memory film Director Jeni Thornley Talks About the Evolution of the Mind in This Interview

Jeni Thornley is a documentarian whose worked has spanned decades, from the 1978 film Maidens, to 1983’s For Love or Money: a history of women and work in Australia, to To the Other Shore in 1996 and Island Home Country in 2008. Her latest film, memory film: a filmmaker’s diary, recently made its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It will have additional screenings on August 15, 17, 19, and 20. Tickets are available here.

Inspired by Japanese death poems, memory film is an expansive, poetic silent documentary which presents decades worth of Super 8 footage that present the collective histories and stories of liberation movements of the 70s and 80s, the lives of Jeni’s family and others, the Back to the Land commune life, and behind the scenes footage of Australia films like Journey Among Women, which Jeni worked as a camera assistant on. Jeni’s cinematic lens is an intimate and powerful gift to her past, her families and friends, to the conflicted nation that we call Australia, and most importantly, to the audience that she shares these stories with.

memory film is a meditative experience, one that embraces Jeni’s ability to reflect on her past and the legacy that she has helped instil in her own family. Yet, it equally encourages the audience to reflect on their own heritage and legacy, and in a considerate and rather tender manner, it also encourages the audience to consider our own mortality. We often speak of death as a fearful inevitability, as if we are going to manage to somehow escape this universal occurrence, yet through a documentary like memory film, we see that reconciling with our fate can be its own liberating thing. While we may not all have 137 reels of Super 8 footage that catalogues our lives, we do have the memories of our own life journeys and the self-realisation of how we have grown and changed across time. In this manner, the film is a gift, an invitation to journey along with Jeni as she details the ‘evolution of “a mind” across time,’ or as it has been called a “farewell film poem to life.”  

As we see the world from Jeni’s perspective within memory film, we also see a changing Australia, bending and being shaped by social upheaval, the fight for Aboriginal land rights, and the growth of radical feminism. As Jeni details in the below interview, these are all revolutionary acts that deserve recognition. They are moments in history that hold a kind of energy that ripple across time, oscillating in our thoughts and informing our daily actions.

I’m grateful to have spent time talking with Jeni about her work as a documentarian. Prior to the discussion, I confessed an unfortunate level of ignorance about her films, noting that I was yet to watch her previous documentaries. Please, don’t make the same mistake as I have done, as each of her films are available via beamafilm, Ronin Films and Anandi Films. For further information about Jeni’s work as a filmmaker, please visit her website here.   

What does the format of Super Eight mean to you as somebody capturing stories on screen?

Jeni Thornley: The interesting thing about memory film is that it’s 85 minutes of Super 8 footage. A lot of people from this era don’t really know the meaning of the Super 8 gauge, or the 16mil gauge or the 35mil gauge or the 70mil gauge. They just know digital. When I say a sentence like, “It’s 85 minutes of Super 8,” it represents a completely different era of film.

It’s extraordinary having made this film all in Super 8. I shot a lot of that footage when I was in my twenties or early thirties, so in the 70s and 80s, but [I made] this film as a senior lady in her seventies, so you’ve got these really interesting timeframes. You’ve got the footage that was filmed by a young woman immersed in life, if you like, with that Super 8 camera, and then you’ve got this woman many decades later coming to that footage and realising that it told a story unlike digital film can tell that story, or even 16 mil or 35mm [could], not that many people work in film anymore.

Someone who has a relationship to the film said to me the other day that it’s “A journey into nostalgia,” and I said that was interesting. I don’t think the Super 8 medium is nostalgic, but he was reading it as both nostalgic and very, very emotional. I don’t think it’s the texture of the footage is nostalgic, like you’re looking back at footage from the 70s, but for me there’s this textural quality to it that digital and 35mil doesn’t have. 16 mil has a very textural quality. If you get to know how to read film, when you watch something, even on television, you say, “That’s a Super 8 bit,” or “That’s a 16mil clip.” “That’s digital.” You can read the different textures. I think it represents a different way of seeing. There’s an intimacy with Super 8 that you don’t really get with digital.

