Tracey Moffatt is one of Australia’s most successful artists, and has been producing ground-breaking film, photography and video work for almost thirty years, exhibited across Europe, Canada, the United States and the Asia Pacific. Her standing in both local and international art communities is exemplified by her appointment as the Australian representative at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) was the first feature film by an Australian Aboriginal woman, made with the aid of a $1.8 million grant from the Australian Film Commission. Moffatt had previously made several short films including Nice Coloured Girls (1987) and Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989), with the latter presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990. beDevil was her second film screened at Cannes, included as an Un Certain Regard selection in 1993.
Moffatt’s films are intimately tied to her photographic work, for which she is best known. She insists that “it is the international look, the different people I have photographed in my work and their universal predicaments that has taken me and my images out into the world.”1 beDevil shares many visual similarities to Moffatt’s photography, most obviously through her theatrical, stylised and hyper-real aesthetic. There is persistent attention paid to composition in this film, and the framing of the shots are instantly evocative of her still images. beDevil also acts as an extension of the way that her photographic work alludes to narratives, yet also simultaneously brim with ambiguity. Moffatt’s work both captures and elicits emotions, with her aesthetic intention one of audience engagement and provocation.
As beDevil is a film by an Indigenous woman that features Indigenous actors, it is unsurprising that many critics and scholars have analysed it as a postcolonial text, concentrating on its autobiographical and political aspects. However, such speculative discussions about what her work says – or can be read to say – about Indigenous culture can neglect its status as art. Moffatt acknowledges this problem herself, arguing that essentialist interpretations can miss the point:
I want to say that if people want to read my art that I’m making now from a political perspective then they are welcome. I just get a little exasperated because this reading usually comes from the “left” and they are most of the time ignoring how I strive for poetry and make statements about the human condition – they can’t see that I’m trying to play with form and be inventive. I think that the fact that I’m trying for an “universal” quality, not just “black Australian” is the reason that my work is getting attention. But try telling this to some writers…2
Crucially, Moffatt’s Indigenous heritage can lead to viewers overlooking her efforts to create radical art, to engage with creative traditions and produce something new and vital. She repeatedly opposes being categorised by her ethnicity and gender, maintaining “I can’t stand labels – an artist is an artist”.3 While Moffatt actively encourages diverse opinions about her work, saying that there are “no wrong readings”,4 she suggests that critics who focus on her heritage alone “don’t know how to write about the work”.[ Portch, “Woman with attitude”.] beDevil is about more than the discussion about socio-cultural issues that it engenders. In this film, Moffatt pointedly fashions a narrative space for Australians who are frequently cast as “Other”, including Aboriginals, immigrants and women. Overwhelmingly, it is Moffatt’s inventiveness that stands out – and should stand out – in beDevil. What makes it especially notable is the rarity of anthology horror films by a sole woman director. Not only does Moffatt situate beDevil in an international arena through engaging with the horror tradition, she is at the vanguard of film-making in this genre.
beDevil (1993) is about hauntings, urging its audience to consider connections between place, storytelling and the act of looking. Moffatt applies horror codes and conventions to a distinctly Australian landscape, upon which her very personal visualisation of memory is played out. The portmanteau film is divided into three segments, tied together thematically and aesthetically. Unlike popular English-language horror anthologies such as Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (Freddie Francis, 1965), The House That Dripped Blood (Peter Duffell, 1971) and Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982), there is no unifying character, object or place connecting the narratives. Rather, in Moffatt’s film, each segment presents a ghost story, centred thematically on spirits bound to the places where they died. In “Mr Chuck”, this is an American GI in a mangrove swamp on Bribie Island; in “Choo Choo Choo Choo”, a young blind girl on a train track in outback Charleville; and in “Lovin’ The Spin I’m In”, two lovers from the Torres Strait Islands in a small-town warehouse.
