Long before the #MeToo movement, Australian feminist film and theatre was at the forefront of the push for women’s liberation. By Kath Kenny.

The Sydney Women’s Film Group

Jeni Thornley and Joan Jansen in ‘Film for Discussion’.
Jeni Thornley and Joan Jansen in ‘Film for Discussion’.
Credit: Martha Ansara & Sydney Women’s Film Group

There’s a short black-and-white film from 1973 called Film for Discussion. Made by the Sydney Women’s Film Group, it follows a day in the life of office worker Jeni. As she types and stamps envelopes, we see her male boss barking orders, his torso looming over her. Jeni’s co-worker Christina has negotiated a long lunchbreak to shop for a wedding dress. “How did you get extra?” Jeni asks. “Oh, you know,” Christina replies. Martha Ansara, the film’s director, tells me while “sexual harassment wasn’t really publicly discussed then, Christina is framed very deliberately, and she is saying something about her boss.”

The film shows Jeni meeting a women’s liberationist and her awakening feminist consciousness. She argues with her boyfriend who dumps his paperwork on her. That night, her hard-drinking father abuses her mother for not having dinner on the table. The character of Jeni was played by Jeni Thornley, an aspiring actor who had recently moved to Sydney from Melbourne. She joined an experimental group, the Australian Arts Lab in Paddington, performing in plays by Alex Buzo and John Romeril. She recalls playing a character called Miss Pink. “It was odd being the only person in the cast who had to strip. Every rehearsal I had to strip to the waist.”

In the early 1970s Martha and Jeni joined the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative, an underground group who made, screened and distributed films from a Darlinghurst warehouse. “There was an assumption that men did things and women were decorative,” says Martha (if Frances McDormand had a darker-haired and older sister, she’d look like Martha, I think when I interview her at her Port Kembla bungalow). An American of Syrian–Lebanese descent who had made anti-Vietnam war documentaries in California with her Australian boyfriend, Martha wasn’t interested in being decorative. After catching sight of the French documentary-maker Agnès Varda directing a film crew at a 1967 Black Panther rally she bought her own camera. In Sydney, Martha, Jeni and other women formed the Sydney Women’s Film Group (SWFG). They lobbied for money for women filmmakers from the then new Experimental Film Fund, and successfully argued for women’s places at the newly established Film and Television School. By 1973 about 500 women met for Womenvision, a long weekend of women’s film screenings and workshops. By the end of 1974, nine of the top 10 films rented by the co-op were women’s films (Bruce Petty’s Australian History was the exception).

When the #MeToo movement gained worldwide momentum, commentators were understandably critical about the way the movement was being led by women from the elite worlds of film, theatre and media, and the lack of acknowledgement of African–American civil rights activist Tarana Burke. But as I’ve been discovering while carrying out doctoral research, feminist film and theatre was in many ways at the heart of the Australian women’s liberation movement. Film for Discussion was “shot on weekends”, Martha explains, with the cast and crew using the new consciousness-raising methods of women’s liberation to create dialogue and scenes from their own life stories. Like the #MeToo movement, second wave feminists’ consciousness raising was influenced by political awareness-raising strategies of the American civil rights movement. The SWFG worked hard to distribute the film: an estimated 20,000 women watched it in community halls and in consciousness-raising groups around the country. The feminist influence on the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op was such that by the early 1980s, films about sexual harassment at work – It’s Just a Compliment, Luv! and Just Part of the Job – were among its most popular rentals.

While Jeni and Martha were shooting Film for Discussion, in 1971 two Melbourne friends, actor and anti-war activist Kerry Dwyer and a young teacher named Helen Garner, had joined the Carlton Women’s Liberation Group and were holding consciousness-raising sessions at Helen’s house. Kerry and Helen were also part of the Australian Performing Group scene, a group of writers, directors and actors based at the old Pram Factory in Carlton. They were young, politically left-wing and activist. The Bulletin’s Leonard Glickfeld described the APG actors “whirring down Bourke Street like American fighter pilots in the vanguard of the Moratorium march”.

