A longer version of this article analysing The Golden Cage, A Handful of Dust, and Ayten Kuyululu’s career in more detail will appear in a forthcoming issue of Metro magazine.

Ayten Kuyululu is a key figure in 1970s Australian cinema. But her significance within that era’s “revival” has been obscured by her background, gender, ethnicity, and the discomforting form, nature, and fate of the two films she released during that pivotal time: the 42-minute A Handful of Dust (1974) and the 70-minute The Golden Cage (1975). The Golden Cage was the first feature to be directed by a woman in Australia since Paulette McDonagh’s Two Minutes Silence in 1933. Nevertheless, in many popular accounts of the “new wave”, and of Australian cinema history more generally, it is Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career (1979) – an extraordinary, singular film centred upon female and feminist experience, but commonly framed within the familiar period or nostalgic trappings of the “AFC genre”1 – which is granted that distinction. This can be partly justified by the application of specific criteria that excludes The Golden Cage from due consideration as a result of its failure to gain a commercial release, its low-budget production on 16mm, its continued lack of visibility for almost 50 years, its director’s then relatively recent arrival to Australia – in 1971 – after completing work in both Sweden and Turkey, its emphasis on male migrant experience, and its focus on themes, situations, and cultural experiences outside the norms of the era’s key films. For many, Kuyululu’s two Australian films aren’t merely lost, they are completely invisible and entirely unknown.

1975 is, of course, a watershed year in Australian cinema, but the downbeat, transcultural The Golden Cage is far removed from the evocative, feminine, haunted period settings of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock; the warm humour, mateship, and wounded masculinity of Ken Hannam’s Sunday Too Far Away; the breezy transnational movements across genre and space of Brian Trenchard-Smith’s The Man From Hong Kong; or the urgent, propulsive, drug-fuelled inner-city junkie escapades of Bert Deling’s Pure Shit. Although Kuyululu’s landmark Sydney-set feature does share some qualities and elements with some of these films – and certainly has most in common with the down-at-heel “poor cinema” centred in Melbourne and exemplified by such films as Pure Shit and Queensland (John Ruane, 1976)2 – it comes closest, inevitably, to another migrant-focused work completed earlier in 1975, but not released until the end of 1976: Tom Cowan’s underseen and underdiscussed Promised Woman. Though undoubtedly a landmark film – as it was written and directed by a woman and deals with ethnic or migrant experience, then still a very rare focus in Australian cinema – The Golden Cage has been consistently marginalised and often forgotten about in accounts of Australian film history. It does not fit neatly within existing definitions and expectations of a national, feminist, ethnic, urban, or gender-centred Australian cinema.

This is further complicated by Kuyululu’s status as a genuinely transnational or intercultural female filmmaker who made films in Turkey, Sweden, and Australia. Though deeply committed to living in Australia with her family, and drawing on local systems of production and financing, Kuyululu’s career shares some characteristics with the broader category of the “sojourner” filmmaker. As proposed by Jane Mills, this is a transnational grouping incorporating works “made by filmmakers who are not involuntarily relocated in another country but who choose to travel across national borders and who do not relocate permanently. Rather, they stay as a guest for as long as it takes for them to make a film in and about their host nation.”3 While some of the directors she discusses, such as Michael Powell, Nicolas Roeg, Harry Watt, and Ted Kotcheff, were committed to producing and completing important and more mainstream projects within Australia over significant passages of time, their transnational, itinerant or international credentials tend to override their wholehearted inclusion within surveys of the national cinema. Although her films tend to have been marginalised for similar reasons, Kuyululu’s work sits outside of this group of films and filmmakers as that of a voluntary migrant who settled in Australia for significant passages of time up until her death in Sydney in 2019. The two films she completed in the 1970s reflect an engagement with the daily realities of migrant life on the cusp of multicultural Australia. 

Kuyululu’s films productively question what we should include in any definition of Australian cinema, but also need to be incorporated within a wider “practice” of diasporic Turkish filmmaking. But even within this relatively large field, Kuyululu is seldom acknowledged. The key work in English on diasporic “Turkey-related cinema”, Imaginaries Out of Place: Cinema, Transnationalism and Turkey, overwhelmingly focuses on the Turkish-German cinema that came into its own in the 1990s, failing to mention, even in passing, Kuyululu’s pioneering contribution across several continents.4 Kuyululu’s The Golden Cage and A Handful of Dust are therefore true outliers that have long needed to be brought into the wider discussion and redefinition of Australian cinema.

Kuyululu’s two films are indeed difficult to place. This is not surprising for small, low-budget films made by “minority” filmmakers within a host culture. But these problems are amplified with regards to Kuyululu. Part of the reason that critics and historians looking for historical evidence of female-centred filmmaking have been somewhat blind to Kuyululu’s work is its thematic emphasis. The Golden Cage centres on two male characters, contrastive figures who adapt very differently to living in Australia. The main female character is an Anglo-Australian woman, Kate (Kate Shiel), who falls in love with the more conventionally attractive and outwardly progressive Ayhan (Sait Memisoglu), a character who, initially, desires to leave his traditional Turkish values and ties behind. Other than her desire for personal and sexual freedom – she becomes pregnant but soon rejects Ayhan’s more possessive, progressively traditional ways and demands – Kate doesn’t really provide a significant point of audience identification. Even A Handful of Dust, whose narrative centres on a blood vendetta brought from Turkey to Australia and revolves around the efforts of its central female character (played by Ayten Kuyululu) to earn a hard-won living and protect her young son, is less focused on the agency of its female protagonist. Although neither are easy films to like, they are remarkable achievements in a cinema with so few multicultural female voices.

