Theme Visual Culture (Film)

Written by Mary Tomsic, The University of Melbourne

Film is a significant form of modern creative expression. It is generally an expensive format to work with and one with the capacity to reach large audiences. The stories told onscreen are ones that have the potential not only to entertain but to inform and engage large numbers of viewers, and can come to hold a significant place in the cultural landscape. That said, public recognition should not necessarily be used as a marker of leadership in this field, as there are very different ways in which women have made an impact with film. If we think of leadership as a form of influence, then we need to account for those working to create films that make and develop stories, as well as those who have provided opportunities to view them and those who have worked to regulate film culture. Lyn Wallis, writing about leadership in the theatre, asks us to 'imagine if we saw every artist as a leader- gave every artist the opportunity to be a cultural leader' (Wallis). This is a valuable way to understand not only how the work of visual artists with film can be understood, but it can also be applied to those working in the broad context of film culture- in different ways, they all enact leadership in the cultural realm.

In terms of filmmaking itself, the people who perform key creative roles as producers, writers and directors exercise a considerable, often determining, influence over what appears on the screen. Thus, in thinking about women's leadership, it is important to consider at what times, and under what circumstances, women have worked in these roles to bring their creative visions to the screen. Following this, we should also ask how their work has been understood and acknowledged.

In the first half of the 20th century, only small numbers of feature films were made in Australia. Women were involved with making some of these films but their work often went unacknowledged, or the women were understood as anomalies because of their sex. Lottie Lyell worked in the moving picture industry from 1911 until her death in 1925. She had a personal and creative partnership with Raymond Longford, but it was not until she made The Blue Mountains Mystery (1921), her eighteenth film, that she received her first official credit as co-director. Longford made few successful films after Lyell died, and there have been comments made as to the significant yet publicly unacknowledged role that she played in their filmmaking partnership. Despite this, Longford has been accorded prominence without Lyell as one of the pioneers of filmmaking in Australia. This has been crystallised in the Australian's Film Institute's (AFI) Raymond Longford Award, which is the 'highest accolade the AFI can bestow on an individual' (AFI Raymond Longford Award Winners 1968-2010). On the other hand, the National Film and Sound Archive, more attuned to Lyall's place in this history, has named its annual lecture celebrating the work of creatives in Australian film and television the Longford Lyell Lecture.

The first women recipients of the Raymond Longford Award were the McDonagh Sisters, Isabella Mercia, Phyllis Glory and Paulette de Vere, who in 1978 were acknowledged for their filmmaking in the 1920s and 1930s. The sisters largely worked together, collectively making four feature films. At the time, their work was generally well received but their sex was often highlighted. The sisters were constructed as brave young female pioneers: 'they're at it again, those enterprising McDonagh Sisters' (Screen News, 23 July 1932), and the 'Three gallant Australian girls' ('Prizes for Scenarios'). The seriousness with which they and others understood their work was undermined by fellow Longford award winner, filmmaker and producer Ken G. Hall, who, in 1974, described the McDonaghs as having: 'made it more or less as a hobby, three girls together, three sisters having fun, that's how it started really I'm sure of it' (Ken Hall interview). The sisters did not see their film work as a hobby but as a collective practice, which they understood as professional and serious. Although Paulette made some sound documentaries on her own, and began working on a fifth feature film with Phyllis and one of their brothers John, a longer filmmaking career did not eventuate. Paulette saw her sisters leaving Australia as a defining moment for her filmmaking: '[isn't] it funny … from that moment on I didn't try. I didn't want to I suppose' (quoted in Shirley, 18).

The work of the McDonagh sisters was subsequently 'lost' before being 'rediscovered' in the late 1970s, largely by feminist filmmakers who were interested in reclaiming previously undervalued and forgotten women's history; the McDonaghs were then understood as pioneers in the newly revived Australian film industry. Surviving copies of their films were screened at feminist film events and articles appeared in feminist journals. Phyllis McDonagh, however, did not see her film work as part of a larger and longer project of Australian feminist creativity; rather, she said, 'We wrote the stories that we felt were entertaining and that's all' (quoted in Spunner and Johnson, 103). Despite their disclaimers, the McDonaghs have performed a leadership role for more self-consciously feminist filmmakers like Martha Ansara, who in 2003 described their significance for her career: 'to have looked back in history and discovered that Australians did make films, and that even a few women made films, somehow is sort of ammunition or support to the efforts to do so later' (The McDonagh Sisters). The fact that individual women do not see themselves as being leaders, or even part of a feminist project, is almost beside the point. If, as in the case of the McDonagh sisters, their actions and work are understood by others in a leadership context, then they serve a function as leaders regardless of their intentions.

