but the character’s persona, her attitude to life. Her way of being in the world as she navigates the blows that a life on the edge of society can deliver and as she rejoices in the knowledge that her life is meaningful and worth living.
The power and brilliance of My Blessings lies in this very contradiction: while being deeply immersed in the details of the everyday, both in setting and story, it is ultimately a treatise on existential and philosophical matters. As Mousoulis himself states, My Blessings “…shows the value of a human soul”.8
As a diary film, each scene in My Blessings centres on Jane and her daily existence. Like Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), some actions are repetitive and restricted to the apartment, such as exercise, showering, cooking, and journaling while others involve exploration, such as wandering the local neighbourhood with a Super-8 camera, visiting the local café scene at Smith St or Brunswick St. Then there are scenes in the story in which things happen to Jane that seem outside her control such as the meeting with the funding body and their news of rejection or the phone call from Michael, her hopeful lover, of cancelling the upcoming ‘dinner’.
As a humanist work, My Blessings doesn’t hide from emotions of hurt or disappointment. After the funding rejection, we see the reverberation of disappointment in stark, realist terms. Without any sense of where she’s going, Jane drives through the streets, stunned and in a daze, almost numb with feeling. In the next scene, the pain and hurt start to pass. Again, it’s conveyed in measured, realist terms. Jane gets out of bed. Gathers a bundle of clothes. Showers. Fresh-faced, she sits in an armchair, holding a cup of coffee, the morning light streaming across her face. There is the sense of a new day, a new structure of feelings and thoughts. Her voice-over tells us she will work on the script, give it to friends to look at, produce another draft. It might appear to be a quiet scene but it’s a momentous episode in the life of this character. After the rattling experience of rejection, Jane is gathering her strength, finding a way to continue to exist on her own terms as an independent filmmaker as much as possible.
The beauty of My Blessings lies in its honesty about life, in its portrayal of internal emotional states as they play out in an external world of surfaces, faces, actions, and objects. Inspired by European auteurs such as Bresson, Mousoulis directed performances in My Blessings so that they are restrained and controlled. As the ‘face’ of the film, Walker’s performance is central to this overall stylistic regime. Whether she is sitting silently outdoors on the apartment balcony, with the breeze on her face, or casually strolling the local streets, Walker’s controlled physicality and steady demeanour stands out. Even when she shares the frame with others, Jane appears separate and distinct, at a remove from those around her. No doubt this reflects her (and the filmmaker’s) vision of herself (himself) as an uncompromising artist, separate to any establishment or institution. It’s no coincidence that those infrequent moments when the character does smile occur during the scene when she attends the Super-8 film group screening – a reference to the real-life grassroots filmmaking group that Mousoulis was a part of for many years. Jane blends into her surrounds during this scene; and this blending reflects Mousoulis’ own kinship with the Super-8 collective.
Close-ups of Walker’s stark countenance regularly feature as promotional material for the film. Her visage is direct and immediate: the pointy edges of her lips, the curl of her thick black hair, the raised eyebrows and dark, contemplative eyes. It captures the film’s project – to present a direct, diary-like account of one’s heart and soul.
A great deal of the beauty of My Blessings lies in the space where image meets sound. What we see is only half the story. The rest is conveyed through Jane’s voice-over, a direct link to her (and the filmmaker’s) interior self. We hear her thoughts on her filmmaking life so far. The number of short films she’s made. The fact that now it’s time for longer, more elaborate projects. Whether she will include music in her film, or not? Her love of the ‘70s feminist film movement, the Sydney women’s filmmaking group and their sense of creativity and community. Her distaste of current trends away from collectives towards notions of ‘career’, ‘stardom’ and competition. We also hear her provide a concise breakdown of her own personality, and why others may perceive her a certain way. Her views on love and relationships. Her refusal to be with just ‘anyone’ if it means not being alone. Her desire to find a true soul mate. The agony of waiting, of disappointment.
As autofiction, Mousoulis uses the voice-over track to lay bare Jane’s/his desires, beliefs, values, in short, to reveal her/his personal philosophy. As Margot Nash states in this issue’s filmmaker roundtable, a defining characteristic of the Sydney feminist films of the ’70s was their use of personal voice over to tell one’s story.
The film’s feminist sensibility culminates towards the end of My Blessings when Jane’s voice-over narration tells us that as a filmmaker she rejects the “male gaze” as a force that seeks to over-power and dominate its subject. Instead, she is drawn to what feminist theorist Kaplan describes as “the mutual gaze”, a structure of looking that lies within mothering. A “nurturing” gaze. As a filmmaker, Mousoulis asserts his own philosophy of filmmaking here – his desire to eschew power-based narratives of conflict and control for stories of the heart, body and soul.
If there is a plot of some sort in My Blessings, it is one of expectation, of hopeful anticipation. Will the AFC fund Jane’s film? Will Jane find a partner in Michael? In life, possibilities lay themselves out, anticipation follows, desire swells. Mousoulis uses the nurturing gaze to ask: what of the heart and soul? He uses the register of realism to show life as it’s lived: the scene after Jane has invited Michael for dinner, she is elated; she paces the room, the music playing loud and forceful, she feels joy and happiness, her wanting takes over. Then in a few scenes later, Michael calls to cancel the dinner, blocking this possibility, extinguishing this spark. As Jane’s voice-over laments, “Elation and despair are bedfellows”.
In My Blessings, the transformative effect of autofiction is muted. In many ways, the film presents a ‘self’ that is already so carefully defined and understood. In all its honesty and humanity, it presents a self that lives on its own terms. The film’s ending, which is beautiful, lyrical and simultaneously momentous and quiet, shows how dialogue with the soul enables a state of wisdom. While Jane sits upright in bed, writing her diary entry, we hear:
I want to give my soul to living, and I will. I do. I try. I try my hardest at living, having the kind of life I want. And I’m very happy with my life at the deepest level. I am free, healthy. I have chosen my preferred career. I like my lifestyle. I have friends. I am loved. And so even though I have some desires that remain unfulfilled, I will keep trying with all my heart and soul to fulfil those desires. And for now I’ll make do with what I’ve got. October 1st, 1996. I count my blessings.
Still in wide shot, a set of discreet actions follow: Jane places her diary on the bedside table; sits quietly and contemplatively in the dimly lit bedroom; turns to switch off the lamp. The film then cuts to black and the credits roll.
It is a momentous conclusion to a highly personal film. As a narrative resolution, it is the most stirring and powerful conclusion one could imagine.
- Bill Mousoulis, “My Blessings”, Super 8 Newsletter, October 1997 ↩
- Bill Mousoulis, email to the author, July 16 2021 ↩
- Michaela Boland, “Celluloid on the Fringe”, In-Press, October 1, 1997 ↩
- Claire Boyle, “Self-Fictions and Film Varda’s Transformative Technology of the Self in Les plages d’Agnès”, Critical review of Contemporary French Fiction, 2012 ↩
- Ibid, paragraph 7 ↩
- Ibid, paragraph 8 ↩
- Ibid, paragraph 7 ↩
- Mousoulis, 1997 ↩