Editor's Note: This first appeared on John's Facebook page. I'm delighted to have his permission to share it further via this blog.
Finally tonight I had a look at Margot Nash's sinuously crafted and brilliant personal essay documentary The Silences (Australia, 2015). It is, as expected from a very gifted and searching filmmaker, a film that explores through its manifold levels of cinematic expression and representation complex, poignant, and far-reaching issues dealing with family secrets, loss, vulnerability , repression and mental illness. And as such The Silences, with its knowing poetic instincts and cinematic - memoir experimental tropes, is a film that in many critical ways can be said to be as worthy as a creative accomplishment in the Australian essay film form as Corinne Cantrill's influential masterpiece In This Life's Body (1984). Nash, through letters, voice-over, archival footage, and a most rare and effective off-screen dialogue between the filmmaker and her older sister Diana, who had to contain family secrets about their eldest mentally retarded sister Felicity from Margot herself. Consequently, Nash became the unwanted rebel ever-so curious about her family and their dark secrets , whilst Diana became introverted, bookish and resentful that she had to be silent about their institutionalised sister.
From the opening languid river scenes of this family memoir/poem to its concluding scenes of Nash and Diana constructing memorial grave sites to their paranoid and bi-polar father and a mother who was depressed throughout her life. They were parents bickering and fighting as a couple and creating deep existential scars to their two daughters. This award -winning personal documentary is, without any doubt, the best film to have emerged in Australia in 2015. In January of this year it was screened in, of all places, Wauchope where I spent my first four years, as my parents had a little cafe which was so typical of their Greek relatives. Further, Nash's The Silences pivots around the family - kept secret of Felicity who was, for the curious filmmaker when she was very young , the unnamed baby girl in a pram in a number of photographs in a small green family album. A few years earlier I and my middle brother visited Wauchope , after many years of saying to ourselves that we would do so one day, and visited the grave site of our older baby sister who had died at birth.
It was a very humid and hot day and the two of us searched for a while to locate our sister's grave. Finally having found it, the stone read, disappointedly and unexpectedly, "The Conomos daughter " . That was it. Family secrets tragically warp our lifeworld of feelings, ideas and behaviour as we grow up within the repressive and traditional confines of our families, our future lives are inexorably stamped by them and Nash's film is such an insightful, telling and beautifully told work that transcends any kind of theoretical didacticism and instead aims directly at our beating hearts as we discover ourselves and our world as we live.
Among the many pleasing and rich attributes of The Silences, I like the consummate way Nash uses literary quotes from writers like Marguerite Duras, Margaret Atwood, Kate Jennings and others which give the film the required emotional and generic reflexivity. Although this is a brief note on The Silences I hope soon to do something more in detail which attempts to contextualise it in the broader scheme of recent essay films. It is a film that deeply sings with autobiographical insight , existential courage and cinematic experimentation.