Online documentary series Women of the Island was conceived at the Hobart Aquatic Centre.
Local filmmaker Rebecca Thomson was swimming with her children when a woman came running up to her, sopping with enthusiasm: “‘I’ve just been doing laps with this lady,’ she said. ‘She has an amazing story! I think it could be a great film. You guys should talk.’”
“I didn’t who she was. But she knew I was a filmmaker,” Thomson says. So they talked. “She was right. It was an amazing story.” Thomson listened as the woman told her a story of generational abuse and neglect, reconnection and hope. Ideas floated through her mind as she waded through the water.
The lady-stranger got her thinking about all the great stories within this little island. Women of the Island is about sharing our womenfolk’s stories. It’s also about making space in the media sphere for stories that might otherwise be overlooked.
Documentary is a departure from Thomson’s usual repertoire. “I normally do these crazy, outrageous comedy and horror films,” she says. So she enlisted the help of Lara van Raay and Ninna Millikin — a pair of media gems with a diverse suite of skills.
In August 2016, Wide Angle Tasmania and the Australian Film, Television and Radio School launched a knock-out style funding competition. “It was like Survivor for filmmakers,” Thomson says.
At the discretion of the audience, 16 teams were whittled down to three contenders for a production cash prize. When they reached the top three, Thomson, van Raay and Millikin pitched to a panel of judges. They won. The trio put $14,000 in their top pockets. They also raised $6,000 through a crowdfunding campaign – enough to film the first three episodes.
In May 2015, Screen Australia released some bleak data. Its study, Gender Matters, revealed the gender disparity in the Australian film and television industry.
The statistics show the gender imbalance is stark in feature films. Women represent only 32 per cent of producers, 23 percent of writers and 16 per cent of directors in the industry. Women are, however, represented a little more in the documentary film realm: making up 46 per cent of producers, 33 percent of writers and 38 percent of directors.
In light of the grim figures, Screen Australia launched a five-pronged, $5 million arsenal of tactics aiming to foster female-led projects, create more female protagonists and tell more stories about women. With the Gender Matters Taskforce at the helm, Screen Australia intends to ensure its production funding for creative projects is at least 50 per cent female by the end of 2018.
“It’s so important we make sure women’s stories get told,” Thomson says. The significance of a positive female onscreen presence struck her earlier this year after watching the controversial female-led remake of Ghostbusters.
“I’ve got a couple of daughters and a son. The girls always relate so much more to female characters. They just gravitate to those stories. And it has an immediate, obvious power.” After the credits rolled, the family headed out of the cinema, when Thomson’s four-year-old daughter made an announcement: “I’m going to be a scientist!”.
As they move further along the filming process, Thomson, van Raay and Millikin also want to use Women of the Island to support Tassie women in the film industry. They plan to mentor budding filmmakers to help out at each shoot and run workshops for the public teaching filmmaking basics, aiming to create a community of “story-catchers” who can contribute to the project.
If women’s stories are less-often told, it is not because of a lack of tales or inspiration. Thomson says her project has received a substantial response from women who want to share their stories. “People are doing amazing things all over the island; incredibly interesting and inspiring things. And they are just doing it in their own little world.”
For Thomson, hearing the diverse stories of the women of Tasmania has strengthened her resolve to share these stories with the world. “It’s been such a joy finding these women and hearing these stories that probably won’t get told otherwise.”
The first three episodes are released in late July. The filmmakers are hoping to raise funds to make more episodes. Their goal is 20 episodes over the next two years. To learn more about the project, or how you can get involved, head to:
Cover image: Rebecca Thomson