Woman Sharp, Jan
Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne
Jan Sharp was a key, if largely unheralded, figure in the 1970s renaissance of the Australian film industry. She was the first woman to gain a director's apprenticeship at Film Australia, and directed and produced two Australian Film Institute (AFI) award winning documentaries in consecutive years, moving from documentary film making to feature films in the 1980s. In 1986 she produced her first feature film, The Good Wife, followed by Echoes of Paradise. In 1995 she wrote and produced and was the 2nd Unit Director of Wide Sargasso Sea. This film has been included in university film courses in the US and Australia as a fine example of a screen adaptation of a classic novel. Married to film-maker Philip Noyce for fifteen years (1979 -2004), she described her style of film-making as more of a 'cottage industry' in comparison with his big Hollywood blockbusters (Philip Noyce and Jan Sharp Interviewed).
Born in Cobram, Victoria in 1946, Sharp attended the local St Joseph's Primary School, before moving to a convent boarding school in Melbourne. She left Cobram for good to study Fine Arts at Melbourne University in the 1960s. Small town life, she said in a 2001 interview, 'led to an adventuring out' (Philip Noyce and Jan Sharp Interviewed). She and her fellow students, 'would make movies non-stop throughout the weekends. "We'd sip absinthe and be profound about director Jean Luc Godard."' Moving straight from University to the Commonwealth Film Institute, she learned 'the magic of films in process' alongside talents such as Peter Weir (A Reel Life Success).
After serving her apprenticeship, Sharp worked at the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) joining the team that made Chequerboard, the top rating documentary series in Australia. She also made radio documentaries at the ABC. Julie Rigg, who produced for her on one such program, said an enduring memory she had of Jan was as a member of a collective of women working at the ABC who campaigned for a workplace child care centre. 'Our children were all teenagers by the time we got it,' said Rigg, 'but whenever I walk past it now, I think of Jan' (Vale Jan Sharp).
After her stint at the ABC, Sharp returned to Film Australia, where she made a number of documentaries on a variety of topics, including the Ethnic Australia Series. The award winning Why Can't They Be More Like We Were? ' series, based on the lives of young people in 1976, was made to promote discussion regarding adolescent behaviour and expectations. The series made in the following year, Growing Up was filmed in the town of Lithgow. The episode Weekend represents a typical social picture of many young Australians' weekend lifestyle in the late 1970s. The focus is on the role of the peer group in their lives and its significance in shaping the expectations that the boys and girls have of each other (Growing Up: Weekend).
Apart from the technical skills and creative impulse, Sharp believed that a good filmmaker needed to be a nurturer [and] is talented in 'building bridges and keeping avenues of communication open' (Philip Noyce and Jan Sharp Interviewed). They also had to be good networkers, a skill she certainly had. A friend in Melbourne recalled receiving a card from her after Sharp had moved to Sydney, saying, 'I have just been cycling through Paddington with Bruce Petty' (Unsung film pioneer found her place). Another noted that she was so well connected, that she was 'hanging on the end of a phone almost 100 percent of the time' (A Reel Life Success).
Sharp was a 'luminous beauty' even as she endured sickness towards the end of her life (Unsung film pioneer found her place). She died in July 2012, survived by her two daughters, Alice and Lucia. The 2012 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado was dedicated to her, as a mark of respect for the influence she had on the 'cottage industry' she paved the way for Australian women to enter.
National Film and Sound Archive
- Brouard, Josephine, Jan Sharp: A Reel Life Success Story, Cleo, 1988. Details
- 'Unsung film pioneer found her place', The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 September 2012. http://www.smh.com.au/national/obituaries/unsung-film-pioneer-found-her-place-20120909-25m57.html. Details
- Johnston, Randall, 'Cobram film producer loses battle with breast cancer', The Cobram Courier, 10 October 2012. http://www.mmg.com.au/local-news/cobram/cobram-film-producer-loses-battle-with-breast-cancer-1.31848. Details
- Growing Up: Weekend, Film Australia: YouTube Channel, Director Jan Sharp. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nkP2XnbW8Ws&feature=plcp. Details
- Rigg, Julie, 'Vale Jan Sharp', in Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): Movietime, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), http://mpegmedia.abc.net.au/rn/podcast/2012/09/mme_20120906_1733.mp3. Details