Juanita Nielsen NOW Director Zanny Begg Talks About Gentrification, Beekeeping and Kitty Green in This Interview

There’s a distinct pleasure that washes over you as you experience a piece of filmmaking that pushes against the boundaries of the form of storytelling it is working within. Juanita Nielsen NOW is one such film that engaged completely with my emotions, leaving me stunned and shaken by the sheer force of its narrative. Filmmakers have long teased apart the reality of the documentary format in an effort to help the truth of the story find a path out of the maze of its existence. Dharawal country-based filmmaker and artist Zanny Begg uses her creative force and brilliance to explore the truth that hides within contested histories.

Her latest film, Juanita Nielsen NOW, pulls from her 2018 experimental video installation The Beehive, which displayed 1334 possible variations of the implications of the unsolved 1975 murder of Juanita Nielsen, and transforms it into a compelling and moving documentary experience. Juanita Nielsen NOW operates in a similar documentary space as Kitty Green’s excellent true crime film Casting JonBenet, with both films utilising a casting process to help explore their titular figures lives and the fate that fell upon them.

Juanita Nielsen was a journalist, an activist, a style icon, and a progressive woman ahead of her time. On July 4th 1975, she entered The Carousel Club in Kings Cross, Sydney and vanished. Her death has never been solved. What makes Zanny’s stunning film so powerful and captivating is how she ensures that Juanita is not defined by her death, that the mafia figures that hover in the periphery of her life story aren’t given overwhelming attention to dominate her legacy. Zanny brings Juanita to life with a cast of over twelve performers, each bringing an element of themselves to Juanita’s story and each highlighting how her fight against gentrification continues on the streets of Sydney today.

While this is about a story that occurred some 45 years ago, Juanita Nielsen NOW is as much about modern gentrification and the impacts of unaffordable housing on society today. We hear from trans icons, sex workers, activists, performers, beekeepers, and members of the LGBTIQA+ community about what housing affordability means to them, their community, and their livelihood.

I knew little about Juanita Nielsen except for the heightened discussion about her murder that has erupted due to true crime podcasts and the fevered discussions and home-sleuthing that occurs in their wake. The manner that Zanny brings Juanita’s story to life is a soul-enriching one, empowering Juanita’s legacy and reminding viewers of the important figure that she was in the seventies. There are moments of Juanita Nielsen NOW that will never leave my mind, such as the conversation that Pamela Rabe’s beekeeper has with Bronwyn Penrith’s Ester, or the masterful editing of Juanita’s fateful visit to The Carousel Club. This is a searing and important piece of documentary filmmaking.

Find out more about Zanny Begg’s work on her website here.

Juanita Nielsen NOW debuted at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, with upcoming screenings on the 21st of October and 5th of November. The below interview was recorded prior to the festival and has been edited for editorial purposes.

How did the concept of The Beehive transition into a documentary?

Zanny Begg: Gentrification, affordable housing and the whole process of what’s happening to our cities is an issue that’s been really close to my heart for a long time, and I think that led me to the story of Juanita. Living in Sydney I felt like I knew about Juanita, and then I started to make the work and dived deeper into her story and realised I knew so little of it. And the more I got into the story, the more in love with her I felt. She was such an extraordinary character, so unique and just of her time in the seventies, but then also so contemporary in a lot of the ways in which she approached things.

Finding David Farrell was an amazing link in telling that story because he’s not so easy to find. He doesn’t really want to talk about the story too much anymore, as you can understand. But we made a connection and that was really fantastic. I discovered the story is really complicated. Initially I thought it was complicated who killed her, as I got further into the research for the project, I realised what was actually more complicated was who she was and the ways in which her story connected to the Sydney that we’ve inherited, the contemporary reality. For the artwork I worked with an algorithm, there’s 1334 possibilities, which allowed this kind of spaghetti to unfurl of multiple storylines. And the real challenge in making when Juanita Nielsen NOW was to bring all those multiple storylines back into the one timeline and find a path through it.

1334 variations is a lot, but on the same hand you managed to distil the questions about what might have happened in a really impressive way. How did you go about sequencing those moments and making sure that there was that depth to what happened and who is Juanita was?

ZB: I guess if people are thinking it’s going to be some sort of ‘who done it’ in a traditional sense, they might be disappointed, because that wasn’t really the aim in this story. I feel like we know who killed Juanita, in a way, and the interesting bit is not who did it, but why no one was ever prosecuted, and why it was this open secret. In a sense, I shifted the focus from that ‘who done it’ approach to looking at the complexities of who she was as a person, and the way that her story is really the story of Sydney and the city that we have today.