When I talk with Kerry at her 1920s duplex home in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, she describes her own feminist awakening over Marvellous Melbourne, an early APG play about 19th-century Melbourne. “Marvellous Melbourne was the inaugural APG show at the Pram Factory, ostensibly group-devised but ultimately controlled by the male writers and male directors – one of whom, Graeme Blundell, I later married,” Kerry says. The result was a “corny larrikin boys’ own romp with virtually no roles for us. We were half the company, but we were ignored, invisible. In fury I became a committed feminist.”

When a visiting actress from a Boston theatre company came to their consciousness-raising group and explained how to make theatre from their personal experiences, Kerry seized on the idea for a women’s play. Over the summer of 1971 and 1972, women took over the Pram Factory to create and rehearse the show Betty Can Jump. The improvised play – only incomplete records remain – was “a montage of historical scenes showing convicts and suffragettes linked by very confronting contemporary scenes,” Kerry says. “Men in the audience squirmed and women roared as these cute little women strapped on jockstraps with huge penises and sent up ocker men in a bar. Even more confronting were intimate revelations about how we felt as women.” The play began with scenes of women being forced to have sex on convict ships, and it included contemporary scenes of women being treated as men’s possessions and sexual playthings.

The focus on non-Indigenous women’s experiences might seem an oversight now but, as Kerry explains, “we were not so much blind to the lives of Indigenous women, it was more that we were catching up with ourselves”. The play was so successful its initial four-week season was extended to six; 5000 tickets were sold, making it the bestselling of the 13 APG shows staged that year.

While Betty Can Jump targeted boorish and abusive male characters, Kerry doesn’t remember sexual harassment in the Pram Factory world itself: “I often think, ‘Was that because we were so terrifying?’ ” The play’s success led to more opportunities for women in the APG, but they weren’t universally welcomed. “There were men in the Pram Factory who would not agree to be directed by a woman,” Kerry remembers. In the APG archives, I notice issues such as child care and cleaning appearing more often in the minutes after Betty Can Jump. In March 1972, “creche” services for the APG and audiences were discussed. Max Gillies proposed compulsory contraception for APG members (I think he was jesting). “This is not expected to go over too well at the next meeting of the collective,” the minutes record.

The flourishing women’s film and theatre movement of the 1970s attracted a generation to women’s liberation. It was less successful, as #MeToo shows, in making those worlds feminist ones where women have equal power. For Martha, it is the long hours of film shoots that stall many women’s careers: “The hours are impossible.” She is still a member of the Australian Cinematographers Society, and the organisation has surveyed members about women’s lack of progress. “Sexual harassment and sexual discrimination came up, but the big thing is child care and family-friendly workplaces.”

Other factors conspired against this movement of feminist film and theatre workers. In a recent History Council of New South Wales lecture, Michelle Arrow noted the first feature film funded by the new Australia Council was The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. It set the scene for a whole series of masculinist ocker comedies and films that would dominate the Australian feature film industry, from Alvin Purple, starring Blundell, to descendants such as Crocodile Dundee and Mad Max.

It would be silly to remember the 1970s as an unproblematically golden period of radicalism. But neither should contemporary feminists casually dismiss second-wave feminism as an anachronistic irrelevancy. While they didn’t use the term intersectional, women such as Martha and Jeni and Kerry came to feminism only after they applied the lessons they learnt in anti-apartheid, anti-war and working-class movements. The SWFG made films about women in factories, about domestic violence and life for migrant women. Some of the Betty Can Jump women later joined the Melbourne Women’s Theatre Group, making plays about lesbianism and institutionalised women. They toured factories and women from migrant backgrounds devised a show about immigrant women’s experiences. Martha went on to work as a cinematographer with Essie Coffey on her film My Survival as an Aboriginal, and on Pat Fiske’s film about the Builders’ Labourers Federation’s green bans, Rocking the Foundations.

These women didn’t become the celebrities we see leading today’s #MeToo movement, but we have much to learn from them. They fought against oppression wherever they saw it. And they wanted to give women the kind of power that, one hopes, would make it that much easier to resist sexual harassment and abuse in the first place. Remembering these women’s stories may be one way to ensure the #MeToo movement doesn’t slide into the amnesia of history, too.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 4, 2018 as "Girls on film".

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Kath Kenny is a Sydney-based writer currently researching a doctorate.

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