“The time for action is over… The time for reflection begins.”1
In Margot Nash’s deeply personal essay film The Silences (2015), she mines her own past, memory, history and previous filmmaking practice to tell the story of a hidden and long buried legacy of family trauma, secrets and mental illness. As Nash states, the film provides an “exploration of early childhood and the ‘silences’ of the past that resonate in the present”.2 There is much to say about the ways in which Nash excavates this past, speaks to the ongoing legacy of trauma and the wider impact of mental illness, and finds a particular voice that allows her to tread a circuitous path that cuts through the tyranny of chronology and speaks to the ways that memory pulses and sticks, but I’m particularly fascinated by the manner in which she draws upon and recontextualises her own family archive as well as a number of her previous films. Like Corinne Cantrill’s highly influential and extraordinarily candid In This Life’s Body (1984), The Silences interrogates domestic photography as both a highly selective and circumscribed historical record and a palimpsest of other processes and possibilities. Nash wonders aloud about who might have torn the face of her mother from a particular photograph, what a frank and carefully hidden image might say about her parents’ material and emotional state at a particularly vulnerable time, and how a judiciously constructed image of her and her sister can speak to the loss of a third female sibling that she never knew and whose existence was only gradually revealed to her.
Like many works of highly personal but questioning autobiography, The Silences works through the material and emotional legacy of the past to navigate a kind of reckoning or revelation. In its final passages it finds a degree of comfort, reward and even grace in the cairns Margot and her sister build in New Zealand to mark and ground the conflicted memories of their mother, father and older sister. They even find the words that allow a shared space for their different stories, experiences and memories to percolate side by side. As in many such personal, even profoundly autobiographical films or portraits, it is often a spark of recognition or deep connection that pulls the viewer into the ‘interior’ world being fashioned by the filmmaker. As these kinds of movies generally draw on highly personal but still partly generic family histories, stories and images, part of this identification comes down to a recognition of shared experience. But a key reason why The Silences resonated so profoundly for me when I first encountered it was also a connection across geography, place, migrant experience and time. Margot tells the story of venturing from New Zealand to the suburb of Ringwood in then outer-eastern Melbourne in 1950. 20 years later, I made a similar journey as a five-year-old from southern England to the adjoining suburb (Ringwood East). This is not a particularly deep or close connection – I can recognise little of the almost rural suburb in the backgrounds of Nash’s photographs or from her recollections – but it does speak to how these personal histories burrow into and spark a profoundly felt set of experiences. It also points to the acute preoccupation with place and belonging that characterises each of the films I will discuss here.
The Silences is one of a series of contemporary independent long-form Australian documentaries and essay films that draw upon moments, fragments or strands of film history to help tell personal, even autobiographical stories. In this discussion, I’m not going to be too concerned with defining what qualifies as an independent film. Some of the movies I examine are entirely self-funded, while others received significant financial backing and production support from various funding bodies, but all express an idiosyncratic and highly ‘independent’ authorial voice that is characteristic of the filmmaker’s work more generally. For instance, Nash has made a variety of works across her career ranging from early feminist films that emerged from the collective, utopian ambitions of the interconnected women’s and film co-op movements – such as We Aim to Please (Nash and Robin Laurie, 1976) and For Love or Money (directed by Megan McMurchy and Jeni Thornley, but crucially edited by Nash, 1983) – to a pair of somewhat larger-scaled, government-funded fiction projects – Vacant Possession (1995) and Call Me Mum (2006) – that explore an array of topics but often return to a concern with the dynamics of the family, the fraught relationships between parents and children, and the occupation, dispossession and sovereignty of the land.
