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Australian female filmmakers

Australian films and filmmakers receive acclaim on the world stage, and the achievements of Australian women onscreen are celebrated. The contribution of Australian women behind the scenes also has a long history. There is a little-known tradition of pioneering female filmmakers stretching back to the silent era. This article introduces both unsung and prominent filmmakers and recognises their contribution to Australia's screen culture.

Early pioneers - Howarde and Lovely, 1920s

Portrait of Louise Nellie Lovely, ca 192-. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Portrait of Louise Nellie Lovely, (1895-1980), silent film actress, 192-?, photograph: gelatin silver. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an12091515

Kate Howarde (1864-1939) was a noted actor, theatrical entrepreneur, playwright and pioneer in the Australian cinema. Her greatest success was the play Possum Paddock, a rural comedy 'written, produced and presented by Kate Howarde'. Often compared with On Our Selection , it told of the financial and romantic problems of a family living in the bush. The play's success encouraged Kate to turn the play into a film (1920), which she co-directed with Charles Villiers, making her the first woman to write, produce and co-direct an Australian feature film.

Louise Lovely (1895-1980) starred in more than fifty films during the 1910s and 1920s. She was a celebrated film, theatre and vaudeville star in both Australia and the United States. Lovely formed her own Australian production studio in 1920. She directed, produced and edited the feature length film Jewelled Nights (1925), which she adapted from the book by Marie Caroline Bjelke-Petersen. The film was well received, but failed to recoup the 8,000 pounds which it cost to make.

The McDonagh sisters 1920s - 1930s

Paulette McDonagh, Marie Lorraine in a still from

Paulette McDonagh, Marie Lorraine in a still from 'The Far Paradise', 1928. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

Self-taught filmmakers Paulette, Phyllis and Isobel McDonagh were also pioneers in Australian cinema. The three sisters collaborated to produce both feature-length dramas and short documentaries. Paulette McDonagh assumed principal directing and writing duties, Phyllis served as producer and art director and Isobel acted under the name Marie Lorraine.

The McDonagh sisters debut film, Those Who Love (1926), premiered publicly in Newcastle, New South Wales, on 26 November 1926. The film was successful enough to finance their next picture, The Far Paradise (1928). Other McDonagh productions were The Cheaters (1930) and Two Minutes Silence (1933).

The McDonagh productions were filmed almost entirely at the McDonagh's residence, historic Drummoyne House. The films were set in an urban background, a contrast to the bush setting common to Australian films of the time. Another distinctive feature of the productions was the portrayal of the heroines, played by McDonagh sister Isobel (Marie Lorraine). These characters were more active than their contemporaries and the films ' showed her breaking and entering and cracking safes, as well as in a lover's arms'.

The McDonagh sisters' work was all but forgotten until the re-screening in the early 1970s of The Far Paradise and The Cheaters (the prints are now held in the National Film and Sound Archive). Shortly before her death, Phyllis McDonagh received the Australian Film Institute's 1978 Raymond Longford Award. It was presented to Phyllis in recognition of the three sisters' contribution to Australian filmmaking. Today the McDonagh sisters are remembered as 'the most talented of the late silent era film-makers in Australia'.

Dominated by documentaries, 1940s - 1960s

This period from the 1940s to the mid 1970s saw a downturn in feature production in the film industry. Film resources were directed to the war effort. The Commonwealth Film Unit (also known as the Film Division) was created in 1940 to coordinate government and commercial film activity and to mobilise the production of film for the war effort.

After the war, feature production in Australia struggled to recover. Between 1952 and 1966 the Australian film industry produced an average of two feature films per year, including co-productions. Many Australian filmmakers found work in government-funded documentaries.

Film Producer Joan Long at Work, 1984. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia

Film Producer Joan Long at Work, 1984. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia: A8746/1.

Catherine Duncan was the first woman credited as director in an Australian film since Pauline McDonagh. As a writer and director with the Commonwealth Film Unit, Duncan directed a number of films for the Department of Immigration including The Meeting Place (1948) and This is the Life (1947).

The next woman to direct with the Commonwealth Film Unit was Joan Long. She directed numerous films while with the Unit such as Richard Takes a Train Ride (1952) and In Harbour (1953). However, Long is best known for her work as a screenwriter (e.g. Caddie , 1976) and producer (e.g. Puberty Blues , 1981). Long's devotion to film continued. Before her death in 1999, she had reportedly been working on a screenplay for a documentary about the McDonagh sisters.

Gillian Armstrong's brilliant career, 1970s

'The Last Days of Chez Noir': Liza Harrow (Beth) and Bruno Ganz (J.P.) with director Gillian Armstrong (centre of shot), 1982. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

Gillian Armstrong, along with Phillip Noyce and Chris Noonan, was one of the first group of directors to graduate from the Australian Film and Television School (now Australian Film, Television and Radio School, AFTRS).

In directing her first feature film, My Brilliant Career (1979), Armstrong became the first woman to direct a feature-length drama in Australia in almost fifty years. My Brilliant Career was based on a book by Miles Franklin and focuses on Sybilla (Judy Davis) and her desire to become a writer in late 19th century Australia. The period drama was highly successful, winning seven Australian Film Institute Awards (AFIs) including Best Director and Best Film, and an invitation into competition at Cannes.

As well as being a film pioneer in Australia, Armstrong's Mrs Soffel (1984) is credited as the first Hollywood film to be directed by an Australian woman. Armstrong has continued to make films in both Australia and overseas.

