Rather than just talking about the issue of women’s representation in cinema, a horror and fantasy fest in Hobart is actually engaging with female filmmakers worldwide – and influencing them to boot.
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19 Aug 2014 - 2:20 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:29 AM

A child lies in bed, eyes wide with terror, as the gnarly fingers of a storybook monster creep across the windowsill. This isn’t The Babadook – Jennifer Kent’s stylish and terrifying Australian chiller released earlier this year. Instead, it’s Celia, another strange, unsettling and occasionally horrifying Australian film from a female writer-director, Ann Turner, way back in 1989. Celia, relatively unknown in Australia, but with something of an international cult following, was described by Janet Maslin in the New York Times as “transfixing, assured, extremely lucid” and by Tom Hutchinson in The Mail as “one of those classics of childhood such as Reed’s The Fallen Idol or Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.” Now, a retrospective screening of Celia will open the third Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival (Hobart: 21-24 August), a series of screenings and events that focus on women working in horror and genre filmmaking.

Unlike The Babadook (which certainly was a horror film, despite the distributor’s reluctance to label or market it as such), Celia’s monstrous moments are few and far between. Celia is a nine-year-old girl (beautifully played by a precocious Rebecca Smart). Living in 1957 Victoria, where paranoia about communism and rabbit plagues run hand in hand, Celia is grief-stricken after the death of her grandmother. She’s rebellious when she’s banned from playing with the very nice family of communist-sympathising ‘Reds’ next door, and she turns murderous when her adored pet rabbit is about to be confiscated. (This is the era of Mixamatosis.) Celia sees tiny, terrifying glimpses of blue storybook boogie monsters ‘The Hobyas’ but the film is predominantly a realist drama, expressing the twisted logic of childhood fears and passions, which sometimes erupt in scenes of macabre humour. Ultimately, it’s more odd than scary.

“I guess Celia is a bit of a strange film to open a horror festival,” concedes Briony Kidd, the co-founder and programmer of Stranger With My Face, “but it’s a really influential and interesting film and certainly has contemporary relevance.”

As for whether there are similarities between Celia and The Babadook, Kidd agrees. “They’re both in that realm – I hate to use the word – of domestic horror or domestic genre filmmaking; taking these personal stories and looking at things through a more personal lens. They’re both about children who are very imaginative and how that imaginative fantasy stuff can bleed into the real world. Celia is more from the child’s perspective about what it means to be a child and what it means to have that strangely flexible morality where you don’t quite know yet what is and isn’t acceptable, and what is and isn’t real. And I don’t think there are very many films told from that perspective, particularly not Australian films. The Babadook is carrying on in that tradition because it’s saying there’s not just monsters [or villains] on one side, and us innocent people on the other. There’s also a lot of crossover. We’re not quite sure what we are or how we might behave. Both films have that kind of ending where they resolve things by papering it over and carrying on, which I think is quite interesting.”

Still, it’s a sign of the flexibility of the Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival that it can open with a film that so loosely fits the definition of ‘horror’. “It was called a horror film when it was released in America,” insists Kidd, “and it has enough elements for people to think of it in that way. I really wanted to see it on the big screen and see it brought back into some kind of prominence, particularly as Ann Turner, as an Australian director, is relatively accessible and we could have her as a guest.”

Kidd is a big fan of retrospective screenings – bringing films out of the dusty archives and back in front of fresh audiences. Kidd did this with forgotten 1981 Australian horror classic Next of Kin, which screened at Melbourne’s ACMI last year, with an introduction from Canadian genre expert Kier-La Janisse. She also screened both older and newer films by Jennifer Lynch at last year’s Hobart festival.

“One of the beauties of programming films by women in horror and women genre directors is that both the contemporary films and the ones from the past tend to be relatively unknown,” says Kidd, “so there’s always a lot to choose from.”

Reviving, rescuing and championing unknown women within genre filmmaking is certainly a driving force behind Stranger With My Face (co-founded with fellow Hobart filmmaker Rebecca Thomson). The festival was voted by international Movie Maker Magazine in 2013 as being one of the ‘Top 5 Coolest Women’s Film Festivals’, and has quickly grown to be a unique and important niche event, both for fans who want female perspectives, and for filmmakers who want to showcase their work.

“There are a lot of women working in genre and there are very few opportunities to get their films in front of an audience, says Kidd. “In Australia, we only have a small number of film festivals, and most of those are not really interested in genre filmmakers. Filmmakers need to have an audience in order to improve.”

Kidd is a vocal feminist advocate with a keen eye on gender inequalities. She says that “the other reason we need genre festivals focusing on women’s work is for the same reason we need to keep an eye on the numbers in the general film industry: Women are still incredibly under-represented, particularly in directing, producing, writing and cinematography. It hasn’t worked over the last 20 or 30 years to just say, ‘We’ll keep an eye on the numbers and they’ll improve on their own because we’re all becoming more civilised.’ That’s just not happening. It’s time the industry and festivals started to be really aware of the gender disparities. So this is our contribution to that. We know there are women who want to make genre films, and the best way we can support them is by giving them a platform and demonstrating to the larger industry that they do exist, and that they do make really good work.”

Held over one weekend, predominantly in the Salamanca Arts precinct in Hobart, the festival will screen five feature films, including Celia. “The focus this year is on really quite low budget, but very polished, indie feature films that try to show a snapshot of what’s going on in different countries around the world,” says Kidd. “They fit into that idea of female response horror. A lot of the work is strong and political, but takes place in a dark fantasy realm, with fairy-tale elements. So we have Canadian director Karen Lam’s Evangeline, about a girl who is a victim of violence and then turns into an avenging angel-creature. And we have Japanese director Maki Mazua’s Kept, based on her own experiences as a crime victim. Then there are some ghost stories: Soulmate, from UK director Axelle Carolyn; and Mattie Do’s really exciting Chanthaly, which is the first Lao feature film directed by a woman, and the first horror film to be made there.”

Programs of four Australian and four international short films will also be screened at the festival. Kidd says she’s particularly excited to have the world premiere of Heidi Douglas’ 22-minute Tasmanian film, Little Lamb. “It’s been around for a while because Heidi wrote the script for our script challenge in the first year of the festival in 2012,” says Kidd. “It’s kind of a Bluebeard convict story and very, very good. She could have sent it to other higher profile film festivals for the premiere, but she knows it means a lot to us to have it here locally.”

Kidd also highlights Australian actor Victoria Thaine’s directorial debut, a 15-minute film about a cult, The Kingdom of Doug. “It’s not pure horror, but it’s kind of macabre,” says Kidd. “It’s beautifully made and Victoria is going to go very well as a director because this is pretty great for a short film.”

As for almost singlehandedly turning Tasmania into Australia’s unofficial horror hub, Kidd is modestly pleased. “We’re still very small, but it’s like any niche area of pop culture,” she says. “You don’t necessarily have a huge audience, but the people who are interested are really interested and they take it very seriously. I feel like it’s going to start to have a direct effect on filmmakers and the films they’re going to make because they know there are festivals that are interested in their work. That’s most exciting thing: that it’s starting to influence people making films that they probably wanted to make anyway, but now there’s another platform.”

Celia will screen on Friday, 22 August at 7.30pm at the Dechaineux Theatre, UTAS Art School, Hobart. The screening will be followed by a conversation with writer-director Ann Turner and star Rebecca Smart.
The Stranger With My Face Horror Film Festival (21–24 August), Hobart. Visit the official website for more information.