Filmmaker Lilias Fraser leans her hand against a large camera on a wooden tripod while standing outside Hotel Kieta with a male colleague. The photo is from the 70s. Lilias is wearing yellow pants, a white shirt and sunglasses, and is carrying a woven basket in one hand.
Lilias Fraser, courtesy Bonsai Films
Stories & Ideas

Tue 05 Apr 2022

Film work: women in Australian documentary film history

ACMI CollectionAustraliaFilmHistoryPreservationRepresentation
Julia Murphy
Julia Murphy

Assistant Curator, ACMI

We reflect on the influential women working in the highly productive documentary film industry of the 1940s–70s in Australia.

In the mid-twentieth century, documentary filmmaking was the main mode of film production in Australia, supplanting a dwindling feature film industry and newsreel production companies. The Australian National Film Board, Commonwealth Film Unit (succeeded by Film Australia) and other government departments made industrial, educational and instructional films that contributed to the nation-building post-war culture of the time. As one of the only places to work in the film industry, the Film Unit fostered a growing stable of young and aspiring filmmakers, particularly those interested in documentary as a creative form that performed a social function.

Despite a lack of opportunities for women in a predominantly male industry, several women forged a career for themselves through roles at the Film Unit, in their own film production companies, and in labour film units. The production of these documentaries tells a rich and historically obscured story of women working in key creative roles including cinematography, directing, producing and writing, within a system of entrenched inequity and misogyny. Many of these films are held in ACMI's archive, as well as the National Film and Sound Archive, and are progressively being digitised.

Catherine Duncan

Catherine Duncan had an early career as a theatre actor, playwright and director of the Workers Theatre Group before becoming the first credited woman director in Australia since Paulette McDonagh. Believing in the possibilities of film and theatre to offer social critique, in the mid-1940s she sought out work in documentary film, notably with influential documentary filmmakers Joris Ivens on Indonesia Calling (1948) and John Heyer on Journey of a Nation (1947). After her brief tenure as writer-director at the National Film Board (precursor to the Commonwealth Film Unit), during which time she directed several films advertising immigration to Australia, Duncan left the unit due to ideological differences. In 1948, she moved to Paris where she continued to write on culture and film for many years.

Jennie Boddington

A black-and-white photograph of a woman seated, wearing a black dress and metallic necklace with a dark bob.

Jennie Boddington, 1952, photo by Erwin Rado, courtesy State Library of Victoria

Jennie Boddington (née Blackwood) began her career with the Commonwealth Film Unit as a cutting room assistant in the early 1950s, where she met Joan Long. After a stint creating training films for the Victorian Post Office film unit and at the ABC – where she worked on the Olympic Games coverage in 1956 – she established an independent film production company with her husband, cinematographer Adrian Boddington. With an interest in socially conscious themes, Zanthus Films created documentaries commissioned by government departments and the Anti-Cancer Council, including Three in a Million (1959), Port of Melbourne (1961) and You Are Not Alone (1961). After the death of her husband in 1970, Boddington retired from film production and in 1972 was appointed the first full-time curator of photography at the National Gallery of Victoria, where she gave exhibitions to leading women artists Micky Allan, Ruth Maddison and Carol Jerrems.

Joan Long

Perhaps the best-known of these names, Joan Long (née Boundy) began her career in the early 1950s as a secretary with the Commonwealth Film Unit. In 1952 she became the second woman after Catherine Duncan to be given a directorial role in the unit, making a series of short documentaries. After a 10-year hiatus raising her children, she worked on two important historical documentaries on the Australian feature film industry – The Pictures That Moved: Australian Cinema 1896–1920 (1968) and The Passionate Industry 1920–1930 (1973) – which established her significant role as a writer, producer and director. She went on to pursue a career in feature films, including as scriptwriter for Caddie (1976) and producer of Puberty Blues (1981). She became the first woman president of the Australian Writers Guild in 1972 and was awarded an AM for her services to the film industry in 1980.

Lilias Fraser

Lilias Fraser in a blue outfit and shades directing a film with a male cameraman

Courtesy Bonsai Films

Lilias Fraser began her career as a cinematographer, making a black-and-white study of the ecosystem of the coastline on Stradbroke Island in 1957 with The Beach. After studying film in Paris, where she was involved with Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Groupe de Tente, she worked as a production assistant and later a director for the Commonwealth Film Unit (having been told she would be unable to carry the heavy camera equipment required to be a cinematographer). Following the birth of her first daughter, she established an independent production company – Fraser Castle Productions – with her husband, Norman Castle, and made a series of documentaries for mining companies, agricultural boards and government departments.

In the late 1960s, with a growing political consciousness, she made a land rights documentary for activist Faith Bandler, entitled This is Their Land, and in the 1970s she worked in film distribution for the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative, where she became a role model for emerging feminist filmmakers of the Sydney Women's Film Group, including Martha Ansara and Jeni Thornley. In 1990, she returned to mining communities with a critical lens in Women of the Iron Frontier, exploring the lives of women in the mining towns of the Pilbara in Western Australia.

Learn more about Lilias Fraser. Opening night features a Q&A with Jane Castle and Pat Fiske

Norma Disher

Norma Disher editing with the WWF Film Unit. (Image: NFSA)

Norma Disher editing with the WWF Film Unit. (Image: NFSA)

Coming from a background in radio and theatre, Norma Disher was co-founder of the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit, an influential documentary film production company active from 1953–58. Supported by the waterside workers’ union, the film unit conceived of cinema as a tool of social change. With the slogan "We film the facts", their films covered issues such as housing shortages, industrial disputes, workers’ rights, and training in health and safety. The 13 films made by the unit include the seminal The Hungry Miles (1955). All three members of the film unit – Disher, Keith Gow and Jock Levy – met as members of the New Theatre, a progressive theatre company formed in the early 1930s by the Communist Party of Australia, that was highly significant in the creation of a vernacular Australian performing arts tradition. Disher's work with the New Theatre continued after the demise of the WWF Film Unit, as did her lifelong interest in music and production design. At age 98 she was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the University of NSW (in 2020).

Legacy

These women – and more – contributed to an important period in Australia's film production history, often in roles that have been obscured through marital name changes and the crediting of film production companies only. They created careers for themselves within an industry dominated by men, often while raising children and performing domestic duties. The unearthing of these histories within the archive is an ongoing project of the ACMI collections team.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Linda Connolly (Collections Access Advisor), Candice Cranmer (Time-based Media & AV Conservator) and Nick Richardson (Head of Collections and Preservation).

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