The experience of making A Handful of the Dust – and its generally positive reception at outlets like the Sydney Film Festival – set up the production of the more ambitious The Golden Cage the following year. Shot between late March and April 1975 – Russell Boyd must have gone straight onto the film’s set after shooting Picnic at Hanging Rock – it was made with a $22,500 grant from the Film and Television Board of the Australian Council for the Arts and incorporated a wider range of characters and locations than the earlier film, including second unit footage shot in Istanbul. This overseas-shot footage employed a small Turkish crew, furnishing the material for the disruptive, fragmented flashbacks experienced by Murat (Ilhan Kuyululu, Ayten’s husband) throughout the film. Although we might expect that these passages would contrast the modern world of Sydney with the more traditional domain of Istanbul, they largely focus on a clearly secular female character – Murat’s lost love – who is often shown looking directly into the camera. This figure is placed in a range of locations and sports a wide variety of modern clothing. These moments are also striking for the ways in which they erupt into and subsequently disrupt the flow of the film, presenting what we come to assume is Murat’s point of view. They are matched by other disruptions to the narrative flow such as the rhythmic montage that contrasts and connects shots of a Christian church and a mosque across geographically distanced city locations. Although The Golden Cage details a relatively conventional story, it also includes aspects and moments that draw it closer to a more personal, even experimental essay. These dislocations can be seen as failures of filmmaking prompted by the limited resources and relative inexperience of the filmmakers, but they also bear the marks left by genuinely composite, decentred, and marginalised voices.

The Golden Cage would go on to be screened on only a few occasions over the following five decades, including several showings on SBS in the 1980s. Although it failed to gain a commercial release anywhere in Australia, it did have a short season at the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op (and possibly other Co-ops around the country) and was screened as part of the 1975 International Womens Film Festival. The Golden Cage was the only contemporary Australian feature to screen at this landmark event held between August and October 1975 and that travelled to each of the state capitals. Following The Golden Cage, Kuyululu would go on to write an ambitious script called “The Battle of Broken Hill”, dramatising an incident on New Year’s Day 1915 where two Turkish brothers opened fire on a trainload of picnickers. Despite being fully budgeted with money committed by several funding agencies, it would never go into production. Kuyululu returned to Sweden in the late 1970s before arriving back in Australia in the mid-1980s. She wrote and directed the Turkish-language documentary Suçlu mu Piyon mu? (Guilty or Pawn?) in 1989, but, after this, her subsequent career in Australia was largely devoted to amateur theatre. Her death in May 2019 was met with a small number of tributes, but her important contribution to Australian and transnational cinema still remains under-recognised. As Sue Hardisty claims, “Ayten’s two films… seem to stand alone in the mid ’70s in an ‘overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic’ film milieu”.5 It is time for them to be (re)discovered.

A Handful of Dust (1974 Australia 42 mins)

Prod Co: Independent Artists Prod: Ilhan Kuyululu Dir, Scr: Ayten Kuyululu Phot: Malcolm Richard Ed: Richard Moir, Michael Norton Art Dir: Les McLaren Mus: Orhan Gazi

Cast: Ayten Kuyululu, Ilhan Kuyululu, Vedat Çeviköz, Carol Rachelle, Hakan Yaman, Orhan Gazi

The Golden Cage (1975 Australia 70 mins)

Prod Co: Independent Artists Prod: Ilhan Kuyululu Dir: Ayten Kuyululu Scr: Ayten Kuyululu, Ismet Soydan Phot: Russell Boyd Ed: David Huggett Art Dir: Sonia Hofmann Mus: Mary Vanderby, Aspidistra

Cast: Sait Memisoglu, Ilhan Kuyululu, Kate Shiel, Ron Haddrick, Michelle Fawdon, Emel Ozden


  1. Susan Dermody and Elizabeth Jacka’s influential discussion of the “AFC genre” has tended to overplay the more conservative, nostalgic, and nationalistic aspects of this large body of varied work across film and television. See Dermody and Jacka, The Screening of Australia, Volume 2: Anatomy of a National Cinema (Sydney: Currency Press, 1988), p. 28-38.
  2. See David Stratton’s chapter “Poor Cinema” in The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1980), p. 274-283. This chapter mostly centres on the “Melbourne scene” during this era but makes a comparison to some Sydney-based films including Albie Thoms’ Palm Beach (1979) and both of Kuyululu’s films.
  3. Jane Mills, “Sojourner Cinema: Seeking and Researching a New Cinematic Category,” Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, Volume 55, Issue 1 (Spring 2014): p. 142.
  4. Gökçen Karanfil and Serkan Savk (eds.). Imaginaries Out of Place: Cinema, Transnationalism and Turkey (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2013).
  5. Sue Hardistry, “The Work of Ayten Kuyululu in Seventies Australia” in Credits Rolling! Selected Papers from the 12th Biennial Conference of the Film and History Association of Australia and New Zealand (Canberra: NFSA, 2004), p. 86.

About The Author

Adrian Danks is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and Media in the School of Media and Communication, RMIT University. He is also co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque and was an editor of Senses of Cinema from 2000 to 2014. He has published hundreds of articles on various aspects of cinema and is the editor of A Companion to Robert Altman (Wiley-Blackwell) and American-Australian Cinema: Transnational Connections (Palgrave).

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