Monash Arts Film & Screen Studies PhD alumni Sian Mitchell, Kirsten Stevens, Whitney Monaghan and Janice Loreck are behind the inaugural Melbourne Women in Film Festival (view the trailer) launching 3-4 March 2017 at Melbourne’s Treasury Theatre, the former State Film Centre.
We explore the reasons behind why they started the festival and some of its highlights.
Firstly, what got you all into film?
SM: I initially wanted to get into academia. I remember exactly when I wanted to do it which was in my second year in undergrad. I did Australian Film Studies and I had a tutor who was just amazing. I thought, I want to do what you do so I had a meeting with her where she told me she was doing a PhD. So I thought, yep that’s what I want to do and worked towards it.
WM: That’s why I wanted to do film studies. I kind of took it on a whim, and then had a really good tutor and fell in love with it. Introduction to Film Studies sold me.
KS: That was the exact same with me. I thought I was going to do medieval history and Latin when I first came here and then got sucked into the film studies program and I never left.
So then Sian, as founder, what made you want to start this festival?
SM: For a while now, I’ve been working out of a private tertiary institution in a film production degree. I have a lot of students wanting to get into the industry and have seen a rise in enrolments from young women but then see that taper off as you don’t see as many opportunities or being able to move up the ladder in a still male dominated arena. Also, generally speaking, I noticed the guys being really confident in picking up the cameras, getting technical and wanting to be involved, but women seeming less confident and saying they’ll take on other roles. Knowledge of women working in the industry was also very low so I thought, what can I do to show them that women cinematographers are out there? That’s where the idea came from.
After seeing this in the classroom, how did you then turn it from an idea into a festival?
SM: It started off with trying to find someone to talk to about it. I found this very energetic woman, not in the film industry at all, but in business development. I started writing ideas, creating a rationale, doing research into what is around, and then realizing that you need help and asking people to help you.
I initially went to Assoc Prof Belinda Smaill and Assoc Prof Therese Davis and it just turned out everyone I turned to all wanted to help with it. But prior to having a team and getting down to the organisational part of it, it was me sitting in the State Library of Victoria, learning how to run a business, which is very scary, and getting legal advice and research.
I also knew that Kirsten had all this amazing knowledge around Australian festivals and so she was one of the first people I approached to do this festival.
KS: I had been studying the history of film festivals in Melbourne and Australia in particular – lots of reading about what other people had done in festivals so jumped at the chance to do a festival. It is pretty useful because most people who have done research into film festivals have also been involved in programming or organising film festivals, so along with knowing a bit about it I also knew lots of people who worked in it and could get advice from them.
Did you find any statistics that related to the need for this festival?
KS: I looked into the writing on film festivals up to the point when I was doing my PhD, and saw that they were mainly perspectives from Europe and North America. In particular, that the history of film festivals started in Europe, that only the Europeans thought of it in the 1950s and they all turned out like Cannes: big market places and competition events where all the stars turn up on red carpets because they spoke to a particular European idea of performing culture.
And I was looking at all this work and thinking, it doesn’t describe Australia at all. We’ve had festivals since the 1950s; they were done on the smell of a dirty rag by people who loved films and wanted to see films that weren’t released in Australia. They were really audience driven and weren’t supported by the government. The first film festival in Australia had ASIO agents attend because they thought everyone there were communists.
So I was looking at our history of festivals, thinking it just doesn’t match the writing of festivals and how they evolved, so I decided to tell the Australia story and get that different perspective out there. It’s now in a book being launched on the 23rd Feb as part of the Melbourne Screen Studies Group, who are holding their first ever symposium. Since I’ve been doing this research and talking to people in Chile, Africa and Asia, it seems film festivals emerge for very local reasons even if they end up looking the same from the outside, and it’s not simple enough to say that the Europeans thought of it first and everyone else just copied them.
Somewhat perfect you’re able to help get this Australian perspective out through this festival too. Why the focus on women?
KS: In the last five years or so, really ever since Katheryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director (The Hurt Locker) and was the first female to do so, there’s been an escalation in the awareness around just how few female directors, filmmakers and creatives are working in the industry.
And then in 2015, Screen Australia released a report with their new initiative ‘Gender Matters’, which showed that women only account for 16% of directors in the feature film industry. All of that was going on, and that made us aware that there needed to be a platform for us to talk about this in Melbourne. Sydney had two womens film festivals that had been running for a while. Even though over the course of 40-50 years, Melbourne has had one or two women film festivals pop up every now and then, they haven’t had that longevity or kept going. We have over 50 film festivals in Melbourne for everything else, but not for Australian women in film.