The multiple castings, having twelve different people play Juanita, was a way of picking up the threads of her story. For me, what was interesting was what happens to those who come after when an injustice like her murder has taken place, and no one’s ever been prosecuted for it. I was really looking for the legacies and the way in which the threads of her story are picked up in the ongoing stories of Sydney. She was murdered in Les Girls, which was a very significant trans performance club, so there’s multiple ways in which the story is picked up and reflected in the people who are cast to play her, who all have their stories of Kings Cross. It was an open casting call for the film and those people have their own stories of Sydney’s real estate.

I say Sydney, but in a sense, it could be any city. It is definitely a story of Sydney. And it’s the story of Kings Cross. I think people outside Sydney will also be interested in this story, because the story of gentrification is something that’s universal, which is the ways those inner-city areas, the affordable housing and the poor are getting pushed out. And you have this sort of homogenisation of middle class, affluent values that takes away the character and what makes the city amazing and makes it quite homogenised and bland.

There’s this feeling of rewriting the history books. For a long time there has been a dominant masculine voice that has written the history books, and there’s been this real push to rewrite the history books and reassert who the figures were that maybe weren’t getting their stories told in their own voices. I understand that you have an interest in contested histories. I’m curious in an artistic sense where that drive to expose those contested histories comes?

ZB: I would say that I would be working across history I would say, because I think if it’s a contested history, it’s not settled. And so therefore, it’s like a little ghost or a spectre that sits in our society, and it keeps haunting us. I guess when things are very settled, or we really feel like we know what happened, we sort of move on, but when things are contested or they’re unresolved, they continue to haunt us. I think they make some of the best stories, because that unsettledness is a place where storytelling can really begin.

And then in Juanita’s case, I do feel like the historisation in film and TV – mostly TV, but there have been two films made about her [Donald Crombie’s The Killing of Angel Street – 1981, Phillip Noyce’s Heatwave – 1982] – and also in the media accounts of her have been quite masculine. They have tended to focus on the gangsters that who killed her. And I think what that those versions of history left out or didn’t quite manage to capture was really how unique and special she was. I wanted to flip the focus away from the gangsters – they are there, they’re part of her story – but I wanted to bring it into her world.

At then the end of the film, I pick it up because she wasn’t the only fighter in Kings Cross. Julie [Bates] and Imogen [Kelly] are fantastic women who are in this film. Julie is a sex worker activist, and Imogen is Australia’s Queen of Burlesque and a stripper, and they both also fought to change Kings Cross. They both also had death threats, which they mentioned in film, but they survived. So it was bringing that story from the seventies through those struggles in the eighties and early nineties, which was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, into the real estate landscape and the kind of end of the film was about people making Sydney home and what that’s like today, I was really all those stories, I think, kind of they haunt us, and they, they trouble us because they’re still active that you know, there’s still some angry ghosts running around inside those stories. Good story to tell, you know, and that’s what drew me to.

I love the dual meaning of the title. It’s about the publication NOW and Juanita but also about the impact of Juanita now and how she lives in the people who fight for the same rights that she did. Was that the key thesis of the film and the work of The Beehive?

ZB: One hundred per cent. The title of Juanita’s newspaper was a gift. NOW, it was so perfect. I was talking to Ian Millis, who is one of the people interviewed in the film, about the process of taking it from an artwork to a film, and it sort of came up in our conversation. We were playing on the words ‘now’, and I thought, “Well, that’s obviously the title for the film: Juanita Nielsen NOW.” And it’s a gift in lots of ways.

It was great to title the film that but also, Juanita is someone who was a pioneer, in a way she probably wasn’t as well understood, because I think she was quite unique and ahead of her time. It’s a film so we could talk about media in it. She was a journalist, but she was a unique journalist. Probably not one that I would necessarily like personally, but I think what was interesting about what she did was she really pioneered a subjective position, and in a way in the seventies that was just not respected at all at the time.

At the time she was considered lightweight, she was considered ridiculous, she was considered vain. There was a lot of snobbery and critiques of her as a journalist, but what she was doing was everything that we do in media today, so in a way she was this incredible Avant Garde experimenter. She was doing selfies before the internet. She was blogging before the internet. She was really pushing the boundaries of what journalism was. And for me that was just so interesting.