As I’ve watched [memory], as I’ve made it over some years, every person that I’m filming is looking to me filming them and relating to me through the camera. Now, I think that’s something specific to the home movie. I’m filming my sister’s kids, my own kids, my friends in the communes; there, they know me and I’m filming them, they look at me, they look through the camera, past the camera to me, and they’re engaging. What I’m interested in with the film is the look from the person that I’m filming back to me, the person who is filming them, and it’s very, very intimate.

The documentary film theorist Michael Renouf talks about the ‘I thou’ relationship between the person filming and the subject. That is a ‘I thou,’ ‘I and you.’ The French have [a word] for that intimate relationship. They’ve got ‘I see you,’ they’ve got the word for you, which is ‘vois’, and then they’ve got the word ‘tu’, which is the intimate view. What I’m saying is, I think Super 8 sees the intimate you. I’m filming the other person and they’re intimate to me, and they look at the camera, so when the film is screening in a cinema or you’re watching online or wherever that person that is being filmed, it’s looking back to me, but they’re also looking to you, the viewer. Then it’s a triad, not a dyad.

There is a lot of intimacy in the film that kind of grabs you in a way. Because it’s filmed silent, there is no sound. I made the decision, ‘Okay, this is going to be a film like in the silent period.’ The silent period movies back in the pre-sound 1920s era, since the invention of film, were screened with music, piano organ orchestras, what have you.

It went through various in incarnations once I was in the edit with all the footage, [and] it finally became clear it’s [would be] just one film of the Super 8 [footage], no other footage. I had two rules, only the Super 8 and only the music. No narration, no voices, no interviews, just the picture and the music. Then, of course, in editing became the sound design, which brought this whole other sound dimension. I think the combination of that textural intimacy of the image with a film that is scored by a composer like Joseph Tawadros, who is not a film composer, he’s a composer for his own performances with the Oud. He plays with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), he wrote the Concerto for Oud for Sydney Symphony.

If you think of a soundtrack for a film, apart from the exceptions like Koyaanisqatsi, which are totally music documentaries, or Jennifer Peedom’s film River, where she uses the ACO, but she’s got a very heavy narration in there, a very expository voiceover which kind of ladens the film down, I think, because you want to be carried by the music, which is what Koyaanisqatsi does. I have had these other films that have been like guideposts that [show that] you can do this; you can make a film only with music. And you can use a degraded image, because Super 8 would be regarded as a degraded low-tech image. Therefore, if you’re going to use a low-tech image, like Super 8, you have to have a really superb soundtrack that takes you so deeply into the sound that you’re not sitting there in the cinema going, ‘That’s scratchy;’ ‘There’s the frame line;’ ‘It’s out of focus;’ ‘It’s wobbly.’ All of what you call ‘the Super 8 defects,’ which is the nature of the Super 8 gauge, the home movie gauge, it’s not a professional gauge. So what you do when you’re working with a gauge that is an anti-professional gauge, you put a really highly developed soundtrack on it, which is, I think, what gives the film this frisson of affect.

The score complements the film so beautifully. It elevates the story you’re telling. There’s a moment where the sound of birds appears, and it envelops you as you’re watching it. I found myself really moved by that moment in a way I didn’t expect. I expected to be moved by the film, but in this moment the aural landscape took me to another level. I’m curious about the conversations that you had with Joseph about creating that score and the manner it reflects the energy of the footage so intimately. As you’re saying, Super 8 creates an intimate feeling and it brings us into the themes of the film completely.

JT: Before I go into the Joseph tale, going back to your comment about the birds, I do want to acknowledge here the role of the sound designer Tristan Meredith who came onto the project in the final couple of weeks. The score was all done by then, and then it was the chapter for the colourist in Melbourne, Nicholas Hower, and then the sound designer Tristan. The way to work the complementarity or the intersection or the interrelationship between the music score and the sound design [is] a whole journey.

