Set in Kurnell on the edge of Botany Bay, 'a mythical site of mangrove swamps, wildlife, snakes, birds. . . and weatherboard cottages', close to where Captain Cook landed in 1770 'Vacant Possession'(1995) tells the story of a white woman and 'prodigal daughter' (Pamela Rabe) returning to her family home after the death of her mother. Returning home Tessa is forced to confront unresolved issues, which are triggered by the spectre of a father, who forced Tessa to flee fall those years ago, when he discovered that she was pregnant to her Aboriginal lover, Mitch. Dealing with issues of 'hearth and place' and 'remembrance and regret', Vacant Possession cleverly weaves a highly personal story of unresolved relationships from the past, which must be met in the present, onto a background involving the Aboriginal legacy of Australian history and issues of our unresolved colonial past.
The film opens with Tessa's (Pamela Rabe) arrival home, and we are immediately made aware of the unresolved tensions between her and her older sister Kate (Linden Wilkinson), and her disturbed father Frank (John Stanton). The sibling rivalry is made apparent over the inheritance of the family home, 'Irene', a neglected sunbleached weatherboard, of which their unstable father has relinquished control over (Dzenis,1996:52). Clashing over the ownership of the house, both sisters are relying on the cash settlement, Tessa to 'start over', and Kate, to remove her family from the financial dire straits, inflicted by her 'drinking and gambling husband'. In order to find the new will, which her mother wrote on her deathbed, Tessa returns to 'Irene', and begins the search. Wandering through the house, sorting through her mothers belongings, and the collected debris of her childhood, the exploration becomes more than Tessa had bargained for, as the home triggers painful and vivid memories. For Tessa, Irene is far from 'vacant', it is a place invested with significance and haunted by emotional ghosts of the past; of a troubled childhood caused by her volatile and irrational 'war damaged' father, and of unresolved tensions between her and her Aboriginal neighbours. Thus as the film progresses, the space of the Spartan and echo filled house, becomes a site where Tessa'a memories, fantasies and dreams intertwine and transitions from past to present become 'part of the same space, occupying the same body' (Dzenis,1996:52).
Thus we witness a young Tessa playing, her mother singing, a rampaging father igniting irrationally and unpredictably. More ominously we bear witness to a young girl falling in love with an Aboriginal boy Mitch, becoming pregnant to him. Her mother tries unsuccessfully to force her daughter to have an abortion. A father hysterically wounds the boy and a young girl flees (Dzenis,1996:52). As Tessa confronts these memories past and present collide, in one moment she consoles her younger self, compassionately watching, and 'so the recognition and healing begins'.
"It is a most ambitious undertaking: an excavation into the emotional psyche of a young woman and it's links and parallels to the structure, formation and denial of nationhood" (Dzenis,1996:53)
Focusing primarily on the return of long absent expatriate Tessa, and her attempts at reconciliation with an older sister, and deeply disturbed father, 'Vacant Possession', has been thematically aligned with a film released in the same year, Richard Franklin's 'Hotel Sorrento'(1995), which also has a 'women centred' narrative and deals with similar issues. However as Adrian Martin (1995) and others have noted, 'Vacant Possession' extends beyond this thematic framework as 'for the heroine of this film, exploring the past includes facing up to the Aboriginal legacy in Australian history', thereby giving, 'Vacant Possession', a 'far broader social significance'. The strength of the film, therefore comes from the way in which, Nash has woven a number of themes together and storylines together each one having a kind of metaphorical relationship to the other. In this way 'Vacant Possession' can be read not simply as a personal drama concerning family conflict and its relationship to the present, as through the character of Tessa larger questions concerning issues of Australian national identity particularly in relation to our colonial past are generated and confronted. Thus Tessa must reconcile, not only with her sister and war scarred father, but also with Australia's colonial past. In questioning her own sense of belonging, her own stories and identities, these issues as, Dzenis (1996) suggests are linked to 'the structure, formation and denial of nationhood' (Dzenis,1996:53). In an interview with the director and screenwriter, Margot Nash she states:
"We have colonised this country; we're living in a post-colonial society, trying to understand what that means, and trying to find our place and sense of belonging" (Nash, cited in; Corbett,1995:19).
This difficulty and ambivalence is visually articulated in the film when Tessa is having a 'rest' in Millies room. Looking around the room she is confronted with strong images of a 'collective' aboriginal identity; a Mabo poster, pictures of Archie Roach, the Aboriginal songwriter and musician, an Aboriginal flag, these images set against the chatter of Millies close knit family, particularly in relation to her estranged one, work to reinforce Tessa's feeling of isolation at the time, and also more generally questions of her identity and sense of belonging. Incorporated into this story is also the character of Tessa's father ( John Stanton), who represents for me, not only a traumatic figure from Tessa's past, but also within the context of the themes of nationhood a national identities acts as a representation of Australia's colonial past, of a 'historical Australia'. Frank is a casualty of WWII, who cuts his family to pieces, and throws out his daughter for becoming pregnant to an Aboriginal boy, and as Nash suggests a figure that a lot of Australian families of that period were affected by. He was also the bearer of overtly racist and bitter attitudes towards the indigenous population and thus the dialogue between Tessa and her father provides a forum for these issues of resentment and discrimination to be discussed, exposed and interrogated.
