Hidden Gems and Surrealist Nightmares: Reflections on the ‘Melbourne Women in Film’ Festival

In the latter half of February this year, the third annual Melbourne Women in Film Festival  (MWFF) ran their opening night, ‘Freaky, Fantastic & Feminist’. They screened three short Australian films that embodied these themes. 

The first, ‘Storytime (2006)’, a nine-minute Aboriginal horror film directed by Jub Clerc, was charming for its endearingly amateur child acting and extremely effective at evoking a sense of desolate terror. Its harrowing shots transformed the brown-grey mangrove brambles into a nightmare space both hostile and untameable, evoking a similar terror as the woods of Twin Peaks. 

The final film ‘On Guard (1984)’, written and directed by Susan Lambert, was a political thriller centred around four feminist activists sabotaging a biochemical corporation’s supercomputer, which I found to be the weakest of the three. The sets and production had a level of camp nostalgia reminiscent of BBC productions of the same era. However, it was hampered by a main character I found to be largely irritating and emotionally manipulative. 

However, as should be noted: I am not a woman and my perspective on these films will inevitably differ to how some women may interpret them (no doubt, others certainly would get something out of this 80’s budget thriller about a group of lesbian feminist ecoterrorists). 

The most effective and interesting of the three was the wonderful middle child of the opening night, Margaret Dodd’s ‘This Woman is Not a Car (1982)’. A wild discomforting romp of an arthouse experience, running just over 20 minutes, it tells a tale of suburban madness and the repressive, potentially-dehumanising, horrors of motherhood in late 20th century Australia. 

It highlights the ways that the domestic work of mothers has long gone unacknowledged, and the way that strict gender roles limited and trapped women in their circumstances.

The film is centred around a middle-aged mother living in the suburbs of Adelaide with her husband and kids. He goes to work in a flash lime green sports car, while she is left to ferry their seemingly endless horde of children back and forth, between school and dancing and scouts and the pool, ad infinitum. So endless and monotonous is her life, that she has seemingly begun to lose her sense of reality; her existence so intertwined with that of her FX Holden station wagon, that she envisions its headlight clasped over her breast, beneath her silken gown.

A sense of decaying reality lingers throughout the film, truly making it feel like a “nightmare of a film” as Dodd described it when she introduced it at the festival. This mood is heightened by the grungy, derelict quality of the film; the film was strewn with blotches and marks of aging film. 

These blemishes were undoubtedly unintended, but enhanced the experience for me, giving the film a sense of realism, even as it descended further into a surreal ‘nightmare-scape’.  It almost felt as though we were watching some cursed snuff film, found buried away on a VHS in some dusty garage. 

These gritty visuals are amplified by audio, which feels slightly disconnected from the film; characters talk without their mouths moving and bodily noises like the munching of children are amplified, giving it an eerie and uncomfortable texture. The audio helps turn scenes of suburbia into nightmares; the gaggle of children’s voices becoming a cackling horde of almost demonic creatures, as the mother drives with all six of them in the back of her car and the synthesised soundtrack wails with scream-like hums and industrial rhythms. 

The film comes to its head during an extended sequence where the woman abandons her children at the beach. Their faces grubby with Cornish pasties, less eaten, more demolished against their faces. It is a truly gross spectacle, as we watch the demon things sitting in their filth; one of the boys drinks tomato sauce from the tacky tomato-shaped bottle. Their degenerate desolation is so consuming, that it almost seems they have devoured their mother along with the pasties, as the camera zooms away across the seaweed littered shore; the distorted cries of the soundtrack evoking both a woman’s scream and a mechanical saw cutting into steel. 

The rapid speed of the camera is reminiscent of the high octane car shots from something like ‘Mad Max’, or the opening credits of Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’, which uses its shot of the road violently hurtling by to sicken the viewer and thus prime them for the nightmare to come. So too is the effect in this film as it quickly descends into delirium as the woman pulls into a service station and is greeted by an orgy of mechanics who ogle her and her vehicle, with little distinction between the two.

What follows is a wonderfully comic parade of visual innuendo and metaphor; a car service by way of a sex scene with a slow, moaning synthesised soundtrack and a deluge of sexual imagery that would make an advertisement blush. The service station attendant polishes her headlights with the slow cinematic tenderness of an actor fondling a breast; his work under her bonnet becoming an allegorical act of fingering, finishing with the money shot of him shaking off the dripping oil pump onto the bonnet.

It is atrociously funny, yet quickly becomes horrifying, as we witness her psyche completely snapping; years of suburban repression have destroyed her sense of self beyond that of her vehicle. This is made worse when his fellows join in and the scene takes a turn towards sheer abuse, with them ganging up on her station wagon and even begin to tear out the lining of the seats inside. The audio track treats us to a littering of chauvinistic remarks all the way through. 

The woman is literally made an object by the patriarchal society she is trapped in; the classic Australian car is turned into a fetishistic idol of desire for the male figures. 

Dodd’s fascination with the role of cars in Australian society and how they intersected with the gender roles of the time creates a film that is nightmarishly evocative and surreal, a true hidden gem of Australia cinema.

MWFF and their kin showcase excellent work. If you are a fan of cinema, attend these events and discover the strange and wonderful obscurities they screen.