2015 in review: Australia's film industry boys club

First published 22 November 2015

It's always exciting when an Australian film does well at the box office, especially when that film is identifiably local, and not just a Hollywood blockbuster filmed here for tax breaks and cheap labour. And so the success of the outrageously stylish and very Australian gothic comedy The Dressmaker is rather thrilling to those closely watching the film industry.

The Dressmaker, directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and adapted from Rosalie Ham's bestselling novel of the same name, is currently strong on Australian charts ahead of Ridley Scott's The Martian and Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies. It has taken more than $11 million in three weeks and looks capable of making at least $15 million in its full run. In an environment where the majority of Australian films struggle to pass the $1 million mark, this is cause for celebration.

There's even more to cheer in the fact the film is proudly female in both its story and its production, being written and directed by a woman (Moorhouse), produced by a woman (Sue Maslin) and led by a raft of superb female characters played by Kate Winslet, Judy Davis and Sarah Snook.

Female book clubs, mothers groups and gaggles of girlfriends are flocking to The Dressmaker, proving yet again that women not only constitute more than half the human race, they also (in a fact seemingly little-known by film executives) purchase more than 50 per cent of movie tickets.

And yet we have an ongoing problem, in the world, and in Australia: there are just not enough films for women, about women and by women. We are nowhere near gender parity.

As researcher Monica Davidson reports in the Women in Film edition of Lumina (May 2015), here in Australia, 'Male directors are responsible for more than 85 per cent of the feature films made since the 1970s. This figure has not changed significantly for 25 years, nor has this disproportionate power been strenuously questioned.'

In fact, as Davidson laments, citing a 2012 study by Lisa French, the perception is that things are getting better and the problem is solving itself. Yet in 2015 (an unexceptional year similar to the five years preceding it) only 16 per cent of Australian feature films were directed by women, 20 per cent were written by women and 29 per cent were produced by women — startling given the fact that roughly half the graduates coming out of film school are female. Many of the stats suggest we're actually going backwards, or at best standing still.

Sure, we're not as bad as Hollywood, where just 15 per cent of leading roles and only 30 per cent of speaking roles go to women; and only 5 percent of major studio feature films in the last five years were directed by women. But we need to do better.

If you're looking for current evidence of Australian women both behind the camera and in front of it, there are many to note.

Robyn Butler is currently starring in Now Add Honey, a comedy about a dysfunctional family that she also wrote and produced. Director Sue Brooks (Japanese Story) will be releasing her new drama Looking for Grace in January, starring Radha Mitchell and impressive newcomer Odessa Young. Meanwhile, Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore) is currently directing her next film, a psychological thriller starring Teresa Palmer, based on Melanie Joosten's novel Berlin Syndrome.

In 2015 we saw Gillian Armstrong's latest documentary, Women He's Undressed, Kim Farrant's debut feature Strangerland, starring Nicole Kidman, and Holding the Man, produced by Rosemary Blight and Kylie du Fresne — the producers who brought us The Sapphires.

Dressmaker and Mad Max mash-up by Chris Johnston has Charlize Theron and Kate Winslet riding an apocalyptic sewing machineTracking back to 2014, there was Jennifer Kent's acclaimed horror film The Babadook, with a knockout turn from Essie Davis as a single mother deranged by grief; Sarah Snook's gender-bending lead in the Spierig Brothers' Predestination; and Mia Wasikowska filling up the wide brown screen in John Curran's meditative outback voyage, Tracks.

But a smattering of high profile female directors, producers and stars have always been cited and celebrated to give an impression that all's well in the Australian film industry. The Dressmaker will no doubt be dragged out to support such a view (along with Jane Campion — who remains the only woman in the world to have won the Cannes Palme d'Or, for The Piano in 1993; and Armstrong, whose 1979 film My Brilliant Career was the first Australian film to have been directed by a woman).

Why does it matter if a film is written, directed or produced by a woman? Because women are more likely to tell stories about women. That we should even have to defend this as a good thing suggests how ingrained the problem is.

As director and film executive Megan Simpson Huberman writes in Lumina, worldwide, there are pitifully few films aimed at women and about women. In the US in 2013–2104, for instance, less than 30 per cent of features had a female lead or co-lead and in Australia in that period, only 21 per cent of Australian feature films had a female protagonist. That's just plain boring if you're a woman looking for stories that might reflect your own experiences or those of your sisters.

Statistics are dry and best measured against real life experience. So let's take a quick look at the top-grossing Australian films of 2015, as of October, before the release of The Dressmaker. There were some other small Australian releases, but this is the broad-brush picture of what our industry is producing. All of them are directed by men and dominated by male protagonists: Mad Max: Fury Road, The Water Diviner, Paper Planes, Oddball, Last Cab to Darwin, Blinky Bill, That Sugar Film, Holding the Man, Ruben Guthrie and Manny Lewis.

As I'm scanning the list above, I'm desperate for a woman, an interesting woman. A woman on top, a woman in charge, a woman director or a woman star.

I'm forced to cheer on Charlize Theron and her warrior breeding-babes in Mad Max: Fury Road, because aside from them, this is quite frankly a blokefest and a boys club. Jocelyn Moorhouse and Kate Winslet with their killer Singer sewing machines couldn't have come at a better time. But let's not pretend they represent any real shift in the landscape. Not yet, anyway.

Postscript: This week Screen NSW introduced a target to achieve 50/50 gender equity in its development and production funding programs by 2020. Production house Jungleboys (A Moody Christmas) also changed its name to the gender neutral 'Jungle' to reflect the fact that 50 per cent of the staff are female. It's a start.


Rochelle SiemienowiczRochelle Siemienowicz is a film critic, journalist, editor and columnist. She has a PhD in Australian cinema and was previously film editor for The Big Issue and editor at the Australian Film Institute. Her work has been published widely, including in The AgeKill Your DarlingsScreenHub and SBS Movies. Her first book, Fallen: A Memoir About Sex, Religion and Marrying Too Young is published by Affirm Press.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Rochelle Siemienowicz, The Dressmaker, Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron, Mad Max



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