Em Baker: I Am No Bird

May 27, 2019
With her first feature documentary I Am No Bird, Baker has made a ‘feminist’ film about weddings.

“The title ‘I Am No Bird’ comes from Jane Eyre, which is often heralded as being one of the first ‘feminist’ novels,” Baker tells us via email. “But it’s a clunky and imperfect feminism. In the book, Jane uses the phrase to rebuff Rochester’s proposal of marriage to her, using it to declare her self-reliance and independence. In the end she marries him anyway, which seemed like a good metaphor for the film: a woman simultaneously participating in and fighting against an ancient, patriarchal institution.”

Her film follows four women in different parts of the world, who are about to marry. “I wanted the four women to be very different from one another, and they are: different countries, different languages, different sexualities, different religions, and different socio-economic statuses. In amongst weddings that are so varied, I was seeking to find commonalities between the brides, and there are a couple you can see in the film. But mostly the women are getting different things out of their weddings, that are reflective of the values they hold and the lives they are trying to build.”

This approach meant that the project took four years and required Baker to work full time as a school teacher to fund the travel.

“I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker, but my path hasn’t been completely conventional,” she tells us. “I studied journalism after high school because I was warned that a career as a filmmaker was a bit of a Hail Mary. And credit to those people, the pay isn’t great! But I kept drifting back to film, focusing on TV broadcast through my degree and eventually just dropping mainstream journalism altogether. I like the space a documentary gives you to explore the nuances of an issue, and you don’t get that in a 2 minute segment for the 6 o’clock news.

“During uni I watched a short film online by a group of filmmakers in the U.S, and I loved it so much that I asked if I could move to America and learn from them. I was only 21 and I’d never been to America, but to my surprise they agreed. That’s how I ended up working on Beasts of the Southern Wild, the first ever film I worked on. From there I worked on a couple of documentaries, and rode my bicycle across the United States shooting my own first documentary, Spoke. When I came back to Australia, I worked in VFX on some big Hollywood stuff, as well as doing some crewing on TV shows, music videos and corporate gigs. I’d still like to go to film school one day but it’s really expensive.”

This circuitous journey to making her first full length film even saw Em Baker share her production office with the headquarters for the Yes Campaign for the gay marriage plebiscite. “Yes, that was a weird time,” she remembers. “I used to rent a space above a drag bar called the 86, which was fun but also often full of smoke from the performances downstairs! When the gay marriage plebiscite was announced, the landlord let the Yes Campaign use the space too. As a queer woman, editing footage of a gay wedding in Mexico, before jumping on the phones to help cold-call voters and try to convince them to vote for marriage equality, I think my perception of Australia was damaged in a way. I thought we were more progressive before that experience. But it also gave me front-row seats to the incredible work that so many activists and volunteers were doing to ensure everybody in this country had the same right to marriage.

“If I learned anything from making this film,” she concludes, “it’s that marriage is a weird and wonderful thing that means different things to different people, but it’s significant to almost everyone. It becomes a reflection of who you are and what you put into it, and I’m glad LGBTQI Aussies finally have that right, though it should never have taken the humiliation of the plebiscite.”

I Am No Bird is screening at the Sydney Film Festival, in competition for the Documentary Australia Foundation Award.

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