Pushing Boundaries: The Breakout Films from Pioneering Women

Pushing Boundaries: The Breakout Films from Pioneering Women

By Faith Everard

This year’s Melbourne International Film Festival contains a handful of retrospectives, and the most interesting of these is the Pioneering Women program, co-curated by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas. The collection features an assortment of films directed by Australian women filmmakers in the eighties and nineties, including critical favourites such as Gillian Armstrong and Nadia Tass. Many of the films in the program are long forgotten and awaiting their rediscovery. All showcase the underrepresented talent cultivated on home soil. The films, though distinct from one another, often explore peculiarities related to the Australian landscape and our collective national identity.

Nadia Tass’s The Big Steal (1990) is a caper film starring Ben Mendelsohn as Danny and Claudia Karvan as Joanna, would-be teen lovers caught in the shady world of used car salesmen and corporate bullies. The Big Steal is set in Melbourne and its characters are just as idiosyncratic as those in Tass’s directorial debut, Malcolm (1986). Much like that film, The Big Steal has a casual approach to the consequences of crime, allowing its characters to retain their joie-de-vivre despite their questionable actions. During the fast-paced car chases, the film uses quick cuts to convey a sense of excitement. In contrast, the domestic scenes are much slower, and without the business of the teenage adventures. It is here that we are introduced to the character of Danny’s mother (Maggie King), whose warmth is palpable. She repeatedly refers to her son as “Daniel the Lion-tamer” as if he were a biblical hero.

The Big Steal (Nadia Tass, 1990)

While The Big Steal’s female characters are capable, it is the men who are the active agents. This is an interesting choice for a female director, indicating that not all films directed by women need to have a female protagonist in order to be worthwhile. Tass ensures that the film is never sexist, and the misogynistic used car salesman is actively punished for his sleaziness. Yet Danny’s typically masculine love of cars is a recurring theme, and one that endears him to us. Ultimately, The Big Steal is an energetic film with a lovable pair of teen heroes and some very stylish Jaguars.

Celia was originally marketed overseas as Celia: Child of Terror, much to the chagrin of its director, who initially expressed discomfort with the horror label. 

Like The Big Steal, Celia (1989) is an underdog story set in Melbourne, though this time we are in 1950s suburbia, during the Red Scare and the rabbit plague. Directed by Ann Turner and starring twelve-year-old Rebecca Smart in the title role, Celia was originally marketed overseas as Celia: Child of Terror, much to the chagrin of its director, who initially expressed discomfort with the horror label (Turner later changed her mind about this categorisation). Viewers may still struggle to fit the film into any given genre.

Celia has an overactive imagination that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. She is particularly haunted by the Hobyahs, blue-skinned goblin creatures that she discovers after reading a picture book. The Hobyahs are rarely seen clearly, often we merely spot a gnarled hand or a flash of claws. They are large, man-sized, slimy things which sharply contrast with the otherwise unremarkable suburban environment. As Celia’s imagination grows more unruly, she begins to see the Hobyahs as a threat to those she loves, her communist neighbours (who are also her friends) and her pet rabbit in particular.

Celia (Ann Turner, 1989)

Yet Celia’s paranoia is not completely without just cause; her human and lapine friends are both in danger of being driven away by state persecutors, and the plight of the rabbits is symbolically linked to anti-communist preaching by the Church. Part of Celia’s trauma stems from her inability to come to terms with her grandmother’s death – her grandmother is a figure who appears posthumously in Celia’s daydreams like an imaginary friend. Celia manifests her childhood fears as actual monstrous enemies; her understandable concerns about losing loved ones become indistinguishable from the nightmarish monsters that she envisions.

Unlike the Melbourne setting of The Big Steal and Celia, Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) is set in various remote communities of Queensland, within a landscape that is heavily stylised. beDevil was the first feature film to be made by an Indigenous woman in Australia. It is an anthology of ghost stories divided into three acts – “Mr Chuck”, “Choo Choo Choo Choo” and “Lovin’ The Spin I’m In” – which focus on the viewpoints of women, with the male characters acting as secondary narrators. Each narrator is in front of the camera, recalling a ghost story that is tied to a specific setting. The narrators, who are sometimes unreliable, once played a role in the stories that they are telling. Memory and place are central to the film. The distance between viewers and characters in the film is also bridged by the narrators frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly. This reflects the importance of oral storytelling as the primary historical record for Indigenous Australians. One narrator even wipes the camera lens, cementing the active role that the female gaze has in this film.


beDevil (Tracey Moffatt, 1993)

Like Celia, beDevil utilises supernatural themes to explore the relationship between trauma and belonging in a historical context, albeit with slightly more self-aware humour than in the former film. In “Choo Choo Choo Choo”, there is a moment when the children of the narrator’s family spot mysterious Min Min lights glowing in the sky. Those adults who lack the children’s capacity for imagination are unable to see them. Min Min lights are a phenomena connected to the spirit world and the mythology surrounding them is ancient. They are comparable to the legend of the Hobyahs, a type of Australian bogeyman. In both cases, it is the children who are able to envisage these otherworldly beings.

This is where the films of the Pioneering Women collection come together: in being directed by women, each film pays closer attention than usual to the lives, views and agency of female characters

As one might expect, given Moffatt’s background as a photographer, beDevil is visually striking. Frames are carefully composed and similarities between them and Moffat’s photography can be easily drawn, especially in shots which demonstrate a limited or specific point of view through a window or between long blades of grass. The sets themselves are also highly unreal, presenting audiences with an uncanny resemblance of an Australia that is at once familiar and unfamiliar. The result is that the film has an alien quality that underscores the surreal sense of danger present in all three acts.

Women’s perspectives are given priority in beDevil, a rarity in any film. This is where the films of the Pioneering Women collection come together: in being directed by women, each film pays closer attention than usual to the lives, views and agency of female characters. Had these films been directed by outsiders, they would lack the local idiosyncrasies that they convey so vividly.

The Pioneering Women program continues, with The Big Steal screening on 12 August. On 12 August, MIFF Talks - Pioneering Women: In Conversation will bring together directors Ana Kokkinos, Nadia Tass, Clara Law and actor/producer Claudia Karvan in a panel discussion moderated by director Samantha Lang 

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