Saturday 24 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (32) - John Conomos reports on "Disruption and Deconstruction" - a discussion of a major SFF retrospective

Last Sunday, at the AGNSW’s Domain Theatre, I caught the very aptly named program “Disruption and Deconstruction”,  feminist films curated by Susan Charlton, that was part of her invaluable, well–attended “Feminism and Film : Sydney Women Filmmakers, 1970s and 80s”. Charlton has thematically and formally classified these films – that were so indispensable to the theoretical, cultural and cinematic concerns of Australian film culture back then nearly four decades ago – as three separate showcases of these overall dynamic, witty, often polemical, stirring films. 
Charlton’s incisively curated program, on the whole, was created due to popular demand and, as expected, it elaborately reflects the women’s liberation movement. The 1970s and ‘80s were an era of stormy cultural, social and political events that dramatically coloured our collective consciousness. And as such, “Feminism and Film” is a markedly illuminating and informed portal to these times, ideas and upheavals. Not least, to the particular key works and genres of Australian feminist film. The most popular genre in this context is the documentary film. Most kinds of documentary cinema were produced then but particularly two genres stood out with feminist film: collage and the essay film. 
The three showcases that Charlton has caringly selected under the following titles accurately sum up their concerns: (a) Personal is Political (one of the era’s defining mantras); (b) Disruption and Deconstruction (as mentioned earlier) and (c) Culture and Collaboration. All three showcases also reflect the ever – present deployment of feminist film theory. They also, at the same time, are quite iconic examples of the canon of Australian feminist films themselves.
Besides these three showcases of film curated by Charlton, one should also note that a newly restored version of Pat Fiske’s 1985 classic documentary Rocking the Foundations was also shown as part of the festival’s Restorations program. It is a monumental political protest documentary that records the NSW Builder’s Labourers Foundation (BLF) and how they courageously stood up to the state government and greedy developers in saving historic buildings, public spaces, parks and neighbourhoods. (My daughter, who works for a union like her brother, was very keen to see it because of its stirring social change theme and its enduring relevancy for today like Matt Tyrnauer’s superb Citizen Jane : Battle For the City [2016].)
Returning to Charlton’s “ Feminism and Film” program, the first showcase “Personal and Political “ consisted of three landmark films all, in their respective ways, embodying the specific collective filmmaking ideas and practices of the turbulent 1970s and ‘80s women’s movement in this city. Film for Discussion was 25 minutes in duration and was directed by the Sydney Women’s Film Group which included such exemplary figures as Martha Ansara and Jeni Thornley. As the title suggests, it concerns a particular feminist workshop to provide discussion and the following day it recorded a young woman’s consciousness raising. The second film We Aim to Please by Robin Laurie and Margot Nash, is a surreal journey about female sexuality, the male gaze, body image and visual pleasure. And the third, like Rocking the Foundations is a benchmark feminist documentary directed by Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley For Love Or Money : A History of Women and Work and Work. Personal stories have been woven together with illuminating archival excerpts.
The second showcase, unlike the other two, had four classical examples of the canon : they were Margaret Dodd’s witty , satirical look at femininity and the maternal This Woman is Not A Car (1982) which is a hybrid work that incorporates suburban melodrama with horror road movie ; Sarah Gibson and Susan Lambert’s 1980 experimental short Behind Closed Doors which addresses domestic violence ; Helen Grace and Erika Add’s exemplary essay film Serious Undertakings (1982) which dissects the complexities of history, national identity and sexual difference ; and finally, Laleen Jayamanne’s 1985 visually arresting and conceptually inventive examination of gender and possession A Song of Ceylon which is a riff on Basil Wright’s 1934 film The Song of Ceylon.  (I myself have a small role in Laleen’s film and it is hard to believe that it was 34 years ago.) 
Finally, the last showcase features two powerful exemplary documentaries that highlight collaboration between non-Indigenous and Aboriginal filmmakers Essie Coffey’s My Survival as An Aboriginal (1979), a landmark work dealing with the filmmaker’s and her Murruwurri people’s fight for country and culture, and The Borroloola Aborignal Collective , Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini’s enthnographic inflected Two Laws (1981) which deals with colonial and Aboriginal law concerning dispossession and land rights.
Charlton in “Feminism and Film” has imaginatively curated a very wide, informed , illuminating and representative section of films that are canonically important to her subject and in so doing so has given us a veritable treasure trove of contemporary Australian independent cinema.

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