Women in Australian Film Ep 2

A Brief History of Women in Film in Australia
By Trudi Ranik

The 1930’s were when many filmmakers struggled to make the transition from the ‘silent era’ to the ‘talkies.’ It is hard to imagine now, but at the time it was quite a big leap. There were many adjustments to be made to communicate a story in such a different way, now that the recording of dialogue was possible. If actors were only screen actors, the public would be hearing their voices for the first time.

Even though we will begin our exploration in the 1930’s, there were some founding female filmmakers of the 1910’s and 20’s who made a large contribution to the industry, which we cannot ignore.

Lottie Lyall, born Charlotte Edith Cox was regarded as Australia’s first film star. Along with being an actor, she was also a screenwriter, editor and filmmaker. Lyall shared a professional and romantic partnership with Raymond Longford, which was highly influential on the Australian film industry.

She co-wrote with Longford the 1919 adaptation of ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ as well as starring in a lead role, and being credited as editor, art-department, location assistant and production assistant. She has many credits to her name in her short but prolific career. Sadly, she passed away in December 1925 from tuberculosis at the early age of 35. She, however, left a lasting imprint on the history of Australian cinema.

In 1921, stage actress and playwright Kate Howarde became the first Australian woman to co-direct a feature film. ‘Possum Paddock’ was the adaptation of the highly successful play by the same name, which Howarde had written, produced and presented for the stage. The film adaptation was co-scripted and directed by Charles Villiers. Though Kate Howarde didn’t go on to make more films, her theatre company was very successful and she was a pioneer for women in the industry.

Three women who worked through the 1920’s into the 1930’s and thus were confronted with the transition into the era of ‘the talkies’ were the Mcdonagh sisters. Hailing from Sydney, Paulette, Isabel, and Phyllis collaborated to create films together, often using their beautiful but bohemian family home as the location.

Paulette, the youngest sister, was the director, producer and writer, while Isabel - known to the public as Marie Lorraine, was the actress and Phyllis worked as the art director.

‘Two Minutes Silence,’ released in 1933 was their fourth and last feature film and is cited as Australia’s first anti-war film. It was based on the play by Les Hayden, a journalist who later became an MP.

The reviews were not all favourable. This displays the difficulty of creating affecting adaptations when changing the performance medium and how filmmakers of this era were still learning how to utilise this new and demanding form of scriptwriting.


The Australian film industry was not immune to the effects of the Second World War. In 1940 The Australian National Film Board was created ‘to coordinate government and commercial film activity and to mobilise the production of film for the war effort,’ as stated by the National Archives of Australia.

The Film Board was in operation from 1940 until it transitioned to the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit in 1956. It was then superseded by Film Australia in 1973, which, in 2008 consolidated its operations into Screen Australia, which is still the active body today. Essentially, it is and was, the government body for film.

The Film Board was initially operating in Melbourne as the Cinema and Photographic Branch before the Sydney branch became the primary focus for all film production. It was at this Sydney location that many female filmmakers of the future got their start.

Catherine Duncan, a Tasmanian actor and radio broadcaster made the move into film in the mid 40’s. She cut her teeth working at The Film Board by making short documentary films that were commissioned to sell Australia to people wishing to immigrate. She was the first woman at The Film Board to take on a directing role.

Jennie Boddington had her break into the industry as a wardrobe assistant to costume designer Dahl Collings on the feature film ‘The Overlanders’ released in 1946. ‘The Overlanders’ was a British film about drovers driving cattle overland from Western Australia to Queensland during World War II. In time, this style of film came to be known as the ‘meat pie western’ genre.

In 1948, Boddington also joined The Film Board where she worked as a cutting room assistant for two years. Here she met Joan Long. Likely because there were very few women working there at the time, the pair sought each other out. 1948 was also when Jennifer Boddington had her first directorial and editing debut on the 37minute film 'The Valley is Ours.’
In 1948, Joan Long made a decision that would change her life and ultimately the Australian film industry. Originally from Victoria, Long obtained a degree in History at the University of Melbourne before making the decision to move to Sydney and pursue a career in film. She initially started as a secretary and assistant to Producer in Chief, Stanley Hawes at The Film Board.