Place is central to beDevil, and these sites serve as a locus for stories which intersect and co-exist. While each of these locations is in Queensland, they frequently appear unreal, as Moffatt’s cinematic aesthetic deliberately exhibits an artificial quality. This reminds us that we are viewers, watching a trilogy of non-linear short stories unfold, woven together by several narrators. This act of looking is fundamental to beDevil. Through adopting the portmanteau structure, Moffatt fashions windows that offer insights into diverse experiences, with a particular emphasis on generating a space for women to tell their stories. Throughout the film, we constantly shift between the points of view of both different characters, and between Moffatt herself as director and our own as audience. beDevil makes frequent use of physical windows to remind us of this, framing characters and highlighting the subjectivity of their stories. Windows allow a visual separation between both people and places and the past and the present. beDevil explores the often uneasy relationship between the past and the present, which the interactions between the characters – both living and dead – prompts us to consider.
Place, Memory and Storytelling
Storytelling is a central concern of beDevil. Creating and sharing stories is a way to make sense of the world, and both encourages and reflects connections between the past and the present, and people and places. Through the process of telling us their stories, each of the narrators in beDevil recount shared tales, a sort of modern folklore. While this brings to mind the importance of storytelling to Indigenous traditions, Moffatt explicitly states that these stories “come from both sides of my background – my white relatives as well as my black relatives.”5 Yet she also insists that “I don’t think you can call the stories particularly white or Aboriginal”.6 The hybrid nature of Moffatt’s work reflects the way that she perceives the multicultural make-up of Australian society, and she explains that “it is completely natural for me to represent that mixing of races”.7 beDevil is very much about her stories, weaving together “a personal mythology”, and presenting images that are “so personal that a lot of the time they embarrass me”.8
Moffatt uses narrative and aesthetic devices from the horror tradition to develop the stories in beDevil. The film draws heavily from the Gothic tradition: in “Mr Chuck” the ominous fog rolling across the reeds evokes English moors and lakes; in “Choo Choo”, there is the formulaic image of a woman in a white nightgown carrying a lantern; and in “Lovin’ The Spin” there is witchcraft. Each segment also refers to family secrets, a Gothic staple. In particular, the motif of the haunted house dominates the three stories, with the ghosts tied to physical locations.9 The first and final sections recall the haunted burial grounds trope popularised by American horror films, such The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) and Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982). Moffatt acknowledges a variety of horror references in beDevil, including the work of the English director Nicolas Roeg – whom she names “one of my heroes”; Japanese cinema from the 1960s (particularly Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 film Kwaidan); Ozploitation films such as Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), The Cars That Ate Paris (Peter Weir, 1974), and Mad Max (George Miller, 1979); and the Hollywood blockbuster The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), which she deems “the scariest film ever made”.10
A noticeable feature of the narrative structure of beDevil is the prominence of women’s voices. This again ties to Moffatt’s photography, which repeatedly addresses the experiences of women. Shelley (Diana Davidson), Ruby (Auriel Andrews) and Voula (Dina Panozzo) guide the storytelling in each segment, with men as secondary narrators.11 This segment emphasises the importance of oral history, reflecting Ruby – and Moffatt’s – indigenous heritage. The role of family – specifically mothers – in storytelling is addressed most explicitly in “Lovin’ The Spin”. Here, Voula explaining why their neighbour Emelda (Debai Baira) is so distraught at being evicted from the warehouse that is being knocked down for re-development. Voula visualises her and Emelda’s intertwined pasts, which are both filtered through their roles as mothers to Spiro (Riccardo Natoli) and Beba (Pinau Ghee). The subjectivity of her memory is emphasised in a shot where we are positioned behind Voula, holding baby Spiro and beside her husband, a traditional family unit to whom Beba and Minnie’s (Patricia Handy) relationship seems atypical. Emelda deeply disapproved of the couple, reflecting the strict expectations of the Torres Strait Islander community that Beba had fled from. Both Voula and Emelda envision the power that Minnie exerted. In Voula’s recollection, Minnie embodies the trope of the psychotic woman, explicitly described as acting crazy. Her dangerousness is further emphasised when Emelda’s prying gaze reveals Minnie performing witchcraft. Does