In the movie game, Lilias Fraser is a legend; a figure who crashed through the gender barrier, as a fiercely independent voice with a unique point of view in the late 1950s. A prolific filmmaker, Fraser made more than forty movies, many of them in the ‘60s before there was an Australian feature film industry.
A specialist in documentary and ‘industrials’ (the forerunner to the corporate), Fraser formed a company with her husband Norman Castle. They made kids programming like The Young Producers (1971) and the groundbreaking Aboriginal land rights film This is Their Land (1970).
Now, Fraser’s daughter, Jane Castle (Fistful of Flies), herself an esteemed cinematographer, dives fearlessly into her family history with When the Camera Stopped Rolling, a feature documentary revealing a tale of shared trauma, longing and obsession.
As the title implies, this is a film that contemplates not those moments between ‘action’ and ‘cut’ but the messy, sometimes happy, often scary narrative we call ‘life’.
Driven by a tender and poetic voice-over narration by Castle herself, When the Camera… is the story of a mother and daughter relationship. While celebrating its warmth and strength, it’s unafraid to explore its mysteries, dead-ends, and falsehoods.
Moving and complex, it’s an outstanding film with a very special mystique. Adventurous, and unconventional in style (at times it’s like a dream), When the Cameras Stopped Rolling is as immediate as a flick through an old scrapbook.
When the Camera Stopped Rolling was produced by Pat Fiske (Rocking the Foundations, Love Marriage in Kabul) and edited by Ray Thomas (Rats in the Ranks, Black Harvest) and is a finalist in the Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Australian Documentary presented as part of 2021’s Sydney Film Festival.
Best known for her celebrated music video work with Midnight Oil, Prince and U2 (collaborating often with her sister, helmer Claudia Castle), Jane Castle spoke to FilmInk about the complexities – emotional and artistic – in making this, her feature debut as director.
Like so many documentary films, When the Camera Stopped Rolling took a very long time to make.
“[Laughs] Yeah! Initially I wanted to make a film about Death… but no one was very interested in that [Laughs]. But I suppose this project started when I restored a film I made at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School [AFTRS] in 1981 and I learned video editing. I started fiddling around with ideas in about 2011. After that, we made a trailer in 2013, and we got our first bit of funding in 2014. [I found that] people were very interested in mum’s story. She was one of those forgotten trailblazers of the film industry. And [of course], I became a director of photography.”
That has a certain story symmetry people like…
“[Laughs] Yeah, and we eventually became a mother and daughter [creative] team. I think I became a cinematographer so I could connect with her [at an artistic level]. I could talk to her about [tech]. Talk to her about trying to get the respect of gaffers and grips. About standing your ground. She was really proud and encouraging.
“But really [making a film on that], was not my first interest. In fact, I did not want to make a film about my mother at all.”
In a way that’s apparent in the finished film. Like all familial relationships, there are mixed emotions. It’s like we are trapped in your subconscious, full of questions, doubts, anger…then at certain moments there are these blinding moments of clarity.
“I was keen to make a good film and terrified to make a disastrous one. Making it was about obeying the dictates of the film…When it said, ‘go deeper, be more honest’, I did. That said, I was bringing in turgid and revealing material into the edit… and it would get tossed! [Laughs]. I’d written some fully formed scripts. The final form was found through the making, rather than having a plan and applying a plan. I didn’t know what it was about until it was finished. What [holds it together], is the mother/daughter story.”
There’s a lot of trauma here; a combative violent marriage, obsessive behaviour, alcoholism, domestic space dominated by excessive debt…
“My parents were always fighting about money. I experienced that. But as a kid, you don’t really know what’s going on. As I grew up, I found out they were deeply, deeply in debt. As I researched the film, I realised they had mortgaged the house to mum’s father. There was a lot of grandiosity in our family. They papered over it.”
The film makes note of, but does not get journalistic about the role gender plays in the culture of film crews.
“Crews smell blood if you express even a little vulnerability. When I say, ‘I grabbed the camera from the boys’, that’s what happened. I wasn’t going to stand aside. I definitely experienced sexism and discrimination. My mum experienced [it too] and she brushed it off. Like mum, I was ambitious as a cinematographer and that was the thing that was driving me. That dominated.”
Did the film have a therapeutic value for you? Of course, it can have precisely the opposite effect for some filmmakers making this kind of personal film!
“Yeah, in a way, it was therapeutic. Making order out of chaos had its own effect. It’s a bit soothing to make something that is horrible and traumatic into something more beautiful.”
The film has such a rich texture; at times it is like a dream, at others it’s like a freshly discovered visual diary. All with wall-to-wall narration.
“Yeah, I was very inspired by Chris Marker’s Sunless (Sans Soleil, 1982), Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (2012) and I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016). I wrote many, many different versions of the narration. [As far your comment about it being a kind of diary]…One of the decisions we made about the film was that we would not use any external archival. Everything – homes movies, short film excerpts, features, docs – was shot by family members. That was a boundary; because it’s not a film about an era.”
You perform the narration yourself and it has quite a hypnotic, immersive effect. It’s very beautiful.
“[Laughs]. Half the people who heard the [early versions of the narration] said, ‘you have to get an actor, because you are so shit at this!’ [Laughs]. So, its effect was hard-won! Actor Heather Mitchell came in to train me. We sat there for seven days straight, and it was so hard… it’s all about tone, pacing and making it sound ‘natural’. It’s so technical. Agonising. It was hell.”
Right now, you are shifting careers. How do you reflect on your film career now?
“I do have this love/hate relationship with film. Then I get this idea and I make it and after it’s over I say ‘never again’. It’s very difficult.”