Retro Review: Journey Among Women

Directed by Tom Cowan
Produced by John Weiley
Starring Nell Campbell, Jude Kuring, Lisa Peers and Martin Phelan

Journey Among Women Cinema Australia

Review by David Morgan-Brown:

“Love it … hate it … see it.” That was the film’s tagline when Greater Union distributed it, though there’s not too much to hate about this simplistic, yet enjoyably satisfying film.

An outback film set in colonial days of Australia, this simple tale of women convicts escaping their jails and trying to live off their new land, only to be hunted down again was based on a similar story that happened to women prisoners from the New South Wales Paramatta stockade. What starts off in the opening credits as a gentle and delicate women’s film soon becomes a harrowing depiction of the mistreatment of women prisoners, then becomes an escape movie, then becomes a hippy nature film, then becomes a gory and repulsive revenge film in a similar fashion to I Spit on Your Grave (although the violence and gore here is much less disturbingly portrayed, and not often too believable because of the shonky blood effects).

In The Last New Wave, film critic David Stratton claims that the film is stylistically all over the place because director Tom Cowan is a gentle director who’s taking on audacious and violent subject matter, and there seems to be a contradiction there. I sort of agree, as the film does lushly photograph the outback bush and its human inhabits (of various primitiveness), yet Cowan is able to make the film as hardcore and as wild as something like a jungle horror flick (though the R18+ rating is excessive, given that the little amount of blood and gore in the film is hardly realistic) with the director himself likening this film to Aguirre: Wrath of God on the DVD commentary, as these films share a similar chaoticness that emerges from civilised people spending too much time within nature. Stratton says the film doesn’t satisfy those looking for a straight-forward action film set in colonial days of Australia, but I disagree. It is satisfying, given its 80 minute length (which Stratton says is overlong), it follows a very linear narrative path, yet gives itself time to breathe, especially the later scenes when the women get closest to nature by painting their own bodies and hair.

Cowan partially wrote a screenplay for the film, but wanted other parts to be improvised – making this something of a “workshopped” film. This caused hostility on set, where much of the cast and crew spent six weeks at Cattai Creek (the Hawkesbury river), although some crew-members ended up leaving. According to The Last New Wave, Cowan says his role as director was often challenged by the cast as they would often debate over which direction the film should go in, taking the director’s helm for themselves. Bits and pieces of feminist discussion were put in the film by the cast, though these scenes were edited out (in the film’s rather lengthy 18 month post production stage). However, this workshopped way of working on the film seemed to contribute some cinema verite inspired scenes, including some crazed female performances around a large fire, which was apparently inspired by the crazed (and argumentative) cast and crew on set – Cowan said “it’s easy to underestimate the power of the bush itself; living and working there for five weeks, it had a big effect on all of us. I always knew it would be a volatile situation, and I hoped to get that into the film”, and he got exactly that.

This is a fairly good film that’s not exactly essential Australian cinema, and its target demographic is a confusing one. The numerous shifts in tone in the film seem to be a concern to some critics and audiences —  Simon Foster mentions that Journey Among Women was too liberated and demented to be part of the usual women’s films in the Australian New Wave, yet neither quite fully embraced by the Ozploitation crowd – “Cowan’s achievement exists within a niche all its own.” Either way, the film did do well at the box office, due to its excessive nudity and scenes of lesbianism.

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