The Experimental Practice of History in the Filmwork of Jeni Thornley

Uploaded 29 May 1998

The most synthetic of all art forms, film is the space in which the representative and symbolic birth of a female person can take place through the reconstruction of her history. [1]

In Australian feminist cinema Jeni Thornley is the filmmaker who has been most preoccupied with the reconstruction of her own history over a series of films which span three decades of independent filmmaking. As a compilation filmmaker who reworks existing images from her family album, the national film archive, local feminist films and home movies, Thornley brings to mind Walter Benjamin’s “angel of history” who presides over the mounting debris of the past. Like the angel, Thornley’s face is “turned toward the past;” she too “would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed,” but irresistible forces propel her “into the future to which [her] back is turned.” [2]  For Thornley, the filmmaking process itself is an act of remembering, an on-going experiment with her own historical time.

Thornley belongs to a 1960s generation of New Left filmmakers whose revived historical consciousness was germinated during the Cold War years in the silent fallout from Hiroshima, succinctly described by Dorothy Dinnerstein as “the condition of anaesthesia and blurred comprehension that follows catastrophe.” [3] Thornley’s mix of social action documentary and personal films exemplifies the two trends which emerged in the counterculture of the 1960s:

The burst of fresh consciousness that was articulated in this brief flowering … embodied two mutually contradictory streams of feeling. The first was a rebirth of broad, historic concern. The second was an explosively accelerated public reformulation of the personalistic, here-and-now oriented trend that had begun after Hiroshima. (Dinnerstein 263)

The opportunity for public reformulation of the confining realm of the personal propelled Thornley into the Women’s Liberation Movement in 1969 and shaped her filmmaking over the next three decades. [4]  The work of projecting the female self into history through the intimate yet public sphere of cinema begins again, for Thornley, with each film. A Film for Discussion (Sydney Women’s Film Group 1970-73) is a foundational feminist film which ends with a prolonged shot of Thornley contemplating her mirror reflection in a moment of existential crisis. [5] In Maidens (Thornley 1975-78) feminism itself is perceived as a crisis of female subjectivity which blocks the path of matrilineal history, rupturing the continuity between generations. For Love or Money (a collective film by Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver, Jeni Thornley 1978-83), draws on a memory-bank of images from the national film archive to produce an epic film history of Australian women at work, incorporating conflicting temporalities of race, class, and ethnicity into an apocalyptic narrative. In To The Other Shore (Thornley 1987-96), scenes from the filmmaker’s personal image-repertoire are reassembled at the editing bench to create a public, autobiographical memory of the ruination and restoration of the female self in motherhood, in psychoanalysis, and cinema.

Although these four films can be interpreted as Thornley’s reconstruction of her own history, they can also be read as a body of work which constructs the temporality of second wave feminism through a ‘crisis’ of the female self. This is very much a project of 1970s feminism, routinely criticised in the 1980s as politicially ‘essentialist’ and aesthetically ‘realist.’ However, the survival of this project into the 1990s invites a re-reading of Thornley’s personal and activist cinema in the light of a renewed interest, since the late 1980s, of feminist film theorists in questions of history. [6] It is precisely Thornley’s combination of personal cinema, historical consciousness and cultural activism that provides an opportunity for reconsidering her films in terms of what Meaghan Morris has described as feminism’s “skeptical theory of history:” [7]

Whatever their differences, most feminisms have been marked (at least in their creative political phase) by an experimental approach to the present, a desire to shape the future, and an enterprising attitude to representing the past. In other words, feminism is skeptical but constructive. (Morris 127)

In a belated reading of Claire Johnston’s influential work as a 1970s cultural activist, Morris attempts to clarify the paradox of feminism’s constructive approach to social change in the face of its skeptical approach to history. Feminism’s difference from other radical political and aesthetic movements is characterised by modes of action “to bring about concrete social changes while at the same time contesting the very bases of modern thinking about what constitutes ‘change'” (128). Morris’s essay is an attempt to think about what it takes for feminist forms of action (which include festivals and seminars, essays and films) to redefine (as well as survive) historical change. The crucial question for Morris is what constitutes an ‘event’ in the feminist project of constructing “another history, a different temporality” (134). For Morris “the experimental practice of history” is evident in a small collection of Australian films made in the 1980s under the auspices of a local, state-funded form of political modernism exemplified by the films of Ross Gibson, Helen Grace, Laleen Jayamanne and Tracey Moffatt (134). Although Thornley’s personal and social action films appeared, at least in the 1980s, to be the very antithesis of political modernism, they lend themselves to a new reading in terms of the tropes of ‘experience’ and ‘memory’ which Morris sees as vital to feminism’s experimental practice of history, a practice which attempts “to name a different temporality (‘not the sort of revolution which is an event that takes two or three days’ … )”, but a temporality “- enduring, erratic – of involvement.” (135-6).

