BY HEATHER GILL

To celebrate the screening of feminist films from the 1970s and 80s at the Sydney Film Festival in June we explore the history of feminist filmmaking in Australia.

 

Breaking the mould

In 1968 the federal government announced funding for an Experimental Film Fund. This change embraced a broader film industry that could go beyond the government documentaries, TV and commercials that had dominated previous Australian output.

Two women sitting next to each other smiling.

A still from Jeni Thornley's 1978 film Maidens. NFSA title: 17084.

Events such as the Women’s Liberation Conference in Melbourne in 1970 stimulated discussions about how film could present the issues of the feminist movement and help to redress the lack of a documented presence of the history of women and their contributions.

In 1975, during International Women's Year, the government allocated significant funds to women’s filmmaking. This included a portion for the establishment in 1976 of the Australian Film Commission's Women’s Film Fund.

 

Women telling women's stories

These funding initiatives, paired with a growing feminist movement, saw the establishment of film cooperatives such as the Sydney Women’s Film Group (SWFG) and Reel Women in Melbourne. A number of filmmakers, including Jeni Thornley, Sarah Gibson, Susan Lambert, Martha Ansara, Margot Nash and Megan McMurchy, seized the opportunities available. The groups came together with the intention of creating stories that examined the role of women within society and explored consciousness-raising ideas. Subjects ranged from the role of women in the workforce and at home to social reform and the objectification of the female body by the media.

 

The live theatre background of many of the women helped to infuse their works with a verve that contrasted with the more sombre fare offered by their British and American contemporaries. They adopted the collective or cooperative model of film production to allow creative and technical roles to be shared, instead of the hierarchical structure common to the film industry.

A poster for For Love or Money. It reads 'The history of women and work in Australia'.

A poster promoting For Love or Money (1983), NFSA title: 751346.

Realising that feminist films were unlikely to be screened commercially, it was important to disseminate their films through screenings by film societies, educational institutions, community groups and film festivals across Australia and internationally. Often the films were distributed through the Sydney Filmmakers’ Cooperative, Melbourne Filmmakers' Cooperative and Australian Film Institute.

Supporting other women filmmakers

Also important was to lobby for training and employment opportunities, and to keep providing moral and material support for women filmmakers. For example the SWFG 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.

Forty years later, the film industry is still trying to address the unequal conditions for women through funding and other initiatives. 

The three key feminist films screening at the Sydney Film Festival in June are For Love or Money: A History of Women and Work in Australia (Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley, Australia, 1983), We Aim to Please (Robin Laurie and Margot Nash, Australia, 1976) and A Film for Discussion (Sydney Women's Film Group, including Martha Ansara and Jeni Thornley, Australia, 1973).

You can view clips from key feminist films from the 1970s, 80s and 90s in our new Feminist Films curated collection.

The image at the top of the page features the For Love or Money filmmakers: (left to right) Margot Nash, Megan McMurchy, Jeni Thornley and Margot Oliver. NFSA title: 517716.