Lottie Lyell and the McDonagh sisters did not have typical personal lives in terms of their upbringing, families and domestic living arrangements. Their families were connected to the stage and performing arts and supported their film work. Lyell had a personal and professional relationship with Longford. Two of the McDonagh sisters married, Isabella at 33 and Phyllis at 41; only Isabella had children, although sister Paulette spent much time taking care of them. Paulette remained unmarried and, in a 1977 interview, declared: 'I don't believe in marriage. I always want to be my own woman' (quoted in Wright (1968), 43). These circumstances and beliefs, in part, allowed them to pursue their film work, which, had they led more conventional lives, may have proved impossible. In small numbers, other women too have been able to exert cultural leadership through mainstream filmmaking by working with their male partners. For instance, Elsa Chauvel and Charles Chauvel were married and had a daughter while working together in filmmaking. Elsa's roles were rarely acknowledged and, even in the title of her 1973 autobiography, My Life with Charles Chauvel, she cast herself in a supporting role.

Collective filmmaking practices are another way in which women have been able to create with film. It was within the context of politically activist filmmaking that Norma Disher became involved in innovative film work. Disher was a member of the Sydney-based Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit and worked alongside Jock Levy and Keith Gow to make distinctly political films in the 1950s. Another collective filmmaking group, also based in Sydney, was the Grail Film Unit, which operated in the 1930s and 1940s as part of the Catholic lay organisation, the Women of Nazareth. To achieve their goal of 'winning the world for God', the Grail movement stressed that women should use and understand all means of propaganda including film, radio, press, advertisements and neon signs (Advocate, 11 January 1940, 2 April 1942). Later, and in the secular realm, feminist political activism of the 1970s and 1980s provided the inspiration for women to organise collectively to make films. Women involved in these filmmaking actives were acutely aware of the cultural leadership role they were taking on. The Sydney Women's Film Group wanted to encourage filmmaking that was not 'simply films made by women or about women'; instead it wanted to create 'a cinema where women, who are conscious of the implication of their position as women within patriarchal society have real control over the content, the creative and the technical functions' (Sydney Women's Film Group, 5). While groups such as the Sydney Women's Film Group (and others such as the Feminist Film Workers) were not always harmonious organisations, they did provide opportunities for women to gain access to the technical skills required to work with film, and ideologically they were places in which different understandings of feminism were played out. From these activist beginnings, the category of feminist filmmaking achieved public understanding and support. State support can be observed in the formation of the Women's Film Fund and Women's Film Units. The work involved in creating this support for feminist filmmaking should not be understood in isolation. It is part of the increasing feminist influence in bureaucracy from the 1970s that Marilyn Lake has termed 'state feminism' (Lake, 253).

Learning the technical skills required to create with film has proved difficult for both women and men. From informal beginnings, it has become more institutionalised over time. As part of this process, the Commonwealth Film Unit (1940-1973) provided an important channel through which people could learn technical filmmaking skills during a time of limited commercial feature film production in Australia.1 Filmmakers such as Catherine Duncan, Jennie Boddington (Blackwood) and Joan Long, among others, all acquired their filmmaking skills while working at the unit. Catherine Duncan is credited with writing and directing significant documentaries representing the vision for (white) citizenship in the Australian nation in The Meeting Place (1948), as well as in a series of films for the Department of Immigration that promoted English post-war immigration (Australia and Your Future series: Men Wanted (1946), Christmas under the Sun (1946) and This is the Life (1947). Duncan recalled that her goal while working at the unit was to learn as much as she could, and, in 1946, she was the first woman credited with directing an Australian film since Paulette McDonagh in 1933 (Duncan interview). Boddington and Long worked at the unit after Duncan, and Long recalled the 1950s workplace as one in which men 'resented women doing anything other than typing or splicing' (Long, 1). Boddington worked as a film editor and later made documentaries with her second husband, Adrian Boddington, as Zanthus Films. Long worked at the film unit for a long time (in two parts, before and after her 'ten years in retirement' raising children) and then moved outside the unit to work in the commercial film industry (Long CV, 1). She had a prominent profile as a scriptwriter and film producer and is probably best known for writing Caddie (1976) and producing Puberty Blues (1981). While these women all experienced a highly gendered workplace, where women's access to training, equipment and paid positions was not equal to that of men, it was nonetheless a place in which they did have access to equipment, film screenings and film culture, and this enabled them to actively create with film.