In this essay I will draw on contemporary readings of Walter Benjamin’s approach to a materialist practice of history (which he opposed to bourgeois historicism) to rethink the registers of history, memory and narrativity in Thornley’s films. These concepts are part of a paradigm shift in feminist film theory away from a preoccupation with ‘the spectator’ toward a concept of cinema as a public sphere “through which social experience is articulated, interpreted, negotiated and contested in an intersubjective, potentially collective, and oppositional form.” [8]  This paradigm shift has the potential to expand feminism’s ‘good objects’ beyond the political modernism of the 1980s and to revitalise the currently atrophied memory of 1970s feminist cinema.

A film prologue

Thornley’s personal cinema which obsessively reworks existing film and photographic images, comes out of what Philippe Dubois calls “cinematic modernity.” For Dubois this autobiographical cinema functions as a memory apparatus, exhibiting the subject’s “own condition of existence as image” and allowing us “to grasp in a single theoretical coup the triple question of cinema, photography, and the psychic life of the subject.” [9]  It is the psychic life of the female subject, her “existence as image” and her politicised relation to history and to cinema that has preoccupied Thornley since her first venture into filmmaking resulted in the collective production of A Film for Discussion (a three year project initiated by Martha Ansara in collaboration with Jeni Thornley and other members of the Sydney Women’s Film Group). This foundational Australian feminist film begins with a quote from Marx on the historical conditions for revolutionary change and ends with a dissonant shot of Thornley contemplating her mirror image. Thornley’s sustained cinematic work on the self, history, and memory lies in the future of this mirror shot.

Maidens (Jeni Thornley, 1978): mise-en-scene of the self, includes mirror shot from A Film for Discussion (Sydney Women’s Film Group, 1973).

The first films to come out of the Sydney Women’s Film Group were part of a feminist movement to politicise personal life and to rediscover the historical causes of women’s exclusion from the public sphere. A Film for Discussion is a threshold film which locates the ‘event’ of feminism in an unnameable crisis arising out of a young woman’s mundane experiences of work, consumerism and family conflict. Feminism, from the film’s Marxist perspective, is a matter of historical inevitablility emerging from the everyday material conditions of late capitalism.

A Film opens with the image of a typewriter tapping out a quote from Marx:

Mankind (sic) always takes up only such problems as it can solve, since looking at the matter more closely we will always find that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.

The body of the film is a dramatised narrative covering a day in the life of an office worker played by Thornley. Three scenes from the film recur in Thornley’s later work: the conflict between father and brother at the dinner table; the daughter’s rejection of her mother’s life in the washing up scene; and the final mirror sequence of a female self who, lacking history and memory, is not yet a subject.

A Film‘s slice-of-life narrative, its exploration of a boundary situation culminating in a crisis of existential significance, its black and white realism combined with the use of subjective/expressive techniques, its recognisable Sydney locations and unknown actors, and its open ending are characteristics which fulfil David Bordwell’s criteria for art cinema narration. [10]  The narrative is ‘uneventful’, emphasising everyday encounters which push the protagonist to a point of crisis, the precise nature of which eludes her. A Film sets the terms for the future project of feminist cinema by asking what, precisely, is the nature of the problem to which women’s liberation is the emerging solution. Thornley’s subsequent films rework key scenes from A Film for Discussion with autobiographical and archival material in a sustained attempt to refigure feminism not as a politics of equality (or difference) but as a historical crisis in female subjectivity.

Maidens: a disruptive history
This is a film about my family. And me.
It begins at the beginning, chronologically.
It begins with the very first photographs I can find.
(Jeni Thornley, Maidens)

In Thornley’s first overtly autobiographical film, Maidens, there are two filmic modes corresponding to two temporal orders of history and memory. One is a linear compilation of photo-images from Thornley’s family album, spanning four generations of her maternal family’s history from 1900-1969; the other is a non-linear montage of images from 1970s Australian feminist films which opens the film and is repeated at the end. Thornley’s voice-over narrates both the family history and her own crisis of identity.