Emelda believe that Minnie magically compelled Beba into leaving his home? Do these occult practices lend weight to their continued presence after death? ] The way that stories are woven together through multiple voices is especially important in “Choo Choo”. Bob (Cecil Parkee) actually asks “wanna here a spooking story?”, before telling us about the ghost of a train driver who hung himself after a terrible incident. This story of a man expands the central narrative of the ghost girl (who he presumably killed) pointing to the way that stories are built, converging and overlapping. This layering of stories is emphasised in Moffatt’s reference to min min lights, mysterious orbs in the sky that are witnessed by Ruby’s family. Min min lights are akin to will-o’-wisps, and accounts of these floating balls of light seen in the outback at night feature in both Aboriginal and white folklore. They are sometimes perceived to be spirits – in some tellings harmless and in others dangerous – luring children into the dark where they disappear. The presence of min min lights in beDevil reminds us of the many ghosts that co-exist here. Their manifestation signals the existence of unexplained phenomenon in everyday life, and so allowing for the presence of the ghosts. The lights are viewed with a sense of wonder and not anxiety, a response that is echoed in, and probably influenced, Ruby’s encounters with the ghost. While she is palpably affected by the girl, feeling her distress, Ruby never seemed frightened. She accepts that she shares the space with spirits – they are part of her life. Ruby recalls this period with the same matter-of-factness that she approaches her entire address to the camera.
Moffatt’s camera has a pronounced cinéma vérité presence in both “Mr Chuck” and “Choo Choo. These present day characters speak directly to the camera, and there is a sense that they are being guided through an interview – they acknowledge both the camera and the invisible person asking the questions which has been edited out. This relationship is highlighted in “Choo Choo”, when Ruby pulls out a tissue and wipes the dusty lens. This act is at once motherly – recalling the familiar image of a woman reflexively cleaning a dirty child’s face – and also authoritative, demonstrating the control that Ruby is asserting over the filming process. This is an active process of documentation, and Shelley and Ruby seem eager to tell their story.12
beDevil is very much about place – each story is located at a specific, remote site marked with a distinct sense of an Australian heat, light and air. Yet while the settings in beDevil are recognisably Australian, they are frequently drawn in a way that makes them seem disconcerting, wholly out-of-place. The recognisability of these places within the Australian social imaginary means that, though viewers might not have been there in person, they are affected by the defamiliarisation. These artificial environments allow for the existence of the supernatural, places where extraordinary things could conceivably occur. This is achieved through Moffatt’s composition, notably her treatment of colour, lighting and mise en scène. beDevil resembles the work of Italian horror directors, such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and draws from Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle (1959-1964). However, it is most clearly indebted to the Japanese film Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964). This anthology horror included four separate ghost stories, which, like beDevil, retold folk tales, and it served as a reference for Moffatt’s striking studio sets. Though, she also points to distinctly Australian visual references, in particular the paintings of Russell Drysdale in the first two segments and Jeffrey Smart in the third.13 The backdrops in beDevil are painted in hyper-real colours and the lighting is noticeably artificial, emphasising the un-realness of the space. There is a deliberate sense of flatness to the composition, which creates a feeling of enclosure. These scenes are self-contained, literally generated by the acts of storytelling. The patently artificial images remind us that we are watching a story unfold.
The stories in beDevil are centred on the idea that these recently departed spirits are tied to a particular place: the swamp, the train track and the warehouse, respectively. Do these locations permit or do they encourage their existence? Is it because these sites are sparsely inhabited that the presence of these ghosts is so strong, that they can tangibly exist alongside the living? The film persistently destabilises the idea that time and space exist on two separate and self-contained axes. The ghosts remind us that time is not linear, inscribed across space, which is stable and unchanging. beDevil reflects upon how time and space are intertwined, offering images that both condense and stretch the history of a place. Here, the past and the present exist side by side, constantly influencing each other. In this way, the function – and also ownership – of the sites are contested. The ghosts may inhabit the spaces, but the living claim possession.