In 1952 Joan Long transitioned into a directing role at the Film Board. She was one of the first women to do so and made a series of short documentaries in the early 50’s including ‘In Harbour’ and ‘Rail Town.’ The Film Board transitioned into the The Australian Commonwealth Film Unit in 1956.

During the 1950’s, a woman by the name of Joy Cavill moved into the film industry after working in radio for a number of years. She was the continuity person for Lee Robinson’s ‘King of the Coral Sea’ released in 1954.

‘King of the Coral Sea’ was one of the most commercially successful films of the 1950’s in Australia. The film is a crime adventure with themes of murder and people smuggling.

Joy is the only woman, excluding cast, to be credited on the film’s imdb page, showing how, at this time, it was still an extremely male dominated industry. She continued working with Robinson for a number of years as a writer, associate producer and producer. Her writing credits for the late 50’s include ‘The Restless and the Damned,’ ‘Dust in the Sun’ and ‘The Stowaway.’

Rhonda Small became a part of the Commonwealth Film Unit in 1958. She had originally trained as a physiotherapist but in 1955, started working in the family business, namely: The Herbert Small Photographic Supply Stores.

Here she was able to develop her skills in still photography and production techniques before moving on and being taught how to edit moving pictures. When she joined the Film Unit she started in editing and eventually moved on to directing.

Films Small worked on in the 1950’s were the short government documentary films ‘Dead on Their Feet’ in 1958 and ‘Canberra Today and Tomorrow’ in 1959.


The 1960’s seemed to be the calm before the storm as far as women in the Australian film industry were concerned. This was the decade before riding the second wave of feminism would lead to major breakthroughs in the industry, changing the landscape forever.

In 1960, Rhonda Small’s film ‘Australian Weekend’ was featured at the Melbourne International Film Festival and her 1962 release- ‘Portrait of an Australian’ made it into the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Even though she was making government- produced informative films, she had a knack for bringing them to life with a unique visual expression and this is why she is known for being a highly stylistic filmmaker. In 1967 however, she relocated to England, where she remained.

In 1964, Joy Cavill was working on ‘The Dawn Fraser Story’ a documentary following Olympic gold medal swimmer Dawn Fraser to the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games. She was both a director and producer on the project.

However during the trip, Joy suffered a heart attack. She moved to Canada for her recovery where she continued to work in the film industry before returning to Australia in the late 60’s.

Valerie Taylor, a competitive spear fisher, moved into the film industry alongside her husband Ron Taylor around the start of the decade. The Taylors started their new careers making shark documentaries. They continued to do this into the late 1990’s, alongside their other film work.

In 1969, Taylor did underwater photography for Australian feature films ‘Age of Consent’ and ‘The Intruders.’ The latter was part of the ‘Skippy the Kangaroo’ franchise. ‘Skippy the Kangaroo’ was a family favourite created by Lee Robinson and ‘The Intruders’ film was produced by none other than Joy Cavill.

Valerie Taylor would go on to an international career in underwater photography lasting into the 2000’s. Her credits include big- budget American classics like ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Blue Lagoon.’

Working on ‘Age of Consent’ offered another woman a break into the film industry- make-up artist Peggy Carter. Carter had originally started out working as a young shorthand typist at Artransa Park film studios, based in Sydney, before jumping at the chance to be trained as a make-up artist.

She had a few TV credits for make-up before working on ‘Age of Consent’ and much like Valerie Taylor, film would become a life-long career. She too made a great contribution to the Australian film industry through the many films she lent her skills to.

‘Age of Consent’ was a comedy-drama based off a semi-autobiographical novel by Norman Lindsay, of the same name. The film boasts Dame Helen Mirren’s first major role. Norman Lindsay sadly passed away the year the film was released.

The second wave of feminism in the 1970’s opened doors for women in the industry, or more to the point, they pushed them open. This era is an earlier reflection of what we are seeing today with women taking their place and telling their stories through film.

After the male-gaze being the most dominant for so long, the 1970’s were when that was about to change and the female-gaze would shine a new perspective on the Australian film industry. And thank goodness. This era brought some dynamite films from some budding female filmmakers who were just bursting to tell stories from their hearts and souls and experiences.