In contrast to a number of Nash’s previous works, The Silences is a truly independent movie that didn’t attract government, film festival or television broadcaster support and was partly enabled by her job in the university sector (and this institutional connection and what it makes possible is central to a number of the films discussed here).3 Nevertheless, and in contrast to many of the films addressed elsewhere in this special dossier, The Silences did attain limited local distribution and received screenings at a number of prominent film festivals.4 As I’ve suggested above, it sits alongside a series of documentaries by other – in many cases closely connected or aligned – filmmakers that also attempt to position their directors within particular currents of Australian film history. The Silences is unusual within this group in that it largely eschews broader accounts of these histories – there is some mention of the production of Nash’s other films and even her mother’s responses to them – and uses Nash’s own fiction works to explore her ongoing, sometimes unconscious preoccupations with specific moments and images from her past. For example, when she shows footage of the traumatised father from Vacant Possession played by John Stanton, or scenes that strongly recall her rummaging through her parents’ drawers as a child, it reveals a partly unconscious working through of her own personal history and memories within the more public domain of fiction filmmaking practice. In the process, the films themselves become repositories of memory – both public and highly personal. As Nash reveals, “these images and sounds… could now be repurposed as archival material to help tell a repressed family story that had been sitting under the surface of the original films all along”.5 Although Nash herself has stated that this reading of her early work is somewhat misleading and selective,6 it also refashions and repurposes a very particular film history: “During the process of editing I went back through my films again and again, often at the urging of others, listening and searching my own creative history for moments that could be understood in new ways and reused in the service of the new story.”7
This partly archival practice – enabled by an iterative process of editing and re-editing, writing and rewriting – is also characteristic of the wider group of films I’m analysing in this essay. Over the last 20 years, a series of significant and often maverick Australian filmmakers who began their careers in the 1960s and 1970s have produced documentaries and essay films that have, in part, reflected upon their own place within Australian film history as well as particular social and cultural movements.8 These range from the highly personal and explicitly autobiographical recent works of Gillian Leahy, Nash and Jeni Thornley – all of whom reposition and even critique their earlier films within these later works – to the more reticent, explicitly materialist, though still partly personal, film history documentaries of John Hughes and Nigel Buesst. This admittedly disparate body of work has its roots in the 1970s and 1980s and bears comparison with other films produced around the film co-ops at this time and under the auspices of such progressive cultural initiatives as the Australian Film Commission’s Creative Development Fund. This scheme supported such hybrid experimental ‘documentaries’ as Leahy’s My Life Without Steve (1986), Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls (1987), Ross Gibson’s Camera Natura (1985), and Sarah Gibson and Susan Lambert’s Landslides (1987), many of which share a concern with the contested legacies of history and representation that also characterises this later group of films and filmmakers.
There are also a series of films made in the late 1970s and 1980s, such as Hughes’ Film-Work (1981), Merilee Bennett’s A Song of Air (1987), Cantrill’s In This Life’s Body and Thornley’s Maidens (1978), that self-consciously foreground the work of the filmmaker and their particular relation to the histories they document and repurpose. For example, A Song of Air explores the legacy and impact of the director’s amateur filmmaker father upon her own identity and practice. Although it presents a blistering portrait of a controlling patriarch unable to see beyond highly circumscribed views of gender and identity, it also recognises the very real qualities of the father’s filmmaking and its attempts to draw the family closer together. As in all of the films discussed here, there is a tension between the past and the present but also a continuity of practice over time that marks these works. The past is never a ‘foreign country’ but an endless source of new connections, possibilities and traumas. Merilee recognises her utter separation from the values, views and practices of her father but also their shared identity as re-shapers of family (film) history. Her film mirrors the way that all of these films both critically reflect on the past and pointedly embed themselves within it. It also highlights that this revisionist archival practice – and its critical recognition of cultural and social hierarchies and systems of power like gender – has particular pertinence to and place within Australian feminist filmmaking from the late 1970s onwards.
The films of Nigel Buesst and John Hughes that fit within this ‘category’ clearly align the filmmakers’ own practice with that of a series of progenitors and/or contemporaries. It is in this sense that they can be classed as autobiographical or auto-portraits despite their more reserved, less direct and less obviously personal dimensions. For example, Buesst’s Carlton + Godard = Cinema (2003) sets out – in its own colloquial, slightly ramshackle and cobbled together fashion – to document the small ‘outbreak’ of independent personal filmmaking in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s that was centred around the suburb of Carlton in Melbourne. Like these other films, it provides a refreshing account of a less celebrated and often under-recognised counter (filmmaking) history largely obscured by the larger narratives of Australian National Cinema and the film ‘revival’ of the mid-1970s. In this regard, it is one of a series of audio-visual histories that act to fragment and question singular and dominant narratives of Australian cinema and highlight the work of maverick individuals who sit outside of these largely linear mainstream accounts.