Dubois suggests that the narration of personal history through an assemblage of photographs and autobiographical voice-over is based on the ancient rhetorical Art of Memory. In this model, elaborated by Frances A. Yates, memory is organised around sites (loci) and images (imagines). Dubois quotes Cicero: “the order of the sites will preserve the order of the facts, for the images of the facts will recall the facts themselves” (157). In Maidens the major events of Australian history from 1900 to 1969 provide the sites of memory which Thornley inscribes with photo-images of her family. The decisive sites are the farming of the land and the First World War (1900-1921), the Depression and the Second World War (1921-1945), and postwar suburban prosperity (1945-1969). These empty, historical sites are invested with personal memory through family photographs (of childhood, school, courtship, war, marriage, family reunion) and letters which are generic enough to stand-in for a history of Anglo-Celtic mobility in twentieth century Australia. A national history is brought closer to home, and to the experience of women, through the family photo-album and Thornley’s first-person voice-over.

The film’s other mode – its discourse of feminist film clips – disrupts the chronological order of photo album history and constructs a different temporality from that of national history. Maidens begins and ends with a montage of film images which celebrate the advent of sisterhood, presented by Thornley’s narration as a moment of awakening:

Suddenly it happened. The encounter became a family. […] And that is how we made each of ourselves the mother and the daughter of each of the others. And sisters, determined to talk about precisely why we were orphaned, and suffering, and destitute. (Maidens)

By projecting film-images of women retreating from the city to the bush – from the propriety of the family home to a naked community of women – Thornley posits radical feminism as the historical redemption of a latent female unity evident in the photo-images of her maternal family. The latent potential of female unity in the past is represented by still photographs of women “alone together” before being “divided and ruled again” in marriage. The fulfilment of this potential, in the present, is represented by a compilation of moving images of women remaking themselves in a new temporality of sisterhood.

The radical potential latent in the past, revealed suddenly through an image which resonates in the present, is a messianic experience of historical time. It corresponds to Walter Benjamin’s jetztzeit or now-time wherein the historian “grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one” (Theses 255). For Benjamin, now-time involves the recognition of “a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past” (254). In The Politics of Time, Peter Osborne defines Benjamin’s jetztzeit as “constellations of the ‘then’ and the ‘now’, which … mirror the structure of history as a whole, viewed from the standpoint of its end.” [11]  These dialectical images gain “their allegedly explosive practical charge” in the momentary revelation of the present as “radically incomplete” (147). In the family photographs assembled in Maidens, history does not progress; it repeats gender arrangements (women marry and bear children, men go to work and to war) from one generation to the next. It is only in the present revolutionary moment of Women’s Liberation that history (like the film image itself) bursts into movement, rupturing the static continuity between the generations. Osborne names this rupture “a form of avant-garde experience” which “in the flash of a dialectical image, disrupts the linear time-consciousness of progress in such a way as to enable us, like the child, to ‘discover the new anew’ and, along with it, the possibility of a better future” (150).

However, Osborne is not content with valorising now-time and its “perspective of redemption” (152). He warns that unless the image “reacts back upon the phenomenological present which it interrupts, imbricating itself into its narrative structure, we will be left with a purely interruptive conception of now-being as an exit from history into an essentially mystical space of experience” (152). Maidens attempts an exit from history by breaking the matrilineal chain of mothers and daughters, replacing it with the utopian image of sisterhood, “each of ourselves the mother and the daughter of each of the others.” Yet this break precipitates a crisis of the self narrated by Thornley: “I don’t know what I am, who I am…. I have to turn around and come a different way.” From this perspective, the repetition of the opening montage sequence at the end of Maidens, like the mirror shot at the end of A Film for Discussion, posits a disintegrating self, “orphaned, and suffering, and destitute,” leaving the historical narrative of the family/nation intact.

In 1978 Maidens blocked the path of history-as-destiny by seizing from the past the latent image of female unity and installing it in the present as the founding image of women’s liberation. However, time has ruined the revolutionary image of orphaned sisterhood. Maidens remains as public memory of a moment of awakening consciousness which linked women paradoxically to a matrilineal history but also to “an exit from history.” The film’s opening and closing sequences begin with the silhouette of a naked, pregant woman, posing the problem of the maternal for the feminist subject. This image of the pregnant woman is taken up in Thornley’s subsequent films, providing, in Osborne’s words, “a conceptual bridge back from now-time to a new narrativity, such that its disjunctive power might have a transformative effect on modes of identification and action” (156). In Thornley’s subsequent filmwork feminism’s ambivalent relation to the maternal becomes the occasion for a “disjunctive power” of memory which has a “transformative effect” on the concept of an ‘event’ in feminist temporality.