The 70’s saw a female public who had been starving to see themselves reflected on the screen in ways other than the gender biased roles that had mostly been shown for so long. Thus, it was overdue that new kinds of films be made from here on in following the stories of women fighting against the social standards that oppressed them.

Gillian Armstrong, who had written and directed a number of short films in the early 1970’s, gained her first real recognition in 1975 after receiving an award at the Sydney Film Festival for her short ‘The Singer and the Dancer.’ The following year she would commence a project that would span over 3 decades.

She released the first of the documentary-esque films ‘Smokes and Lollies’ in 1976. In a format similar to 7-Up, she would capture the changing stages of the then 14 year-old-girls for many years to come at future moments in their lives.

Joan Long wrote the screenplay for the 1976 film ‘Caddie.’ ‘Caddie’ was based on the autobiography titled ‘Caddie, A Sydney Barmaid’ written by and based on the life of Catherine Edmond. The film loosely followed the story of Caddie, a single-mother living in Sydney during the great depression and trying to support her family by working as barmaid.

The film received funding support from the International Women’s Year Secretariat and the Australian Film Commission’s, Women’s Film Fund. It was made for $400,000 and made close to $3 million and won 3 feature AFI awards making it both a commercial and critical success. Joan Long also received a nomination for her screenplay.

There were many other talented women who work on ‘Caddie’ in various roles. Judith Dorsman, who was the costume designer worked in this role on a number of films throughout the 70’s and early 80s. She was also the costume designer for Peter Weir’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock,’ which was released in 1975 and based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, about the mysterious disappearance of boarding school girls in the bush during the Victorian Era.

Among others were Jennie Brown and Peggy Carter, who worked on hair and make-up respectively, Janet Isaac as an Assistant director who was worked in this role as well as a director and producer throughout the 70’s and Lissa Coote and Jenny Green were art department assistants. Coote had a career spanning decades in art department and production design roles.

Sara Bennett worked as sound editor. Sara has many credits to her name working in post production roles such as editing and sound editing in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Helen Brown was an assistant sound editor on ‘Caddie.’ She continued working as a sound editor and foley artist, with her latest credit being as recent as 2017. She worked as a foley artist on budget feature films like ‘Bright Star’ starring Abbie Cornish and directed by Jane Campion, and Guy Ritchie film ‘Swept Away.’

Mandy Smith who worked as a wardrobe assistant on ‘Caddie’ and other films of the era went on to direct many much loved Australian TV shows like ‘Neighbours’ and ‘A Country Practice.’ Margaret Cardin who worked as a negative cutter on ‘Caddie’ had a prolific career as a negative cutter and matcher before digital film took over the industry.

In 1975, Joan Long founded Limelight Productions. Through her production company, she developed a screenplay which became ‘The Picture Show Man.’ It was released in 1977 and Long produced the film to work on something uplifting after the heaviness of ‘Caddie.’

In 1979 the Gillian Armstrong feature film ‘My Brilliant Career’ was released starring a very young Judy Davis who gave an exceptional performance. Based on the 1901 book of the same name, ‘My Brilliant Career’ is another story about a woman following her instincts and passion over the rules of society.

The film received outstanding critical acclaim winning AACTA awards including Best Film for Margaret Fink, Best Direction for Armstrong and Best Adapted Screenplay for Eleanor Witcombe, Best Production Design for Luciana Arrighi and Best Costume Design for Anna Senior. Senior was also nominated for an Academy Award for Costume.

Davis lwon the BAFTA for Best Actress and Most Outstanding Newcomer for her stellar performance. ‘My Brilliant Career’ was a success internationally as well as in Australia and is considered part of the Australian New Wave of cinema. The new wave lasted between the early 1970’s and the late 1980’s. It describes an era when there was worldwide increased popularity for Australian Cinema.

Other notable achievements during this era were Sonia Borg writing ‘Storm Boy,’ the almost entirely female cast for the film adaptation of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ and Eleanor Witcombe writing the screenplay for the ‘The Getting of Wisdom,’ another period drama based in a ladies college.