Although he is reticent to show himself onscreen or even detail his own contribution to this field, Buesst is, of course, a central figure in the movement he documents – evocatively called the “Carlton ripple” by Bruce Hodsdon9 – who directed several of its key works and laboured in various capacities on numerous others.10 Buesst’s ultra-low-budget film is a highly sympathetic attempt to document the peculiarities of place, film history, technology, influence and social and cultural change that converged in Carlton at this specific moment in time. The film begins reflexively with a passage of a play by Barry Dickens that focuses on four old ‘filmmakers’ meeting outside Brunetti – a prominent café in Carlton – reminiscing about this earlier moment – one assumes that Buesst is partly expressing an affinity with these figures at this moment.11 Although Buesst’s film takes its time and shows long passages from these difficult to see movies, as well as document the peripatetic careers of filmmakers like Brian Davies, Giorgio Mangiamele and Tony Ginnane, it is most interested in giving a sense of a particular time and place and the specific elements – such as an evolving suburb (Carlton), the influence of an international filmmaker (Jean-Luc Godard), and an available means of expression (cinema) – that they braid together. It is a kind of ‘auto-portrait’ in absentia that speaks to the combination of imported ‘influence’ and idiosyncratic local ‘novelty’ and ‘invention’ that defines this largely inner suburban cinema.
Over the last 15 or so years, John Hughes has made a series of films “with a strong historical and biographical focus and a somewhat elegiac tone”.12 The first of these, The Archive Project (2006),
was something of a breakthrough for Hughes to lend his own voice to one of his films. He accurately describes his narration as “recessed… minimal, ironic” in its reference to his own encounters with the history at hand. Yet this understated personal narrative does help to articulate the idea that all the film’s materials are elements in a process of historical construction.13
Beyond their focus on such significant but generally marginalised historical figures as Catherine Duncan, Ken Coldicutt and Bob Mathews, these later films are also unusual for their use of Hughes’ own voice as well as how they ‘document’ and ‘stage’ the gathering together of the film that we are watching. Throughout the three closely interrelated films I’m discussing here – The Archive Project (2006), Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia (2009) and its companion ‘revisit’ film, After Indonesia Calling (2011)14
– Hughes partly foregrounds the processes of putting each film together as well as some of the parallels and contrasts between leftist documentary practice – including his own – at particular points in time from the 1940s until the late 2000s.15 These films are also part of a much larger body of Hughes’ work that is remarkable for its commitment to activist and social justice causes and practices as well as for its aesthetic experimentation and embrace of new technologies.
