New to DVD: Gillian Armstrong reflects on the making of Love, Lust & Lies and its preceding documentaries—five films spanning more than thirty years which, through the lives of three Adelaide women, chronicle the changes in Australia’s social landscape.
Gillian Armstrong has made a name for herself by grafting a long career in feature films, beginning with the success of My Brilliant Career, and leading to other audience favourites, like Little Women and Oscar and Lucinda. Prior to such breakthroughs, one of her first ventures was a twenty-minute short, Smokes and Lollies (1976), which documented the lives three 14-year-old girls. And although her filmmaking opportunities widened, she returned to these young women and continued to make documentaries as they progressed through life. Her latest, Love, Lust & Lies, revisits the women at the age of 47, and is now available as part of a 4-disc boxset: the generously packaged release also includes the middle documentaries in the series (14’s Good, 18’s Better, 1980; Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces, 1988; Not Fourteen Again, 1995), as well as a 40-page ‘album’. Powerful and extraordinarily frank, these five documentaries viewed as a whole reveal an Australia that has changed considerably from when Armstrong first captured three troubled teens nearly four decades ago. In the country last year as a guest of the New Zealand International Film Festival, the director talked to me about the making of the films and her personal relationship with Kerry, Josie, and Diana.
After receiving funding from the South Australian Film Corporation to assist women filmmakers, Armstrong stumbled upon Kerry, Josie, and Diana by fluke. “The original brief was ‘what is it like to be a 14-year-old girl today?’” she recalls. “It was quite open; it could have been a girl from any walk of life. The researcher had started before I went down to Adelaide, and she had files on wealthy private school girls, and hippies’ daughters.”
Soon after arriving in Adelaide, however, Armstrong visited the inner city drop-in centre. There were only three Australian girls amongst a big group. “They came bouncing up to me. They thought that I was coming to join and that the researcher was my mother. So we got talking about my age. I said I’m too old to join, and that I’m over 21. Their response, I remember, as quick as a flash was ‘are you married?’ I was surprised, [answering] ‘no’, and [then asked] ‘am I over the hill?’, to which they replied ‘yes’. I was shocked. These girls had never met anyone in their life over the age of 21 who wasn’t already married. I went back and told the producer this story; that I thought they sounded fantastic. That’s how we chose them. They were lively and funny. I hadn’t even read the reports on the other people.”
Most of all, Armstrong was struck by how different they viewed the world to her. “Part of the plan was to show the new ‘liberated generation’ but after I met them, the thing that shocked me was how unliberated they were, and how conservative their ideas were. I was very surprised. They were very unlike me.”
The follow-up to Smokes and Lollies, 14’s Good, 18’s Better came after My Brilliant Career, and commercial television helped fund it. “Smokes and Lollies was one of my first tastes at being a director. It was my idea to focus on things like being 18, and thought it would be interesting to go back. At the time nobody was doing these [films] and I hadn’t heard of Seven Up. Those were set up as a longitudinal study. I raised money to go back. Between the first and second one, I had My Brilliant Career. At that point my career had taken off.”
In spite of their differences, Armstrong made plenty of connections to her subjects through the process of documenting their maturity. “There are things that are universal. It started off about growing up, young women, their sense of body image, and their identity, which is tied into that. Then of course, it became about being a mother, which is something I did a lot later than they did. Once you become a parent, no matter what class you come from, or no matter what your educational background is, it’s still the same. You want your children’s lives to be better. Becoming a parent bonded us even more.”
Commonality aside, Armstrong did not anticipate her friendship with the women would develop into such a long-term filmmaking project. “If someone had said that to me at the beginning, I would have laughed. We finished the last one fourteen years ago, and discussed whether or not to do a return. I figured if we did do a return, it’d have to be a big gap, something like ten years. You don’t know about what it’s like to be each of these ages until you’re there. I thought about ten years time, when I’d be in my late fifties, and thought ‘I’d probably be too old; I wouldn’t be fit enough to keep up with the crew.’” She adds that people have asked her whether she could have predicted their lives, to which she responds, “I couldn’t predict my own.”
“I actually would like to go back another time,” she admits, even though Love, Lust & Lies was intended as the final film. “I was never definite about going back. It always fitted in with my feature films. But this time, even their husbands said, ‘goodbye, see you in ten years’”. Six years from now, when they’d be in their mid-50s, is mooted as the next catch up for Armstrong and the three women.
Despite working on Hollywood features, Armstrong admits pleasure at going back to her roots as a filmmaker. “The joy of making these documentaries is that I have complete creative freedom. People hear about the big budget films and think how wonderful, how glamorous. But there is incredible pressure on those films succeeding at the box office. Going back and making a small film and getting paid nothing—where I haven’t got assistants or caterers, and we’re just driving around getting sandwiches and things—is fine, because creative freedom is the [reward].”
The success of the films has also been personally rewarding. “I think documentaries have a lot more power as a means of education and a social tool. Even Smokes and Lollies, I found out it was being run for councillors and teachers who were involved with adolescent girls with problems. The thing I had managed to do—because I was young, related well to the girls and had a very sensitive and low-key crew—was allow the girls relax and talk openly about their ideals and thoughts. Two of them were quite troubled—Diana had been expelled from four schools in Adelaide, and Josie had been given special dispensation to leave school because she had no mother and was having to look after her brothers—and if a social worker had come in and said ‘tell us about yourselves, tell us what you think, tell us what you want’, they would have shut down. So when I heard it was being used to help middle class councillors understand the girls they were dealing with, I was really proud of that.”
Furthermore, the political power of documentaries helped maintain Armstrong’s passion for the project. “When I returned to film 14’s Good, 18’s Better, they had done a lot of living and Josie had had two babies. I think there’s that thing, where documentary if it works, you can help the audience walk in other people’s shoes. There are all those clichés and rhetoric about unmarried mothers trying to rip off the system, but when you see one person, and see how it was unplanned, and how hard she was working, you really feel like the film has a real worth. It’s something I’ve been really passionate about.”
Indeed, the films work because of the honesty Armstrong is able to draw from her subjects. “I think that’s what the audience senses as well,” she says. “I think a lot of Reality TV, which isn’t really documentary, attracts a different sort of personality; it attracts the extroverted personality, those who want to be known, who want to be in the media. The fact I chose people who weren’t even thinking about that [presents] a sense of honesty and integrity, and there’s a humble quality which comes through.”
Given Armstrong is noted for working on adaptations of novels furnished with the rigorous plot details—films such as My Brilliant Career, Little Women, Oscar and Lucinda, and Charlotte Gray—she finds the process of these documentaries completely different. “Mostly [in these films] I’ve scripted certain questions and themes I’m going to cover, and over the years I’ve repeated certain ones because I’ve wanted to know and see how they’ve reacted with the years gone by. As a filmmaker, you’ve still got to take people on a journey where you have certain reveals, and you hopefully get them emotionally involved. All of that is done in the cutting room; there’s an incredible amount of trial and error. You wade through a lot of footage. You might interview someone for an hour and it’s reduced down to six to eight minutes.”
Between Smokes and Lollies and Love, Lust & Lies, Armstrong has charted Australia’s evolving social landscape. But it is the fascinating contrasts evident in the protagonists, and their husbands and children, that drive the films’ power, along with Armstrong’s discovery of three unique characters whose lives moved in ways few could have predicted. “It was a complete study of society, male-female relations, food and eating habits,” she reflects on the project. “Not only at 14 did they think the woman’s role was to get married and have a baby, but none of them thought of careers either. When I came back, things had changed. I think people will look back in thirty years or so—it’s an amazing record of changes.”