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The Activist Complex Female Protagonist Goes For It, In Australia

Another in my series about the Activist Complex Female Protagonist.  To me, she's all those who work towards increased and more diverse representation of women in front of and behind the camera, globally. 

I'm intrigued. It feels as though a sleeping giant is waking. Back in the 70s and 80s there were many activist women filmmakers in Australia, often making films by, about women and for women. I've been reading about them (again) this week. There was even a state-funded Women's Film Fund that I'll write about soon, in a post about New Zealand's tentative new gender initiatives. But in the last decade or so, it's seemed very quiet over in Aussie.

As the Screen Australia gender stats show, the situation's as bad there as it is anywhere. And similar to New Zealand's. These are very recent infographics.

Yes, Sydney's WOW is an annual festival, in its 21st year (no parallel event here in New Zealand). Yes, there's the Tasmanian Stranger With My Face horror festival (also unparalleled in New Zealand). Yes, WIFTNSW and WIFTI WA keep on keeping on, as WIFTNZ does. Maybe some other Aussie WIFTS too. Yes, there is the Dollhouse Collective. Maybe others like it. And yes, there are films like Catriona McKenzie's Satellite Boy and Sophie Hyde's 52 Tuesdays and Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (Jennifer's about to adapt Alice & Frida Forever, yay.) But yes...from here it seems that Australian women's film activism is just like it is in New Zealand, very very quiet compared with what goes on in the United States and Europe.

And now, suddenly, there's a shift.

My awareness of it started with the video of a panel at the Future Feminist Archive Symposium, where filmmakers Martha Ansara, Margot Nash and Jeni Thornley discussed some of the groundbreaking films they produced in the 1970s. I was totally engaged in and moved by the video (below), inspired by its clips from Film For Discussion which Martha Ansara made with the Sydney Women’s Film Group in 1973, from We Aim To Please made by Robin Laurie and Margot Nash in 1976 and from Jeni Thornley's Maidens (1978). And when I listened to emerging filmmaker Natalie Krikowa suggest that these women, still steadily working, laid the foundations upon which a new generation of feminist filmmakers like her now stand I thought OH maybe change is coming in Australia. Quietly.

Jane Campion

And then, an astonishing series of articles and statements, a broadcast, an acceptance speech. I haven't got them in the exact order here, but in group over about a month, they're amazing.

First in my thoughts is the Sydney Morning Herald's report on the Swedish Film Institute's success with gender equity.  The article stated that the institute's CEO Anna Serner's 'revolutionary policy has not been welcomed by all of Sweden's neighbours' and Anna Serner herself saying–
Denmark always think we are crazy doing this. They say they already have equality, but Denmark only gives 17 per cent of funding to female directors. Most leaders tend to hesitate because it is really very scary. You are asking for trouble and they are not prepared to take the trouble. I get a lot of support from Finland and Iceland but they don't do anything.
Then she added–
The further you get from Sweden, the less threatened people tend to feel… We had Jane Campion visit us recently and she just loved it. She is bringing an action plan to both New Zealand and Australia.
O wow, I thought. That's special. And then I read–
Campion will face an uphill battle in Australia. The number of women in some areas of the industry, particularly technical, has been going backwards.
Aha. I thought. I bet she'll face an uphill battle in New Zealand, too. The article concluded–
The Swedes put us to shame, in fact. They also shine a light.
And it's not just Swedes that have shone a light in Australia these last few weeks. There's Americans, too. Los Angeles-based director activist Maria Giese and Ariela Migdal, a senior lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke on Australian radio about the issues around the ACLU's requests that state and federal employment agencies investigate the hiring practises of major studios, networks and talent agencies in relation to gender discrimination against female directors.

The ACLU's work may have prompted a global shift towards legal action over gender discrimination in the arts. For example, at a recent gathering of North American theatre activists, the group produced a list of steps towards achieving gender parity. Their Step 7, entitled Legislative approaches, includes a sentence that shows that they too are considering court action–
We also need to investigate whether women artists are getting their fair share of federal and state arts funding and file petitions as needed [my emphasis]. 