The fraught ownership of a location manifests in the character of Rick, who trespasses on the swamp both as the domain of the ghost and of the man who builds the cinema there. “Mr Chuck” emphasises that places mean different things to different people. For instance, Rick’s insistence that “I hated that place, that island” is contradicted by Shelley (Diana Davidson) saying fondly “I’ve always loved this place, our island home”. Of course, Shelley is speaking from her comfortable suburban home, surrounded by personal belongings – markedly different to Rick’s location in a sterile prison visiting area. “Mr Chuck” considers how people both inhabit and change the environment, which is encapsulated by the building of the cinema. The opening scene that guides us along rivulets of water into the sticky mangroves is later repeated, the area now strewn with litter, indicating that the cinema-goers are disrespectful intruders. Echoing this exterior scene, Rick wreaks havoc inside the cinema. The way that he surveys this destruction in shock, trailed by his ominous shadow, implies that this violence was compelled by the ghost. Perhaps the ghost seized Rick’s anger – at his abusive uncles, at the white children of the cinema owner, at being pushed out of the swamp. Like the GI, Rick refuses to be displaced.
The way that space is staged in scenes from the past in beDevil reminds us of the problematic nature of memory. In dealing with the telling – and re-telling – of stories, the film is preoccupied with the relationship between memory and the past. Each segment offers points of view from the past and the present, moving between different periods and narrators to fashion a multi-faceted narrative. The connection between the past and the present is especially important in “Mr Chuck” and “Choo Choo”, where Moffatt offers two distinct aesthetics which serve to visually divide the time periods. In these segments, there is a marked contrast between realistic and non-realistic settings, pointing us to which time period we are experiencing. Moffatt directly links the opening scene from the past to the same character in the present day: Rick’s desperate thrashing in the muddy swamp cuts to him as a much older man casually explaining that he was pulled out, and Ruby’s exclamations of “She’s here!!” as she rushes outside in her nightgown are mirrored in her recollections. The contemporary documentary footage occurs in markedly real environments. Both segments are firmly situated through the inclusion of aerial shots that resemble a tourism commercial, establishing real locations for our storytellers that contrast to the scenes from the past that their stories unfold.14 These are rendered in lurid colours: a neon green swamp in “Mr Chuck” and a surreal purple desert in “Choo Choo”. There is an obvious dislocation between the backdrops and the physical sets, making them seem out of place. This is especially noticeable in the exterior of the cinema in “Mr Chuck”, which is painted with a garish sunset design, with a golden sky, red ocean and dark palm trees. This is conspicuous among the surrounding mangroves, a reference to an incongruous, idyllic landscape. This contrast between two unreal painted landscapes points to the way that these images are generated by memories, and so seem dislocated from reality.
“Lovin’ The Spin” is set entirely in an unreal environment, and the memories of the characters are not visibly separated from their present location. They are also no longer aware of the camera: we are now wholly unseen observers. “Lovin’ The Spin” is, superficially, the most conventional segment of beDevil, as through dismissing the direct address of the former segments, the narrative flow is no longer disrupted by jolting shifts between periods. Moffatt uses this to her advantage by surprising the viewer with other choices. For instance, while violent passion is a familiar theme, it is enacted here through contemporary dance, lending “Lovin’ The Spin” an experimental quality. There is a more fluid exchange between past and present here, with colour used to interlace rather than separate the past and present. For instance, the giallo-inspired red light that bathes Emelda as she spies on Minnie performing spells is repeated in the later dance sequence. This also ties back to the red dress Minnie wears when we are first introduced to her by Voula, who remembers her as a hippy, barefoot and with long wild curls. The colour red visualises Minnie and Beba’s passionate and violent relationship, the fire that she lit and the blood that was spilt. This is connected to the fact that the characters remain in the same place their stories are set – they are not looking back to imagine the site, but are still there. This continued presence is perhaps why, unlike in the earlier segments, the ghosts here are named. In her daily ritual of lighting a candle Emelda, and by association, her neighbours, are constantly remembering Minne and Beba, keeping their names – and so spirits – alive.
