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Meet MIFF Ambassador Gillian Armstrong
Gillian Armstrong first garnered attention in 1979 for her debut feature, My Brilliant Career, which gave her the distinction of being the first woman to direct a feature-length movie in Australia in almost 50 years. Her feature films and documentaries include Starstruck, High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous, Little Women, Oscar and Lucinda and Death Defying Acts; her latest work is a feature documentary on costume designer Orry-Kelly, which was nominated for a 2015 AACTA Award, a 2015 AWGIE and a 2016 FCCA Award.
Gillian’s films have screened at numerous international festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Singapore and Sundance, and been nominated and awarded widely, including by the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and the British Academy. She was the first president of the Australian Directors’ Guild, and has received a Member of the Order (AM) medal for services to the Australian film industry, a Doctor of Letters from UNSW and the University of Sydney, and an honorary doctorate in film from Swinburne University.
In 2007, Gillian was conferred an ADG Outstanding Achievement Award; in 2008, the Women in Hollywood Icon Award; in 2016, the CinefestOZ Screen Legend award; in 2018, the inaugural AISF Pioneering Woman in Film Award; and in 2019, the AIMC Murray Forrest Award for Excellence in Filmcraft.
MIFF has always been one of the best curated festivals in the world, and we need it so much right now. Incredible films and stories take us on the journeys we cannot have – into countries and cultures and hearts. As a filmmaker, I am always renewed looking at the best of cinema each year, as there is nothing more wonderful than to be inspired and moved by the passion, depth and imagination of these films.
– Gillian Armstrong
What most excites you about being able to attend MIFF from home?
Firstly, that the festival is actually still running! Secondly, that all those full-on film-buff Melburnians don’t have to stand in long chilly queues coughing on one another. And, finally, that MIFF’s always-diverse, brave selections of dramas, shorts and documentaries can inspire, excite, move and empower us, take us to faraway lands, and enrich our solitary hours. It’s good to remember how poetic and original that cinema can be.
You’ve contributed significantly to the landscape of Australian and international cinema. Why is it important for women and girls to be able to see themselves as complex characters on screen?
Stories tell us who we are – how we experience everything, from growing up, first love and relationships, to the world, motherhood, fear, love, joy, pain and life. How can we only ever see that through men’s eyes? Women and men need to see and understand views that are diverse in gender and colour.
Which of your contributions to arts/screen culture are you most proud of?
That’s hard. As a perfectionist, I am never truly satisfied with my own work and, at the same time, proud of the wonderful teams of actors, designers, cinematographers and writers that I have been privileged to work with. And my long-time editor!
However, I feel proud of every woman who has told me she became a writer because of My Brilliant Career, or laughed and cried at Starstruck, High Tide and Little Women. I’m also proud of all the young women directors who, because of my films, became directors and, finally, of the social impact of our documentary series on the three Adelaide girls growing up, Love, Lust & Lies. Ultimately, real stories are the most powerful.
What can those in positions of power, especially in the arts sector, do to help empower underrepresented communities?
There needs to be more producers, broadcasters, investors, creative directors and commercial producers who give minorities and women a break. If your company is selling to women, ask: are there any women pitching for this commercial? If you are producing a TV series, give a new, young female director and a person of colour an episode, and support them.
It is still not a level playing field. Talented young women are not getting their foot in the door. It’s unconscious bias. Give a girl – many girls – a break!
What is your hope for the future of the screen industries?
That there will be an Australian film industry! This is a time of crisis, with streaming providers taking audiences from free-to-air TV. Commercial broadcasters are lobbying to lose Australian drama and children’s program content controls, and the ABC is producing and funding fewer dramas and documentaries. Before we had content controls, there were few (if any) Australian stories on TV. And without a properly funded government film body, there were no local films at all!
It is time to follow Europe and Canada, and get tough on the streaming services so that there is money left for our own films and TV. And it’s time to fight for more Australian drama and documentaries on air. Write to your local member. Check out the ABC Friends and Make It Australian websites.
Gillian’s MIFF 68½ Picks:
- Identifying Features. This film won the Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award – always trust the audience! Plus it’s described as having stunning cinematography and sound.
- Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema, directed and curated by the quirky Mark Cousins (who made The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which was on SBS). I love his take on themes.
- Wendy. I’m curious to see this, as Benh Zeitlin’s first film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, created such a unique world and featured great child performances.
Check out the full MIFF 68½ program here.