Female Aussie Directors: FilmInk’s Faves

June 10, 2016
With the great Gillian Armstrong set to interview The Dressmaker director, Jocelyn Moorhouse, on stage as part of Sydney’s Vivid Festival, we name-check a collection of our favourite Australian female filmmakers.
Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett on the set of Oscar And Lucinda

Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett on the set of Oscar And Lucinda

GILLIAN ARMSTRONG “It was a terrible thing that my first film was about a female rebel,” Gillian Armstrong told FilmInk in 2001 of her 1979 debut effort My Brilliant Career. “I was forever identified, in the media, with that film. It was a box that I was put in; everybody thought that I was that character. Yes, I’m a feminist, and yes, I do believe that women have the right to have a career and should follow their dream, but it’s not like a mission I’m on.” Whether she likes it or not, Armstrong remains this country’s most successful and high profile female filmmaker, and her themes of female empowerment will always find her tagged with the label of feminist. Gender politics aside, My Brilliant Career is, well, pretty much brilliant. Based on the epochal book by Miles Franklin, the film tells of Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis), an early 20th century burgeoning female writer who chooses her career over marriage. The film remains Gillian Armstrong’s best and most fully realised work, while its feminist themes (coupled with the fact that it was the first Australian feature film directed by a woman in nearly fifty years) set the tone for the director’s own groundbreaking career, which includes fine Australian works such as High Tide, Starstruck, Women He’s Undressed, and Oscar And Lucinda, and Hollywood fare such as Mrs. Soffel and Little Women. “One of the key things about being a visual artist is actually trying to remember, or to not lose, what you had in the beginning,” Armstrong told FilmInk in 2006.

Jocelyn Moorhouse on the set of The Dressmaker

Jocelyn Moorhouse on the set of The Dressmaker

JOCELYN MOORHOUSE “I’d always been interested in characters that were a little isolated from the rest of the world, and who have a different perception of reality,” writer/director, Jocelyn Moorhouse, once said. “Someone mentioned that they’d met a person who was blind and who took photographs and that stayed with me. I first mentioned it to my husband [fellow writer/director P.J Hogan], who is my creative collaborator, and he looked at me strangely and said, ‘You’re kidding!’” In Moorhouse’s highly acclaimed debut drama, Proof, Hugo Weaving plays Martin, a blind man who proves that physical disability doesn’t necessarily get you a key to sainthood. Razor sharp, blackly comic, and keenly intelligent, Proof was one of the best Australian films of the nineties, and it marked Moorhouse as a bold new female – though not necessarily particularly feminist – voice in local cinema. The film had its world premiere at The Cannes Film Festival, where it opened the Director’s Fortnight section, and received a standing ovation, before selling to territories all around the globe. Proof was also a domestic box office success, with earnings of $2.1 million. It went on to dominate that year’s AFI Awards, winning prizes in six categories, including Best Film and Best Director. After directing two underwhelming films in America (1995’s How To Make An American Quilt and 1997’s A Thousand Acres), Jocelyn Moorhouse finally and joyfully delivered on her debut’s abundant promise with last year’s local hit and critical fave, The Dressmaker.

Elissa Down (right) and Gemma Ward on the set of The Black Balloon

Elissa Down (right) and Gemma Ward on the set of The Black Balloon

ELISSA DOWN “Success means a combination of things,” Elissa Down told FilmInk upon the Australian DVD release of her deeply personal debut, The Black Balloon, which found great critical success on its theatrical run. “This is my first film, so maybe in a couple years’ time I’ll have it all figured out, but I’m really happy with the film. It’s hit everything right – good reviews, respectable box office and awards – and, if you can get across all of that, you get to pat yourself on the back.” Down’s heartfelt, lyrical movie is a family dramedy with a coming of age subtext that explicitly concerns severe autism – a story which mirrors the director’s own upbringing with two autistic brothers. That’s potentially difficult material for the most veteran of writers and directors, but Down had previously helmed ten major short films, which had received many accolades in overseas festivals. “The script just happened,” she told FilmInk. “If I was going to tell the story, I should go for broke. This is me getting this story out of my system. It’s therapy disguised as entertainment. It’s funny, but it’s also very upsetting,” Down said, just before the local release. “I hope that it will work with the audience, and that they’ll be willing to go on that journey.” That journey was a profoundly moving and unforgettable one, but sadly, Elissa Down is yet to deliver a follow-up feature to her wonderful debut.