Tristan has an amazing collection of sound effects, including birds, and he’s very precise, he won’t use a bird sound that’s not from the area of where it was filmed. There’s a sequence in Cape Barren Island of Tasmania where there’s this beautiful blue [estuary] between the Bass Strait and the mainland. Cape Barren has these mountain birds that come in seasonally, and it’s a cultural tradition of the Aboriginal Islanders who live on Cape Barren that they harvest and hunt the mutton birds. There’s a whole industry and cultural practice around them. So, Tristan found the mutton birds for that sequence, and that’s what you’re hearing.

I think again, there’s something about the Super 8 film of Cape Barren which is very resonant and very beautiful. It’s such a beautiful place, and then you find there’s a history there. That’s a quote from Aboriginal elder Jim Everett-puralia meenamatta, which is from one of his poems:

This land is outside the Bible.

It’s a simple sentence from one of his poems, but it’s telling us so much about colonisation. It’s basically saying, ‘We’re a sovereign people. This is our country. We existed here before the Bible was brought in by the colonists.’ Then you lay it with the [sound of the] mutton birds. If you do a textual analysis of that scene, it’s a small essay about colonisation. Even though there’s no Aboriginal people visually on the screen, you feel their presence there through Jim’s quote, and through the mutton birds.

I must also acknowledge the National Film and Sound Archive here who purchased my Super 8 collection, digitised it, and gave me back the digitised files. Without them doing that I couldn’t have got started. I just didn’t have the money. I don’t think anyone was probably going to put money into it. [At] the National Film and Sound Archive, there was a great curator who recognised the value of that Super 8 collection to the archive, and they acquired it. I said I wanted to make a film out of that archive, so they digitised it for me, and they gave me back the digitised drives. Then I created an assembly of four hours. There must be about 20 hours of Super 8 [footage]. There were 137 rolls of Super 8, and nine composite reels, so it’s a big collection over 30 years.

prepping the Super 8 for NFSA 2016
prepping the Super 8 for NFSA 2016 – Photograph by Jeni Thornley

Lindi Harrison, the editor, came on to an assembly of four hours that I’d edited. In that process of her joining, it was COVID. We didn’t work together, we worked virtually. I was on Avid in my setup, she was on Adobe over in Bondi. I’ve never worked with an editor like that before, we’ve always sat in the edit room debating every shot. She’s amazing because she says, ‘I don’t want to sit and edit like that,’ not just because it’s COVID, ‘I want to keep two intact minds around the process.’ I really came to respect that. I found it strange in the beginning, but I grew to respect it because it meant that we didn’t wrangle. There was no toing and froing, ‘I think this, you think that,’ ‘I want this, I want that.’ The role of the editor is to bring the director’s vision through, and she was she’s brilliant at that, but she’s also very strong, ‘That doesn’t work. You need to do this.’ She’s not without her opinions. We worked really well.

We laid a guide track of music down, and she knows Joseph as a friend. Before she joined me, I had two of Tunisian master oud player Anouar Brahem’s (أنور براهم أنور براهم) tracks in there. And then she joined the project and we started the guide tracks and we laid in four more tracks of the oud from Joseph, which were published tracks. Then I had a couple of other tracks of other composers. You can do that with the film, you guide track it and that’s a guidepost to the composer. It can be a disadvantage to do that, but we had to edit to music. I had this amazing Canadian-American cellist Zoe Keating who does a reverb technique with the cello. She’s done some Australian tours, and I’ve been to her concerts and I loved her work. It’s very strong. There was something like 60-minutes of Zoe Keating in the film, and the rest was oud and one other local Australian band called Chaika, which is kind of a singing instrumental group, [and] we edited the film to that.

We had to cut a trailer, so we laid a Joseph track for the trailer. I wrote to him, and this is where it began. He loved the trailer. He’s a very generous spirited man. He said, “Look, I’ll put you in touch with my agent. But it’s all great with me.” The agent did a three-year contract for no fee for the trailer. Around that time, Joseph said, “I put my hand up for composing.” He just threw that into the mix. To be completely honest, Andrew, I was really committed to Zoe Keating and to Anouar Brahem. And this happens to filmmakers with guide track music, you get attached, and it’s really hard to let it go. I contacted all of the agents and the managers of the various people for the guide tracks. I had the contract ready, and I was kind of hedging Joseph because I didn’t want to film which was all oud.

