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Through the Looking Glass: Perspectives on Women in Film

<p>Every Oscar-nominated portrayal of female experience in 2016 was shaped with male hands on the camera</p>

Male directors were at the helm of every film nominated in this year’s Academy Awards in which the protagonist is female. One might rephrase this: every Oscar-nominated portrayal of female experience in 2016 was shaped with male hands on the camera; save for Mustang, a film in the foreign-language category (and What Happened, Miss Simone? – a documentary). This is a fact. Naturally, not all films with male directors are inherently incapable of representing fully-rounded or believable women – in fact, Mad Max: Fury Road and Carol, directed by George Miller and Todd Haynes respectively, have been lauded by critics and perhaps more importantly, audiences, as proffering some of the more authentic embodiments of living-as-female in recent years. However, as put by Mustang’s director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, “we’re missing the point of view of a big part of humanity when we don’t have films made by women… it narrows our perspective.”

It’s six years now that the Oscars’ Best Directing category has been empty of female names; our perspective, it seems, has been pathologically narrow.

2013’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner was Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie D’Adèle (or Blue is the Warmest Colour), a poignant and magically acted but problematic film about a young woman falling in love with another young woman. Kechiche is a straight male, reportedly abusive on set, whose hypersexualised framing of the lesbian relationship onscreen marred its more subtle emotional value in other parts of the film.

This year, Carol’s release stirred similar anxieties – how well would Todd Haynes capture the myriad complex experiences of two women in love in the stifling fifties? We were lucky.

Carol has at its disposal not only the wealth of emotional range in Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, but a minutely controlled arsenal of cinematic and stylistic tools designed to draw us in, in, into the lives of these women – and then hold us at arm’s length.

We see Carol and Therese through frosty windshields, in reflections, through top-floor and shop windows. As exists between themselves and the men on the peripheries of their lives, there is a filmic barrier between the audience and the women in this film. We cannot touch them; we cannot view them, so to speak, through our own lens, whether it be coloured by judgement or the male gaze.

While there is something accusatory in this (dazzlingly aesthetic) cinematography, it stands mainly to separate Carol and Therese, as characters and embodiments of lived experience, from outsider projections. Not once does a camera creep gluttonously over Cate Blanchett’s body from head to toe, or present Rooney Mara’s bare breasts as anything more salacious or enticing than is directly relevant to the desire between two lesbian women [1]. It is this autonomy of character – as oxymoronic as that phrase may appear – that distinguishes Carol from many other male-helmed films gracing Oscar nominee lists.

Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson) is a profound film, featuring an incredible performance by Brie Larson, but it is the story of a woman’s life being stolen from her. By definition, by the premise of the film and by virtue of some selective storytelling, the female protagonist of Room does not exist of her own accord but in relation to her captor and to her son. Joy is a capitalist film loosely wrapped in the gauzy promise of feminism, to which director David O. Russell’s supposed habit of referring to (lead actress) Jennifer Lawrence with male pronouns (because “he respects me so much”) speaks most insightfully. Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley) is the moving tale of a girl struggling to choose between two men. None of these films are, by virtue of having a male director, necessarily poor. Simultaneously, the presence of a female lead in these nominated films does not guarantee their speaking to a female audience.

Minority women, it isn’t a stretch to comprehend, are even less likely to get a say in their own representation. Not a single performer (let alone actress) of colour was nominated in 2016, in a strikingly blatant demonstration of Hollywood’s and specifically the Academy’s lack of diversity [2]. The Danish Girl is a film about a trans woman played by a straight male, involving in its production exactly no trans women and summarised on Rotten Tomatoes as a “showcase of Eddie Redmayne’s talent”. In 2013, it was Jared Leto who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a trans woman in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Even Carol, the critics’ LGBTQ golden child, was nominated in six Academy Award categories but snubbed for Best Picture – which recalls seventh grade essays marked tick, tick, tick, tick – C. The Academy can compliment a film’s style, acting, screenplay, music and clothing but is not ready to laud a lesbian film as good in and of itself, in a similar way that it bows before men in drag (brave!) but is unable to appreciate authentic transgender people in film.

Oscar nominations are posted and women crouch on the precipice of the ceremony, sifting through male-centric titles for something to which they can relate. Nuggets like Carol and Fury Road sometimes reveal themselves, but more often than not we have to go elsewhere to find our experiences mirrored on the silver screen – and elsewhere is where female directors are not an endangered species.

Mustang, a Turkish film of French production about sisterhood in an oppressively conservative community, has been called “less a Turkish Virgin Suicides than a horror movie about patriarchy” in an AV Club review. If the Academy is to be believed, no English-language films (or, in fact, other foreign-language – that Girlhood from French director Céline Sciamma was overlooked is incredible) directed by women were worthy of notice this past year.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller) is a spectacular insight into the mind of a fifteen-year-old precociously navigating several thin lines between rebellion and risk, sexual awakening and recklessness, admiration and obsession, wanting and being wanted and ‘girl’ and ‘young woman’ in seventies San Francisco. The story is impassioned and feels true but it’s not the point – which is rather that it is told entirely and exclusively by fifteen-year-old Minnie (after all, it’s her life to tell). Its power is in tiny epiphanies of selfhood for its protagonist: understanding that it’s her mother, not any of the boys or girls she’s “fucked, hard”, who loves her so much she’d “feel like [she’d] die if she were gone”; her internal monologue finally telling her much older ex-lover, “I’m better than you, you son of a bitch.” It’s one of the best female-conceived, female-POV films to go completely ignored by award boards in recent years, and the industry is worse off for having allowed it to fly under the radar.

While embroiled in controversy for its alleged racial insensitivity, Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette received mostly positive reviews; so did Meadowland, Reed Morano’s grief-vortex picture. The list, though short, goes on: Miss You Already, Infinitely Polar Bear, The Summer of Sangaile. What all of these films have in common is that their directors are women. What they very likely do not have in common is that they are all bad. That less than five per cent of (the 305) Oscar-eligible films are female-directed, however, is only an indicative watermark of the wider problem.

Women are making great films and as recent box office results have proven, films about women actually do make money – but these powerful, female-directed, female-driven films too often just aren’t getting traction. The Dressmaker (dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse), almost universally lauded, didn’t qualify for the Oscars because it didn’t meet distribution requisites. Other breakout films, like Jennifer Phang’s inspired Advantageous or mass-hysteria indie flick The Falling (dir. Carol Morley); or even Jamie Babbit’s latest effort, Addicted to Fresno, were equally unable to garner the international attention, funds, or distribution to be eligible, regardless of their star-ratings. Films about women, it’s true, have more and more of a platform for mainstream appreciation. Films written by women are likewise increasingly paid attention, but films about women and by women in the special way that a film is only truly shaped by the person calling the shots are struggling to be funded and failing to be noticed.

It is impossible, given the array of incredible films we’ve already found hidden beneath the glossy surface of awards season, to believe that this is because women don’t know how to handle a production.

“This is for all the girls, when they have grown,” Minnie Goetze concludes her Diary of a Teenage Girl – what else is for them?



[1] It is not clearly stated that Carol or Therese is a lesbian, nor has there been any dearth of debate on the subject – for the purpose of this article, however, Carol will be referred to as a lesbian film.

[2] Most recently, William Goldstein called the social media trend #OscarsSoWhite an attempt to “purge older white members” from the board, which is about as close to “straight white men are the real oppressed group of our time” non-satire has managed to get.


Image credit: Report Cult via Flickr

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Three 2021


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