Ann Turner | Australia | 1988

1989 Berlin, Salso, Wellington
1990 Göteborg, New York
2017 Melbourne
2018 Queensland

Set in mid-1950s Australia, with the fear of communism in the air, Ann Turner’s refreshingly unsentimental debut feature depicts a long hot summer seen through the eyes and over-active imagination of nine-year-old Celia. Shaken by the death of her beloved grandmother, Celia finds herself adrift between the cruel games and rituals of childhood and the incomprehensible world of grown-ups. With monstrous creatures stalking her dreams by night, those imagined terrors blur by day with the banal brutality of the adult world and lead to tragic and shocking consequences. This dark fable of childhood’s end ranks alongside Lord of the Flies, The 400 Blows, Stand By Me and Pan’s Labyrinth.
– Second Run.

At first sight, this is just another simple film about growing up. Somewhere in suburban Melbourne in the late 1950s, Celia turns nine years old, and starts the long summer holidays. She leads one of the local gangs, and the other is led by Stephanie, the daughter of her father’s best friend, who also happens to be the local police sergeant. The rival gangs hurl names at each other and conduct mock battles with flourbombs in the local quarry.

So far, it sounds like many another children’s film, designed to evoke in adults nostalgic memories of the whiling away of idle summer days. But this is a film about childhood rather than a children’s film, and the nostalgic memories it evokes are at best ambiguous, and at worst painfully disturbing. It deserves its `M’ rating, and will need careful marketing to reach the adult audience that will really appreciate it.

First, the children are not innocent: naive, and often helpless against older people in authority over them, but neither unaware nor passively accepting. And they are not presented in black-and-white terms either. Rebecca Smart, at the ripe old age of 12, is a seasoned actress, familiar to audiences from numerous film and television roles and particularly her co-starring role with Bryan Brown in the television mini-series The Shiralee. Her long blonde plaits and cheeky freckled face could have been used to present the stereotypical mischievous but charming misfit that we have known since Tom Sawyer. But Celia is much more complex than that.

She has the only child’s dependence on ‘special’ adults (first her grandmother and then the mother of the family next door), and on the world of the imagination. But her imagination tends to the macabre. After granny’s death, her surprisingly substantial ghost appears reassuringly at odd intervals, in the garden or sitting on her chair in the middle of the wasteland of the quarry. Similarly, the hobyahs, who have tiptoed across the imagination of many a victim of the Australian School Readers, have a physical presence in
Celia’s life, appearing at unguarded moments, in the darker parts of the garden or as a slimy hand over the window-sill at night. Her terror of them is only temporarily held at bay by her mother’s taking her out into the garden with a torch to show her the brushtail possum who makes the horrible noises that spark off her nightmarish fantasies. When she cannot make the world behave as she would wish, she resorts to voodoo, sticking pins into dolls that represent the ‘villains’ of her world – Stephanie, the sergeant and her own father.

For Celia has to cope not only with her peers and her fantasies, but with an adult world that seems quite without logic or natural justice. It is a world in which children’s pets are rounded up as a threat to the nation’s agriculture, and good people are persecuted for their beliefs. Parents are not to be relied upon, either to explain this confusion or to help a child find a safe route through it. Celia’s parents do the best they can in the circumstances, but her father is unable to shake off his rigid dogmatism; it is her mother, who over the course of the film manages to reshape her values and attitudes, who can eventually support Celia through the crisis.

So, clearly, but not in an overstated way, this is a political film. At its world premiere in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival, this side of the film was well received, and implications drawn from it that the director had not anticipated – including a reference to the rabbit enclosure at the zoo as a “concentration camp for rabbits”. Indeed, although the ‘rabbit menace’ and the ‘red menace’ are quite separate threads of the story, the parallels provide amusing relief from what could have been much more chilling.

Politics was the aspect of the film that was subject to most criticism during its five-year gestation, and its passage through many script drafts. It was probably all to the good that the details of the internal bickering in the Communist Party over events in Hungary were finally omitted, for what remains sums up beautifully the ambivalences and insecurities within the political left and the paranoia outside it. Celia’s child’s-eye-view shows up the bigotry of the period, and with hindsight we cringe at its futility.

It is a most impressive feature film debut for writer-director Ann Turner. After training at Swinburne, and receiving the school’s Best Screenplay Award for her graduation film, Flesh on Glass, she spent five years developing the script for Celia while working outside feature production, mostly in the film bureaucracy. There are some signs that it is a first feature: there is an occasional lapse in the flow of the complex narrative, and it suffers from the Australian habit of having more than one ending (although the final ending is particularly compelling). But, as a director, Ann Turner has obtained uniformly good performances from the adult actors and quite miraculous ones from the team of children. It will probably do well with audiences – after all, we have all been children. Celia survives her initiation into the adult world of violence, deceit and compromise, but at a cost. It is this cost that viewers may well find themselves identifying with most strongly.
– Ina Bertrand, Cinema Papers, May 1989.

Presented from a new 2K restoration by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

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