Josipa Draisma is an acclaimed artist who works across theatre, film, visual art and music. She grew up in Western Sydney in a creative family: her mother was once a disco dancer and among her relatives are singers, performers and producers. Draisma, who founded the production house In Wild Company, won the Sydney Fringe Best Music Award for her play Ljubičica – Wild Violet.
This month she premiered The Hen House, a collaboration with her siblings Sime and Mara Kneževic, at Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. The musical, a co-production with PYT Fairfield, chronicles the lives of female migrant factory workers to a soundtrack of ’70s Australian rock. Draisma chose to speak about Me and Daphne, a little-seen 1977 film shot and co-produced by Martha Ansara, one of the country’s first female cinematographers. It helped Draisma visualise the generation of women who came before her – and to see parallels between their lives and hers.
Me and Daphne follows a character called Lillian and her daughter Daphne as they face the realities of factory work. How did you first come across it?
When we were researching social history for The Hen House, we came across this movie on IMDB called Me and Daphne that was set in a chicken factory in the ’70s and we thought, Let’s just see what this is. The film was originally made by the very first female cohort at the Australian Film Television and Radio School and as a training video for a woman to learn the tools. We interviewed Martha Ansara and she told us her experience of making this work. All the women you see on the production line are non-actors.
We explore the lives of these characters and then, boom, we go into the factory and we have this insight into the look, the sound, the feel. But the most extraordinary sight was that halfway through the film, the camera zooms in on this little lady and this little lady is my grandmother.
That is incredible! Did you know she played a role in it?
We had no idea. She is looking down the barrel of the camera. My sister Mara said she just turned white as a ghost. Our grandmother passed away a few years ago and it was like we found her through this documentary. When I watched it, I had the same reaction. We had a gut feeling that The Hen House had very strong legs to stand on. But seeing my grandmother was just extraordinary affirmation of – Aha, you found me and, yes, you should be telling this story.
It had an extraordinary impact on us and on my mother and her sister, my aunty and my uncle, who is also a musical director in our show. Our grandmother never spoke about what her life was like in the factory. If anything, she always spoke respectfully and with much dignity about her time at Ingham’s. She said her job gave her a sense of community, independence, a strong identity, a strong connection with other women. It was her first and only paid job. But no one ever knew what that job really was. She always said, “I love my job. My job gives me respect.” And she always dreamed of being a forelady, but she couldn’t because she couldn’t speak English. You could see that was a lady who was trying to crack her own glass cultural ceiling.
It’s the story of so many migrant women of that generation.
Within one week of being in Australia, she had to work because she had a mortgage to pay. She had a choice to work at Arnott’s biscuits or Ingham’s and she decided on Ingham’s because it was closer and paid a little bit more. Working in a chicken processing factory was one of the worst jobs you could have because the conditions were so unnecessarily harsh.
She started there before technology kicked in, so stuff was done by hand. Plucking the chicken feathers, slitting throats. The illnesses were extraordinary. Our grandmother’s knuckles were disfigured from all that work. The first thing Martha said when they filmed in there was the sound of the screeching chooks was something else. It was deafening. That has stayed with her. To know that in real life your grandmother lived it takes your breath away. I make theatre for a living. What a privileged life!
So often the experiences and contributions of working-class migrant women are missing from Australia’s social and economic history. Why do you think this film is revolutionary?
Many migrants still work in factories. They were very much of the mindset that they wanted to build a better life so that their children didn’t have to do this. Migrant women were very much the muscle engine of these factories. They were deployed to do these very menial, repetitive jobs. It can’t be lost on us to not acknowledge the sacrifice they made.
I guess it was just hardcore evidence of what it was that they did and the working conditions that they had to endure to survive. The film touches on their personal lives too. The pressures of being a working parent. The fact that you could only learn English in the evening, when you have to look after your kids…
Me and Daphne also reflects a very xenophobic moment in Australia. If you didn’t speak English, you were treated condescendingly.
And so many of those women, maybe they didn’t speak English but they probably spoke four other languages. We explore the power structures that are intrinsically linked to the dominant language in The Hen House. The character I play struggles with that – and she is trying to maintain her status in the factory and in the world of The Hen House. Language is your currency, your status, your power. They were kind of taken advantage of. Day one of your job, you would have papers about how to join a union – but you didn’t know as a migrant woman what the power of the union was.
Me and Daphne gave us the ability to explore the storytelling. We were fascinated by the various stations in the production line. What is the actual job? And watching the film, we were able to see how they prepared themselves with the caging stations. They would wrap themselves in gauze so the chickens wouldn’t stab them. We do this amazing station sequence in The Hen House. Our grandmother would say that there would be lines for days. It looked like something out of Edward Scissorhands.
I really like the scenes in which the women talk about their lives during their lunchbreak. The filmmakers treat the facts of their lives as worthy of attention. How does this inspire you as an artist?
We have to look at the voices we don’t hear in the room. I really think that in The Hen House and Me and Daphne, we get to see migrant women in a totally different way. Seeing what they had to endure in a working environment, privately behind the scenes. The interpersonal relationships they had with each other.
The arts are vastly led by white, middle-class men. The research shows that class is one of the highest-ranking barriers to leadership roles. And if you are a working-class migrant woman, then forget about it. Working in the arts, you are not doing it for the money. Can you actually afford to lead an arts organisation in this country as a working mother? I think about my grandmother who worked in a chicken factory. The things we present in The Hen House, the things presented in Me and Daphne. The struggles that migrant women faced then, they still face now.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Kelp wanted".
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