Maidens: A new sisterhood
In a montage of footage from 1970s feminist films, interlaced by narration and music, the clip proposes the notion of a new sisterhood. Summary by Adrienne Parr.
Excerpts used in this segment are from Ned Lander’s short film Beach (AFTRS 1977), Jealousy (a c1975 film by Martha Ansara in which Thornley acted), as well as Super 8 footage which Thornley shot, in an informal capacity, while working on Journey Among Women in 1976 and at a Women’s Camp in 1977. It also includes a number of shots from Ansara’s film Secret Storm (1977). The excerpts characterise feminist film practice at the time: a rejection of hierarchies (concerning both cinematic form and ways of working); consciousness raising as an end in itself; an interest in psychoanalysis; and the use of abstract or non-predefined locations.
The influence of earlier feminist filmmakers like Maya Deren and Agnès Varda is also unmistakable. But what’s most interesting is the attempt to unify the assortment of concerns (expressed by the content of the images and narration) using music, editing and image texture. It’s a recognition that a feminist film language – one which might somehow be capable of articulating the utopian dream of a new sisterhood – would have to overthrow not only cinema’s conventional content, but its very form. But how to do such a thing and still make a film? And what then of meaning? These would be questions for feminist films to come.
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).
Maiden's curator's notes
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 an exploration by filmmaker Jeni Thornley of the ideal of sisterhood that was celebrated by the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, and what this meant for her relationships with both men and women. Thornley’s voice-over, which switches from the first to the third person, is accompanied by a montage of images, including excerpts taken from 1970s feminist films and a dramatisation that reflects the mixed emotions Thornley experiences as she grapples with her evolving relationships with men and women. The clip includes music.
Educational value points
- Like Maidens, many of the feminist documentary films made between 1970 and the early 1980s emphasised women’s personal experiences, favouring autobiographical discourse and oral histories and eschewing an 'authoritative’ or controlling voice-over. Filmmaker Jeni Thornley’s subjective first-person voice-over and the autobiographical nature of her subject matter corresponded with the desire of feminist filmmakers to enable women to tell their own stories in their own voices.
- Australian women became active in the women’s liberation movement, the largest social movement of women in history, from the 1960s. A grassroots movement, it pushed for the social, economic and political equality of men and women, and set about analysing the social and historical forces that had positioned women as subordinate to men. Maidens, which traces four generations of Thornley’s maternal family, can be read within this context. Thornley describes her work as an 'exploration of the past and its meaning in the present’, and in Maidens she finds traces of female solidarity within the family, which, she suggests, presages the 'sisterhood’ of the women’s liberation movement.
- Maidens can be seen in the context of 'consciousness-raising’, a tool adopted by feminists in the 1970s to help women identify their oppression. By talking about their personal experiences of oppression, women discovered that these experiences were shared and therefore part of a larger social practice that placed men in a dominant position in society and made women subordinate. Consciousness-raising validated the individual experiences of women and led to the slogan 'The personal is political’.
- In the 1970s feminists fostered a utopian vision of a sisterhood of women who were united by a shared female experience of oppression. The catchphrase 'The sisterhood is powerful’ suggested that as a collective group, women could work to change not only their own lives but also the structures within the society that oppressed them. The sisterhood positioned itself as an alternative to the hierarchy of a patriarchal society. However, the concept of a sisterhood has been criticised for failing to take into account class, racial and cultural differences between women and for being a product of white middle-class feminists.
- The excerpts in this clip are taken from feminist films made in the 1970s, some of which Thornley worked on. Feminist film theorists have argued that mainstream films presented men as active subjects and women as passive objects of desire. In contrast, Thornley’s montage of film excerpts depicts women as strong and active, engaged in activities such as self-defence and chopping wood. The implication is that women can be independent of men.
- The clip includes excerpts taken from films made with the support of the Sydney Women’s Film Group, of which Thornley was a founding member in 1969. She was also involved in setting up the Feminist Film Workers group in 1978. Members of both groups were active in the women’s liberation movement and Thornley says that 'many women were attracted to film as a means of disseminating feminist ideas and challenging traditional sexist depictions of women that were rampant in the mass media’ ('Past, present and future: The Women’s Film Fund’, Don’t Shoot Darling!: Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia, Greenhouse, 1987).
- Jeni Thornley’s award-winning documentaries include To the Other Shore (1996), a diary film about motherhood, the co-directed feature For Love or Money (1983), a history of women and work in Australia, Maidens (1978) and A Film for Discussion with Martha Ansara and the Sydney Women’s Film Group (1974). These films have been hailed as 'landmark films in the history of Australian feminist cinema’ (Collins, 'The experimental practice of history in the filmwork of Jeni Thornley’, 1998, www.latrobe.edu.au).
- Thornley has worked in a variety of capacities in the film industry, including as researcher, script editor, camera operator, film valuer, manager of the Women’s Film Fund (AFC), and documentary coordinator and assessor (AFC). She is currently a sessional lecturer in documentary film at the University of Technology in Sydney, where she is completing her doctorate film, Island Home Country.
- Maidens, with its combination of subjective first-person voice-over, family photographs, correspondence and snatches of music, is an example of a film that is made largely in the performative documentary style. Performative documentaries are often autobiographical, and emphasise the subjective and emotive qualities of memory and experience, rather than factual information, in shaping our understanding of the world. These documentaries tend to use the subjects’ personal perspectives, as well as the filmmaker’s, to appeal to the emotions of viewers.
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/
Jeni Thornley films are all streaming VOD/PPV via beamAfilm: http://jenithornley.com/shop/
Thornley’s voice-over is accompanied by a montage of images, beginning with a dramatisation that reflects the mixed emotions Thornley experiences as she grapples with her evolving relationships with men and women.
Jeni Thornley, filmmaker and narrator My ambivalence about the relationship is unnerving, pushing me to extremes in my mind. Now loving, caring, wanting. Next cold, aloof.
The depths of her unexpressed violence creating an incredible insecurity and fear – jealousy, a fear of him loving other women paralysing her freedom to love women.
She stepped slowly into the kitchen. There they were. She couldn’t relax. The tension was building inside her. She wanted to scream, cry, yell, throw things but she sat there, still, and watched the two of them make love with their eyes. She knew sometime, somehow, she was going to explode.
The images shift to excerpts from black-and-white 1970s feminist films.
Jeni Thornley We know for certain that we are leaping, hand in hand, towards depths that we have not yet created and are still not certain we will be able to create. I don’t know who it is we have excluded, who it is we have killed but we are sure of one thing at least – the leap has begun.
Those who draw closer to us or spy on us can already hear between this exercise of ours and the pattern that each of us is tracing in her life. The surging tides of love that are swelling between us. Tides not of nostalgia or of vengeance but rather like those between mothers and daughters of one and the same house, guarding against the corruption of hierarchies and strict rules, instituting the law of a new sister-brotherhood. Do outsiders realise the danger?
The images return to the colour dramatisation of the woman from the beginning of the clip. More surreal images – including a child crying and a woman whose face is smeared with blood – accompany the final words of the narration.
Jeni Thornley She rejected him. One morning she woke up and fully realised it. A searing sadness hit her about something gone, like her brother dying. She started crying, the tears coming in like waves of pain. Veils of sounds all around her, enveloping her.