Rose Byrne
And in an Australian response to the ACLU's legal action, actor Rose Byrne – also a member of The Dollhouse Collective – spoke out in the Guardian
It’s not being put down to good old-fashioned misogyny, it’s actually [asking] why is this quietly tolerated? Why has this been a silent agreement for the last however many years.

This is discrimination. And that’s illegal. It’s very interesting, long overdue and quite frankly exciting to see it being taken as seriously as it should be.
I think this is the first time an Australian woman-in-film has directly referred to the 'legality' of gender discrimination in filmmaking. As in New Zealand, the relevant Australian discussions I've seen has until now tended to refer to 'parity', 'fairness', 'equity', 'equality'.

I don't know about Australian human rights legislation to help filmmakers who want to challenge the actions of decision makers in commercial organisations there, in action that parallels that of the ACLU. But there's opportunity to challenge the legality of funding allocations by the federal film body, Screen Australia – and the film funding bodies in each Australian state, which are obligated to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination in the realm of public life where they operate. Why? Because, like New Zealand – and unlike the United States – Australia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW, (in July 1983, eighteen months earlier than we did!).

CEDAW's Article 1 defines discrimination against women as 'any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or the purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women...of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. And Article 7 seems particularly appropriate: 'States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country'.

Is filmmaking 'public life'? I reckon. And so does Australian writer Mary Tomsic. In We Will Invent Ourselves, the Age of the New Image is at Hand: Creating, learning and Talking With Australian Feminist Filmmaking she writes–
The medium of film, by its very nature, is a public form of expression. While films clearly are made with different viewers in mind, they are made with the intention of being projected and screened to groups of people. In examining women's engagement with new forms of media [including film]...we should understand this as developing 'new forms of public life'.
Will the CEDAW obligation help Screen Australia and the state funding bodies to develop policies to ensure that they allocate as much public funding to projects that women create as they do to those that men create? It's possible. I don't know about how Australians have used CEDAW, but in New Zealand,  CEDAW has been invoked in judicial proceedings, listed in Fault Lines: Human Rights in New Zealand (p80), though not yet in proceedings about policies that fail to ensure equal allocation of public funding to women artists, in any medium.

Miranda Tapsell
However, it's been encouraging to see, at last, a reference to gender issues from Screen Australia's CEO Graeme Mason. Perhaps he has that Jane Campion action plan on his desk and is about to put it in place, with no excuses about the effects of recent funding cuts.

Not long before Rose Byrne spoke up, actor Miranda Tapsell gave an acceptance speech at the Logies, the Australian television awards, where she received two awards as Most Popular New Talent and Most Outstanding Newcomer (though she was already well known on stage and for her work in The Sapphires): 'Put more beautiful people of colour on TV', she said.

And that brought Graeme Mason's gender statement. It is, as far as I know, his very first public statement on this topic, at Screen Australia or during his earlier stint as CEO of the New Zealand Film Commission. He doesn't refer to a gender problem in allocation of public funds to women writers and directors. Nevertheless, it feels like a huge shift. Within a larger conversation about diversity on Australian screens that followed Miranda Tapsell's acceptance speech, in a Screen Australia blog post, he said
We are looking at what we should do as a major funding contributor to production. We are going to be having conversations with our key partners, like the ABC and SBS, but everyone has to get on board. We have to be both the carrot and the stick: we need broadcasters to see that they should be doing it and that it’s also smart to do it because it’s a reflection of who their audiences are.

Today we can see that women in general are quite well represented now on our TV screens – but that took time. If you look at who is carrying the major shows, they are women like Asher Keddie and Claudia Karvan. TV is still streets ahead of film in terms of gender balance…. although Mad Max: Fury Road has given female film presence a huge boost. But there’s more to be done.