NOW it capsulated all that because it was the name of her paper at the time but also it speaks to women who have been brave and innovative and ahead of time and [they] paid a huge price for that, but also blazed a trail for others by their actions.

As we’re talking about the casting process that commences the film, I was reminded of Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet. That film and your film both help redefine who the people are. They’re telling their stories in a way that takes away the thing that may have defined them in public conscious: their death or how they died. They reassert the story of who they were when they were alive. I’m curious if that was a conscious choice?

ZB: Casting JonBenet is one of my favourite films. I absolutely love it. One hundred per cent. I am influenced by Kitty, I think she is a fantastic filmmaker, [I have] complete adoration for her work. I am influenced by it, but it also has roots in my own practice. I made a film before The Beehive called The City of Ladies, which was before Casting JonBenet came out, and we did a casting for Joan of Arc because it was a story of French feminism, so that was already in my practice.

What I loved about what Kitty did with it was, [similar to] the sort of things I was trying to do with Juanita and what I was doing with The City of Ladies, was the casting process allowed for multiple storytelling, and I think that multi-perspectival or poly-vocal approach to the story allows you to get away from this teleological narrative. Certainly in Kitty’s work with Casting JonBenet it was a story that the media had trawled so intensely to find a new angle on it, I think she needed to do something like that. And in my own projects I was dealing in The City of Ladies with feminism and in this project with the story of Juanita, that multi-perspectival way of telling the story allowed me to do something more interesting than just a ‘who done it’ or more interesting than just a ‘this is a history of feminism.’ It allowed for an untangling and a retangling of the storylines, and I was really interested in that.

I’m curious about the shots of the bees. They’re so precise and scientific to the point where it highlights how unique each is. Was that a creative choice to say these are all unique people and together they together make a community?

ZB: One hundred per cent, yes. I didn’t have any photographs of the drag queens or the trans performers from Les Girls. There is some footage of it, but I didn’t have rights to it. For me, the bees look like stage showgirls with this intense decoration. With those close ups that open Juanita Nielsen NOW, I feel like in a way I had the kind of showgirl costumes there through the incredible plumage and fluffy and sparkliness of the bees; that was a visual reference for me. The bees are an important metaphor throughout the whole film, and the beekeeper is obviously Juanita’s ghost, which is the Pamela Rabe character.

We think of bees in quite a narrow sense, which is the honeybee. I think human, urban societies have a really ancient cohabitation with the European honeybee. We live in a colonised context here in Australia, and there’s over 1200 different native bees which haven’t been documented that well yet, we’re still discovering a lot about them. Starting from that point of view of how we see bees as some sort of metaphor for human society, then pushing that further to say, “Well, we’ve actually only looked at one particular narrow band of bees, and there are the solitary bees, and there’s other forms of social bees, and this honey producing bees, and so forth.” I think diving into that complexity allowed me to draw out in an intuitive and a subtle way, that’s not always easy to read, something about us as human beings, and how we live together, and how we live in the natural world. And I think explaining all of it might, in a way, destroy it, because it is a sort of intuitive metaphor that runs through the film.

Those actual pictures, Sam Droege took them, he’s an American scientist. His work is extraordinary. He was really happy to share those images with me. I’m actually working on a new artwork at the moment where I hope to get those sorts of images of Australian bees, because we don’t really have those kinds of images yet of Australia’s native bees.

You mentioned Pamela, and of course, she’s just one of the great performers that we have in Australia. What was it like working alongside her and helping her bring the beekeeper to life?

ZB: She was amazing. She was so great. Everyone in the project was amazing. Pamela is just so experienced, and so professional, and would nail it within seconds, and that was amazing, because it was a tricky role because playing a ghost is not that easy. I did no special effects whatsoever, because I didn’t want to make her ghostly. She’s just meant to be there in the sense of this troubled history where timelines are out of sync because there hasn’t been justice for Juanita. She just sort of appears, she’s dead, but she’s still there. Pamela had the gravitas just to make that feel very normal and believable. It was a real treat to be able to work with her.

There’s another ghost there, which is Bronwyn Penrith who plays Ester, and I think those two together, there’s something quite special about that conversation. I find it really moving looking at those scenes, the way these two dead women are speaking together about their situation.