The Archive Project opens with a series of possible starting points for the movie we are about to see, ranging from an aside spoken by one of the subjects of Hughes’ earlier film about the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit, Film-Work, the materials discovered beneath the house of one of the key members (Bob Mathews) of the Realist Film Association, and a box of trims that Hughes himself had carried from “house to house”. It shares with each of the films discussed in this essay, a sense of constantly living with the past and its legacy, of trying to find a way to connect these often forgotten and neglected histories to the current moment and to continue to unravel their ongoing pertinence and the lessons they can impart. Although Hughes does speak a little about his own films and practice and uses his own voice on the soundtrack to partly personalise this journey, his often densely layered and annotated screen and soundtrack materialises the process of ‘gathering’ history as well as the critical practice of (auto)biography. As presented in his work, Hughes’ autobiography or auto-portrait is explicitly as a filmmaker. Although his films weigh up the close relation between filmmaking, daily life and the archive – precarious when left to the families of those who have departed the scene – they are more concerned with positioning Hughes’ practice within a particular lineage, comparative history or industrial context. Unlike in The Silences, for example, we get little sense of Hughes’ life beyond his sustained contribution and research into leftist documentary filmmaking and his dedication to recording the contributions of various maverick figures to this tradition. Hughes’ films are largely group biographies leavened with moments of complimentary auto-portraiture. Even the self-reflexive film that Hughes made as part of his PhD at RMIT University, After Indonesia Calling, deliberately underplays and layers its personal dimensions in favour of an account of the broader fate and parlous state of creative documentary in Australia at different historical junctures.16
In the last section of this essay, I’d like to say a few things about two filmmakers – Jeni Thornley and Gillian Leahy – who have utilised their past work to explore and develop particular preoccupations. Like the other filmmakers discussed here, their film work links back to the legacies of the 1960s and 1970s. Thornley is probably the most significant and practiced filmmaker in the ‘tradition’ I’ve outlined in this essay. Each of her ‘compilation’ films reuse her past movies, the work of her close colleagues, home movies, photographs and the broader canon of Australian film history. For example, the film she co-directed on women and work in Australia, For Love or Money, brings together a vast arsenal of images and sounds including sequences from significant features like The Overlanders (Harry Watt, 1946), Smithy (Ken G. Hall, 1946), Sons of Matthew (Charles Chauvel, 1949), Caddie (Donald Crombie, 1976) and Journey Among Women (Tom Cowan, 1977) treated as phantasmagorical works sitting somewhere between fiction, documentary and nationalist fantasy. Throughout, Thornley probes her own film work – and that of others – to create new connections, suggest new absences and forge new histories. Speaking of Thornley’s To the Other Shore (1996), Felicity Collins describes how “scenes from the filmmaker’s personal image-repertoire are reassembled at the editing bench to create a public, autobiographical memory of the ruination and restoration of the female self in motherhood, in psychoanalysis, and cinema”.17
As in the case of Hughes and Nash, Thornley’s practice sit between true independence – whatever that is? – and the shifting parameters set by government funding, the broadcasters and the university sector. Thornley’s rising sense of awareness constantly reframes previous films within new contexts, communicating a restlessness that highlights the evolving nature and power of the archive as well as the stories it can tell. In Island Home Country (2008), she uses a wide variety of sources to explore her own white heritage lived on the stolen lands of central Tasmania: “It’s as if we grew up behind a hedge, keeping history out.”18 She probes her films, those of others (such as John Honey’s Manganinnie ), home movies and photographs to document an upbringing largely devoid of any knowledge or recognition of Aboriginal sovereignty. In the process, she recognises her own complicity in the telling of this story and the occupation of the land: “The colonial layer feels like skin.” Unlike the other filmmakers discussed here, Thornley’s largely compilation-based filmmaking practice sees her own archive and her place within it – also measured against her father’s failed film exhibition business in Tasmania – as always in flux and deeply contested.19