Re-animating the Past
beDevil explores memory, how it buckles, sways and persists. In each segment, there are references to physical efforts to remember the past. In “Mr Chuck”, Shelley shares photographs of herself as a young woman with the American soldiers stationed on the island, across which the eerie green-lit face of the spectre fades in and out. Shelley’s desire for him to be remembered is evident when she rushes to her window to hold up a photograph as the camera moves away. The past is also actively conserved in “Choo Choo”, where obsolete items such as maps and typewriters are assembled at the local museum. This devotion to the past is similarly evident in Emelda’s bare shrine outside the warehouse in “Lovin’ The Spin”, where she lights a candle beneath two yellowed newspaper clippings about the two ‘doomed lovers’.
The ghosts in beDevil are constantly reanimating the past, re-enacting their violent deaths. In “Mr Chuck”, the GI struggles to escape the quicksand that engulfed him, in “Choo Choo” the girl walks with her cane along the train track, and in “‘Lovin’ The Spin” the couple exhibit their all-consuming love. “Lovin’ The Spin” is different as, rather than illustrating one concrete event, it captures the devastating passion that overwhelmed the lovers. Even after their unexplained deaths, Minnie and Beba continue their terrible fighting, encapsulated by the intense, seemingly instinctual, choreography of their endless dance, which serves of obfuscate the certainty of how they died. The activities of all these ghosts penetrate the world of the living people who inhabit the same spaces. Their acts of repetition both reveal and regenerate their presence, lending them the power to reach out.
This connection between the spirits and the living is initiated primarily through the senses of touch, sound and sight in each segment respectively. This interest in evoking a tactile experience recalls Laura U. Marks’ theory of haptic visuality, which explores how cinema can draw on senses other than sight, appealing to the whole body.15 Rick has physical encounter with the GI; after we see his feet dangling through the cinema floor above the gurgling swamp, he squeamishly recalls how “it was licking my feet…it’s tongue was all over my feet”. For Ruby, the ghost reaches out to her aurally, engendering the whistling caution of the train that killed her. The emphasis on sound here signals the importance of this sense to the girl, who could not see. Ruby even presses her ear to the track to listen to her, demonstrating that she not only accepts her presence, but encourages her communication. Minnie and Beba interact with Spiro by visibly presenting themselves, leading him to the warehouse where an eerie red light and smoke is radiating beneath the door. In each segment, Moffatt arouses multiple senses, urging us to viscerally share the experiences of the characters. When Rick is touched by the swamp we are encouraged to shudder at the sticky mud coating our skin. When the invisible train swooping past Ruby, we feel the juddering earth and wind. As Spiro’s rollerblades become embedded in the warehouse floor, we share his terror as we feel as if, like the couple, we are rooted in this otherworldly space.16
While the physical manifestation of ghosts is strongest in “Lovin’ The Spin”, they also visually assert their presence in “Mr Chuck” and “Choo Choo”, where we eventually witness their in/corporeal forms. In the first segment, one of the builders discovers the GI’s hat and clip of shells, which arise from the water as a reminder that he is there. A more concrete vision of the GI appears both at the start and the end of “Mr Chuck”. When Shelley begins her story, the camera cuts briefly to a fractured, flickering blue image that pulls into focus an outline of his face, then pulls out again. This kaleidoscopic image is repeated at the end, where it explodes to reveal his face bursting from the mud, spitting it at the screen and breaking the forth wall. In “Choo Choo”, Ruby’s husband Stompie (Marika) is confronted by the playful yet unnerving actions of the ghost girl when he returns from a hunt, carrying a kangaroo carcass over his shoulder. He sees a small handmade doll, an old-fashioned toy made out of a clothes peg. He picks it up and discards it, yet it continues to reappear, as if it is bewitched. The following scene emphasises how much this unsettled him, as he sits at on the verandah with his wife and sister who are serving tea. The attention that the camera pays to the rhythm of this routine – pouring from a teapot, spooning in sugar – highlights how unremarkable this daily ritual is. Yet, the scraping noise as he absentmindedly stirs his tea alerts us that his return to the comfort of home has not erased his bewilderment. Like in “Mr Chuck”, this object that stands for the ghost is eventually replaced by a manifestation of its corporeal form. A flash of leg builds up to the final scene where a transparent image of the girl is fully revealed, in a red dress and glasses, tapping her cane as she walks along the tracks. The physical manifestation of the spectres that occurs at the end of the three segments ties them together, disrupting the possibility that these ghosts are simply fictions.
