Juanita Nielsen: The Sin City Mystery

September 3, 2021
We speak with one of Australia’s busiest filmmakers, Kriv Stenders, who has directed a two-part documentary series to accompany ABC’s Unravel: Juanita podcast.

Juanita Nielsen disappeared in the winter of 1975. Last seen entering a nightclub in Sydney’s entertainment precinct, a coroner found, nearly ten years after, that she was likely murdered. No one was ever tried for the killing.

At the core of this mystery was the widely held conviction that Nielsen was a casualty in a war fought between greedy and crooked developers and citizens determined to preserve their homes. What happened to Juanita Nielsen was one of the more notorious reasons Sydney earned the ‘Sin City’ brand in an era stained by police corruption, grubby politicians and organised crime.

With her privileged background, out-dated beehive hairdo, and low-key manner, Nielsen became an unlikely local hero in the working-class, bohemian enclave that was Kings Cross in the 1970s. In the pages of her own self-published community paper, she campaigned to keep low-income housing in neighbourhoods marked for destruction and high-rise ‘development’. Nielsen won the respect of valuable allies in the unions, street radicals and grass-roots activists and between them they managed to save much of Old Sydney.

Now a new two-part ABC series Juanita: A Family Mystery revisits the story. Following two of Nielsen’s relatives, Keiran McGee and Pip Rey, as they try untested evidence and turn over new clues with ABC’s Podcast team, it’s a gripping piece. Adding fresh insights into the human story, Juanita dives into the murky Sydney underworld of the ‘70s where characters like Abe Saffron once ruled.

Keiran McGee and Pip Rey outside Juanita’s home in Kings Cross

For director Kriv Stenders, it’s another fine documentary, after The Go-Betweens, Right Here, and Slim & I.

We spoke to Stenders just as the series was entering its last phase of post-production.

Kriv Stenders

The series is a sort of cold-case crime procedural, where we follow two investigators sifting through evidence, long thought lost, they even turn up witnesses…did you ever hope of resolving the case?

“There was a certain point in the making of it where we felt ‘will we ever really know the truth’, you know? My theory is that Juanita was caught up in a power play. In cases like this, you follow the money [and that makes you realise] that this is what happens when you challenge powerful people. I must admit that this case, this story, has really haunted me. The process of making the show was troubling, sad.”

Did you know much practically about the story?

“Not really. I knew her story through the fictional version in films like The Killing of Angel Street (Don Crombie, 1981), Heatwave (Phillip Noyce, 1981).”

You use excerpts from these pictures in the documentary. But as bleak as those films are, the real story as the series portrays is far more chilling.

“Obviously, Juanita Nielsen is an iconic character. A lot of people of my generation know the mythology surrounding her. I’ve worked around Kings Cross. Had offices there. I remember the Green Ban Graffiti in the neighbourhood. Her ‘ghost’ has always been there. I’ve been here thirty years and Juanita was one of those Sydney stories you grow up with.”

The show deals with dirty money, under the table deals, all connected to real estate. Here we have ordinary people finding inspired ways to fight these tremendous forces in order to keep their community together. It’s a timely story.

“Yeah. This obsession Sydney has with real estate was born a long time ago. What was fascinating was the power of these communities. It was pure activism. In a way, the ‘60s hit Australia in the ‘70s, that generation had a political awakening in its forward thinking and open-mindedness.”

What’s interesting is that Juanita was not really a political person. Part of her mythology was that she did not seem to lead or even want to lead a ‘crusade’.

“Right. Yet she’s at the hub of all these elements…”

Organised crime, greedy developers, the growing green movement?

“Yeah. It was prescient. The parallels to today are really strong. That’s what makes her such a fascinating character.”

How did you get involved?

With this project, Alan Erson at [producers] Wild Bear approached me about doing a series. We had done Brock and Why ANZAC with Sam Neill, together. He told me that the family, Keiran McGee and Pip Rey, wanted to do an investigation [into the disappearance and murder of Juanita] and I said, ‘I’m in!’”

How did you arrive at the structure?

“My pitch was, ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to be a fly on the wall watching – Keiran and Pip [above] – doing this investigation for the podcast?’ We did a proof of concept late last year and hit the ground running in January, shooting two or three days a week. The show has only been locked now [late August]. It’s been eight months of work. A very mercurial thing, where we would get notice that someone wanted to talk…then you’d get a message, ‘no they’ve changed their mind’. We had to be nimble [to get the story]. We ended up with about one hundred hours of footage. We edited as we went along to make the schedule.”

It’s an incredibly complicated story.

“With this sort of documentary, you are part of a team. Alan Erson has an incredible editorial mind and this machine-like way of processing information. And the editors like Adrian Rostirolla [and Lile Judickas] were great, analytical… that’s what you need, a number of viewpoints to help you filter it. The thing that kept us on course was Kieran and Pip and their journey. We stayed with them and captured what they were experiencing.”

Yes, it creates a sense of anticipation. The archive used is very evocative – it’s very creative – where we have the investigators ‘re-trace’ the journey we see in the footage from the ‘70s.

“It’s the past and the present in co-existence. I’m a big fan of using archive expressionistically, not literally. I like to create a mosaic or a waterfall where the images are not directly related but [conjure] something thematically or emotionally. You’re trying to create something out of anything you can find…like a collage.

“I find that very exciting when you make those discoveries.

“The thing I love about making docs is that it is like a time machine. You can go back and really experience the era through the lens of the newspapers, the archive and the memories of people who were there on the frontline [of the story].”

Juanita: A Family Mystery airs from Tuesday 7 September at 8.30pm on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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