A short history of female filmmaking in Australia

By Angela Heathcote | September 25, 2018

Australian women have been making films since as early as the 1920s, but their contribution to the industry is often overlooked.

LOTTIE LYELL, Louise Lovely and the McDonagh sisters – Australia’s very first female filmmakers – all picked up a camera in the early 1920s, during the silent era of film. Many of these early films haven’t survived in their entirety, only small snippets having avoided deterioration. One such snippet comes from Louise Lovely’s Jewelled Nights made in 1925. It tells the story of a woman who abandoned her wedding, disguised herself as a man and worked in the mines of Tasmania.

“They were all larger than life, unusual figures because they were so independent and motivated by the same thing that motivated men, but given their social circumstances it’s very impressive,” says Annette Blonski, co-author of Don’t Shoot Darling!: Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia, who has spent most of her life working in the Australian film industry. “There was a degree of astonishment, but there was also openness because they were Australian and that was considered to be important at the time.”

The Story of the Kelly Gang, made in 1906, is considered to be not only the first Australian film, but the first full-length feature film. From then on, in comparison to other countries, the film industry in Australia was thriving. In 1911, more than 50 films were released in a single year. It’s generally agreed that Lottie Lyell was the first female filmmaker in Australia, co-producing films with her husband Raymond Longford. Lottie began acting in Longford’s films as early as 1911, taking the lead role in The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole, but she eventually took on roles behind the scenes.

Because she was a collaborator with Longford , rather than making films in her own right, Annette says that Lottie’s contribution to filmmaking in Australia was written out of history. “She was always seen as just one of his actresses but she actually wrote and collaborated with Longford and it wasn’t recognised for a long time, not until the feminist era, when female film historians focussed on women’s work in cinema.  Suddenly people realised there was this whole other history of women in film.”

The silent era

In the early days of film in Australia, there was no government support. Instead, everything was privately funded, so female filmmakers were raising money from investors, says Annette. In the case of the McDonagh sisters, Isobel, Phyllis and Paulette came from a wealthy family and used that wealth to create their first film Those Who Love about a romance between a knight and a dancer, their second film The Far Paradise, a forbidden love story between a policeman’s son and criminal’s daughter, and eventually, the first female film company. 

Louise Lovely, on the other hand, had a successful career in Hollywood as an actor prior to her return to Australia in 1924, when she used her relative fame to garner hype around a film she was determined to make, Jewelled Nights. The film was the first and only film she ever made due to costs that weren’t recouped, despite it being a great success with audiences. At the end of the silent era, it became increasingly difficult for Australian filmmakers, male or female.

“Initially, it wasn’t that difficult to get films shown in Australian cinemas because they were largely controlled by Australians. It was only after American exhibitors started taking over these cinemas when things got difficult,” says Annette. “More and more cinemas started locking out Australian product. Where once Australians were very happy to see Australian films, slowly they began to prefer American films.” For this reason, Annette says there are major gaps in the production of Australian films between the 1930s and the late 1960s.

“We want Australian films!”

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s there was a renewed call for films to tell uniquely Australian stories, with demands that the government support the industry.

“There was this huge resistance to American hegemony. Basically, people were saying they wanted Australians stories,” says Annette. “There were national cinemas popping up all over the world, France, Sweden, Italy, everywhere, and Australians were asking, ‘why isn’t there an Australian cinema? We want Australian films!’ The government finally caved and set up the Australian Film Commission, now Screen Australia, and the states followed suit with, for instance, the South Australian Film Corporation, Screen NSW and Film Victoria.”

This moment in Australian film history is critical, says Annette, because it coincided with the feminist movement. Women didn’t want their stories left out once again, and with pressure from women, including the Sydney Women’s Film Group, founded in 1971, the Women’s Film Fund was established in 1976. “As soon as there was a push towards getting government support for a national film industry, there was at the same time women asserting their rights and their desire to use film to express their take on the world.” Then came International Women’s Year in 1975.

The films being made at this time by women were starkly different to those films of the silent era. Instead, there was lots of experimentation with film form and many more documentaries. “It was about confronting a culture that had written women out of history,” says Annette. The documentaries from the time covered everything from women’s work and motherhood to the patriarchy, gender and sexuality.

Australian female filmmakers today

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s Australian female filmmakers such as Gillian Armstrong, director of Little Women and Jane Campion, director of The Portrait of a Lady, moved into feature film making with primarily female protagonists. Film editors such as Jill Bilock, who recently had a documentary about her life released, were also making a name for themselves working on big Hollywood feature films – in Jill’s case, Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet and Elizabeth. According to Annette, however, the struggles felt by Australia’s early female filmmakers are similar to those felt by female filmmakers today. After the early ‘90s, she says, the institutions that once supported female films took a step back.

Only in the past eight to nine years has there been a renewed focus on female filmmakers. “Women took another look at the statistics and they were still unsatisfactory. Yes, there were more women in cinematography and editing, which was good, but most were struggling to get their projects off the ground.” In Annette’s opinion, the #MeToo movement will have a positive, but more indirect impact for female filmmakers in Australia. “It puts the focus on the role of gender in the creative arts. Women still struggle having their stories recognised as viable in terms of audience and box office expectations, still making it an uneven playing field.”