|Myra Roper, A Woman of our Time|
Peter Tammer writes:
I'm finally able to release a digital copy of a film which I completed almost fifty years ago. It was first shown publicly at the “Mind’s Eye” Cinema in Spring St., Melbourne… the Melb. Co-op theatre, about 1972.This film has not been available along with my other titles in Kriszta Doczy’s Artfilms Australian independent collection because until recently we had no digital copy.
Tessa Spooner, General Manager of La Mama Theatre, had this copy made so the film could be exhibited at La Mama Theatre's "War - Rak" celebration event Saturday evening, 11/12/21. Click on this link to see the film.
Following is a commentary which John Cumming intended to present at the screening but John was side-lined by an exposure to Covid so he could not attend the screening. That was most unfortunate as John has done a lot of research on the film to date.
|A Woman of Our Time|
John Cumming writes:
A Woman of Our Time is a unique portrait of a renowned author, Myra Roper, social commentator and educationalist and a role-model for a whole generation of Melbourne women, made in 1972 by pioneering Australian independent filmmaker and film educator Peter Tammer.
Born in England, Myra Roper moved to Australia in 1947, at 36 years of age, to serve as principal of the Women's College at The University of Melbourne. She is fondly remembered as a mentor to many young women. In 1960 Myra left the university to pursue a public life that influenced the course of Australia’s relationship with China, the development of national cultural institutions, adult education and, especially in the media, the status of women. Peter, whose father was Lebanese, entered filmmaking as a young, second-generation migrant worker and emerging filmmaker in the almost exclusively male, Anglo-Celtic domain of film production in early 1960s Melbourne. In his first job as a library assistant at the State Film Centre of Victoria, he adapted 16mm film-checking equipment for the purpose of editing his own short films.
Both Myra Roper and Peter Tammer were engaged in cultures of community enterprise and cooperative action. When they met around 1969, Peter was a young freelance editor. His client work included campaign advertisements for Gough Whitlam’s progressive and soon to be elected Australian Labor Party. Myra needed help to edit 16mm footage she had filmed, to illustrate her lectures on Communist China. Accounts from both Myra and Peter indicate that some men in positions of authority could and did go ‘out of their way’ to foster their emerging talents as writer and filmmaker. In the absence of policies, guidelines, training, and professional development programs, it appears that the simple and expansive sociability of peers, employers and informal mentors was critical to the induction of these new entrants to their respective fields. Peter has said that when he explained to Myra why he saw her as being worthy of such a film he felt that she was thinking in her natural humility … “Oh but I’m not that interesting”’. In her first book 'China - The Surprising Country' she writes of her recovery from self-doubt with reference to a stereotypical and gendered self-image as a ‘misguided female’ and an alternative, gendered image of herself as an ‘enterprising woman on an unusual venture’. Myra encountered several male allies who recognized and affirmed that alternative image. Peter was one of them. Sadly, however, most of the difficulties facing women that Myra identifies in this film persist. She and this little film are still of our time.
During the 1960s, student arts organisations at The University of Melbourne and a vibrant immigrant Italian community in the inner suburb of Carlton stimulated a burgeoning post-war art, theatre and film scene. Carlton soon became a social destination for young people, including students from the new outer-suburban Monash and La Trobe universities and technical and teachers colleges across the state. Its share-houses, cafés, cinemas, and small new theatres became a focal point of cultural activity around the anti-war movement, feminism, and an internationally engaged effort to develop Australian culture independently of colonial influence and British and American commercial interests. By 1971, when Peter and fellow filmmakers officially incorporated the Melbourne Filmmaker’s Coop (MFC, 1968-1976) a wider movement for cultural experimentation and the democratisation of media was also underway in print, radio and community video. The Coop films were notable for their diversity of form. Peter’s filmmaking was, and continued to be, literally experimental. As an artist, he has never repeated himself but has sought to push into new dimensions of what film can be, structurally and spiritually.
With A Woman of Our Time, two committed non-conformists provide a unique, unadorned window on early 1970s Australia, inviting comparison with the status of progressive ideas in filmmaking and gender politics today. The film brings into sharp relief the lack of progress towards gender equity in general, and in Australian film production specifically, both in terms of the diversity of on-screen representations and with regard to entrenched gender imbalance in many professions. It is a personal work, rather than the work of a producer, a director, and their ‘crew’. Out of necessity and enthusiasm Peter conceived, organised, did most of the cinematography, the sound, all the editing and even the negative matching for this film.
In his several unique portrait films, and A Woman of Our Time in particular, Peter explores the idea that a film about someone can, in a painterly and poetic sense, be turned to modernist portraiture (think Cubism) rather than being locked to the narrative logic of biography. Peter frees himself from the documentary routine of ‘talking heads’. The central organizing principle is neither narrative nor rhetorical – it is dialectical. A Woman of Our Timeengages its viewer-listener at the level of ideas and emotions: ideas about power, sex and gender, about representation and about filmmaking; emotions of love, compassion, respect and dignity. All this is achieved while being playful with images, with sound and with the subject. The film threads images and sounds together densely into a rich tapestry that encompasses and interweaves the everyday, world historical events and a whole complex of political, philosophical and aesthetic concerns and ideas. This little film is sensitive and dense, the result of a rich working relationship between Myra and Peter and of the richness of their creative engagement with the world.
As often happens with independent films that avoid sensation and adhere to no tradition, genre or orthodoxy, A Woman of Our Time ‘fell between the cracks’ of programming categories and fashions. After a short season at the Co-op theatre in 1972 it had no public screenings. In 2018, Melbourne’s Artists Film Workshop held a retrospective of Peter’s films. For me this film was a revelation. Together with his Flux (1970) it revealed a level of innovation, especially in its editing, that I believe is of historical significance in world cinema. The screening at La Mama Theatre presents a wonderful film about someone who despite the passage of fifty years remains a woman of our time.
Cumming, J 2014, The films of John Hughes : a history of independent screen production in Australia, The moving image: number 12, 2014, Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM).
Roper, M 1966, China: The Surprising Country, Doubleday, New York.
Roper, M 1989, Myra Roper interviewed by Amirah Inglis [sound recording], Recorded from May 4-5, 1989 in Canberra.
Roper, M- 1973, Myra Roper interviewed by Hazel de Berg (sound recording], 1973 July 16 <https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-220874394/listen>.
Tammer, P 2011, Early Days interview by John Cumming and Richard Leigh, Kyenton.