It started with 137 rolls of Super8 film and three composite reels of footage gathered from damp cupboards around her home for Jeni Thornley to begin crafting her gentle masterpiece.

The Australian feminist filmmaker has been wowing festival crowds with her sublime visual memoir Memory Film: A Filmmaker’s Diary

“I can make a death poem as a film, and that’s basically how I see this film. It is my death poem. It’s a gift to my children,” Thornley told Central News.

Memory Film offers more than a reflection on death but rather an observation of Thornley’s life. 

The film is based on footage from her Super8 archive, a collection of film created throughout a 30-year period from 1974 to 2003.

“I had this 30-year collection, which wasn’t just home movies of family, but was social documentation. In fact, I wished I’d done more social documentation because in a way, it’s the most interesting aspect of this film,” said Thornley. 

The archive was made at the height of Thornley’s personal and professional filmmaking, while she was filming her previous works Maidens, To the Other Shore Island Home Country and the collaborative feature For Love or Money. 

The use of archival footage in a modern-day film sees a creative interplay between the past and present that adds a new way to look back on history, not only showing audiences the memories of Thornley’s personal life but also the political circumstances that shaped her experiences at the time. 

“I’m making it with that elder consciousness of who I am now,” she said. “Having gone through all my life stages of being a young woman in revolt, working to achieve women’s liberation, you know, change the family from being such an aggressive institution, like what I grew up in and change roles for women… I’m filming in the beginning with that mind.”

“But I’m making the film decades later as this mature woman who’s had children, I’ve got grandchildren. I’m going through all the different stages of a person’s life, from birth to growing up to dying.”

Now in her mid 70s, Thornley’s ‘farewell film poem to life’ is very dear to her heart and that of her loved ones.

For her daughters in particular, she said: “It’s kind of like, to them, as a gift because they’re in it and all those different, you know, woven journeys of liberation… How to become more understanding of both yourself and your society. How to change your society, but not out of anger or dropping bombs.”

image from film

Anzac Day in Sydney (1983).

This ‘hidden gem’ has being wooing audiences around the nation.

At the film’s world premier at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year, Thornley was nominated for the Blackmagic Design Australian Innovation Award.

Following this, Memory Film was nominated for Best Documentary by the Australian Film Critics Association. Sound Designer Tristan Meredith was also nominated for the Australian Academy Cinema Television Arts award for best sound in a documentary.

But it’s been a long journey to get this film from storage in a ‘damp cupboard at home’ to the big screen.

With an archive that consisted of 137 rolls of Super8 film and three composite reels of footage from her other films, Thornley put in a proposal to the National Film and Sound Archive for them to acquire and digitise her collection. 

She said: “They purchased the collection. They digitised the collection and that basically gave me the foundation to begin the film.

“Then, I was next at the doorway of post production. I edited an assembly. That’s when you edit all the footage together… And then I hired an editor.”

Teaming up with renowned Australian film editor Lindi Harrison (ASE), and later producer Tom Zubrycki, the project underwent a thorough editing process.

Thornley recalled: “The first assembly was four hours and the finished film is now 85 minutes.”

Since the initial assembly, certain themes and rules had started to emerge.   

 “So my footage was all shot silent, so I thought ‘rule number one’ it’s a silent film, no voices, no interviews… and Super8 would be the only footage. I wouldn’t bring in any other footage of any kind, photographs or other archival film, just my footage. So they were the two founding rules,” she said. 

Another distinct feature of this film is the score, written by Egyptian-Australian multi-instrumentalist Joseph Tawadros. 

Image of composer Joseph Tawadros

Composer Joseph Tawadros

The methods of writing the music were considered slightly unconventional, as Thornley said: “He had just returned home to Australia, rang me [and] he said ‘I’m going to book the studio with a screen. We’ll play the image. I’ll bring my ensemble in and we’ll play to the picture. And that’s how he did it.” 

Yet, in doing this, the music expertly captured the intimate and emotive nature of the film. 

“[Tawadros] plays from heart and soul and feeling,” she said. “And the oud is an amazing instrument which navigates very fluidly the emotions of pain and loss and joy…[He] can cover those ranges in a couple of seconds. Moving you along, emotionally, the range.” 

Image from Film

Women Against Rape in War Collective march in Anzac Day parade in Sydney (1983)

Thornley has been a pioneer in Australian filmmaking, particularly through her work on feminist films such as A Film for Discussion 1973 (with Martha Ansara & Sydney Women’s Film Group), Maidens 1978, For Love or Money 1983 (McMurchy, Nash, Oliver & Thornley) and To the Other Shore 1996.

As one of the first Australian women to tell women’s stories on film, she has always created stories that examined social issues and explored consciousness raising ideas.

This film is the ‘same but different’ as it provides a more detailed exploration of transformation and the notion that ‘‘the person is political.’ With documentation on a range of socio-cultural-political issues such as sexual politics, motherhood and colonisation.

“It’s actually a journey through different modes of liberation,” she said. “You know, the women’s liberation movement of the ’70s and ’80s is one of the paths of the film. The path of therapy as a path of liberation [and] learning about one’s own mind and one’s history, and how to navigate all that in your own life.”

The film’s retrospectiveness allows audiences to draw parallels to their current lives, with nations currently at war and women struggling through a range of issues  the desire for liberation remains.

As Thornley said: “To me it’s a very relevant film because it in a way, it’s a film about peace… world peace without it being political.” 


Images provided by Jeni Thornley

Thornley is a documentary filmmaker, writer and film valuer. She is currently a Visiting Scholar in the School of Communication UTS, where she regularly writes about film.

More information on Memory Film and Thornley’s other works can be found on her website.