Gillian Armstrong released the second and third films in her series in the 1980’s. ‘Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better’ was released in 1980, four years after the inaugural film, the girls have just reached the cusp of adulthood. ‘Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces’ was released at the other end of the decade in 1988 when the subjects were now well into their 20’s.

Joan Long moved into a producing role in the 1980’s. She worked with Margaret Kelly to produce ‘Puberty Blues’ which Kelly was also writing. ‘Puberty Blues’ was released in 1981 and was based off the book of the same name written by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey.

It is an iconic coming of age story that follows two teenage girls living in a coastal community as they navigate school, friendship, sex, love, drugs and family. In the 2010’s it was adapted once again, this time into a successful television series.

Long was also involved in a producing role with the evolution of ‘Silver City,’ released in 1984. Long had admired director Sophia Turkiewicz’s previous work, the 1978 ‘Letters from Poland’ and wanted to bring another of her stories to life. Though originally written by Turkiewicz in 1974, Long brought playwright Tom Keneally on board to further develop the screenplay for ‘Silver City.’

The film took eleven drafts to be green-lit. The film dealt with themes relevant to many Australians as it followed the journey of a Polish refugee to Australia after World War 2. It explored the building of multi-cultural Australia and how people can find a new home in a new country, the challenges and the facing of identity. All their hard work paid off because ‘Silver City’ won numerous awards and was screened at festivals around the world.

Sophia Turkiewicz arrived in Australia as a young child with her Polish mother. She had been born in a refugee camp in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, in 1946, just after the end of the war. They were part of the first wave of Europeans to immigrate to Australia after the Second World War. Her personal connection was probably why she was so passionate and qualified to tell these stories.

Nadia Tass won the AFI award for Best Film in 1986 along with seven other awards including Best Director for Tass. She also worked as a producer on the highly successful ‘Malcolm’ written by her husband David Parker. The film was a comedy about a tram enthusiast who finds himself tied up in crime and starred Colin Friels.

Nadia Tass was moved to Australia in the 1960’s, originally from Macedonia, Northern Greece. She started out in the industry as an actress and appeared on the television series ‘Prisoner.’ She and David Parker had started their production company Cascade Films in 1983 and in 1988 they also produced ‘Rikky and Pete.’ Many more films would follow.

‘Luigi’s Ladies,’ released in 1989 saw the transition from highly successful character actress Judy Morris to the other side of the camera. She wrote, directed and starred in this film described as ‘A comedy about women, their men, adultery, attempted murder and money … pretty much the fabric of life!’

Morris moved mainly into screenwriting after ‘Luigi’s Ladies’ however, was also one of the co-creators of the Academy Award winning animated feature film ‘Happy Feet’ released in 2006.

Christine King, soon to be iconic casting director and owner of Christine King Casting started her career as a third assistant director on the 1986 ‘Twelfth Night.’ After that she moved into casting in TV and film with the first film credit being for ‘extras casting co-ordinator’ on ‘Around the World in Eighty Ways,’ 1988.

Many great Australian films were made in the 1990’s and many women were a big part of them. They were also critically recognised for their contributions with many awards and nominations achieved.

Bringing us into the decade was ‘The Big Steal,’ a teen comedy- caper directed by Nadia Tass. The film had a young Ben Mendelsohn and Claudia Karvan. Tass was nominated for an AFI award for her direction and the film scored 3 wins and 7 other nominations in other categories.

1991 gave us ‘Proof.’ Written and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, this drama- comedy starring Hugo Weaving, Geneviève Picot and Russell Crowe gained itself 5 AFI awards including best director and best screenplay and 3 further nominations. Lynda House produced the film.

‘Proof’ follows the story of a blind photographer who lets a restaurant worker into his life, making his housekeeper jealous and the drama that ensues.

In 1994 ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ was released. Written and directed by PJ Hogan, Jocelyn Moorhouse’s husband, she was on board to produce, as was Lynda House. Jill Bilcock who by this time already had a stellar resume, was the editor.

‘Muriel’s Wedding’ brought us two dynamite Australian actors, Toni Collette and Rachael Griffiths as well as a soundtrack of Abba classics, heartbreak and lots of laughs. A story that withstands the test of time, in 2019 ‘Muriel’s Wedding’ the stage musical, made it’s successful debut.