Armstrong's films focus on strong female leads who do not conform with the expectations placed on their gender. These include Sybilla in My Brilliant Career, Jo March (Wynona Ryder) in Little Women (1994), Lucinda Leplastrier (Cate Blanchett) in Oscar and Lucinda (1997) and the title character (also Cate Blanchett) in Charlotte Gray (2001).

Armstrong's most recent film is Death Defying Acts (2007) a love story about Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) and a fictional psychic Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Jane Campion - Australasia's leading auteur, 1980s

Jane Campion, The Piano movie poster, 1993.

Jane Campion, The Piano (movie poster), 1993.

New Zealand born and Australian-trained Jane Campion has been described as 'Australasia's leading auteur director'. While at the AFTRS Campion produced the Cannes Palme d'Or winning short Peel (1982). Her first feature Sweetie (1989) was also made in Australia.

Campion's biggest success to date has been The Piano (1993). The film is set in the nineteenth century and tells the story of a mute woman Ada (Holly Hunter), who along with her daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), and her grand piano, travel from Scotland to New Zealand for an arranged marriage. Campion became the second woman ever nominated for an Oscar in the Best Director category for the film. The Piano received eight Oscar nominations, winning three.

Like Gillian Armstrong, Campion avoids the labels of 'women's film' or 'feminist filmmaker'. Yet both directors' films feature strong female characters, often rebelling against the expectations of those around them. This can be seen in The Piano and Campion's following films, The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1999) and In the Cut (2003).

The film Bright Star is due for release in 2009 and is written and directed by Campion.

Indigenous women directing, 1970s

Essie Coffey in her film

Essie Coffey, Essie Coffey in her film 'My Survival as an Aboriginal', 1978. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

Indigenous women gained recognition as film directors in documentaries such as My Survival as an Aboriginal (1979) by Essie Coffey and Sister, If You Only Knew (1975) by Janet Isaac. Since then, many Indigenous women have emerged as prominent directors.

Tracey Moffat has both written and directed many Indigenous films including the documentary Moodeitj Yorgas (1988), short film Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (1989) and Bedevil (1993), one of the first feature dramas directed by an Indigenous Australian.

Darlene Johnson has also attracted acclaim for her dramas and documentaries. Her latest film River of No Return (2008) is a documentary about a Yolngu woman, who after starring in Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes (2006), pursues a career as an actress.

Rachel Perkins is highly involved in the film and television industries as a producer, writer and director. She formed her own production company Blackfella Films which focuses on innovative films by Indigenous people. Perkins herself has directed Radiance (1998) and One Night the Moon (2001). Her upcoming film called Bran Nue Dae is due to be released in 2009 and brings 'Australia's first black musical', developed for the stage by Jimmy Chi, to the big screen.

Other notable female directors

Nadia Tass and David Wenham at Recontres internationales du cinema des antipodes

Nadia Tass and David Wenham at Recontres internationales du cinema des antipodes (French film festival of Australian and New Zealand Films), 1999. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive no.427818-3.

There are more female film directors that deserve recognition for their work than can be covered in this article. Directors of note include Nadia Tass who began her film directing career with the comedy Malcolm (1986) and has continued to direct for the cinema and television. Jocelyn Moorhouse has directed films such as Proof (1991) and How to Make an American Quilt (1995). Both Tass and Moorhouse have been successful in Australia and the United States.

Kate Woods directed the teen drama Looking for Alibrandi (1999) as well as many Australian and overseas productions including Changi (2001) an ABC miniseries about prisoners of war. The Australian Director's Guild awarded Woods the 2008 Michael Carson Award for Excellence in Television Drama Direction.

Women producers

Filming the Sentimental Bloke, 1919. NFSA.

Filming 'The Sentimental Bloke', 1919. Courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive.

Although directors are credited as the creative force behind a film, producers are essential in ensuring a film is made. As Jan Chapman has argued: ' it is the producer who is ultimately prepared to take responsibility for a film'.

Australia's female film producers have made a significant contribution to the industry. In the early days of the Australian cinema Lottie Lyell worked with the iconic Raymond Longford, making films such as the Australian classic The Sentimental Bloke (1919), in which Lyell also stars. Lyell took many on many roles, including scriptwriting, directing and producing, but was rarely credited for her behind the scenes work.

Longford and Lyell are recognised as being the 'foremost creative partnership in the pioneering years of Australian cinema'. The National Film and Sound Archive celebrates their contribution to Australian film culture with the annual Longford Lyell Lecture Series. In 2007, Patricia Lovell gave the Longford Lyell Lecture about her early experience as a producer on such films as Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Gallipoli (1981).

Jan Chapman is recognised as 'one of Australia's leading film producers'. Her producing credits include Lantana (2001), Somersault (2004) and Suburban Mayhem (2006). She has also produced many of Jane Campion's films including Holy Smoke (1999), The Piano (1993) and the upcoming Bright Star (2009)

Future directions

Female filmmakers continue to contribute to Australian screen culture. Australia's most celebrated female directors, Gillian Armstrong and Jane Campion, are continuing to make films.

Many women have emerged as promising film directors. These include Elissa Down, who wrote and directed The Black Balloon (2007), and Cathy Randall who wrote and directed Hey Hey It's Esther Blueburger (2008).

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Australian female directors



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Last updated: 22 August 2008
Creators: Shevaun O'Neill