Maidens (Jeni Thornley, 1978): montage of photographs of Thornley going back in time to the maternal image.


For Love or Money: Conflicting Temporalities

For Love or Money, an archival history of women and work, posed new problems of time, memory, and narrativity for its collective of four feminist activists. The project had its origins when Sandra Alexander, co-ordinator of the 1977 Women’s Film Production workshop, suggested to Thornley and Megan McMurchy that it would be a good idea to get together all the images of women in Australian films and have a look at them. This dovetailed with a request in 1978 from the organisers of the first Women and Labour Conference to the Sydney Women’s Film Group for some feminists to make a film of all the archival images of women at work. These apparently modest requests resulted in six years of painstaking work of collecting, cataloguing, and reprinting film and photographic images. The formal challenge of narrating two centuries of Australian women’s history in a two hour film which used two hundred film clips was further complicated by what Benjamin identifies as a crisis in the tradition of storytelling, increasingly evident since World War I when “men returned from the battlefield grown silent – not richer, but poorer in communicable experience.” [12]  For Love or Money was conceived as an antidote to the exclusion of women from Australian national history, yet the problem of finding a suitable narrative form for communicating women’s historical experience was never fully resolved by the makers of For Love or Money:

There were times when it got very frustrating because we would have liked to have structured For Love or Money differently. The showreel was great to cut; it was such fun because it wasn’t chronological and I could really play, in the editing, across periods. It didn’t have that dreadful rigid chronology. In trying to find another structure that was not chronological, there just came a time when we had to let go because no one came up with anything; no one solved it. [13]

If Maidens can be understood in terms of its disjuncture between chronological continuity and disruptive now-time, For Love or Money can be reinterpreted in terms of the distinction between conscious, voluntary memory and the act of remembrance. Drawing on Benjamin’s writings on history and storytelling, Irving Wohlfarth contends that modern historiography is a “mere pile of souvenirs” which “substitutes voluntary memory for authentic remembrance”. [14] This contention is particularly pertinent to the archival film compiled from souvenirs. Wohlfarth begins with Benjamin’s claim that the epic as the oldest form of historiography, containing within it the story and the novel and their corresponding forms of memory: the storyteller’s epic memory (gedachtnis) of short-lived reminiscences and multiple events; and the novelist’s perpetuating memory (eingedenken) dedicated to “the one hero, the one odyssey, the one struggle” (149-50). Wohlfarth distinguishes between the epic genre of the chronicle (associated with oral tradition and the rhetorical art of memory) and the conflation of chronology with the ideology of progress in bourgeois historicism. He poses a choice for the historian between “historicism’s universal panorama” or “highly particular interactions between past and present” (167). For Love or Money adopts historicism’s “universal panorama” yet fractures it in the following ways: the film is specifically narrated from a feminist perspective of the present, challenging standard accounts of Australian national identity built on mateship and the bush ethos; the film evokes conflicting temporalities on the image and sound track, making for a history of “multiple reminiscences” rather than one of lone heroes; and finally, the redemptive now-time of Maidens is replaced by an apocalyptic perspective which heralds the annihilation rather than the messianic redemption of history.

A feminist temporality is specified at the beginning and in the final section of For Love or Money. The opening montage of shots is accompanied by a non-Anglo woman’s voice-over which establishes that this will be a history from below: “We find heroes only in monuments in public parks but I think the real heroes are us.” The closing montage includes photographs of the filmmakers at work on the film, followed by a compilation of sequences from local feminist films, and a voice-over: “We go back. We ask what happened then. We find documents, diaries, letters, images. Stories are uncovered. The stories of women’s work.”

For Love or Money (Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver, Jeni Thornley, 1983): “We go back…” women filmmakers at work, past and present.

Like Benjamin’s historical materialist, the filmmakers understand that historicism favours the victor, and that their task as feminist activists is to take the documents preserved by the victor and “brush history against the grain” (Theses, 248). This task is made all the harder by the disjuncture identified by Kracauer between photographic representation and the memory-image. [15]  Kracauer argues that the recent past captured in the photographic image becomes comic, like recent fashion (430). This contrasts with the significance of the memory-image which “outlasts time because it is unforgettable” (428). A wry montage of marriage proposal scenes from Australian feature films in For Love or Money exploits the comic effect of antiquated images of the recent past, inviting skeptical laughter at an outdated nationalism.