In 1996 Gillian Anderson released the fourth film in her life-span documentary series ‘Not Fourteen Again’ 20 years after the first one. It won the AFI for Best Documentary that year and had a successful release.

A year later the Australian public would see Cate Blanchett in her first major role starring opposite Raph Fiennes in ‘Oscar and Lucinda.’ This film proved another success for director Gillian Anderson having multiple nominations and wins all over the world including an Oscar nomination for Janet Patterson’s work in costume.

Janet Patterson began her career in the 1980’s and worked across costume, production and set design at the ABC. Throughout her career she won multiple awards and was nominated for and Academy Award on three other occasions.

Cinematographer Mandy Walker had multiple successes in the late 90’s for films ‘The Well’ and ‘Parklands.’ ‘The Well’ was directed by Samantha Lang, an Australian screenwriter and director, and starred Miranda Otto and Pamela Rabe. Walker was nominated for an AACTA for her cinematography.

‘Parklands’ released in 1996 was written and directed by Kathryn Millard. Millard works across documentaries, dramas and essay films. She is quite unique in her approach to filmmaking and is explorative in her ways of combining images with text. The ‘Australian Cinematographers Society’ for her cinematography in ‘Parklands’ honoured mandy Walker.

Walker is originally from Melbourne, Victoria and shot her first feature film when she was only 25. Prior to that, she had begun her career working as an assistant on documentaries and music videos in unpaid roles.

The new millennium saw Australian female filmmakers creating and contributing to some of the decade’s strongest cinematic work. Many short film directors made the leap to feature films throughout the 2000’s including Elissa Down with ‘The Black Balloon,’ actress- turned director Rachel Ward with ‘Beautiful Kate’ and Sarah Watt with ‘Look Both Ways.’

Kate Woods made her directorial debut with Looking For Alibrandi. The film, released in 2000, was based on Melina Marchetta’s acclaimed novel of the same name. The film is a coming of age story following Josie, played by a young Pia Miranda, navigating her last year of High school. It delves into family heritage, suicide and first love and Woods has managed to achieve the nuances of the book successfully in her film.

‘Rabbit Proof Fence’ was released in 2002. This film is powerful in many ways and an important step in not only the film industry but also the identity and acknowledgement of the dark side in Australian history. The film, set in 1931, brings to light the tragedy of the stolen generation and the horrors that white settlement forced upon the indigenous community who had lived on these lands for thousands of years.

Doris Pilkington, who was the author of the book on which the film was based, collaborated with Christine Walker on the screenplay. With Laura Burrows was as an associate producer and Christine King was the casting director.

Sarah Watt’s debut feature film ‘Look Both Ways’ was released in 2005 and for it she won the AFI for best direction and best film among other awards. The film was written by Watt herself and starred her husband, actor William McInnes alongside Justine Clarke in the lead roles. The film follows the characters dealing big changes in their lives and learning and healing from each other.

This wasn’t Watt’s first success. In 1995 she had directed ‘Small Treasures,’ a short film that won Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival. She was also an animator, an element she incorporated into her drama films, and an author. In late 2005 Watt was diagnosed with cancer and through her six-year battle, she also made her second feature ‘My Year Without Sex.’ She sadly passed away in 2011.

At the close of the decade Rachel Perkins directed and co-wrote ‘Bran Nue Dae.’ Released in 2009, the musical-comedy-drama was full of fun and full of stars. Jessica Mauboy, Rocky McKenzie, Ernie Dingo, Magda Szubanski, Deborah Mailman and even country singer Missy Higgins got in on the action.

The film was based on the 1990 stage musical of the same name written by Jimmy Chi and his band Kuckles. It was the first Aboriginal musical. It was the most successful play in the 1990’s and extensively toured Australia.

Set in 1969, ‘Bran Nue Dae’ follows Willie Johnson on the run from the priest of his Catholic boarding school in Perth as he tries to make his way home to Broome. His uncle, played by Dingo, and other eccentric characters he meets along the way, aids him.

