Making The Witch of Kings Cross – Director Sonia Bible writes about her spellbinding documentary

Sonia Bible and Lukas Rose on the set of The Witch of Kings Cross.

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In 1950s Sydney, bohemian artist Rosaleen Norton hits the headlines with allegations of satanic rituals, obscene art and sex orgies.

She worships the God Pan, and practices trances and sex magic, inspired by the work of Aleister Crowley.

Eventually the relentless scandals lead to the downfall of her high society lover, Sir Eugene Goossens. Told ‘in her own words’, The Witch of Kings Cross weaves stylized drama and erotic dancers with never-before-seen artworks, diaries and scrapbooks. The Witch of Kings Cross is the fascinating portrait of a fearless woman outlaw railing against fearful conservative forces and an insight into the work of an uncelebrated genius.

In today’s new wave of feminism, Rosaleen’s story has never been more pertinent. 

The Witch of Kings Cross director, Sonia Bible, is an internationally award-winning documentary writer and director.

Her debut film, Recipe For Murder won a Silver Hugo Award at Chicago International Film Festival 2011, the Australian NSW Premiers’ History Award and was a ratings juggernaut for ABC Television in 2011. Recipe For Murder was sold into multiple territories worldwide.

Sonia’s next film, Muriel Matters screened at Cork International Film Festival 2014, Sheffield Videotheque, Adelaide Film Festival and was broadcast on ABC Arts and BBC UK. In 2017, Sonia produced and directed My First Year, an 8 x 10-minute observational documentary series about first year university students. Sonia is the co-founder of Black Jelly Films where she works as a producer, director and editor in broadcast television, web series, branded content and digital campaigns. The Witch of Kings Cross is her first feature. 

Here, Bible gives us an insight into the making of The Witch of Kings Cross – a spellbinding new documentary which celebrates one of Australia’s most fascinating artists.

Sonia Bible and Kate Elizabeth Laxton on the set of The Witch of Kings Cross.

Written by Sonia Bible

I discovered Rosaleen Norton’s story when I was making my first film, Recipe For Murder, about women who poisoned their husbands with rat poison in Sydney in the 1950s. I was researching tabloid newspapers from the 1950s, and articles about Rosaleen kept popping up. I was immediately struck by the bravery and sheer determination of Rosaleen Norton. She was a wild, creative woman, decades ahead of her time. She never gave up her artistic pursuits, no matter how hard the authorities made it. I found that inspiring.

In 2013, our initial research uncovered people who knew Rosaleen Norton personally, and many newspaper articles, but there was no official collection of Norton’s artworks anywhere. Some of the key interviewees were unwell or elderly, so I felt an urgency to start filming, and several of the people have since passed away. My husband Edward Gill was the cinematographer, and he describes himself as ‘long suffering’! In 2015, when I unearthed two major private collections of art, scrapbooks, diaries and notebooks, it was the point of no return. 

At the beginning, I wasn’t a fan of her art; I was more interested in the story of the rebellious woman, the media’s portrayal of Rosaleen, and society’s fear around what she represented. Over time, I grew to love the art. The more I learned about the symbolism and philosophy behind the art, the more I liked and respected the work. I did a lot of background research into Greek and Pagan mythology, the teachings of The Kabbalah and Aleister Crowley. Although, for me, it was the philosophies of Carl Jung that really helped my understanding. 

Damien Grima as Pan, Kate Elizabeth Laxton as Rosaleen, Lukas Rose as Lucifer, Karlee Misipeka as Lilith.

To be faithful to the spirit of Rosaleen Norton, I was compelled to take risks with the creative direction of the film. I wanted to visualize her inner world and spiritual beliefs and felt strongly that the film should be erotic, because it was actually Norton’s sexuality that the authorities found so threatening. So, casting dancers as Pan, Lilith and Lucifer from Norton’s work seemed like an exciting idea. Gods and goddesses with sexy, writhing bodies, performing on an underground bohemian stage, represent Norton’s trances and experiences in sex magic.

In true indie film style, I edited the film on an iMac in the lounge room of a one-bedroom apartment, with a dog on my lap. Towards the end, I hired senior editor, Fiona Strain for two weeks to help me get the film to fine cut. That was the best decision and an invaluable process. Not only did we have a lot of laughs, but Fiona also injected a fresh perspective and I got to just be the director for a short while.

There was still a lot of work do with graphics design, digital compositing and animation. I collaborated with a talented team of designers over a two-year period, working and saving then then doing a bit more. Text from Norton’s diaries drive the story in a ‘rock doco’ aesthetic, with animated artworks, scrapbooks, thoughts and poetry. Archive photos and footage are interweaved with some striking ‘otherworldly’ scenes created with green screen footage and artistic digital compositing. 

The film is a moving exhibition of the rare and extraordinary art and artefacts that we have unearthed and documented over the years. For some, I hope it will be a window into the world of an uncelebrated genius. Forty years after her death, it’s time to unleash Rosaleen Norton’s work into the world.

The Witch of Kings Cross will release worldwide on February 9 via Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo and GooglePlay.

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