MIFF and the Sydney Film Festival ran a program on women film directors from the 1970s and related panel discussions last year in 2016 – about a year after ‘Gender Matters’ dropped.
On the question of representation and the importance of that, Whitney can you tell us a bit about your PhD?
WM: I was really looking at queer women and how they were represented in teen film and television because when I was growing up, I noticed that when queer women are represented, their sexuality was often represented as a phase that they grew out of. For example like Neighbours, it was just a few episodes and then the characters went back to their straight lives, and I wondered, is this a thing? I found out that it’s happened around the world for a long time, so it was identifying that as a problem and then looking for some alternatives to that representation. When I was young, I thought there was a particular narrative I had to follow, and wondering why I thought that, I realised that’s because it’s the only thing I saw in celebrity culture growing up.
As curator of the festival’s short films program, can you tell us a bit about what that explores?
WM: The program is focused on art and experimental films. We’re putting on four films that screened in the 1975 festival in conversation with contemporary filmmaking. In total the program will run for about 85 minutes. That has been really fun for me to do; I’ve been finding all these interesting and fun filmmakers. One thing I wanted to do was focus on women’s perspectives and alternative ways of seeing and using film that were quite diverse, and opening up that idea of what women’s filmmaking could be. Specifically, I’ve been looking at Indigenous women, women of colour, women of different ages, and lucky I found all these amazing filmmakers.
There will also be a panel about thinking how we can go forward as a festival with this diversity in mind. The panel is looking at the history and what the future is for short films in Australia. One thing that I have found is that all the filmmakers I’ve been in touch with have been really willing to help out in any way they can and acknowledging that this is an important event they want to be involved in for this first year.
If you had to pick two of the short films to tell us about, what would they be?
WM: We’re screening a video work called Lit from 2016 by Amie Batalibasi [Australian Solomon Islander, Feralimae/Kosi from Melbourne]. It features a South Sudanese actress walking down the streets of Melbourne, goes for about 15 minutes and it’s probably one of the most captivating things I’ve seen. Batalibasi was recently announced as the 2017 recipient of the Sundance Institute Merata Mita Fellowship that provides a cash grant, a trip to the Sundance Film Festival and year-long mentorship and program opportunities.
The art collective duo ‘Soda_Jerk’ won the Ian Potter Moving Image commission. They’re probably one of the most exciting contemporary duos in the country; they work with found footage and mashups in a really interesting way. They were out of Sydney but they work out of New York now. We’re screening one of their works, After the Rainbow, from 2009.
I’m curious as to who the eldest filmmakers involved may be?
SM: There are women who were working in 1975 still working. Someone who’s been really amazing and helpful is a woman called Jeni Thornley who was one of the key Sydney organisers of the 1975 Women in Film Festival.
Patricia Edgar turns 80 the weekend after the festival. We’re playing three of her films, two of which screened in the original festival and the other is a documentary about a conference that took place in Mexico for International Women’s Year in 1975. People around the world converged in Mexico about women’s issues and rights so she went over and made this doco about it.
And what about your other panel discussions?
SM: Because we’re doing a retrospective on the 1975 Women in Film Festival in Australia and in 1975 it was the International Year of Women, we’ve been reading about it and speaking to some of the original producers and organisers, realising that the conversations and issues still seem to be the same today. So the opening panel, moderated by Assoc Prof Belinda Smaill, will be looking into the past and present to understand what has or hasn’t changed and why.
The second panel looks into the future and what we can do from examining film criticism to film distribution outlets, and how women can make their way in somehow. For example, Sweden have implemented a gender quota and that has been extremely successful but in Australia we’re still in discussions on whether we should have it or not.
Interesting. What advice would you give upcoming women in film?
SM: Considering the discourse around women in the industry is currently so prevalent, it’s really worth looking out for opportunities, mentorships and the like. Natalie Miller Fellowship works out pathways and grants and fellowships on women in leadership positions. Open Channel do mentorship programs in partnership with Film Victoria and the big ones are Screen Australia, Creative Victoria and then it depends on what area. I also found with women who have worked in the industry for a while, that they are really happy to give back as well.
Brilliant. So, lastly, can you tell us what you have planned for the festival’s opening night?
SM: I’m really excited about our opening night. We’re playing a 16mm silent film from 1929, The Cheaters [from the National Film and Sound Archive], that will be presented with live music by Russian fusion folk jazz band Zulya and the Children of the Underground. The Cheaters was made by three sisters – Paulette (director), Isabel (star), and Phyllis (art director, production design) McDonagh. Roughly they were three of five women working in total at that time – real pioneers.
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