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Jennifer Kent shooting The Babadook

Jennifer Kent shooting The Babadook

JENNIFER KENT “When I told people that I was making a horror film, some of them looked at me as if I said that I was making porn…it was offensive to them,” Jennifer Kent told FilmInk in 2014. Directing a horror film may have initially drawn sneers, but it put Australian writer/director, Jennifer Kent, right amongst the action in Hollywood. Her debut feature film, The Babadook, scored rave reviews at The Sundance Film Festival, which instantly put Kent’s name on the radar of American producers and studios. Hailed by highly regarded US trade paper, Variety, for delivering “real, seat-grabbing jolts while also touching on more serious themes of loss, grief and other demons that cannot be so easily vanquished”, The Babadook is evocative and haunting in tone, focusing on Amelia (Essie Davis), whose relationship with her troubled six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), is strained in horrifying new ways by the titular children’s storybook, which unleashes true horror into Amelia and Samuel’s chilly home. But despite The Babadook’s international incursions, the bright lights of Hollywood have not proven blinding for Jennifer Kent, whose next film is slated to be the Tasmanian-set historical adventure, The Nightingale. “I’m s not majorly impressed by Hollywood and the system here, but it’s an adventure,” Jennifer Kent giggled to FilmInk in 2014. “I have an American agent now, and if I can continue to do my own work and have other opportunities to present it, then that’s exciting. I don’t take it too seriously though. I just continue with my own work, and that’s what I feel very strongly about. There have been wonderful opportunities, but I really just want to tell my own stories.”

Sophie Hyde at Sundance

Sophie Hyde at Sundance

SOPHIE HYDE 2014’s touching, finely crafted low budget Aussie drama, 52 Tuesdays – about a teen dealing with her mother’s gender reassignment – announced two major talents in the form of dazzling young actress, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and 37-year-old filmmaker, Sophie Hyde. This gifted Adelaide writer and director (who also co-runs the innovative production company, Closer Productions) lit up the festival circuit with the film, snagging The World Cinema Dramatic Directing Award at The Sundance Film Festival, and The Crystal Bear at The Berlin Film Festival for her soulful and unconventional feature debut. An ambitious experiment, 52 Tuesdays goes against the grain in both plot and creation, with Hyde shooting the film piecemeal-style, one day a week for a year. “We had no idea what was going to happen next, just like in life,” Tilda Cobham-Hervey told FilmInk. “This gave the film a strong authenticity.” As well as this authenticity, 52 Tuesdays is also nothing short of an emotional tour de force. “I hope that the audience will feel moved,” Hyde told FilmInk at Sundance, where 52 Tuesdays made its first big international splash. “I hope that they will have a chance to reflect on their own lives and experiences in their relationships. I hope that they will feel immersed inside a world with these characters, and feel that they are seeing the inside worlds of other people – people who they might not necessarily think at the outset that they have a connection to, but in the end, they surely do. I hope that their attention will be drawn to time, and how it keeps moving through our dramas and domesticities and lives.”

Rachel Perkins (centre) on the set of Bran Nue Dae

Rachel Perkins (centre) on the set of Bran Nue Dae

RACHEL PERKINS “What I sometimes find difficult is that everyone lumps indigenous cinema together, and they’re just such different pieces of work,” director, Rachel Perkins, told FilmInk upon the release of her hit musical, Bran Nue Dae. “Bran Nue Dae is closer to Priscilla or Starstruck than Samson And Delilah. But yes, they are by indigenous filmmakers, and they come from that place, but they are very different films too. Bran Nue Dae references all sorts of different traditions. Films like Chicago and O Brother, Where Art Thou? were big references for us. Tonally, we were trying for something that was perhaps a little unusual compared to Australian filmmaking of recent times,” she laughed. Though grouped with other ascendant contemporary indigenous filmmakers like Warwick Thornton (Samson And Delilah) and Wayne Blair (The Sapphires), Rachel Perkins is very much her woman. The daughter of legendary Aboriginal activist and politician, Charlie Perkins, Perkins made an auspicious big screen debut in 1998 with the earthy but poetic drama, Radiance, the tale of three warring sisters. After receiving widespread acclaim for her first effort, Perkins continued to deliver vital, against-the-grain work on both film and TV: the Paul Kelly-starring 2001 musical, One Night The Moon; the utterly essential documentary series, First Australians; the aforementioned Bran Nue Dae, an adaptation of the long running stage musical; the TV movie, Mabo, starring Jimi Bani and Deborah Mailman as history-making first Australians, Eddie and Bonita Mabo; the contentious doco, Black Panther Woman; and the acclaimed TV series, Redfern Now. Perkins is currently in post-production on the highly anticipated coming of age drama, Jasper Jones, starring Angourie Rice, Hugo Weaving, Levi Miller, Matt Nable, and Dan Wyllie.

