“What does the past tell us? In and of itself, it tells us nothing. We have to be listening first, before it says a word, and even then, listening means telling, and retelling.” – Margaret Atwood, Writing with Intent (2005)
If we must first listen to the past in order to make sense of it, then Margot Nash’s personal essay documentary, The Silences (2015) offers an attentive ear to a family history marked by secrecy, paranoia and loss. It follows her parents’ migration from New Zealand to Australia and excavates the rumours, stories and memories of a troubled childhood, strained marriage and long-buried secret. While focused on her own family, Nash’s reflections also provide an important mediation on the emotional and psychological effects of the war and the unspoken, unheard trauma of its aftermath.
Released in 2015 and listed as a finalist in the Australian Teachers of Media Awards, The Silences is the third feature from the Sydney-based filmmaker following on from Vacant Possession (1994) and Call Me Mum (2005). Written, produced, directed and narrated by Nash, the film draws upon interviews, voice recordings, photographs, letters, and footage from her filmography to piece together a complicated family history of half-truths and rumours. The film is not structured in a strictly chronological order but rather is navigated by the ebb and flow of memories and stories that rise to the surface alongside forgotten events and long-buried secrets. It is Nash’s narration that anchors these detours and departures as she oscillates between her roles as investigator, grieving daughter, and filmmaker.
Nash characterises her parents’ marriage as one marred by mental illness, paranoid episodes, depression, and accusations of infidelity. Her father was discharged from the army early after showing signs of mental instability and her mother was prone to extended bouts of depression. Nash and her sister, Diana reflect upon this as a confusing and unstable childhood in which secrets were buried and left unsaid but felt in strained relations and silences. These experiences left an indelible mark and Nash uses clips from her earlier experimental short films such as We Aim to Please To Please (1976), Speaking Out (1986), Shadow Panic (1989), and her 1994 feature, Vacant Possession to re-enact and return to these traumatic childhood memories. More than just a dramatization, these clips signify how Nash has utilised film as a means by which to engage with, explore, reflect, and perhaps mend, this painful past.
While these ruminations on a tumultuous marriage foster insightful reflections of post-war life and the emotional turmoil of mental illness, they are not the primary focus of the documentary but, instead, a conduit through which to explore the story of her secret sister, Felicity. When Nash was a young child, she was told that she had an older sister who was sent away to an institution for children with intellectual disabilities after contracting tuberculous meningitis and suffering brain damage. This event becomes a defining lens through which Nash attempts to understand the tension, guilt and longing that haunted her family. The enormity of her parents’ decision and the overwhelming emotional toll it took are felt in the different ways the grief continues to surface throughout their lives.
The title of the documentary refers to the silent grieving process of this lost daughter who passed away at the age of twelve. Nash’s film endeavours to give voice to these painful silences and unspoken stories. Her strength as a filmmaker is in breaking open these personal narratives to reveal the underlying universality of pain, guilt and regret. Narratives of familial turmoil, death and economic hardship reappear throughout Nash’s filmography in films such as Bread and Dripping (1982), Vacant Possession and Call Me Mum alongside narratives concerning female sexuality, unemployment and gender inequality in shorts such as We Aim To Please (1976), For Love Or Money (1983) and Shadow Panic (1989). There is an undeniable empathy in how Nash approaches these subjects and it is clear that these recurring themes of memory, loss, motherhood and grief have a political as well as personal connection for her.
While The Silences is of course a personal story, it also speaks to broader narratives of secrecy and shame connected to discourses of intellectual disability and evokes the confusing and painful experience of mourning something that was never acknowledged. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed reflects on her mother’s diagnosis of transverse myelitis and considers the significance of witnessing her chronic pain. By bearing witness, Ahmed was able to “grant her pain the status of an event, a happening in the world, rather than just the ‘something’ she felt, the ‘something’ that would come and go with her coming and going.”1 In this sense, witnessing another’s pain allows for their experience to take shape in the world, to become tangible. By acknowledging Felicity and telling her story, Nash calls upon us to bear witness to an uncomfortable history of institutionalisation and, in doing so, to also engage in an act of empathy for this pain.
Nash answers Margaret Atwood’s call to tell and retell stories in order to listen to the past and, in doing so, demonstrates the cathartic potential of art. Atwood’s quote is the first of five brief intermissions that appear throughout the film. Others include excerpts from James Lee Burke and Michael Pollan and poems from Kate Jennings and Dorothy Hewett. These breaks – or silences – allow for a moment of contemplation and suggest that Nash has sought refuge in these words in order to make sense of her own experiences and feelings. Following her mother’s death, Nash ruminates on the possibility of making peace with her past saying “I knew your suffering had made you like this, but how could I forgive you for the wounds I carried? How could I let you go? Would this mean the wounds would go too?” If stories allow for us to listen to the past, then Nash’s documentary seeks to give voice to the silences in her own past and, through this dialogue, start to heal the wounds.
The Silences (2015 Australia 73 min)
Prod Co: As If Productions Prod: Margot Nash Sound: Michael Gissing Dir: Margot Nash Narration Recording: Luke Bacon Research: Margot Nash, Natalie Krikowa, Melissa Ippolito Ed: Margot Nash Dialogue Ed: Megan Wedge Mus: Elizabeth Drake Cast: Margot Nash, Diane Nash
- Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp.29-30. ↩