Though mediocrely received by critics, it was definitely a crowd pleaser. Winning the Audience Award for Best Feature at Melbourne International Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. As well as going on to be one of the Top 50 Australian films of all time at the local box office. The soundtrack for the film also made it to number 29 on the ARIA charts.

Raised in Canberra, Perkins is an Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman from Central Australia. She has championed the creation of Indigenous work and continues to do so. She is a highly respected and important presence in the industry and her work has had a major cultural influence.

Other films made by women in the 2000’s include: ‘Somersault,’ written and directed by Cate Shortland, it won 13 AFI awards in 2004 and was a breakout out role for Abbie Cornish who played the lead. Anna Broinowski directed documentary ‘Forbidden Lies’ released in 2007.

Sue Brooks directed ‘Japanese Story’ released in 2003. The film starred Toni Collette, was produced by Sue Maslin and was written by Alison Tilson, with music by Elizabeth Drake. ‘Japanese Story’ screened at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and won AACTA’s in 8 categories with Tilson also winning the AWGIE for Best Writing in a Feature Film.


In 2010 Gillian Anderson completed the final installment in her docu- series of films. ‘Love, Lust and Lies.’

2012 brought us the film adaptation of the play ‘The Sapphires.’ Based loosely on writer Tony Briggs’ mother’s incredible story the film follows four indigenous women in the late 1960’s as they form a soul- group and perform for troops in Vietnam. The film starred regarded performers Deborah Mailman and Jessica Mauboy; and introduced us to Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens.

The film won a whopping 16 AACTA awards including Best Lead Actress for Deborah Mailman, Best Supporting Actress for Jessica Mauboy, Best Production Design for Melinda Doring and Best Costume Design for Tess Schofield.

Also released in 2012 was psychological-horror film ‘The Babadook’ written and directed by Jennifer Kent and starring Essie Davis. Kent had originally trained at NIDA alongside Davis and initially worked in the industry as an actor. She assisted Danish Filmmaker Lars von Trier on the set of ‘Dogville’ and considers this experience her film school.

‘The Babadook’ was Kent’s debut feature film however she refers to her short film ‘Monster’ as the ‘baby Babdook’ and where the film’s origins began to come to life. In 2016 a meme went viral saying the Babadook was openly gay and in 2017 the Babadook was a symbol of Pride Month. Jennifer Kent loved the meme.

One of the most highly anticipated Australian films of the decade was the adaptation of ‘The Dressmaker.’ The buzz was not only because Kate Winslet would be playing the lead, but because it was based on the novel of the same name written by Rosalie Ham which was treasured by so many Australians.

In fact, Ham first developed the original treatment herself back in 2000, the same year the book was released. However Sue Maslin bought the rights to the novel after her attempts didn’t come to fruition. Maslin then brought Jocelyn Moorhouse on board.

Moorhouse directed and co-wrote the adapted screenplay with her husband P.J. Hogan and Sue Maslin produced. Starring alongside Kate in the lead role of Tilly, were Australia’s most esteemed actors populating the small town of Dungatar, where the story is set.

Judy Davis plays the role of Tilly’s mother, and Hugo Weaving plays the rather flamboyant police officer, while Liam Hemsworth is her long-term love interest. The real show-stealer however is not Winslet, but the costumes, headed by Marion Boyce, which are nothing less than spectacular.

‘The Dressmaker’ opened in the number 1 spot at the Australian and New Zealand box offices. It also became the second highest-grossing Australian film of 2015 and the eleventh highest-grossing film of all time at Australian box office. Proving again, that films written, directed and produced by women and having a female protagonist can achieve commercial success.

Other films released throughout the decade by Australian women were ‘Sherpa,’ a documentary by Jennifer Peedom, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ writer/ director Julia Leigh’s debut feature, ‘52 Tuesdays’ a very low budget and independent but successful feature by Sophie Hyde, and ‘Chasing Asylum’ which director Eva Orner describes as being the film that was the ‘hardest by far’ to make in her 20 year career.

Recent Videos


Want to hear the latest News and Study updates about Australian Education? Subscribe now and we’ll keep you updated on exclusive updates and offers.

Find a Course