Sarah Watt shooting My Year Without Sex

Sarah Watt shooting My Year Without Sex

SARAH WATT When Sarah Watt passed away at the age of 53 in 2011 – after suffering for six years with breast and bone cancer – Australia lost one of its most idiosyncratic, singular, and unusual cinematic voices. After a number of impressive short films and animations, visual artist, Sarah Watt, announced herself as a talent of prodigious potential with her 2005 debut, Look Both Ways. Melding bone-dry humour with the bleakest of tragedy, and all bridged together with unconventional, narrative-busting animation, the film was that rarest of rarities: a true original. A tale of cancer, broken families, and life-changing love, Look Both Ways got great reviews, picked up four well deserved AFI Awards (including Best Film and Best Director) and, perhaps most tellingly, did pretty brisk business at the box office. In 2009, Watt proved that Look Both Ways was no fluke when her follow-up (and sadly final) film, My Year Without Sex, was released. Trading once again in tragedy and humour, the film focuses on the engagingly recognisable suburban parents, Ross (Matt Day) and Natalie (Sacha Horler), whose cut-and-dried life screeches out of control when a single tragedy’s strangling tendrils snake their way into their lives. Once again, Watt walked a tonal tightrope with ease. “Sarah has a calm, intuitive approach to directing, and an ironic, self-deprecating sense of humour, which goes some way to hiding a more serious intent,” Matt Day told FilmInk of this deeply humanistic filmmaker, who would almost certainly have had so many more wonderful movies to share with us…

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Ana Kokkinos at The Melbourne Film Festival in 2009

Ana Kokkinos at The Melbourne Film Festival in 2009

ANA KOKKINOS “I don’t see myself as being a provocative filmmaker for the sake of being provocative, or for the sake of being confronting,” Ana Kokkinos told FilmInk in 2009. “As a filmmaker, I feel that I have something to say. What I’m trying to do is connect with audiences on a deeper level. I want to make them feel things. I want them to think about things rather than having the experience of going to watch a film and walking out of the cinema, literally forgetting about the film the moment you walk out the door.” One thing is for sure: you don’t ever forget the films of Ana Kokkinos. After working for nine years as an industrial lawyer, Kokkinos was accepted into the graduate film and TV programme at The Victorian College Of the Arts, Melbourne. Her graduation short film, Antamasi (1992), won several awards and played at a number of international film festivals, and Kokkinos followed that with 1994’s even more impressive Only The Brave, a sixty-minute mini-feature of extraordinary toughness and honesty. From there, Kokkinos then forced an equally uncompromising feature film career, debuting with a loud, irreverent bang with 1998’s Head On, a visceral, full-tilt, sexually charged adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel, Loaded. While detouring into episodic television (Young Lions, The Secret Life Of Us), Kokkinos has kept it admirably in-your-face on the big screen, with 2006’s stylishly shocking The Book Of Revelation (about a man imprisoned and raped by three women) and 2009’s heart-breaking multi-character drama, Blessed.

Cate Shortland on the set of Lore

Cate Shortland on the set of Lore

CATE SHORTLAND In 2004, Cate Shortland found herself in the position that every aspiring filmmaker dreams of being in. Her debut feature, Somersault – a visually astounding, emotionally rending coming of age drama starring Abbie Cornish – had garnered rave reviews, premiered on the world stage at The Cannes Film Festival, and cleaned up at that year’s AFI Awards. But in the wake of this success, Shortland was actually contemplating walking away from filmmaking. “I remember feeling that there was an expectation to work within a certain framework, or to be part of this thing called the industry,” the director tells FilmInk. “I’d always made things like I was in a craft workshop, and it took me a while to realise that I could keep making films that way until I’m eighty! Filmmaking to me is a gentle, quiet and subconscious thing, and so the whole idea of the industry, doing the media, and all of that side of it, came as a real shock. But now as a middle-aged woman, I realise that I have to wake up and be part of the world, and just accept that it’s a part of filmmaking. Sometimes you just need to toughen up,” she laughs. Thankfully, Cate Shortland, stuck at it. Though not exactly prolific, this quietly gifted filmmaker crafted an eloquent, evocative mystery with the 2006 TV drama, The Silence (starring Richard Roxburgh and Emily Barclay), and made a triumphant return to the big screen with 2012’s German-language WW2 drama, Lore. Shortland is currently in post-production on the international thriller, Berlin Syndrome, starring Teresa Palmer.

The Australian Academy Of Cinema And Television Arts (AACTA) are proud to present a unique evening on June 16 at 6:30pm featuring celebrated Australian film directors, Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker, Proof) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Oscar and Lucinda), together on stage with film critic, Margaret Pomeranz. For all information, and to buy tickets, head to Vivid’s official website.

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