by Sian Mitchell
Here I sit in the AFI Research Collection totally engrossed in the boxes of donations from Women in Film and Television Victoria (WIFTVic), circa late 1980s/early 1990s. As I read through the contents of box number 5, it becomes increasingly clear that a single blog post on this aspect of the AFI’s collection cannot do justice to the work of the WIFTVic women. As a result, this is the first of at least 2 posts on the items held by the AFI that include a number of initiatives developed by the WIFTVic team of this era, as well as all too familiar issues discussed, approached and combatted by women working in the Australian screen industry.
The position of women in the screen industry is once again a hotly contested subject both in Australia and around the world. While the challenging of the industry’s gender imbalance has spawned initiatives like Screen Australia’s Gender Matters program and ScreenNSW’s ‘50:50 by 2020’ program, the issue is not new. What is very clear throughout the WIFTVic donation is the dedication of a group of women, in the era of affirmative action programs and women’s film funding, to agitate for change through education and using their tools of trade.
Who are WIFT Victoria?
WIFT Victoria (sometimes referred in the items as WIFT Melbourne) became an incorporated association in 1988 after WFT had made its mark initially in Sydney in 1982. These chapters formed (and still do today) part of the Australian contingent of the WFT/WIFT International network that has branches all over the world. As Jennifer Stott has noted in the book Don’t Shoot Darling! WFT was formed out of a need to ‘bridge the gap between women working in independent film-making, the feature film industry and television’ (1987, p. 20). In that sense, WFT/WIFT lobbied for the fair and equal working conditions for women screen workers. From what is held in the AFI’s collection, this lobbying also included a focus on education – supporting the aspirations of women wanting to get into film courses and the industry, creating awareness around and fighting sexist representations of women in the media, seeking and consolidating partnerships with government agencies and subcommittees such as the Australian Film Commission (AFC), and promoting funding opportunities.
Besides these remarkable efforts, WIFTVic were also organisers of film festivals, screening nights and other social events bringing creative women together and celebrating their achievements. For example, in 1989 WIFTVic helped organise the Kino Women’s Film Season, ‘Women in Focus’, with the Women’s Policy and Co-ordination Unit of the Premier’s Department and assisted by the Australian Film Commission. Running from the 3rd to the 10th of March to coincide with International Women’s Day, the festival’s program (a double-sided A4 sheet in the collection) boasts ‘a showcase of the best international and local short films and features’. Listed in the program is Lezli-An Barrett feature Business as Usual (1988), two shorts programmes with films by Jayne Stevenson, Danae Gunn, Lou Hubbard, Jinks Delahunty, Shirley Barrett, Michele Guage and Deborah Howlett, and a special screening and reception evening for Ann Turner and her film Celia (1989).
A significant amount of documentation inside box number 5 is on WIFTVic’s collaboration with a number of state and national governmental institutions to combat the sexualised and stereotypical representations of women on Australian screens. WIFTVic worked to create a dialogue between the Women’s Policy Unit (Victorian Government), the Victorian Actors’ Equity Women’s Committee and the Office of the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women. In 1989, one of the initiatives that WIFTVic put in place was a series of CSAs (community service announcements) with Actors’ Equity dealing with gender stereotypes. In a template letter, key WIFT administrator Sue Maslin writes of the production of 3 ‘lively, often humorous and entertaining’ CSAs, each offering a different approach to challenging the representations of men and women in TV advertisements and dramas.
A series of short scenarios, scripts and a storyboard illustrate the CSAs produced. One aptly titled ‘Boardroom’ sees 5 women sitting around a boardroom table discussing how dull and degrading the same old representations of women are in the media. Then, a knock at the door and a good looking young man enters introduced through a slow pan up his body, but stopping before it reaches his face. A female director yells ‘cut!’ – the boardroom is a set and the director questions the cameraman as to why he is shooting the young man in this way? Why? Because that is, of course, how women are framed in the media all the time.
Another scenario, ‘Little Boxes’ is illustrated through a storyboard. Each image shows the contrast in roles between men and women. Men are plumbers, doctors and prime ministers. Women are mums, nurses and typists. In a positive ending however, both men and women choose whatever box they want – a woman in a ‘doctor mum’ box and a man in a ‘dad nurse’ one.
Finally, WIFTVic with Actors’ Equity created the ‘Whinge and Praise’ campaign to fight sexism in advertising. Each month the women’s sub-committee looked at ads and chose those to ‘slam’ or ‘slap on the back’. Examples of ads that were slammed included a Tony White Nissan ad depicting female models as backdrop for cars. Conversely, the Melbourne Pyramid Building Society was praised for representing women as mature and down to earth, intelligently discussing their financial independence. The campaign seemed to garner a lot of interest from the media, with a number of newspaper clippings from various national newspapers being collected and filed away.
This has only been a small amount from a single box in this collection of WIFTVic’s history, suggesting that this group of women were tireless in their aims to advocate for the equal representation of women working in and on the screen. Before concluding this post, it should be mentioned that, although this collection contains items from WIFT Victoria’s early days in 80s and 90s, they are still very much alive today and are continuing in their mission of raising the visibility of women screen workers.
Stott, J. (1987). ‘Celluloid Maidens’, in Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed and Freda Freiberg’s Don’t Shoot Darling!: Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia. Richmond, Vic.: Greenhouse. (Also available at the AFI Research Collection)