The formalisation of film training in Australia played a significant role in enabling greater numbers of women to learn filmmaking skills. Film and television subjects were taught at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology from 1950, and, from the mid-1960s, a four-year film and television course was offered at Swinburne Technical College in Melbourne. The Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) was established in 1972, and, after almost 20 years of discussion, investigation and reports, the film and television course was relocated from Swinburne to the VCA in 1992. Alongside this, in 1969 a proposal for a national film school was accepted by the Liberal prime minister, John Gorton, and an interim council appointed for its development. The Australian Film and Television School (AFTS) opened in 1973 in Ryde, Sydney, running a twelve-month pilot program, and by 1975 a three-year full-time diploma course was being offered. The availability of formal post-secondary film education enabled many talented women to train as filmmakers, and the AFTS aimed for gender equity in their intake; this was first achieved in 1987. Gillian Armstrong notes that the reason Australia has produced 'so many wonderful women filmmakers' is that feminist influence in the 1970s and the lobbying of the Sydney Women's Film Group ensured that the school would take equal numbers of women and men (Quinn and Urban, 7). Feminist organisations such as Women in Film and Television (WIFT) in Melbourne and Sydney had also been involved in this project in a range of ways over time. WIFT in Melbourne ran a careers forum aimed at secondary school students in the 1990s, as well as workshops to assist women in applying for positions at film schools. The workshop was first established in 1989 because, while approximately equal numbers of women and men were interviewed for film school places, more men than women were given offers. WIFT saw a need to redress this imbalance. Feminist activism in the realm of training for women has been long-standing and efforts to further support and advance women's filmmaking opportunities represent acknowledgement of the professional requirements of women's film work.

Many well-known Australian women directors received formal training in film schools. These include Gillian Armstrong, who was one of two women in the pilot year at AFTS (out of twelve students), after she had initially studied film and television at Swinburne Technical College. After completing film school, Armstrong directed My Brilliant Career (1979), both the film and the director attracting much attention at the time. The film's budget of $925,000 was the highest in Australia for a debut feature director. Margaret Fink produced the film and wanted it to be one that would hold wide appeal. Based on Miles Franklin's 1901 semi-autobiographical novel and set in the past, the film nonetheless spoke to significant feminist issues of the day- of women's role in society and choices between love/family and a career. The place of feminism was not uncontentious.

The tensions between various pulls and definitions of feminism are encapsulated well in Suzanne Spunner's 1980 collage in the magazine, Lip. In it, extracts from various press interviews with Gillian Armstrong are highlighted showing many questions and statements calling on Armstrong to declare her feminist beliefs or otherwise. It seems that writers in both feminist and mainstream publications expected the director to define herself and her work within a contemporary feminist context. For women involved in film culture through Women's Liberation activities, My Brilliant Career was a crucial milestone, the first feature film directed by a woman and released in mainstream cinemas since 1933. While many of the feminists working with film were not mainstream filmmakers, they acknowledged that 'a feminist feature at Hoyts' was desirable (Gibson and Lambert, 30). My Brilliant Career was seen as a public representation of feminism and of what women's filmmaking for a general audience could be. This is why its meaning, interpretation and very presence were so fiercely contested. Spunner astutely observed that, 'had there been others, and we were sure there would be more … we would not be asking so much so soon of My Brilliant Career' (Spunner, 125).

This is but one example of the way cultural action and leadership can occur through film. My Brilliant Career is a woman's story initially written by Miles Franklin, reinterpreted onscreen almost 80 years later, and understood as having significant influence. The meaning of the film and the intentions of the filmmaker were contested as part of a broader push for women's work (both generally and specifically in film) to be publicly acknowledged. Today much of the heat surrounding the reception of the film has dissipated, but it is, nonetheless, an important historical artistic production and both the story and its rendition in film remain relevant to present-day concerns.