Gillian Leahy has also been making movies since the 1970s, and is most well-known for her remarkable essay film, My Life Without Steve. Like the other filmmakers discussed here, her work moves between independent and industry-funded modes of production. It also moves across documentary, the avant-garde, the personal essay and something closer to fiction. She has also worked as a script assessor, screenwriter and script editor while being employed at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) since the 1980s (Thornley also taught at UTS). Leahy’s most recent feature, Baxter and Me (2016), explores her life-long affection for dogs and the important affect they have had on her daily existence and outlook on life. Although it has often been compared to The Silences due to its essayistic form, its feminist perspective, the timing of its release and its reuse of the filmmaker’s earlier work, Leahy has been careful to highlight the different conditions under which her film was produced, as well as its final, less ‘experimental’ shape. Initially conceived as an even more essayistic and ‘academic work’, which focused on scientific insights into dog psychology and ownership, Leahy shifted her focus to a “more elegant and less academic narration”, worked with a highly experienced commercial producer (Sue Brooks) and script editor (Alison Tilson), and pragmatically bowed to Screen Australia’s stipulation that she make a film more focused on her own life:
Motivated by the desire to get my film made, I settled down to write the version that Screen Australia wanted. The new draft included clips from my previous films and stories of my past life mediated via my dogs. I was encouraged to include my experience as one of the forerunners in a number of movements, such as feminism and the right for women to fill technical roles on feature film productions.20
Reading Nash and Leahy’s accounts of the gestation and production of their two late career films, it’s fascinating to compare the ways in which the former embraced more iterative modes of production, while the latter moved increasingly away from such an approach. But, of course, The Silences and Baxter and Me share many more affinities and elements than they do differences, their modes of production funding only partly influencing how they were put together. Both are partway confessional in form, rely upon the unfiltered voice of their filmmaker-narrators, construct a story that joins their personal, professional and activist lives, fit clearly within the broader oeuvre of each filmmaker and speak to the ‘intimacy’ of human relations. As Leahy argues, her ‘revised’ approach to the material “revolved around a central theme – intimacy – dogs and intimacy and issues of love, intimacy and agency in my own life”.21 As in the work of Thornley and Nash, Baxter and Me braids together footage from a range of Leahy’s previous films and collaborations including Hearts and Spades (1974), Starting Right Now (1975), the unfinished Coal is Coal, My Life Without Steve, and Our Park (1998). But whereas Thornley and Nash use their previous projects as something like ‘found footage’, Leahy returns to a more conventional and linear history which nevertheless speaks to the continuity of her practice and the close interrelation of the personal and the political that her work insists upon. As Adrian Martin claims, in the process “Baxter and Me gives us a valuable history lesson about feminism in Australia, not just at the broad level of civil rights, but also at the intimate level of lived experience”.22 As in the other works discussed here, the essay form allows a wide array of material and histories to seep in, making connections across moments in time, experiences and even species: “In this type of cinematic essay, even a lone dog like Baxter can find his place in a historical, social and cosmic whole”.23
The films by Nash, Thornley, Buesst, Hughes and Leahy discussed in this essay seek out the connections between particular histories and periods, as well as providing a “precious glimpse of an era in Australian cinema that is difficult to access today”.24 Each in their own way positions the filmmaker as part of a legacy, as an ingredient in an often disregarded or marginalised history. But each also looks to the true intimacy of this relationship. For example, Baxter and Me is concerned with the daily, intimate relations between humans and dogs that are built over time, but also with the close connections between the filmmaker and a particular ecology and history of filmmaking. Other than in terms of the changing modes of production, shifts in fashion, and the evolving sexual and cultural politics over time, these films suggest there is little distance between themselves and their object of study. For instance, one can feel the close parallels between the materialist contemporary work of John Hughes and that of the Realist Film Association and Joris Ivens, the shared sensibility between Carlton + Godard = Cinema and the films of the Carlton “ripple”, or the deep continuity across and between the films of Nash, Leahy and Thornley. In each case, the ‘silences’ or murmurs of the past truly ‘resonate’ with the present.
- This abbreviated quotation is taken from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat (1960/63). It also provides the opening onscreen intertitle in Nigel Buesst’s Carlton + Godard = Cinema (2003). This line has been translated in numerous ways over the years. This is the version that appears in Buesst’s film. ↩
- Margot Nash, “The Silences: Process, Structure and the Development of a Personal Essay Documentary”, Sydney Studies in English, 42 (2016): 1 ↩