Windows and Framing Stories
The recurring image of the window throughout beDevil serves as a metaphor for the act of looking which both the characters and the viewers undertake. The recurrence of such physical frames persistently reminds us that we are looking at characters that are themselves looking. In “Mr Chuck”, the structure of the unfinished cinema frames the son and daughter of the proprietor; with their matching striped t-shirts and neat blond hair, the siblings curiously watch the three indigenous children, who in turn are looking in at them. The pair later peek through the fence at their house, asking them to come out and play – instead, we watch them witness Rick’s abuse by his uncles, hearing a monstrous rumbling, a window smashing and sobbing. We repeatedly see Ruby physically defined by architectural space, enclosed within her home. For instance, as she gazes out of her window towards the min min lights the camera slowly pulls in to a close up of her face and her inscrutable expression. The familiarity of domestic space is penetrated by the ghost, which is emphasised when Ruby glimpses the girl’s leg kicking out from behind a wall, which from our vantage point we actually see. This idea of different vantage points is explicitly addressed in “Lovin’ The Spin”, where we see the neighbours watching each other. As Voula tells her story to Spiro, they lean out of their window towards the warehouse, where we see Emelda standing by her own window. Like the curious children in “Mr Chuck”, Spiro repeatedly stares at Emelda, who surprises him by acknowledging this. This awareness reminds us that these characters are not simply objects to be looked at, but are active, if ambiguous, individuals.
The agency of Moffatt’s characters is notable in terms of the gaze of the viewer. As beDevil creates a space to tell the stories of women, the prolonged shots of women looking out of windows also brings up the idea of a female gaze.17 This echoes how in beDevil, Moffatt makes room for women to function as agents rather than objects – even the stories featuring men such as Rick, Stompie and Dimitri (Lex Marinos) are filtered through the memories and emotions of the female narrators. The way that the characters are physically framed draws attention to the fact that the voices of women are not simply heard here – they are prioritised.
In beDevil, the window serves as a diegetic device: it signals looking to the past, and also looking for something that is unseen. Windows frame the characters and their experiences, generating a space to present their stories. Yet, they also remind us that what we are watching is highly personal, imbued with subjectivity. The physical structure of the frame invites us into the narrative but also visibly separate us from it. It distinguishes between us and them, here and there; as viewers, we are decisively drawn as outsiders. The frames bind the characters into the spaces generated by memory, anchoring the out-of-place settings to the recognisable present-day locations. Yet, they simultaneously separate the characters from the strange landscapes that they dwell in. This division between inside and outside permeates beDevil. It is no accident that the blond children are located inside the unfinished cinema – through their father they claim ownership, looking out at the indigenous children playing in the strange swamp. Similarly, Shelley, Ruby and Voula are all shown looking out of their houses. These frames remind us that we are firmly placed as observers here. These windows do not truly offer a complete insight into the lives of our characters: we have to work to fill in the gaps. The deliberately bare sets offer no intimate access. Our gaze is not privileged.
The choice to build a cinema in “Mr Chuck” establishes the act of looking. When Rick sits in its darkened interior, eating his stolen treats, he reminds us of our role as viewers and, indeed consumers, of moving images. The cinema also points to the way that American culture influenced Australian society during and post-WWII. For instance, the mural painted on the building resembles a Hawaiian sunset, and the films are imported, demonstrated by the movie posters, including one advertising the Western Murieta (George Sherman, 1965). Rick looks at another poster that he had seen earlier, for a film titled Burma Assault, illustrating a black soldier carrying a child through a jungle.18 When Rick looks at this poster a second time, it is implied that he is connecting the image of this soldier pushing through tropical foliage to the unseen ghost in the mangrove swamp. The khaki helmet in the poster is the same as the GI’s which emerged from the swamp. Yet, this image is also for us as viewers, as we struggle to build an image of the ghost by tying together these concrete items with his fleeting manifestations.