Now we need to ask now: where is our broader cultural mix? Where are the faces of the subcontinent and Asia? Are our acting institutions taking in students from those communities?’
This is a start, even though onscreen representation of diverse women can be achieved without behind-the-camera representation of diverse women and the risk-taking and investment that change demands. And in the same article, in relation to onscreen presence, casting agent Anousha Zarkesh added–
Every time I suggest actors for certain roles I always give directors a variety of ethnic/white choices so that we can discuss this openly and then present to the network. The ‘men in suits’ need to know that a show with non anglo actors as leads will rate. But I don’t believe in quotas as the industry is just too small. It has to happen out of goodwill but I do feel now that there is a willingness from producers and directors to think outside the ‘white’ box.
So the conversations at Screen Australia are in general now focused on diversity, acknowledging the challenges onscreen at least. Yay. (In New Zealand, diversity onscreen is in some ways more developed. Of the top 20-grossing New Zealand-made films ever, excluding Peter Jackson's blockbusters, exactly half have Maori or Pacific Island protagonists. Five have female protagonists. Three are directed by women. None by Maori or Pasifika women.)

Jan Chapman, Nicole O'Donohue, Geoffrey Rush
A few days after the Screen Australia post, actor Geoffrey Rush, who is president of the Australian Academy of Cinematic and Television Arts, joined the call for change, behind the camera. He said–
I’d love to see a hell of a lot more to bring it up to an equal balance...It’s an ancient statistic that men have always pushed themselves rather annoyingly to the front of the queue...But when I think of working with female directors of photography, female directors, [there’s] a very interesting quality that is not a male mind that goes into the creative process.
Was it coincidence that he spoke up on the evening he was photographed right next to Jan Chapman, one of the producers of his latest film, also producer of The Piano, whose 2002 Lyell Lecture is a classic– Some Significant Women in Australian Film – A Celebration and a Cautionary Tale?

And then there is the the latest issue of Lumina, the house journal of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, readily accessible here. It includes articles by Julie Rigg and Sandra Hall on missing Australia screen heroines, by screenwriter Kristen Dunphy (a great source of info about being a woman screenwriter and with some interesting comments on casting discrimination) and by director Megan Simpson Huberman who has suggestions about how agencies can increase representation of women directors. There's an interview with Jan Chapman. And so much more. It's a rich, rich, rich resource. And if you're looking for a good article about the 'keynote' article in this Lumina, by Monica Davidson – producer, mother and author – try here, in an excellent unattributed article entitled "No fun for you darling - the ugly truth in Australian film production". It quotes from an interview with Monica where she says–
Australian women haven't been expected to be ladylike which has given us a great deal of freedom. Ladylike is boring and if there's any expectation of being ladylike then at least Australian women are, from a broad society point of view, allowed to be loud, robust, energetic, powerful people. We don't have to sit around and drink tea and wait for someone to ask us to dance. That's a good start.

If fifty percent of Australian features were written, directed and produced by women, can you imagine what that landscape would look like? I think there are some dinosaurs in the works who would probably be very, very frightened of what that world would look like. I can't wait to see it. I want to be in that world. I want to do some dinosaur frightening.
This seems to be the ideal moment for all Australian women in film and their men supporters to join Monica in some dinosaur-frightening. And who knows, their actions may inspire us New Zealanders on the other side of the Tasman Sea. We can be 'loud, robust, energetic, powerful people' too.

And an extra! Monica Davidson on audio; & transcript--

Gillian Armstrong and cinematographer Anna Howard on location
for Gillian Armstrong's new doco,  'Women, He's Undressed'.


  1. Great post! Very informative and inspiring. I am a professional filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. I primarily work out of Los Angeles. If 50% of ALL films were directed by women imagine the dinosaur frightening.

    1. Thanks, Trina! Here's to dinosaur-frightening in LA! Wondering if you saw about the new partnership between Woman in Film LA and Turner Classic. It seems to me that it might make a big difference over there!


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