- The Silences was produced while Nash was employed as an academic at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). She retired from her position in 2019 before taking on an Honorary role. Thornley, Buesst, Leahy and Hughes have also worked in the university sector at various times in their careers. Although it is seldom fully recognised or documented, this sector provides important support for independent film and television production in Australia. ↩
- For example, it screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Adelaide Film Festival, the New Zealand International Film Festival, and was featured in a 2016 retrospective of Nash’s work at the Melbourne Cinémathèque that I curated. It is distributed by Ronin Films. ↩
- Nash, 7. ↩
- See Kit McFarlane, “The Tyranny of the Unseen: The Silences, Autoethnography and Mental Health”, Metro, 188 (2016): 85. ↩
- Nash, 10. ↩
- These films are also part of a broader group of documentaries made over the last 20 years that attempt to provide (micro)histories of Australian cinema that move outside of the canon. Aside from the films I discuss in this essay, these include Alec Morgan’s Hunt Angels (2006) and Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008). For a discussion of this broader tendency see Adrian Danks, “Picking Up the Pieces: Contemporary Australian Cinema and the Representation of Australian Film History”, Australian Screen in the 2000s, ed. Mark David Ryan and Ben Goldsmith (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017): 23-47. ↩
- For a discussion of the films and filmmakers of the “Carlton ripple” see Bruce Hodsdon, “The Carlton Ripple and the Australian Film Revival”, Screening the Past, 23 (2008) ↩
- Buesst was the director of The Rise and Fall of Squizzy Taylor (1969) and Bonjour Balwyn (1971), two important films in this grouping. He was also the editor of The Girlfriends (Peter Elliot, 1967) and a cinematographer on Nothing Like Experience (Peter Carmody, 1970), Brake Fluid (Brian Davies, 1970) and Sympathy in Summer (Anthony I. Ginnane, 1971). He therefore provided core contributions to a significant percentage of the “Carlton” films. ↩
- This play, Go in Tight, was performed at Carlton’s La Mama Theatre in 2001. ↩
- John Cumming, The Films of John Hughes: A History of Independent Film Production in Australia (St Kilda: Australian Teachers of Media, 2014): 187. ↩
- Cumming, 192. ↩
- These first two feature-length films were funded from a variety of sources including the Film Finance Corporation’s Innovation Fund, Film Victoria, The Melbourne International Film Festival and the Australian Film Commission. On the basis of this support Hughes was able to seek a pre-sale from the ABC, but only for a 30-minute slot. Nevertheless, Hughes delivered feature-length versions of each film, both of which were screened in relatively accessible timeslots. Indonesia Calling was initially rejected by the ABC, who then came onboard after the securing of other funding. The broadcast of The Archive Project in early 2007 was proceeded by a range of other events – including a screening of the Realist Film Association films and other later socially committed works at the Melbourne Cinémathèque in 2006 (“Independent Voice”) and an exhibition as part of the “2006 Contemporary Commonwealth” staged by ACMI and the National Gallery of Victoria – that further deepened the essential archival work undertaken by Hughes. See Cumming, 188-190, 219. ↩
- Hughes’ next film after this “series” was an intimate short documentary exploring the long-term relationship and correspondence between poet and environmentalist Judith Wright and economist and prominent public servant H. C. “Nugget” Coombs. Love & Fury: Judith Wright & “Nugget” Coombs continues Hughes’ concern with cultural biography by documenting and essaying the fascinating relationship between these two towering figures. This Hughes’ last film to be shown widely and to be publicly funded by television. ↩
- For the record, I was John’s PhD supervisor at RMIT. ↩
- Felicity Collins, “The Experimental Practice of History in the Filmwork of Jeni Thornley”, Screening the Past, 3 (May 1998). ↩
- This is taken from Thornley’s voiceover for the film. Like most of the films in this mode, the often-personal voiceover is spoken by the filmmaker. ↩
- Thornley is currently completing a project drawing on and recontextualising her archive of super 8 movies shot between 1976 and 2003 – Memory Film: A Filmmaker’s Diary. These 8mm movies have been acquired by the Australian National Film and Sound Archive. ↩
- Gillian Leahy, “Developing Baxter and Me: Maintaining Authorial Voice Despite Industry Pressures”, The Palgrave Handbook of Screen Production, ed. Craig Batty, Marsha Berry, Kath Dooley, Bettina Frankham and Susan Kerrigan (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019): 174. ↩
- Leahy, 175. ↩
- Adrian Martin, “Dog Day, Every Day: Gillian Leahy’s Baxter and Me and the Essay Film”, Metro, 192 (2017): 88. This article can also be found at http://www.filmcritic.com.
au/reviews/b/baxter_and_me. html?fbclid= IwAR1GaDTV7SYJjWMttdIZMUg6l- Ot4E9HlChm_ 7wrsDnAVheMCP9HKErHK7o ↩
- Martin, 89. ↩
- Martin, 89. ↩