Revisiting Radiance

30 / 07 / 2015

Our Culture Club contributor for July (and for months continued, thumb yay) Karen Pickering revisits an Australian classic, unhealthy  the 1998 Rachel Perkins film, ailment Radiance in celebration of NAIDOC Week. Karen resounds the importance of female voices in film and discusses the importance of the film asking some gutsy and thought-provoking questions about how the main characters Aboriginality circumscribes their experiences in terms of privilege and power.

How do you celebrate NAIDOC Week? Did you attend any of the nationwide events? Read up on news and current affairs involving Indigenous Australia? Is it a time for quiet reflection and meditation? Or maybe also an opportunity to seek out books, plays, films or television shows that narrate First Peoples’ experiences and make meaningful contributions to cultural change?

I rewatched an Australian classic, the 1998 Rachel Perkins film, Radiance, starring Rachael Maza, Trisha Morton-Thomas and Deborah Mailman (the latter in her first feature role). It’s the story of three sisters who return to the family home in Queensland after the death of their mother, and reunited in their grief and anger, attempt to find a way through it together. Radiance features three powerful lead performances from these stunning actors and having been based on the play by Louis Nowra, the dialogue is virtually confined to these three characters. It works on screen because of Rachel Perkins’ incredible vision, and her adaptation of the script is clever and tight. It’s such a gorgeous film, one that has resonated with me for many years, and was the one of the first to be programmed for last year’s inaugural Girls On Film Festival (GOFF). We were beyond thrilled to host Rachael Maza and Nakkiah Lui in conversation after the film and it was one of our most successful sessions.

So why do I think it’s so important? There are so many reasons! I love that it is a film that absolutely privileges women’s voices, perspectives and emotions. Too often women’s internal struggles and legitimate grievances are minimised or trivialised on film, and I find that extremely frustrating as a viewer. The other pattern that’s reproduced over and over again is the conflation of women’s individual stories with a male character’s, often in the form of a romance or redemption narrative. How refreshing to see a film that doesn’t posit men as the answer! That doesn’t treat women as problems to be solved by a mother person in the first place, but rather as complex, flawed and utterly independent beings. Here, the male characters exist, almost symptomatically, as symbols to represent patriarchal power and vehicles to propel the women forward, respectively. It’s a totally female film. This might also be cemented via the female gaze of the director, and the homosocial connection of both the actors and the characters. Having been released in 1998, it’s worth us considering that most movies released even now don’t allow women (characters and directors) this kind of autonomy.

It’s a fully realised drama, with some deft changes in tone and pace to facilitate discussing these huge themes. I want to also make it clear how hilarious it is at times! The three lead actors have impeccable comic timing and instincts, which results in some scenes that stay with you a long time for their effortless joy. It’s also a big part of Aboriginal storytelling, and the clever use of humour to convey the absolute gravity of a situation is one of my favourite experiences as a viewer. I also love seeing women on screen who defy the stereotypes of what women “should” be, or behave in ways that are “questionable” or “inappropriate”. Watching this film so many years ago left an indelible impression on me – it’s okay to have flaws, it’s okay to yell when you’re angry, it’s okay to feel like you have been let down by the people who love you. But don’t lose your ability to laugh about it.

But of course, these three female characters are also proud black women, and the film asks some gutsy and thought-provoking questions about how their Aboriginality circumscribes their experiences in terms of privilege and power. Touching on issues like family connection and obligation, home and place, addiction, abuse, violence and the bodies of women, the film does not shy away from asking why and how these feminist issues hit Indigenous women differently, and compound the disadvantage they often face. Given that it was recently reported that Aboriginal women face domestic violence rates of around 34 times the rate of non-Aboriginal women, and are extremely reluctant to report these abuses for fear of having their children removed, we can see clearly that these issues have not been resolved in the seventeen years since Radiance first screened.

I’d really recommend getting your hands on a copy of the DVD and watching this film, not only to connect with a shining moment in Australian, Indigenous and feminist cinema, but also to send some money back to the producers, who were thrilled to see this film programmed at a feminist film festival last year.  If you’re feeling particularly generous and wanting to further contribute to a film culture in Australia that is working hard to recognise and showcase female-centric contributions, the Girls On Film Festival crowdfunding campaign is on right now and would love your support.

GOFF is committed to programming more diverse and exciting content this year and if the popularity of our 2014 screening of Radiance is anything to go by, audiences are just as excited to see women’s stories from all cultures on the big screen.

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