“I just close my eyes and a sing, and I feel like I’m above the crowd.”
– Jo Kennedy as Jackie Mullens, Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982)
Made in 1982, Starstruck is the earliest feature film covered by this dossier. It’s Jo Kennedy’s first, and Gillian Armstrong’s second, and allows a young woman, of little institutional experience but of great talent, take the stage. And she impresses. Starstruck was near the beginning of a new decade, and announced that women should be taken seriously as real and exciting talents, continuing a theme from Armstrong’s 1978 debut My Brilliant Career. And while this is no surprise to anyone who claims to be an informed or intelligent cinephile or writer on film, it is still, in some cases, a recent or not-yet-formed realisation. Australian cinema has a history that is much more layered and multidimensional than many casual or even informed viewers of our nation’s industry might be aware. And women were always key, back when Lottie Lyell was key collaborator, actor, and possible silent director on Raymond Longford’s pictures1, and sisters Paulette, Phyllis, and Isabel McDonagh made their own movies in the 1920s and 1930s.2 These are important figures in Australia’s film history, and there are many that followed. Given the in many ways incredible breakdown of Australian film production in the middle of the 20th century, women played a key role in the revival of the film industry here in the 1970s, both in front of and behind the camera. Many more came into the scene in the 1980s and 1990s, when filmmakers moved beyond these limits, into new genres and new experimentations with film style and narrative form.
This dossier, and the Melbourne International Film Festival programme it accompanies, is called “Pioneering Women Filmmakers”. In addition to previously published pieces by Craig Martin on Celia (1989) and his interview with its director Ann Turner, an essay by Kate Robertson on BeDevil (Tracey Moffatt, 1993), and Stephen Teo’s article on Clara Law’s Floating Life (1996), this dossier includes a slate of new work that pays tribute to every film in the programme. Whitney Monaghan writes on Ana Kokkinos’s Only the Brave (1994), and Blythe Worthy looks at High Tide (1987), each providing reflections that might connect their films through the overlapping lenses of youth, of becoming, of self-acceptance. Josh Nelson and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas discuss Laurie McInnes’s Broken Highway (1993), in which the writers consider the work as “dark and densely cinematic” and imbued with the director’s personal experiences. Isabella McNeill interviews Nadia Tass, an industry veteran whose extensive work (much of it with her partner David Parker, although some independently) covers screenwriting, producing, directing, casting, and more technical elements. As Tass says in the interview, “as a director, you’re a filmmaker.” We also republish, online for the first time, an interview with the late Mary Callaghan included in the original press kit for her 1989 film Tender Hooks (with thanks to Ronin Films).
To commemorate the earliest film in this programme, Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982), I write on Jo Kennedy’s screen persona in her debut film, and in Mary Callaghan’s Tender Hooks (1989). Continuing this focus on performance, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas writes on Claudia Karvan’s significant contributions to the Australian film scene, prior to becoming more well-known for roles on the small screen. In the spirit of rediscovering under-appreciated gems, particularly exciting is Heller-Nicholas’s piece about On Guard (Susan Lambert, 1984), a film with, as she describes it, very little online imprint. Perhaps, after this article and its screening at MIFF, its profile will grow.
It’s powerful to present such a passionate appreciation of women’s filmmaking in this way. It’s important that these histories of women are told, and continue to be told. In Alexandra Heller-Nicholas’s piece in this dossier that reflects on the period’s issues of Cinema Papers, she mentions Des Partridge’s 1998 comment praising the volume of women working in Australian cinema at a time when, internationally, the number was much lower. We have a great history of women filmmakers in Australia, and it’s a pleasure to honour them here with this dossier.
Like Max says in Broken Highway (Laurie McInnes, 1993), perhaps Australian cinema is “something to give you dreams.” In Starstruck, Jo Kennedy’s Jackie doesn’t want a Jaguar, but in The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990), that’s all Ben Mendelsohn’s Danny wants. This is a difficult cinema to pin down, that’s for sure, but one of the things that the programme – and the variety of writing published in this dossier – highlights is that there is no one way to look at Australian cinema. While this is an excellent programme, and a dossier that celebrates some of the best of Australia’s film history along with some brilliant writing, it is also restricted in some ways. There is always more cinema to be discovered, or rediscovered, beyond the borders of any retrospective. But we hope you will take this as an opportunity to watch on the big screen, read on your own screen, and then continue to seek out women’s contributions to the rich culture of Australian film. Because it has been sidelined for so long, here we put women’s cinema above the crowd.
I would like to thank the editors at Senses of Cinema for the opportunity to act as a guest editor for this dossier; I am very excited to be a part of it. Thank you also to the writers, both of new contributions and previously published work, for enriching it with their knowledge and perspectives.
- Margot Nash, “Lottie Lyell: The Silent Work of an Early Australian Scenario Writer,” Screening the Past, 2015, http://www.screeningthepast.com/2015/08/lottie-lyell-the-silent-work-of-an-early-australian-scenario-writer/ ↩
- Ann-Marie Cook, “Re-assessing the Demise of the McDonagh Sisters”, Screening the Past, 2015, www.screeningthepast.com/2015/08/reassessing-the-demise-of-the-mcdonagh-sisters/ ↩