At the time of its release in 1983, For Love or Money attracted vocal criticism for the way its first-person plural voice-over (“We remember her labour. We remember that she gave. What we were to each other”) produced a unified female subject of history and elided differences between women. A retrospective look at the film reveals that the image of female unity is fragmented into multiple reminiscences which work against the unifying voice of the narrator and against the linearity of historicist time. The shock of modernity’s conflicting temporalities undercuts the panoramic logic of For Love or Money which, like Maidens, draws on the key events of national history as the sites or loci of memory to organise its archival imagines into a new temporal order.

The film begins with anthropological footage of Aboriginal women whose stories reverberate with the on-going consequences of their dispossession from the land. Their colonised modernity is a different temporality from that of white, settler women whose historical experience takes multiple forms under convictism, land settlement, industrial, and digital economies. The 1890s, the 1920s and the Depression of the 1930s constitute significant events in white women’s temporality. While working class women engage in struggles for equal pay, union representation and acccess to better paid ‘male’ jobs, middle-class women appear in the public sphere as reformers and campaigners. The influx of a labour force of immigrants after World War II produces the greatest temporal shock since colonisation: southern European rural time is traded for the industrial time of the assembly line and its promise of mobility expressed in the anonymous voice-over, “Sometimes I dream I will be coming out of that bloody factory.” In the 1920s and again in the 1950s, as the commodification of housework and child care intensifies, women enter new temporalities as consumers of modern, privatised lifestyles. In the 1960s access to higher education propels the postwar generation of upwardly mobile young women (including the filmmakers) into an oppositional public sphere defined by the New Left and the liberation movements.

How is a feminist narration of history to end if not in the present as the redemptive awakening of Maidens? Osborne argues that the “disjunctive power” of Benjamin’s jetztzeit is in danger of being caught in a time-lag unless a bridge is found to a new narrativity (156-58). In the interests of a united women’s movement, For Love or Money attempts to subsume the film’s multiple reminiscences into one temporality. The difficulty of producing a unified history out of incommensurable concepts of what counts as an historical ‘event’ is nowhere more evident than in the film’s multiple endings. For Love or Money stages the present as “a state of emergency”(Benjamin, Theses 248). The film’s understanding of now-time appears in the form of modernity’s ultimate interruptive image: Hiroshima. The narrator declares: “We are the daughters of the atomic age: numb, silent, grieving.” From this point of unity in the film, multiple endings pile up as different histories are brought to a standstill by the image of the atomic mushroom cloud. [16]

The first of the film’s endings begins with footage of a women’s demonstration, accompanied by a voice-over which seeks “new meanings for work,” challenging “work ruled by profit, efficiency, progress, war.” The film acknowledges its own historicist impasse when its careful documentation of the ninety-year struggle for equal pay ends with the statement, “Progress, but it didn’t really change things.” The second ending begins with a slow motion shot of women in black, arms linked, faces quietly determined, as they participate in the first Anzac Day commemoration of women raped in war. The voice-over continues, “We are women of the nuclear age. We resist. We place our bodies in the way.” The image track cuts abruptly to a third ending with a shot of Aboriginal artefacts hanging on a wall, followed by an aged photograph of Aboriginal women. A new voice speaks over the Aboriginal song:

Listen to us. Our country is very beautiful. It is our grandfathers’ country and our grandmothers’ country from a long time ago. It is the sacred soil of the dreamtime. Why do you never understand? [17]

A fourth ending begins with stills of the filmmakers, seeking to construct new temporalities, as they work with images and stories they have uncovered. The images contrast the daughter’s story of resistance with the mother’s “story of the kitchen, the story of the clean house.” A compilation of mother-daughter photographs, accompanied by a ‘hymn to the mother’ is followed by shots of men holding their children: “We ask what might happen if men learnt the story of women’s work.” At this point the film seems to be over, but the return of the problem of the maternal (touched on in A Film for Discussion and Maidens) is displaced by a last minute reprise of the activist ethos in the resonant final image of the Anzac Day memorial march for women which fades, blurs, turns to blue and finally to black. What is the future of this deeply mournful image – an image of feminists born under the sign of Hiroshima, mourning unknown women raped in war?