The act of looking is continually referred to in “Lovin’ The Spin”. Here, Moffatt frequently makes use of the cinematic technique of shot-counter-shot in a manner that reminds us of the process and subjectivity of looking. In a conventional horror movie use of this technique, we watch Emelda creep up to a wall to peer in at Minnie, followed by a view of her eye through the gap. It is through this gaze that we learn of Minnie’s occult practices. This scene from the past is filmed in red, a common choice in gialli to engender a mood of danger. A flame that Minnie has lit in a bowl fades into a shot of a real fire burning through the sugar cane fields, tying to Emelda’s belief that she was a powerful witch.
The use of windows to frame the characters in beDevil aligns the filmic images with Moffatt’s photographs, and many of her lingering shots look like stills. The way that the camera pulls in slowly from a medium shot to a close up of a face resembles the act of moving towards a painting to look closer. This connection between photography, painting and film is addressed in an interesting way through the manifestation of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in “Lovin’ The Spin”. The character of The Artist (played by Australian artist Luke Roberts) is immediately recognisable as Kahlo, in a red dress detailed with gold embroidery, layers of elaborate necklaces, large gold earring, a floral headdress and her trademark heavy brow and red lips. He was exploring Kahlo in his own work at this time, in images he describes as “stills from films from that never existed or never finish”.19 In beDevil, Roberts brings these stills to life, giving them a voice. The Artist is shown looking out of the window, and again this structure offers a space for the negotiation of Otherness. This ties to Roberts’ interest in queer politics and, more broadly, reflects the cross-cultural exchange that pervades beDevil. The way that The Artist is framed visually recalls Kahlo’s self-portraits. Roberts animates this performance of identity, arguing with Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera: “If you’d only listen to me. No, I’m not having an affair with Trotsky”. The increasingly heated one-way dialogue references Kahlo’s affair with the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who lived with the couple when he fled to Mexico in the 1930s. Roberts’ denial of this affair here, and the way the conversation is steered towards Rivera’s extra-marital romances, points to Kahlo’s complicated personal life.20 Inside the apartment, Moffatt has included a series of Polaroids – a reference to Roberts’ photography – and a cluster of candles, a makeshift shrine. This impression of a memorial is echoed when The Artist leaves, lighting a final candle at Emelda’s shrine to her son.
beDevil is a trilogy of ghost tales that explores the interwoven ideas of memory, storytelling and place. The portmanteau format allows for the presentation of multiple narratives, which is echoed in the recurring image of windows that frame the diverse experiences of the characters. The film generates spaces for expressions of Otherness, and is especially focused on the voices of women. beDevil also points to Moffatt’s interest in formal experimentation. The use of horror codes and conventions locates beDevil if not within, then alongside, this genre. Moffatt’s work is an intimate reflection of a personal mythology, and she emphasises that “I’m not trying to be overly political…I’m just trying to make images that ‘hold’”.21 beDevil certainly features beautiful and compelling images, though these intrigue as much as they frustrate in the impossible search for a definitive meaning. Moffatt’s aesthetic choices defamiliarise the recognisable Australian landscape, combining real and fictive settings that allow for the interplay between physical and the supernatural worlds. The disorientation that this produces reminds us that we are firmly positioned as spectators. This in turn provokes a consideration of the gaze – no one vision is privileged here, especially not the viewer’s. beDevil intertwines different stories across time to emphasise the constant presence of the past. It reminds us that we are all haunted: our past follows us around, it shapes our lives and imprints on the spaces that we inhabit.