While more women have been involved in directing, writing and producing significant feature films since the late 1970s, factors that still impair and limit women's participation in filmmaking can be identified. A lack of self-confidence in their own abilities and also practices of self-censorship were identified by Jenny Sabine, Dean of the VCA School of Film and Television, as one of the main barriers to women gaining places in the film school in the 1990s. This was addressed in a Women Applying to Film School Seminar in 1994, where the differences in approaches between female and male film school candidates were explicitly discussed. While seminars like this aimed to encourage individual women's participation in film work, they simultaneously articulated an understanding of gender politics of the day and demanded social change. Self-questioning and policing practices are evident in Rachel Ward's comments in 2003 about the confidence she required to move from acting to directing: 'I wish I'd done it ages ago … I just feel so comfortable and I so enjoy it' but 'I think, that women don't feel like they have the right to be there, or something. They don't feel like they have the right to be the boss … to be at the helm of the whole production' (Ward). Directing encompasses many facets of more conventional understandings of leadership, and both Ward and Sabine articulate the gendered nature of how power functions and can be experienced by women more generally.

While filmmaking and activism associated with supporting filmmaking can readily be seen as a form of cultural leadership, women have also exerted public influence in the arena of film viewing. It is valuable to consider this as leadership, even when it works to restrict the screening of particular films. This is because it is part of the diversity of women's political action directed towards the realm of film. In some cases, individual women were acting in an isolated manner, while, in other instances, they were part of a group or collective movement.

One significant arena in which women acted publicly to express concern about the types of films made and screened in Australia was the 1927 Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry. Of the 253 witnesses who gave evidence, 41 were women, most of whom were, using the commissioners' phrase, 'keen observers of the effect of films upon the community' (Report of the Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia, 2). These 'keen observing' women, most representing women's organisations, unanimously supported film censorship and detailed specific roles that women should play in enforcing it. Mrs Edith Waterworth, a member of the state film censorship board in Hobart, argued at the royal commission that women, as citizens and mothers, have two claims to public representation while men only have one. As mothers, she asserted, they 'necessarily have to give far more careful thought to the rearing of children than is given by a father' (Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia, Minutes of Evidence, par. 16905, 588). Despite women's dual claim to representation, Waterworth's focus was almost exclusively on women's civic maternalism (as defined by Warne, among others). This is replicated in the evidence of other women too.

The National Council of Women, an umbrella organisation for women's groups of all kinds, was very active on the issue of film censorship, and, in 1928, NCW protested against the discrepancy in salary between the female and male censors for the new censorship board, which included one of their leaders, Eleanor Glencross (the female wage was £2 per day compared with the male wage of £3) (Argus, 1 August 1928, 22). The film trade publication, Everyones, did not welcome the presence of women in the arena of film regulation, mocking their 'interference' and anticipating despair for the male censors: 'God help the two men!' (Everyones, 1 August 1928, 5 and 8 August 1928, 35). Despite this and the lower women's wage, these concerned women were successful in exerting public influence to shape the environment for film viewing as they saw fit, fostering organisations like the Good Film and Radio Vigilance Society of New South Wales too.

In post-World War II Australia, local film societies were growing and this was an arena in which women and men worked in unpaid capacities to hold film screenings. These film societies could be described as local, middle-class based community groups through which people could enjoy and learn from viewing a broader range of films than those that dominated local picture theatres. In Victoria, the Federation of Victorian Film Societies was formed in 1949 to promote the interest of film societies and also to assist them in practical ways. Betty Lacey, Alison Doig and Betty Jope were three women who contributed greatly and for whom the film society movement took up considerable time. The all acted as secretary of the Federation of Victorian Film Societies at various times between 1948 and 1972. Unlike the women reformers mentioned above, the federation was firmly anti-censorship and worked publicly for this cause. Members were involved in arranging the Olinda Film Festival in 1952, which was the first large-scale film festival in Australia and was the precursor to the Melbourne International Film Festival and, to a lesser degree, the Sydney Film Festival. Much of the work carried out by women like Lacey, Doig and Jope was voluntary, administrative and time consuming. Yet it made a major contribution to the development of a community movement that broadened film-viewing possibilities and also led to the establishment of public film festivals that continue today. This work has gone largely unacknowledged as it is quiet in nature, but it should be remembered and understood as another form of cultural activism in connection with film.

What connects the range of activities around film outlined in this entry is women's significant, serious and committed interaction with a major visual form of creative representation. Film, in part, creates a public sphere that is readily accessible to most people and, in creating, supporting and regulating this public sphere, women have exercised a diverse range of leadership practices. Robert Rosenstone has written that 'it is not the facts that make us what we are, but the stories we have been told and the stories we believe' (quoted in Jenkins and Munslow, 156). Women have been involved in many ways in creating some of the well-known, and less well-known, stories that have been told on screen. We should think about these filmmakers as cultural leaders when they create screen representations. In addition, ideas of leadership should be extended to the broader arena of film culture. Women have played key roles in various moments of Australia's history in regulating what is seen, as well as creating opportunities to view film. We should regard all these as examples of leadership in the realm of screen culture because the stories that are made, and make it to the screen, help to make us who and what we are.