If Maidens‘ moment of awakening ended outside history in a potentially regressive relation to the feminine and to nature, then For Love or Money ends in a nuclear present where the cessation of history (and its modernist myth of continual progress) threatens to be apocalyptic rather than redemptive. Osborne is critical of the persistence of apocalyptic narrative in Benjamin’s thinking, especially the emphasis on a “generalized sense of crisis, characteristic of the time-consciousness of modernity as perpetual transition” (Osborne, 157). Osborne revives the discourse of political modernism when he argues for now-time “as an integral moment within a new, non-traditional, future-oriented and internally disrupted form of narrativity” which cannot be co-opted into reactionary refigurations “of history as a whole” (158-9). For Love or Money occupies a space between historicist and materialist forms of narrative: it draws on multiple temporalities to refigure “history as a whole” in order to bring it within the grasp of the present moment. Yet, the attempt to grasp history in the present (to arrive at a future-oriented ending) is precisely the point at which Thornley’s narratives of crisis, redemption, or apocalypse fall into ruin. This breakdown of historical narrative in the present marks the moment of skepticism in feminism’s experimental practice of history.

To the other shore: memory in the present

In her most recent film, To the Other Shore, Thornley executes a conscious shift from the temporality of history to that of memory. The ordering of events according to history’s code of chronology is abandoned in favour of a narrative logic modelled on the practice of psychoanalysis.

The film is not connected to linear time, it’s connected to memory and to the present – to what happens in the present and what then triggers off memories and where those memories take you; it’s not linear. Grethel’s got a beginning, a middle and an end, and the therapy has a beginning, a middle and an end – but within that there’s no linearity. [18]

This break with historical chronology and with the desire to grasp “history as a whole” is also a break with modernity’s “myth of crisis” and its inevitable demand for an apocalyptic/redemptive ending (Osborne 157). To the Other Shore takes a new approach to the relation between the self and history: it raises the question of what constitutes an ‘event’ in the psychic life of the female subject. In an effort to reconfigure the relation between interior and exterior events (rather than the relation between past and present) the film quotes from Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film from Germany: “Taking the road inward, to the centre of our life, we seek salvation, far away from the collective guilt of the world. In the vast domain of our soul, through the history of our recent past.” For Thornley, “the road inward” is intimately bound up with “the history of our recent past” in both her personal and social action films. The prolonged work from 1987-96 on To the Other Shore brings into a new constellation her project of integrating inner and outer worlds, a project which began with feminism’s politicisation of personal life.

Rather than turn to key events in national history as the loci for its imaginesTo the Other Shore draws on ‘snapshots’ from Thornley’s own case history as an analysand in Kleinian therapy. Scenes from the confined space of the therapy room (initial commitment, resistance, moving to the couch, reconciliation with parental figures, acceptance of limitation and death) function as loci which generate memory sequences. These sequences rework material from Thornley’s earlier films with more recent home movie, feature film, documentary, and news footage. The events which constitute Thornley’s ‘case history’ in psychoanalytic discourse are paralleled in the fairy tale, Hansel and Grethel which is narrated by Grethel as she journeys through the open space of the forest.

In To the Other Shore, Thornley experiments with cinema as an “optical unconscious,” revealing what is latent in scenes from her earlier films. [19]  The obscure origins of feminism as a crisis of female subjectivity is brought into focus through the discourses of psychoanalysis and the fairy tale. Thornley’s unconscious relation to cinema as a feminist filmmaker is narrativised in relation to three psychic events which have made brief appearances in her earlier films: ambivalence toward the maternal role in relation to multiple abortions; the desire for and disillusion with her film-exhibitor father and his (failed) cinema; jealousy of her brother and guilt over his death in a car accident. In this film the crisis of the female subject is played out in relation to the birth of Thornley’s daughter and the deaths of her parents through a process of mourning which entails the cinematic reworking of memory-images from her previous films. The film works toward a psychoanalytic understanding of women‘s ambivalent relation to the maternal, and to the father, through the public sphere of cinema. (I take up these issues in a forthcoming essay, “Memory in ruins: the woman filmmaker in her father’s cinema.”)

Whether this shift, from the narration of history to the narrative construction of memory in the present through the discourse of psychoanalysis and the apparatus of cinema, is a retreat from the history-making project of feminism is a pertinent question. The ‘event’ which defines the temporality of To the Other Shore is the prolonged ritual of mourning which is both the subject matter of the film and part of its ten-year production process. Thornley returns to the crisis of the female self which remained unnamed in A Film for Discussion, unresolved in Maidens, and unconvincingly transformed into activism in For Love or Money. In To the Other Shore fixation on the mise-en-scene of the self is connected to the inability to work through grief, to remember and to relinquish past losses. The trope of memory, which generates the narrativity of To the Other Shore, allows Thornley to realign history and the self. Thornley’s personal cinema seeks to incorporate the split which has confined much of women’s experience to personal rather than public life. Although the film is structured by Thornley’s autobiographical account of her Kleinian analysis, memory is not confined to personal experience. The film resonates with “the collective guilt of the world,” generating scenes of subjective crisis through the apocalyptic image of Hiroshima via Chernobyl and the potent legacy of Sylvia Plath’s suicide.

