Streaming Spotlight - Australian female filmmakers

This week we're look at directors from Down Under

by Amber Wilkinson

Theresa Palmer and Max Riemelt in Berlin Syndrome - a passionate holiday romance takes an unexpected and sinister turn when an Australian photographer wakes one morning in a Berlin apartment and is unable to leave.
Theresa Palmer and Max Riemelt in Berlin Syndrome - a passionate holiday romance takes an unexpected and sinister turn when an Australian photographer wakes one morning in a Berlin apartment and is unable to leave. Photo: Sarah Enticknap
The gender imbalance in the film industry is a global phenomenon, so periodically we like to shine our spotlight specifically on female directors. This week, we're turning our attention to Australia, where according to the latest statistics, of 'active fiction feature filmmakers' between 2013 and 2018, just 17 per cent had a female director, although they fared slightly better in documentaries, where they represented 38 per cent of the total figure. Indigenous representation was also poor, with just 14 fiction features between 2000 and 2019 having indigenous directors (again documentaries offer a better spread, with 163 features in the period) - and though the gender breakdown of that is not, so far as I can tell, available, it is likely that women indigenous directors fare worst of all in terms of numbers. Some more recent films, including Strange Colours and Cactus are not available to stream, which is a shame, but here's a some of the best that are.

Berlin Syndrome, Amazon

Cate Shortland made her way up through the ranks via short films and Network TV before making her assured feature debut with Somersault in 2004, which won a raft of Australian Film Institute awards. She's likely to be more of a household name after the release of Scarlett Johansson blockbuster Black Widow this summer, so now is a great time to catch up with her back catalogue. She proves to be a fine manipulator of mood with this tense thriller that sees a holiday romance turn sour, as Aussie tourist Clare (Teresa Palmer) discovers Andi (Max Riemelt), the sweet guy she just met, is, in fact, a dangerous obsessive, who soon has her held captive in his apartment. By keeping the viewpoint firmly with Clare, Shortland avoids the sort of two-bit voyeurism that often comes with this sort of set-up and adds to the ambiguity as the tension mounts.

Kanyini, Amazon

Kanyini
Kanyini
Melanie Hogan's documentary puts Bob Randall - an elder of the Yankunytjatjara Aborigine tribe - front and centre. One of the "stolen generations" (for more on which you could do a lot worse than watch Rabbit-Proof Fence), he recounts what happened to him in his childhood and sets it in a historical framework of racism against the indigenous populace. The Kanyini of the title refers to the connectedness of “a belief system, spirituality, land and family” - something that Randall hopes to restore. This is an eloquent history lesson and a heartfelt plea to future generations that is fiercely hopeful in its sweep. The director is, according to her website, currently working on another documentary with the communities of Kimberley - well worth looking out for.

52 Tuesdays, Amazon Prime, BFI Player

52 Tuesdays
52 Tuesdays Photo: Visit Films
Jennie Kermode writes: James (played by non-binary actor Del Herbert-Jane) has recently decided to transition. it's a lot to cope with, so he asks daughter Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) to move in with her father for a while. They meet on Tuesdays to get time just for them, hence the title. Playing out over the course of a year. Sophie Hyde's multi-layered film witnesses a real life physical transformation as James masculinises, and also takes in Billie's complicated path to becoming a woman, which involves a lot of experimentation with both art and sexuality. It's brave in its approach to teenage issues and astute in its recognition of the complexities of shifting identity. it's also, often, very funny, a celebration of the messiness and misunderstandings which bring people together.

The Nightingale, Netflix

The Nightingale
The Nightingale Photo: IFC Films
Jennie Kermode writes: A searing condemnation of colonialism, racism and misogyny, Jennifer Kent's follow-up to the highly acclaimed The Babadook is an astounding piece of filmmaking. It follows displaced Irishwoman Clare (Aisling Franciosi), called 'nightingale' by the sadistic Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Clafin) who lords it over the small Tasmanian settlements in his territory and, when she resists him, responds with devastating violence. The remainder of the film follows her quest for revenge and her developing connection with the young indigenous man, Billy (Baykali Ganambarr), whom she takes on as her guide. Brutal and unrelenting yet majestic in its visual scope, this is a work that has the quality of Ford or Coppola in their prime. It's a tough watch but worth every moment.

Blessed, iTunes

Blessed
Blessed
Ana Kokkinos has mostly turned her attention to TV directing during the past decade and this film from 2009 shows why she might have proved attractive to and attracted by the longer form of continuous storytelling as she handles this multifaceted ensemble drama with impressive control. Adapted from the play Whatever Happened To The Working Class?, it examines the bond between mother and child by considering the odysseys of seven children through Melbourne's urban jungle, before flipping the action to consider the action from the perspective of their mothers. The film invites us to make assumptions about the children in its first section, assumptions which will go on to be scrutinised as the viewpoint shifts. Featuring gripping performances, especially from the younger cast, Miranda Otto and  Deborra-Lee Furness, this builds into an emotionally haunting consideration of love and loss.

The Assistant, Amazon

The Assistant
The Assistant Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Kitty Green maybe Australian, but her films have largely been made away from her homeland. The director built a name for herself on the festival circuit with challenging documentaries, including Casting JonBenet (available on Netflix) - a slippery example of the form that blends fiction with fact to fascinating effect - and she brings a documentary feel to this, her debut feature, which focuses on a single day in the life of Jane (Jennifer Garner), an office assistant of a high-powered film executive. Green keeps on the focus on the psychological implications of this toxic workplace - which brings striking echoes of the Harvey Weinstein scandal - as Jane faces the trickle down of sexism, shining a light on the emotional blackmail that exists in these spaces. Garner deserved a lot more awards plaudits for her performance, which is as much physical as scripted, as she dances her character on the emotional edge.

Babyteeth, Netflix, Amazon

Babyteeth
Babyteeth Photo: Lisa Tomasetti
Shannon Murphy was named as Variety's one of 10 directors to watch last year and she stepped with ease from TV work to her debut feature, which won a slew of Australian Academy awards in 2020. Her film takes a refreshingly matter of fact approach to the subject of cancer. Milla (Eliza Scanlen) is 16 and all the usual coming-of-age emotions are being complicated by her chemotherapy. After an encounter with older boy, Moses (Toby Wallace) the pair embark on an unexpected relationship that causes ructions with Milla's mum Anna (Essie Davis) and dad (Ben Mendelsohn). There's a naturalistic feel to the relationships as Murphy allows Milla's personal story from her perspective, with cinematographer Andrew Commis, cleverly employing everything from natural light to neon to subtly shift the mood.

Our short choice this week is Two Bob Mermaid, Darlene Johnson's debut short and the first Australian indigenous film to play at Venice Film Festival.

TWO_BOB_MERMAID_01_Title_01 from Darlene Johnson on Vimeo.

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