  1. The predecessor to The Commonwealth Film Unit based in Sydney was the Cinema and Photographic Branch in Melbourne, formed in 1913 and closed in 1954. Return to text

Archival Resources

National Film and Sound Archive

  • ABC Radio: Catherine Duncan, Interviewed By Michelle Rayner For The Radio National Hindsight Program 2000.09.29: Interview, 26 September 2000, 509421; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Don't Call Me Girlie. Source Material: Ted Hood Interview, 28 July 1983, 274891; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Gillian Armstrong Interview. Australian film and Television School, c. 1980, 38501; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Hall, Ken G: Interviewed by Graham Shirley, 1976: Oral History, 2 August 1976, 326468; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Long, Joan : Papers and Related Documents - Long, Joan : Biographical Information, 525446; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • The McDonagh Sisters, 2003, 601887; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • McDonagh Sisters: Documentation, 23 July 1932, 224437; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Percival, Lacey: Interviewed By Alan Anderson: Oral History: Other Segments, 26 October 1966, 219049; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Prizes for Scenarios, 1926 - 1933; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

State Library of Victoria

  • Victorian Companies Act Memorandum of Association of the Federation of Victorian Film Societies' in Minutes, Executive Committee meetings, 1950 - 1952, MS1050; State Library of Victoria. Details

Women in Film and Television Archives

  • Women Applying to Film School, the Proceedings of a Seminar, 2 July 1994; Women in Film and Television Archives. Details

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Chauvel, Elsa, My Life with Charles Chauvel, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 1973. Details
  • Commonwealth Government of Australia, Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia, Minutes of Evidence, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1927. Details
  • James Bailey, Julie, Reel Women: Working in Film and Television, Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Sydney, New South Wales, 1999. Details
  • Lake, Marilyn, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, New South Wales, 1999. Details
  • Milner, Lisa, Fighting Films: A History of the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit, Pluto Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2003. Details
  • Paterson, Barbara, Renegades: Australia's First Film School: From Swinburne to VCA, Helicon Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1996. Details
  • Sydney Women's Film Group, A Catalogue of Independent Women's Films, Sydney Women’s Film Group, Sydney, New South Wales, 1979. Details
  • Wright, Andrée, Brilliant Careers, Women in Australian Cinema, Pan Books, Sydney, New South Wales, 1986. Details

Book Sections

  • Shirley, G, 'Australian Cinema: 1896 to the renaissance', in Muray, S. (ed.), Australian Cinema, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1994, pp. 18 - 20. Details

Edited Books

  • Jenkins, Keith and Munslow, Alun (eds), The Nature of History Reader, Routledge, New York, United States of America, 2004. Details
  • Quinn, Meredith and Urban, Andrew L (eds), Edge of the Known World 25 Years: The Australian Film Television and Radio School, Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Sydney, New South Wales, 1998. Details

Journal Articles

  • Long, Joan, 'Caddie Goes to Silver City', Cinema Papers, vol. 15, no. 2, 1985, p. 1; 10. Details
  • Shirley, Graham, 'McDonough's of Australian Cinema', Filmnews, vol. 8, no. 12, December 1978, pp. 1; 5; 15 - 18. Details
  • Spunner, Suzanne, 'Making a Career of Feminism', Lip, 1980, pp. 125 - 127. Details
  • Spunner, Suzanne and Johnson, Sue, 'Interview: Phyllis McDonagh', Lip, Interview Transcript, no. 2 and 3, 1977, pp. 101 - 103. Details

Magazine Articles

  • Gibson, Sarah and Lambert, Susan, Dilemmas of Two Socialist Feminist Filmmakers, Scarlet Woman, August 1978, 26 - 30 pp. Details


  • Report of the Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers, H.J.Green, Government Printer, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 26 April 1928. Details
  • Women in Film and Television (WIFT), WIFT Annual Report, WIFT, Melbourne, Victoria, 1990 - 1991. Details


  • Warne, Ellen, 'The Mother's Anxious Future: Australian Churchwomen Meet the Modern World, between the 1890s and the 1930s', PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne, 2000. Details

Online Resources