We spoke to actress Rachael Mazza, an actress whose 1998 feature Radiance, directed by Rachel Perkins, plays this month at the Melbourne-based Girls on Film Festival, a new festival devoted to “seeing the stories of women and girls taken seriously, made with love and demonstrating their humour, solidarity and power”.
Are you down in Melbourne for the Girls on Film Festival at the moment?
Yeah, I live down here, so I’ll definitely be coming along to the festival.
What’s your favourite film showing at the festival?
Well it would have to be mine!
Could you tell me a little bit about the film, Radiance?
It was kind of early on, I wasn’t long out of acting school and at that stage you could count on one hand the number of Aboriginal feature films – films made by an Aboriginal director with an Aboriginal story. So it was really quite revolutionary at the time. We were aware of how incredible that was. It felt very much at the forefront.
Pretty much all of us on the team were first timers – none of us had done a feature film before, and Rachel Perkins, the director, it was her first feature film. She had been working for years over at ABC but had only done documentaries and one short film. So she certainly dived in the deep end, and that was really, really exciting!
It was a low budget film, which meant that it was a small crew and we ended up going and shooting the on-location part of the film in Queensland. There was a beach where we stayed and we were filming six weeks on location, which is very short, in this exotic paradise. I just remember, we were looking at each other going, “This is work?” So it was the small crew and this kind of small team of actors – myself, Deb Mailman and Trisha Morton-Thomas and then Rachel Perkins, and we had the best time! It was so much fun! I remember distinctly feeling really cheeky and thinking, this is work? It was just the most incredible feeling of team spirit.
Radiance came out in 1998, a year after the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report which looks into the removal of Aboriginal children from their parents. Do you think the film was interpreted in that light when it was being received?
No, not that I was aware of. It was very much about how nothing like this had been done before in terms of an Aboriginal feature film. That was really quite great. I remember that there was a lot of curiosity and interest around that very fact. Also, the play had a good life. So certainly in terms of the arts community, we had known the story of Radiance for a while. I had been in the original stage production, playing a different character.
Which character did you play in the stage production?
I played Mae – the older sister who looks after the mother. The stage production was at Belvoir St Theatre and it was such a fantastic experience. We literally flooded the upstairs stage with water. They came back from the interval and the floor had a layer of water over it and we kind of ran around in our gumboots splashing the front row of the audience.
Given that you’re so familiar with the text, what were the main differences in performing it for theatre vs. film?
It was so different in so many ways. In theatre you can go back and revisit the play and every night you perform the play grows as a work. For the film, Louis Nowra came in with the script, which had been developed for theatre, and you can’t take a theatre script straight to film – it is very different, you end up basically cutting the script right back. He came in with this film draft and it still had a lot of work that needed to be done and it was to his credit in some respects that he really just put the script down and said to Rachel, “Well this is your story, so you go for it”. And he gave her permission to continue to work on it because so much of it you establish on your feet. That was really empowering for Rachel and for us actors. So there the work continued to grow and I suppose for me there was already a real sense of your opinion as an artist being validated.
But also, film is such a delicious medium. Theatre is incredible because you have a real audience and once the train is going there is no stopping until you get to the end. It’s entirely different from film, where you are shooting a thirty second moment or a one minute moment and you shoot it 27 times. It will take you all day to shoot that one little scene and quite often the scene that you do next is not the scene that actually comes next, so it’s all out of sync. In some respects, it totally does your head in and on the other hand, you really get to hone in on every moment.
So those were the ups and downs. But I have always loved theatre and that’s where I work now.
Radiance was touted as a seminal feature film with respect to its nuanced portrayal of Aboriginal women. Would you say that Radiance is a film about womanhood first and foremost, or is it a film about the complexity of the Aboriginal experience?
I really don’t think it’s either-or. It definitely has all those things. Without a doubt it is a film about women. It’s about the life paths chosen or forced upon these three women. There’s Cressy, who was just career driven, and then the older sister, Mae, who had more of a nursing career. Symbolically, nursing is an occupation of servitude and caring so much more in line with the stereotypical role of women. But Cressy is an opera singer and she’s very cut off from her nurturing side. She’s all about being a star in this really hard, cold way because she’s trying to protect herself. I think for her, her persona stems from a desire to take control and be powerful in life. And it came at a big cost.
There’s this one particular moment which I think sums up Cressy’s personality brilliantly, when she says to Nona – she is talking about sacrifice and having a great career, “If you want to be great in life, you work hard. I work very hard to get where I’ve got.” Then she grabs Nona’s hand and she puts it on her throat. Your neck is this kind of little thing that holds your head on, but obviously in her case, because she is an opera singer, it’s just this muscular thing, so to ask her sister to feel this, to feel the muscles in her neck, is so hardcore.
Much of the film was about asking, how do you survive a life as a woman in this world? All the women in the film, including the mother who is ever very present, are fundamentally just trying to survive. The mother’s story is such a tragedy – her way of surviving was through having these children, but really her life was so much at the mercy of the men that she had relationships with. She died a kind of pauper, very vulnerable and dependent, so her three daughters are a reaction to that.
I think it is interesting how the three daughters are all so different from each other. You mentioned the older daughter, Mae, and then there’s Cressy, but there’s also Nona, who is very much about embracing her sexuality.
Yeah, she is probably most like the mother. Also, she is the youngest.
Reflecting back on the time that Radiance was filmed, do you feel that Australia has made some progress with regards to racism?
That’s such a big question. There probably isn’t a person on the planet that doesn’t get caught out on being a racist at some point. I’m aware of it with myself and there’s no blame in it, as long as you realise that you are being racist and revise your beliefs. We are all individually responsible for our own thoughts and our own actions. None of us are perfect, I get that, but take some responsibility.
Racism has really come to the fore with the issue on asylum seekers. These are people in dire straits and what’s wrong with wanting a better life? I mean why did the rest of these people come to Australia? For that exact same reason. It’s important for people to put themselves in other people’s shoes because I believe that if people took a moment and did that we would not be treating refugees the way we do.
I think you’re right in saying that we can all say things that may be racist but that we need to take responsibility. I feel that it is important for people to be aware of their biases and to reflect on them and critique them constantly.
Yeah, and I’m really aware too because racism is ignorance. It’s difficult because we’re overloaded with information. But we are still responsible for educating ourselves. Don’t stop, don’t rest on your laurels, you need to get the facts as much as possible.
Yeah, and seeking out other people’s stories and experiences thus becomes something of a moral obligation. I think that Radiance is a good film for portraying the experiences of Aboriginal women in a nuanced and compassionate way.
Yeah, my only disappointment with the film was that it wasn’t well received at the time it came out. I was so shocked. Margaret Pomeranz gave it 2.5 stars. It’s not perfect by any means, but I felt that it represented a lot.
Radiance will be screening at the Girls On Film Festival in Melbourne on Sunday the 14th of September. You can find more information about the screening here.
Belvoir St Theatre recently announced that Louis Nowra’s play Radiance will be revived as part of it’s 2015 Season. You can find more information here.