Then Tom Zubricki joined the project. He liked it and said, ‘I’ll take it on as a producer.’ Without Tom, we wouldn’t be where we are today. He took it on, we got the money from MIFF and then we were able to negotiate with Joseph for a fee. Then I was working with Joseph virtually because he lives in London. He’s a funny person to work with. I’ve never worked with a composer like this. I’m used to, as with an editor, sitting with the composer at their setup, and they do various versions and tracks and throw them at you and you listen and you watch and you work it through like that. But Joseph doesn’t work like that. I sent him different cuts and he had the guide tracks. I sent him themes. It was all online, and then he came to do a tour. I thought ‘I just don’t know how this is going to work.’

He called me one day and said, “I’m here. This is my plan. I’m going to hire a mixing studio with my ensemble, and we’ll do it in a day, and we’ll do it to picture.” I said, “Okay. Well, I’ve got to come in.” He said, “I don’t want you in there.” I said, “Well, I’m the director, I’ve got to come in. I have hardly had anything to do with you except online. This is my film.” He said, “Oh, okay, you can come in in the afternoon.” And I said, “Well, then I’ve got to bring my editor.” He said, “Why do you have to bring your editor?” I said, “Because I’m on the spectrum.” [laughing] He said, “We’re all on the spectrum.” And then I said “I’ve got to bring my producer and then I have to have a photographer to have photographs of the day.” So that’s what happened.

He booked the studio with his ensemble, which was piano, Matt McMahon, accordion, Gary Daley, Joseph played the oud and the cello, and his brother, James Tawadros, who’s the percussionist, played the riq & bendir. They had the picture in the recording studio, the rough cut. I didn’t come into midday, but they basically laid down the first half of the film in the morning, and then the second part of the day, they did the second half of the film. I watched Joseph through the glass window as he was playing and directing the ensemble, he hardly ever took his eyes off the screen. The relationship between him playing and his ensemble playing, and the picture playing was like a total union. The photographer, Sandy Edwards, came out of one of her sessions and said, “It’s amazing in there. It’s so intense.” When you watch the film as a finished film, and you’ve got this amazing music score and the picture, it’s the way it is because of the way he wanted to do record it. It wasn’t just in little fragments here or there over days. ‘I’m gonna go in and we’ll do it live.’

With the themes of the film, there’s a lot of talk about liberation. It’s woven into the text of the film. In a way, transferring the Super 8 film onto digital is an act of liberation itself. I’m curious if you can talk about the themes of liberation, but also, most importantly, having captured the footage in the 70s and 80s, and then reflecting on it now in 2023. What you’re reflecting on in memory, are the liberation movements and the communes, these moments of Australian history that we so rarely get to see on screen. They are so personal and so cordoned off in a way. I’m very grateful that we get to experience it, because it is a vital part of history, but I’m curious for you what that aspect of liberation means now?

JT: I’m still very committed to liberation as a journey, and radical feminism was, and is, one of the pathways to liberation. That footage of the 70s in both the street demonstrations and the communes, and also the Amazon acres footage of the women’s vision of a utopia up in the bush, which wasn’t just a women’s vision, it was part of the Back to the Land movement of the 70s, which was a movement of liberation too, the hippies were very committed to liberation in their own way, even though women might not have been liberated in that movement.

You’ve got to remember that I’m making the film as a woman many, many decades later from the woman who filmed it. Of course, I’ve been through a lot of journeys in those 40 years in returning to the footage. I wrote an outline for a book that still sits as a folder on my drive. I realised the other day, “Oh my god, the film is that book.” I wanted to write a book at the time, kind of a handbook for pathways to liberation. They were the different roads you could take to seek to become liberated. One was feminism. One was yoga, and meditation. One was psychoanalysis in therapy. The other one in that era, and it’s still relevant, was the 12-step recovery programme movement. Each of those roads, are roads to liberation. I found [with] feminism as a road to liberation, it’s not that it’s inadequate at all, but I needed other roads on my [journey]. I was in my 20s. Now I’m in my 70s.  

