KYD is proud to present a selection of film writing from the 2020 Melbourne Women in Film Festival’s Critics Lab. This program enables four emerging Australian film critics to interview filmmakers and panellists, network with industry folk, attend special screenings throughout the festival and learn from mentors Emma Westwood and Stephanie van Schilt.
For more great film writing from this year’s festival, check out the Critics Lab blog!
Births, Deaths & Marriages
dir. Bea Joblin
The home video is a means of documenting. It captures the domestic through a fingerprint-smudged lens, catching us in the place where memory fails. Writer-director Bea Joblin’s Births, Deaths & Marriages (BD&M) – set in 1994 and filmed entirely in the handheld style of a mock home video – recognises the value of the tool through which it is presented.
Filmed six years before its festival premiere in 2019, the New Zealand period piece follows a family in the aftermath of two upsetting events: Grandma’s just died, and Sinead’s been stood up at the altar. The film’s grand ensemble – full of aunts, cousins, friends, fiancés and foetuses – must reconcile these two disasters, just as another family member conveniently goes into labour.
Joblin’s script performs a great service for her cast of (primarily) female characters, most of whom are imbued with their own distinct comedic sensibilities. It’s a joy to watch the actresses’ various interactions with one another, through which the earnest delivery of suburban realist dialogue produces some great pieces of situational comedy.
However, the sprawling nature of the film’s home video premise, which depends on unidentified characters and a lack of exposition in order to appear authentic, is only successful to a certain extent. The affective chaos of family life is skilfully portrayed, but left unmoored, obscures the narrative’s coherence and the interpersonal dynamics contained within.
Though we never visually meet the person ‘recording’ the film, we register their presence through shaky camera management and sporadic zooms. This person, identified as ‘Aiden’, explains his incessant filming as an attempt at ‘posterity’. By watching BD&M, then, we are already anticipating the loss of the present.
The film looks knowingly back on itself as an artefact. It does not attempt to create something timeless, but something to be remembered.
Because the film is so stylistically nostalgic – through costuming, production design and the camera’s VHS quality – BD&M is already of a specific time. Even in its visceral storytelling method and modern viewing context, the film looks knowingly back on itself as an artefact. It does not attempt to create something timeless, but something to be remembered.
Joblin compellingly toys with the idea that in the act of filming, we appraise a subject as worth remembering. In an early scene, Aunty Ngaire (Geraldine Brophy) announces it’s time she ‘stop being a sentimental old fool and pretending that our lives have any meaning’. The film operates upon this thought – when have we ever viewed the domestic with any real importance? – but finds significance in its own self-conscious attention to other archival objects.
In the family’s heightened state, we watch characters return to photo albums and older, fuzzier home videos from the 1970’s. Through this tradition of remembrance, Joblin creates a sense of shared history and memory that – embedded into these documents – becomes absorbed and owned by a collective whole.
– Tiia Kelly
She Who Must Be Loved
dir. Erica Glynn
There are no glass windows, no hallways, no evident doors on 78-year-old Alfreda ‘Freda’ Glynn’s Cooktown home. Just a Far North Queensland breeze and the morning sound of a cast iron kettle in a home bound by tin cladding.
‘Darling, you can’t follow me around all day,’ Glynn tells her daughter Erica, documentary filmmaker and writer-director of She Who Must Be Loved. Here, we are introduced to Freda’s portrait and a trajectory that saw her instrumental in the 1980s advent of the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA). Freda also co-founded the first Blak Australian television station, born out of Alice Springs long before notions of ‘representation’ touched mainstream consciousness.
‘To be able to bid for the satellite licence, we had to create a TV company called Imparja, and that’s when I really learned how to fight.’ And that she did, vowing to bring Central Desert mob news in language, then self-led broadcast that showcased and celebrated Indigenous culture and on their own terms, ‘It just needed this little bit of pride and we were gonna look after our mob. We were gonna make our mob proud of themselves. You know, and it was for us, it wasn’t for the whole country. And that’s what it was all about.’
Freda is a staunch fighter…She has a love for solitude but an innate knack for working in the limelight.
The period of her life building CAAMA and Imparja, Freda insists as only one part of a much longer life narrative. In many ways, it’s her family story – though unresolved – that takes centre stage in She Who Must Be Loved. Who shot her grandmother during a massacre? What could Freda’s life have looked like in the absence of colonial violence and dispossession? The film poses more questions than inferences as viewers are taken on a deeply personal and explorative journey from Cooktown to Sydney’s Inner West, to Central Australia, accompanied by a beautifully arranged archive of footage and stills.
Freda is a staunch fighter. She raised five children – her way, never really interested in marrying, though she did that one time – and she speaks with the conviction of a matriarch void of nonsense. She has a love for solitude but an innate knack for working in the limelight. Embroiled by contrast, she’s both prickly and hilarious.