To the Other Shore (Jeni Thornley, 1996): crisis of maternal subjectivity (with Xenia Natalenko as Grethel and Anne Tenney as The Woman).

However, the woman filmmaker at the editing bench in this film is concerned with neither a messianic redemption nor an apocalyptic end to history. Rather, the film resolves its crisis of maternal subjectivity with an acceptance of limitation and mortality, ending the psychoanalytic sequences with a dream of equanimity in the face of an approaching tidal wave. To the Other Shore proposes a different temporality from Thornley’s earlier films which ended either on the threshold of history or with a redemptive/apocalyptic end to history. In this film, interruptive constellations between past and present occur within an “internally disrupted form of narrativity” where memory provides narrative closure (through completion of the ritual of mourning) but works against “the completion of history as a whole” (Osborne 158-9).


Thornley’s personal films (Maidens and To the Other Shore) and her social action films (A Film for Discussion and For Love or Money) are landmark films in the history of Australian feminist cinema over the last three decades. During the 1980s, the personal and social action genres fell out of critical favour with feminist film theorists because their self-expressive and realist aesthetics were out of step with theories of the apparatus and subjectivity that championed a political modernism, exemplified in Australian independent cinema by Helen Grace’s Serious Undertakings (Australia 1983). [20]  However, the theoretical articulation of feminism as an “experimental practice of history” has opened up a new space for re-reading the project of 1970s activist cinema, a project which has survived into the 1990s. This essay, which is part of a larger project on history, memory, and autobiographical cinema, argues that Thornley’s filmwork is a self-reflexive investigation of feminism as a crisis of female subjectivity. Thornley’s cinema does not turn a feminist gaze upon ‘history’: its strength and its limitation is that, since the beginning of second wave feminism, it has turned its experimental gaze upon the crisis-ridden temporality of feminism itself.

Biographical Note on Jeni Thornley

Jeni Thornley was born in Tasmania where her father was a film exhibitor. She graduated from Monash University in Melbourne in 1969 with a degree in literature and political science, and moved to Sydney where she worked as an actor in experimental theatre and became an active member of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Sydney Women’s Film Group, the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative and the Feminist Film Workers. In 1975 Thornley was one of the organisers of the International Women’s Year Film Festival. As a member of feminist collectives until the early 1980s, Thornley was involved in a range of exhibition, distribution and publishing activities and worked as a camera assistant on independent film productions.

As well as writing, producing and directing, Thornley has worked as a film reviewer, script editor, documentary film lecturer, script assessor, film valuer and manager of the Women’s Film Fund at the Australian Film Commission. In 1996 she completed her Master of Fine Arts (Film) at the University of New South Wales.

Thornley’s widely distributed, award winning filmwork includes: A Film for Discussion, 1973 (Documentary Finalist, GUO Awards, Sydney Film Festival, 1974); Maidens, 1978 (Best Film, General Section, GUO Awards, Sydney Film Festival, 1978; Gold Hugo: Best Short Film, Chicago Film Festival, 1979; Diploma of Merit, Melbourne Film Festival, 1979; Flaherty Documentary Seminar, 1979); For Love or Money, 1983 (Best Feature Documentary, International Cinema del Cinema delle Donne, Florence, 1984; Nomination for Best Screenplay, Best Documentary, AFI Awards, 1984; Highly Commended United Nations Media Peace Prize, 1985); To the Other Shore, 1996 (Nominated for 1996 AWGIE awards for Best Documentary Script, Australian Writers Guild, and Best Music Score in a Documentary, Australian Guild of Screen Composers).

Film Distributors

A Film for Discussion (1973) Screen Studies Collection, Cinemedia, Melbourne: Tel. 03 9929 7044 / Fax. 03 9929 7027

Maidens (1978) AFI Distribution, Melbourne: Tel. 03 9696 1844 / Fax. 03 9696 7972; Screen Studies Collection, Cinemedia, Melbourne: Tel. 03 9929 7044 / Fax. 03 9929 7027

For Love or Money (1983) Ronin Films, Canberra: Tel. 06 248 0851 / Fax. 06 249 1640

To the Other Shore (1996) Anandi Films, Sydney: Tel. / Fax. 02 9974 1652

I am grateful to the following people and institutions for permission to reproduce the film sequences in digital form: Jeni Thornley (Maidens and To the Other Shore); Sandy Edwards, Megan McMurchy, Margot Nash, Margot Oliver, Jeni Thornley, Film World, National Library of Australia (For Love or Money). Thank you to AFI Distribution, Ronin Films and Anandi Films for access to master copies of the films, and to Margaret Purdam for digitisation of the film clips. Therese Davis, Philippa Hawker and Bill Routt read an early draft of a longer paper from which this article was extracted and I thank them for their suggestions.


