The Aussie women dominating natural history filmmaking

By Holly Cormack 14 March 2019
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Swimming with great white sharks, capturing our wild dingoes and getting up close and personal with saltwater crocodiles, Australia’s female natural history filmmakers are legends in their field.

ACCORDING TO A study into the proportion of male and female producers, directors and writers of Australian documentaries by Screen Australia, women account for 47 per cent of producers, 35 per cent of directors and 38 per cent of writers. Based on a sample of 957 documentary films released between 1988 and 2016, the study revealed that the proportion of female producers in particular has been rising steadily over the past few decades – and while there is still work to be done, Australia is undoubtedly on the right track.

Australian natural history filmmaking is awash with female vision, perseverance and talent, and we must recognise and celebrate those at the centre. Listed here are some of the pioneering women who have, and who are presently, shaping the face of natural history filmmaking in Australia.

Valerie Taylor

Beginning her career as a professional spearfisher, Valerie Taylor has always appeared more at home in the ocean than on land. With her husband Ron by her side, Valerie began making stunning marine documentaries – educating and captivating the world with Australia’s vast marine life.

Valerie and Ron focused the majority of their films on the captivating – and frequently misunderstood – nature of sharks, and became the first people to film great white sharks without a cage.

By the 70s, Valerie’s work entered Hollywood, when globally renowned director Steven Spielberg asked the couple to assist him in the making of Jaws. The film was a worldwide hit; however Valerie was left with mixed feelings about the films fear-mongering legacy.

Valerie’s first-rate filmmaking skills continued to be used in several feature films over the next couple of decades including The Blue Lagoon, The Last Wave and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

For her contributions to documentary filmmaking and the conservation of marine life, Valerie has received countless honours and awards throughout her lengthy career. Some of these include the Australian Geographic Adventurer of the Year (1992), the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia’s (WPSA) Serventy Conservation Medal (2002), and a spot in the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame.

Annette Kellerman

Annette Marie Sarah Kellermann was a woman of many talents – professional swimmer, vaudeville performer, Hollywood actress and, most importantly, tenacious feminist rebel – who was best known for her role as Esther Williams in the 1952 film Million Dollar Mermaid. Overcoming a disability in her legs that left her in steel braces as a child, Annette began her career as a swimmer.

From small beginnings, performing as a mermaid at Princes Court entertainment centre, Annette eventually became the first woman to attempt to swim across the English Channel. While all three attempts at this goal were ultimately unsuccessful, her capacity to inspire and empower a generation of women was boundless.

Since the majority of her films were aquatic themed, Annette’s physical prowess proved invaluable. She performed her own Mission: Impossible-style stunts, including a 28-metre dive into the sea and an 18m jump into a pool of crocodiles.

Annette was an important advocate for women’s rights and paved the way for the one-piece bathing suit. Following her arrest in Massachusetts, USA, for indecency (wearing a fitted bathing suit), Annette drew much-needed attention to the impracticality of women’s swimwear – ‘cumbersome dress and pataloon combinations’ – which eventually led to vital reforms. Today, Annette’s name can be found on a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Tosca Looby

Enchanting her audiences with the recent release of the Magical Land of Oz, Tosca Looby is truly a woman with the Midas touch. After completing her master’s degree in international journalism, Tosca’s enduring passion for natural history eventually lead her to Partridge Films – a British company specialising in wildlife programs. Tosca found her way back to Australia in 1996 and joined the ABC Natural History Unit – a department that was unfortunately shut down in 2007.

In 2015, Tosca joined Northern Pictures and has since produced a string of highly successful natural history documentaries. In 2018, she produced and wrote the three part series Outback. In February of this year, her latest series, Magical Land of Oz, aired on the ABC – becoming the ‘first blue-chip continent-wide series to have been created in Australia by Australians for 16 years.’

The series marks a new generation of natural history filmmaking, combining the beautiful landscapes and magical moments of the Australian wild with the sinister implications manmade change.