I defer to Agnes Varda here as a wonderful example. She’s a guru for me as a filmmaker, but if you look at her films from the 1950s, when she started making films, right to her last day [when] she was still making her wonderful films, but especially The Beaches of Agnes, it’s like travelling into an elders mind. When I used to teach documentary, I loved teaching Varda, because her films are so extraordinary; Cleo from Five to Seven and The Gleaners and I, The Beaches and Agnes, all of them. But, in The Beaches of Agne, you’re travelling inside an elders mind, and you feel that when you watch the film, you feel like you’re inside her head and she’s taking you on this journey of her mind as she’s essaying being an elder. I think that really impacted on me with this film in a subtle way.

memory film is the study of a mind. Super 8 is like the documentary evidence of that mind going through these different phases. I’m a mother and I’m a grandmother so I’m familiar with raising children and having adolescents and then watching them get married and have families or go to uni, all the phases they go through, and you’ve been through it and now you’re going through it with your children, and now I’m going through phases with my grandchildren. In the film, there’s a very long, perhaps too long, sequence on the maternal where that’s been valued by me. Motherhood can also be a pathway of liberation. [Motherhood] can be very oppressive, the institution in patriarchy and in capitalism, but as an experience, it’s potentially a very liberating experience for women, as is childbirth. It’s an amazing experience. I wanted to include motherhood and the maternal in there as one of the roads of becoming open to the world. I don’t know the percentage of the world that are mothers, but every person on the planet has come through a woman. Every man on the planet has been birthed through a woman. I find that just amazing. I wanted to honour women as the child bearers and the sanctity of life.

That’s why there’s this pathway of liberation about the sexual division of labour, which is what For Love or Money: a history of women and work in Australia was about when we made it. Around that time, there was a lot of writing about [how] if men became involved in child rearing, their tenderness would develop, and men have the capacity for the maternal as well as women, and that that would be one of our routes to develop a world of peace, not war.

I found it amazing that I was making the film as senior in this era that we’re in with the terrible wars we’re in. We’re not experiencing them directly in Australia, but in a way, we are because of the government in AUKUS. Currently down in Jervis Bay, they’re doing major military manoeuvres, and there are major military manoeuvres up north in Queensland and this new Labor Government has carried through this alliance with nuclear ships and so on. For me, it just became really clear that the peace is a movement for liberation. The film is really a statement for world peace and that’s a liberatory movement for all of us to start to see outside of the frame of the war machine.

I was saying to my partner the other night, even the news can’t take us outside that frame. It’s almost like an advertisement for the industrial military state. For many of us, it’s so painful to be living through this era. There’s so little opposition to the machine. And this talk of ‘nuclear’ is just escalating and escalating. This is not an original thing to say, but I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and [with] this era right now, people are saying it’s almost equivalent with the development of nuclear technology. All of the nations are on edge. It’s a terrible time.

That’s why I wanted the film to have this tenderness. Liberation is a tender movement. It’s not a war like movement to seek liberation. Then you come to those latter sections of the film with The Great Departure where Buddha goes in search of enlightenment, and then you have the Song of the Grass Hut or Dōgen great statement with the poem that’s in the film:

All that’s important are the ordinary things.

That movement of liberation represented by the women’s movement in the 70s, as an older woman now, the end of the film represents more where my mind has come to reside in a certain solitude and time for meditation and what traditionally is appropriate for senior people is to reflect on their life. The film is influenced very much by the Japanese death poet tradition. There is a tradition in Japan where the elders and monks and nuns write poetry about the transience of life and their ageing as a preparatory step towards their death. A friend gave me the book of Japanese death poets about six years ago, and I read it and I thought, ‘I can make a film as a Japanese death poem,’ which is kind of like you make it as a gift. I love the way you felt it as a gift, you felt as if you’re being given something to be part of.

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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