- Tracey Moffatt, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia, 2004. ↩
- Gerald Matt, “An interview with Tracey Moffatt”, in Tracey Moffatt, exhibition catalogue, Cantz, 1998. This interview is reproduced in several texts. ↩
- Scott Portch, ‘Woman with Attitude: Tracey Moffatt’, Refractory Girl (1994). ↩
- Coco Fusco, “Tracey Moffatt”, BOMB Magazine, 64 (1998) http://bombmagazine.org/article/2149/tracey-moffatt. ↩
- John Conomos and Raffaele Caputo, “Bedevil: Tracey Moffatt Interviewed”, Cinema Papers 93 (1993): p.28. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Fusco. ↩
- Matt. ↩
- The haunted house motif is central to Moffatt’s later photoseries Laudanum (1999), images of shadows, peepholes and delusions set in an old mansion. ↩
- See: Conomos and Caputo; Matt. Her familiarity with the genre is evident in her earlier photographic series Something More (1989), where she cast herself in a role akin to that of a female horror character. In Something More #5, the slanted close up of a knife forewarns of danger; in Something More #6, a woman’s chest is marked with a bleeding gash; and in Something More #9, a woman lies sprawled on the road, recalling the violent and voyeuristic way that female bodies are often treated in horror. ↩
- In “Mr Chuck”, it is Shelley who spins together the stories of two men, Rick (Jack Charles) and the unnamed ghost of the GI (Benjamin Collard) who had been stationed on the island in WWII, and who was never found after driving his truck into the swamp. She also notes that it is children who share this legend, a nod to the horror tradition. In ‘Choo Choo’, Ruby returns to her old house by the train track and recalls her encounters with the ghost of a young girl (Karen Saunders) who haunts it. While the same actresses play Shelley and Voula in the past and present, Moffatt cast herself as young Ruby. This character is based on Moffatt’s mother’s experience of living in a ramshackle house by a train track.[1 ↩
- This is especially evident when Ruby adopts the guise of cooking show host, describing the gourmet food that they are preparing outdoors, noting their combination of native and European ingredients (wild pig with juniper berries; yabbies with hollandaise sauce). Humorously, two of the women interrupt this presentation by enthusiastically displaying a snake that they caught. As the woman who is cooking responds, Ruby translates into English that this will be made into a snake terrine, served with a walnut vinaigrette. When she then reprimands Ruby’s plating of the dish, Ruby’s composed performance is broken, as she irritably retorts “you don’t have to carry on, bloody Queen Victoria of bush cuisine”. Aside from offering a moment of comedic relief, this scene reminds us that Ruby seeks to maintain control of the narrative. However, although she has returned to her former home by the train track, Ruby shares this experience with her female companions, reminding of the multiplicity of voices that shape her story. ↩
- Conomos and Caputo, p. 28. ↩
- “Mr Chuck” includes aerial shots sweeping along white sandy coastlines of Bribie Island and illustrates leisure activities like swimming, jet-skiing, cycling and cricket. In “Choo Choo”, there are similar aerial shots displaying the outback town of Charleville and its friendly locals who have come out to welcome the cameras. However, this crowd is made peculiar by the identical gestures that everyone is making. This action of hands circling their sides, cupping their ears and then covering their eyes references the ghost we can hear. ↩
- Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000). ↩
- The anxiety that is provoked when these two boys are literally immersed in supernatural spaces is resolved abruptly, with both calmly shown to be fine. Yet, viewers are denied a total vision of the action, urging a turn to other senses. When Rick falls – or is perhaps dragged – into the swamp, the camera frustratingly flies upwards to a view of the trees, leaving us focused on the sound of his splashing. Similarly, when Dimitri follows Spiro’s pull towards the warehouse, we only hear his terror at what he observes. ↩
- This is taken up more explicitly in Moffatt’s later video Heaven (1997), which compiles footage taken by women of male surfers taking off their wetsuits. This explicitly points to gendering of bodies in art, focusing on the male rather than female form as the object of the gaze. Moffatt describes Heaven as “made by women for women. It is for all the women of the world who like to ‘look’.”, Tracey Moffatt, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia, 2004. ↩
- There is no record of this title, so presumably the poster was created to tie to the identity of the ghost GI, who was similarly stationed abroad during war. ↩
- Luke Roberts, M.O.C.A. Bulletin 26 (November 1989): pp.10-11, http://artworkscatalogue.griffith.edu.au/web/pages/gal/Display.php?irn=1283&QueryPage ↩
- Hayden Herrera, Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (New York: Harper & Row, 1983). ↩
- Tracey Moffatt, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, Australia, 2004. ↩