Karina Holden

A qualified conservational biologist, Karina Holden’s work took her to the Great Barrier Reef, the Simpson Desert and the tropics of Northern Australia, before she eventually joined the Natural History Unit of the ABC.

Now armed with vast scientific knowledge and cinematic skill, Karina’s love of the wild and film took her to South East Asia, where she created content for National Geographic and Discovery Channel in Vietnam and Thailand. In 2013, Karina took on the role of Head of Production at Northern Pictures, where she produced a horde of highly commended documentary films.

In her first Northern Pictures film, Blue, she exposes how ‘industrial scale fishing, habitat destruction, species loss and pollution’ have impacted our ocean, and draws sinister comparisons between current industrial events and those that have triggered mass extinctions in the past. The film premiered at the United Nations before being released to audiences worldwide.

For her work in the areas of film and conservation, Karina has won numerous awards, including the CINE Golden Eagle, Venice TV Award, New York Festivals, AACTA, Asian Television Awards and received an Emmy nomination.

Densey Clyne

Densey Clyne has been a TV presenter, producer, writer and photographer for more than 65 years, and is best known for her studies of spiders and insects. Densey has 30 books under her belt, has published various academic papers on the subject of invertebrates, and written numerous scripts for natural history documentaries.

Densey has written, directed and starred in an array of natural history documentaries, including Close Up on Wildlife (1991), Webs of Intrigue (1992) and The Amazing World of Mini Beasts (1997). Given her vast experience in the realm of creepy crawlies, Densey has acted as a consultant for many Australian and international wildlife programs, even working with the legendary David Attenborough on his 1983 natural history series The Living Planet.

Densey has won numerous awards throughout her career, including the Wilderness Society’s Environmental Award for Small Worlds (1996), the TV Society of Australia’s individual achievement award for Best Documentary Director (1977), and the Australian Geographic Society Award for Excellence (1996).

Bettina (Tina) Dalton

Before becoming the executive producer and principal of WildBear, Bettina Dalton was already a big name in the documentary filmmaking industry – occupying the role of managing director at the WildFury production company and as owner of the stock footage company Content Mint. The production businesses WildFury and Bearcage merged to become WildBear in 2014.

Throughout her career, Tina produced and directed content for a number of leading television broadcasters, including BBC, PBS, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. Most recently, she wrote the documentary Boss Croc (2017) – which follows the perilous lives of two saltwater crocodiles, Nero and Brutus – and Dino Bird (2017) – which explores the life of the endangered southern cassowary.

Dione Gilmour

Dione was the head of the ABC Natural History Unit for over three decades, producing stunning and insightful documentary films – including The Last Husky (1993), My Country (1994), Nature of Australia – Land of Flood and Fire (1988), and Nature of Australia – A Separate Creation (1989).

In many of the films she produced Dione took to complete cultural emersion, and as a result forged many close and long-term relationships with the subjects of her work. While producing Nature of Australia – Land of Flood and Fire, she relocated to northern Australia for more than three years and worked closely with rangers, Aboriginal communities and scientists in order to create an enlightening and unique depiction of the wildlife.

Dione was a mentor to many young filmmakers at the ABC Natural History Unit, and nurtured the careers of both Tosca and Karina.

Sue Flatman

Finding her feet in a different kind of science, Sue Flatman graduated from an undergraduate degree in Occupational Therapy in 1967 and undertook postgraduate training in Gestalt therapy – a form of psychotherapy. In 1984, Sue joined Living Pictures – and after undertaking extensive training at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), she was soon managing all of the company’s films. This included the 1991 film Antarctica, which took to IMAX theatres worldwide.

In 2002, Sue produced Australia: Land Beyond Time, which tracks the 4.6 billion year evolution of the continent and explores our unique, breathtaking and sometimes terrifying natural environment. The film ranked 9th in Screen Australia’s top 10 documentaries at the box office; bringing in a total of 1,085,672 viewers.