Using still photographs, personal narration, quoted correspondence and music, the early 20th century history of the maternal side of the filmmaker’s family is detailed. Summary by Adrienne Parr.
This is a segment of part one, which covers 1900 to 1921 and is entitled, 'The Lettes of Willow Glen’. While the title borrows more from 19th century women’s literature than from cinema, the segment itself, with its handwritten intertitles, pays homage to silent film. Its narrative maps a memory of the family’s life in Tasmania from the earliest photographs available, to the marriage of Thornley’s grandmother, Wyn Lette. While the photos are family records, they inevitably represent the broader Australian history of the period – the growth of a rural middle class and the First World War. Family photographs like these are today commonplace in formal presentations of national history. But it’s important to remember that at the time Maidens was made, collections of family photos, especially photos of women and domestic spaces, were only just beginning to be accepted as valid and relevant historical documents.
Maidens is a biographical chronicle. It uses personal archives, made up of still and moving image, from both domestic and vocational sources, lyrical narration and emotive music to trace the filmmaking journey of one feminist (the filmmaker herself).
Jeni Thornley was one of a group of feminists who gravitated towards filmmaking when the practice (once again) became a possibility in Australia in the late 1960s. Thornley and others formed the SWFG (Sydney Women’s Film Group), an informal collective with broad based objectives. The group produced several films, organised women’s film workshops and lobbied for a 50 per cent intake of women to the then Australian Film and Television School. Initiatives like these steered the agenda and by International Women’s Year in 1975, the government was ready to allocate significant funds to women’s filmmaking. A portion of these went to the establishment of the AFC’s Women’s Film Fund in 1976. By the late 1970s a collection of low-budget, short ‘women’s’ films had been produced. Some were experimental while others were conventionally structured, but all engaged in debates about the position of women in society and their representation in the media. The fact that Thornley had been involved with a number of these films, and her determination to understand the feminist experience through the prism of the filmmaking experience, proved to be elemental in her scripting of Maidens.
Funded by the Creative Development Branch of the AFC, Maidens is set out in four parts. The first two parts document the lives of Thornley’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother using an archive of beautiful and uncommonly comprehensive family photographs. (Indeed in the credits the filmmaker thanks her maternal family for preserving their heritage.) The second two parts document Thornley’s own life, again using an archive of family photos, but this time interwoven with a new feminist archive – in the form of excerpts from films with which Thornley had been involved, as well as Super8 footage she herself had shot. The two halves of the film diverge stylistically. The clear, static testament of the first half becomes opaque, fluid and intensely personal in the second half. Time loses its order and the female subject is continually repositioned. The divergence reflects the film’s central dilemma: how to begin a feminist history, how to begin a feminist memory, what to keep and what to throw out, what to remember and what to forget.
Almost four years in the making, Maidens picked up local and international short film awards and became compulsory viewing in women and film courses around the country – where it sparked much impassioned debate. It remains essential viewing for an enhanced understanding of the moment of awakened consciousness that characterised 1970s feminism.
Notes by Adrienne Parr
This clip shows black-and-white photographs of filmmaker Jeni Thornley’s maternal family between 1900 and 1921. The photographs are combined with Thornley’s narration and quoted correspondence to trace the history of the family. The account spans settlement in rural Tasmania, where the extended family worked the land, to the First World War, when the men enlisted to fight overseas and the women took responsibility for the farm. It concludes with the end of the War and the marriage of Thornley’s grandmother, Wyn Lette. The clip includes intertitles and excerpts of songs and instrumental music.
Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia
For further information and resources of this and other Jeni Thornley films visit: http://www.jenithornley.com/
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This clip shows a series of black-and-white family photographs. The filmmaker speaks over the images which are broken up by captions.
Jeni Thornley, filmmaker and narrator It begins at the very first photographs I can find. They’ve been kept by the women of the family.
Part One 1900-1921
Jeni Thornley This is my maternal family…
The Lettes of Willow Glen
Jeni Thornley ...a chain of mothers. Irish Catholics on the land, migrant convicts in a harsh new country. It is an extended family…
The family smile.
Jeni Thornley ...subsistence farmers, eight daughters and four sons complete unto themselves. They grow their own food…
The butter industry at home.
Jeni Thornley ...slaughter their own cattle, spin their own cloth.
Jeni Thornley It is hard work. There is a happiness about them and a hardness.
Mum and Dad are happy.
Jeni Thornley The land is hard.
Jeni Thornley They know what they want – they want to love and marry.
(A song plays)
A man I know will love me
And protect me like he should
And when he holds me in his loving arms
Stays with me all the time
Then I’ll know I’m all woman
Jeni Thornley The war came. Massive changes were under way.
Men at war.
Jeni Thornley Letter to Wyn Lette at Willow Glen, Tasmania from Tom Butcher. ‘Somewhere in France, January 19th, 1918. My darling Wyn, your letters are everything to me. It is the thoughts of you and the dear home folk that keeps one alive in this sordid life. I’m quite satisfied when you are the only girl in the world. The French girls dance awfully fast. Your knees begin to go after about three waltzes…’
Some Sunday morning.
Jeni Thornley ’..and I had to cry, “Enough”. With you I could carry on…’
Jeni Thornley ’..from dawn of day till the setting sun. It would make your heart ache to see some of the places, Wyn. In some cases the people had been at meals. I went into a house a few days ago and the table was already set. The people had cleared out at the first sound of the guns.’
The lady of the lake.
Jeni Thornley ’But it will not be very long now, darling, before I shall behold your dear face once and for always. Back to the land of sunny skies, fair women and freedom.’
Jeni Thornley The men were glad to be back. They celebrated together, praised their valour, their manhood, and planned their futures of work, marriage and family.
Marriage – Wyn Lette becomes Mrs Tom Butcher.
(A song plays.)
Until you give your love
There’s nothing more that we can do…