[1] Barbara Kosta, Recasting Autobiography: Women’s Counterfictions in Contemporary German Literature and Film (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 164.

[2] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn and ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Johnathon Cape, 1970; reprint, London: Fontana, 1992), 249. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[3] Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 259. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[4] See Biographical Note at the end of this essay for a summary of Thornley’s film activities. For an account of Thornley’s involvement in independent feminist cinema see Jeni Thornley, “Sixteen years of women and film groups: a personal recollection,” in Don’t Shoot Darling! Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia, eds. Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed and Freda Freiberg (Richmond, Victoria: Greenhouse Publications, 1987), 89-92.

[5] Rather than the convention of citing the year of a film’s release I am giving the period of time which it took to make each film in order to emphasise the temporality of the independent production process which is a significant factor in Thornley’s work.

[6] For an account of the articulation of theory and history in feminist critique see Patrice Petro, “Feminism and film history,” in Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, ed. Diane Carson et. al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1994), 65-81. (first published in Camera obscura 22, 1990)

[7] Meaghan Morris, “‘Too soon, too late’: reading Claire Johnston, 1970-81,” in Dissonance: Feminism and the Arts 1970-90, ed. Catriona Moore (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1994), 128. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[8] Miriam Hansen, “Early cinema, late cinema: transformations of the public sphere,” in Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Films, ed. Linda Williams (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 140.

[9] Philippe Dubois, “Photography mise-en-film: Autobiographical (hi)stories and psychic apparatuses,”Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, trans. Lynne Kirby and ed. Patrice Petro (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995), 153-154. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[10] David Bordwell, Narration and the Fiction Film (London: Methuen, 1985), 205-213.

[11] Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time: Modernity and the Avant-Garde (London: Verso, 1995), 145. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[12] Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the works of Nikolai Leskov,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn and ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Johnathon Cape, 1970; reprint, London: Fontana, 1992), 84.

[13] Margot Nash, Interview with the author (Sydney: 1 July 1992).

[14] Irving Wohlfarth, “On the messianic structure of Walter Benjamin’s last reflections,” Glyph 3 (1978): 166. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[15] Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography,” trans. Thomas Y. Levin in Critical Inquiry 19, no. 3 (1993): 425-31. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.

[16] See Benjamin, “Theses,” 254 , on the notion of a present “in which time stands still.” Benjamin did not live long enough to see images of the atomic explosion which gives an unintended meaning to his image of the historical materialist as “man enough to blast open the continuum of history.” Dorothy Dinnerstein produced a persuasive account of the significance of Hiroshima for the historical consciousness of the New Left and the Women’s Liberation Movement in The Mermaid and the Minotaur. 256-64.

[17] See Margot Nash, Margot Oliver and Jeni Thornley “Women at work,” interview by Ann Curthoys and Susan Dermody in Filmnews (October 1983): 8, on the Aboriginal Land Rights song and the way its link to uranium mining and the nuclear age is a point of unity for Australian women, despite differences of race and class.

[18] Jeni Thornley, Interview with the author (Sydney: 18 November, 1996).
[19] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn and ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Johnathon Cape, 1970; reprint, London: Fontana, 1992), 228-230.

[20] For an example of the critical defence of feminism’s turn to political modernism see Sylvia Lawson, “Serious Undertakings: Deconstructions. Demolitions,” Framework 24 (1984): 122-127.

About the Author

Felicity Collins

About the Author

Felicity Collins

Felicity Collins is an Associate Professor in the School of Communication and Critical Enquiry at La Trobe University. She teaches in the newly merged Media Studies (Screen+Sound) program. Her books include The Films of Gillian Armstrong and Australian Cinema after Mabo (with Therese Davis). She is co-authoring Screen Comedy and the National (forthcoming, with Sue Turnbull and Susan Bye). Her current research focuses on settler colonial cinemas as spaces of affective performance and ethical encounter.View all posts by Felicity Collins →