She Who Must Be Loved is a must-see, especially for non-Indigenous folk who might dub themes of invaded Australia as a thing of the ‘historic’ past. She Who Must Be Loved’s presence of Freda’s daughter and granddaughters debunks this, through storytelling that cuts through with sharp curation, bleeding honesty and poignancy in contemporary colonial Australia.
– Laura La Rosa
dir. Nicole Whippy / ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka / Guttenbeil-Likiliki / Matasila Freshwater / Amberley Jo Aumua / Mīria George / Marina Alofagia McCartney / Dianna Fuemana / Becs Arahanga
Directed by nine Pasifika women, Vai explores the conflict of having personal desires amongst a culture that has strong obligations to family and community. The threads of responsibility to community are woven through the lifetime of one woman, the eponymous Vai. From her perspective, we span across eight fictional vignettes from the Pacific countries – Fiji, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Kuku Airani (Cook Islands), Samoa, Niue and Aotearoa (New Zealand).
We open with seven-year-old Sevaia (Ro Mereani Adi Tuimatanisiga) in Fiji before drifting through the rest of Vai’s lifetimes and peacefully concluding the narrative through the eyes of 80-year-old Rapuwai (Hinetu Dell) in Aotearoa. With the aforementioned iterations of ‘vai’ translating to water across Pacific cultures, some may be confused as to whether Vai is actually the same woman across the film or various women living similar experiences across different times and islands.
Regardless of your interpretation of Vai’s journey, there is a commonality expressed throughout the film that lingers as the credits roll: the universal weight and expectations of womanhood. These expectations are best demonstrated through the lens of the on-going survival of culture for a community facing the mass effects of centuries of colonisation.
Vai demonstrates a rich interconnectedness of strong, unapologetic women that have been rising and blossoming since the beginning of time.
The various vignettes of the journey Vai undertakes, showcases that women hold an unwavering strength to put the needs of others before their own for the sake of whānau (family). This style of filmmaking also pays tribute to the essence of pacific culture of passing stories down generations to keep culture alive and this water-like flow creates a tranquility to the film’s narrative.
Stylistically complemented with the beautiful writing and direction from the likes of the Whippy Sisters and Amberley Jo Aumua, the graceful cinematography of Vai keeps this tranquility in focus throughout the film. Through this comfortable pacing, each story naturally flows into one another, with Marina Alofagia McCartney’s and Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki’s storytelling particularly shining through.
Vai not only captures the journey of female empowerment through culture, but how the lifeblood of a community courses in the veins of the women of each island and the weight they carry as matriarchs of their people. Ultimately, Vai demonstrates a rich interconnectedness of strong, unapologetic women that have been rising and blossoming since the beginning of time.
– Natalie Williams
What If It Works?
dir. Romi Trower
Boy meets girl. Boy has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) around the cleanliness of objects and doesn’t like to be touched; girl has Dissociative Identity Disorder and multiple personalities, one of whom loves touching. It doesn’t sound like a match made in romantic comedy heaven, but… What If It Works?
Awarded Best Australian Independent Feature Film at the 2017 Gold Coast Film Festival, What If It Works? is a solid feature debut by Australian director Romi Trower. The boy and girl in question are Adrian (Luke Ford), a postdoctoral candidate isolating himself after the end of a long term relationship, and Grace (Anna Samson), a street artist grappling with the impact each of her ten personalities has on her artistic output and personal life.
As is the way of the romcom, several meet cutes occur in the form of Adrian and Grace having the same therapist (Karen Fairfax) and living on the same street after Adrian moves into his father’s garage. Set against Melbourne’s colourful inner-north suburbs of Brunswick and Northcote, the city’s vibrant street art provides a fitting backdrop for Adrian and Grace’s burgeoning relationship – Grace brings bright colours, literally, into Adrian’s life and penchant for dark clothes and working only in dimly lit garages.
In Adrian and Grace, Trower has carefully captured some of the nuances of building a healthy relationship while working through complex mental health issues.
What If It Works? is a curious commodity. As a dramatic comedy, it struggles to strike the balance between the two genres, and at moments risks undermining the film’s intent of normalising mental health on screen. But the film’s strength lies in scenes centred around Adrian and Grace; in them, Trower has carefully captured some of the nuances of building a healthy relationship while working through complex mental health issues.
Subplots involving Adrian’s ex-girlfriend Melinda (Brooke Satchwell) and Grace’s manipulative artist boyfriend, Sledgehammer (Wade Briggs), on the other hand, are never afforded a reasonable amount of time to develop. Their storylines feel rushed to their resolution in the given time and would have benefited from a few more moments of fleshing out their personal circumstances to provide more context. The pacing suffers when Ford and Samson aren’t on screen, who each provide compelling and empathetic performances.
Overall, What If It Works? is a colourful and at-times chaotic contemplation of the possibilities of love. Some things do work, and others fall slightly short of the mark.
– Chloe Wong