Getting to see how much care and tenderness they have for one another and respect for one another was very moving. Additionally, there’s that feeling they’re tending to the beehives and looking after the next generation, ensuring that they’re supported and looked after. I found that quite a beautiful moment. How did you go about scripting that sequence?

ZB: It is scripted, although, I hope people think it isn’t, because it is an experimental documentary. I was working with real peoples’ stories, and also Juanita’s real story, but then also, I scripted it the project as well. There’s a real intermeshing between fiction and reality throughout the whole piece. That particular conversation between Pamela and Bronwyn, Bronwyn just started to adlib when she was talking about the dances and the corroborees and the European bees. It just so fantastic. I was the editor as well, so I had a lot of very intimate choices over what went in and what didn’t. That was just so magnificent so of course it was going to stay in, [to] hear her talk about that. And that was something I actually had no idea about you till I heard her talk about that. It was really fantastic to have that moment in the film.

Koco Carey

I want to talk about the sequence where Juanita goes up the stairs. How you edit that is brilliant. Can you talk about the creative choices that you made there in having multiple different people playing Juanita going into the room?

ZB: When we did the casting, I had certain scenes that people were cast to play that was scripted. But what happened in the casting was unknown, because these are actually the integration between fiction and reality and the real-life stories of the people who were cast to play Juanita. Kilia, or Koco as she’s listed in the credits for The Beehive, was one of the Juanita’s, who is a fantastic performer, an amazing dancer, and very active in the trans community in Sydney. I think her story coming through into the place that we know Juanita died in Les Girls, which was a really significant trans performance venue for long-time in Sydney, before my time, but it’s legendary. I think her story coming through and then dancing in that venue, I knew I wanted to have that happen. When we got there, and then she did that dance – and because that picks up the thread of how bees communicate, which is by dance – for me, it brought together the threads of the film in that moment. It made a really beautiful climax.

Loretta Crawford is a receptionist at The Carousel Club, who is still around, I didn’t get to interview her. She is someone who doesn’t really want to be found. But she has also told three (that I know of) wildly different versions of the story of what happened to Juanita. Potentially, she’s changed her mind, but there are three different versions. And they are kind of the only eyewitness versions that we have of what happened once she went up the stairs, the rest is left to our imagination. In that particular scene, I just played out those three different versions of the story with different people playing them. Because it is a mystery. We don’t know what happened. This is as close as we got. And that that’s what comes from the one eyewitness who was there. And I think the fact that all three versions which come from the one person play at the same time, speaks in a way to the open secret of Juanita.

Why is it that no one over 45 years later has no one cracked and said what happened? Including people like Eddie [Trigg] who took it to his grave, and Loretta who is still around. And that’s a story of intimidation. We know some of the violence that Loretta suffered [with a] car window being blown out with a shotgun. And who knows what happened to Eddie, but apparently he was living in a sort of exile inside one pub in Redfern or Waterloo for the rest of his days. Obviously dark forces are around the story. The fragments that come out are a little bit ambiguous, so I allowed them to all play at the same time in that scene.

What does it mean for you to be an Australian artist working today telling these kinds of stories, both in art installations and on film?

ZB: I really hope that international audiences will be interested in this story. I feel like gentrification is definitely not an Australian problem. The term comes from Ruth Glass and European and American campaigns around gentrification. The thing that is quite specific in Sydney is that we all know the Bronx and Harlem because American culture is everywhere, but do people know Campbelltown and Mt Druitt overseas? I’m not sure. There might be something that’s quite specific about the film. And I struggled with that. I was trying to find a way that I could say, without ruining the story, “Campbelltown, that’s Western Sydney, just let me explain that,” and I tried and I struggled different ways. In the end, I was like, I can’t do it, because it will ruin the story.

I have to just hope that by being immersed in the story, even if people don’t know Mt Druitt or Green Valley, in the context of how people talk about then they will understand ‘low socioeconomic, ungentrified’ or ‘fancy bourgeois, gentrified.’ Every city has those kinds of divisions. I hope that international audiences will get something out of this film.

I really like to experiment with film. I think this is an experimental documentary. You mentioned Kitty Green, there are some people really working at trying to push what a documentary is and what it can be. And I find that hugely exciting. I guess there’s the Brechtian in me that thinks a fiction sometimes gives us as much of the truth [as reality]. Sometimes you need to make something up to actually tell the truth or to help the truth come forward for the viewer. That’s the sort of work that I’m interested in doing.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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