Read in this way we can see that 'Vacant Possession', is very much a 'white story', and Nash asserts herself that this is what she perceived as the strength of the film. That is whilst the film deals with the 'difficulty and ambivalence of the relationship between white Australians and the land, and between indigenous peoples and colonisers, the film doesn't as such attempt to tell 'Aboriginal stories'. Nash states herself that; 'I came to understand that as a white person I couldn't tell Aboriginal stories. That's for Aboriginal people to do (Corbett,1995:18). Nash also talks about this process in one interview, about the difficulties of being overtly 'politically correct' only ending up in 'cliche land'. Nash therefore acknowledges the difficulties that come with her position, but this is the one criticism (that I am aware of), that was made of the film. Anna Dzenis, in her review points to moments where the film was 'heavy handed', 'wearing it's heart too much on it's sleeve' (Dzenis,1996:54). I would agree with Dzenis that there were rather self aware or obviously 'well intended' moments in the film, like Dzenis, however I would also agree that by no means was the films 'overall vision' destroyed by these moments.
Reviews (release and after)
Premiering at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 1995, 'Vacant Possession' received almost unanimously positive reviews, although I couldn't find many! Adrian Martin, then writing for 'The Age', nominated it as his critics choice:
"Often brilliantly directed with superb cinematography from Dione Beebe and a compelling atmospheric soundtrack- 'Vacant Possession is a truly enticing piece of cinema, and certainly the best Australian film to have appeared this year".
Furthermore, critic David Stratton included 'Vacant Possession' in his discussion of Australian films in the 'International Variety Guide', and previously in a review in 'Variety' weekly he states that the film 'probes the question of Australian national identity in the mid 90's intelligently and cinematically', furthermore he states; 'Nash working on a low budget, skilfully blends a number of themes into a provocative and intriguing personal story" (Stratton,1996:38)
Claire Corbett reviews the film in 'Cinema Papers' and continues the praise, she gives minor criticism suggesting at times that the film was 'excessively didactic', and thus most satisfying in it's 'lesser stated and more ambiguous poetic moments' (Corbett,1996:54). Included in the majority of the reviews was reference to the films art-house or 'niche' status. Therefore while reviewers were positive about the film it was continuously acknowledged that the film would perform 'modestly at the box-office', but would nevertheless appeal to 'thoughtful film goers willing to embrace its philosophies and insights'[my emphasis] (Stratton,1995:38). Reviewers emphasised its appeal to the international festival circuit rather than to 'mass audiences' thus valuing the film in terms of its cultural prestige and value rather than economic potential. Claire Corbett continues to emphasise the film position within an 'art-house' genre by situating it 'within a recognisable Australian intellectual environment and political milieu' (Corbet,1996:52).
The film was nominated for 4 AFI awards, including best direction, screenplay, sound and editing, but failed to receive any awards, similarly it was screened at Cannes in 1995 (Encore), but I could find no critical responses to it. In most reviews the editing of Veronika Jenet (who also worked on The Piano), was emphasised , along with the 'stunning cinematography' of Dione Beebe, that played an important role in the 'seamless integration of the films fantasy, memory and dream sequences', already an AFI award recipient for his work on "Eternity" (Lawrence Johnston,1994). I couldn't really find any evidence of the film in circulation in recent film literature, particularly internationally, which I found strange as it appeared at quite a few international film festivals.
Circumstances of Production/Release at Box Office
'Vacant Possession' was made on a low budget of $1.54 million, was fully financed by the AFC and produced in co-operation with Wintertime film and As If productions. It was filmed between the 8 of Nov and 17 Dec 1993. I was unable to find information concerning the details of box office figures for Australia or overseas. The only information I could find was that it premiered at Melbourne Film Festival, in June 1995. In Australia the video is distributed by 'Siren Entertainment' under the banner of 'art-house', and is relatively hard to find at video stores, apart from ones that specialise in festival films. Some of the International film festivals it screened at:
- Hawaii International Film Festival, USA (13-16 November 1996)
- As a part of the 'Strictly Oz' program, which commenced its season at UCLA (March 14)
- Portland Film Festival, USA (14 Feb-3 March 1996)
- Seattle International Women's Festival, USA ( 26-31 January, 1996)
- As a part of the 'Australian Film Seminar' in Johanassberg, South Africa (15 July, 1996)
Prior Works of Cast and Crew
'Vacant Possession' is Nash's first feature film and marks her transition from documentaries to a low budget feature. Apart from this transition the film's themes and concerns sit very 'comfortably' within Nash's prior body of work, which can be located within a history of Australian independent women's cinema.
Nash has made major contributions around the fringes of mainstream Australian film production for many years and has worked as a cinematographer, editor and consultant on various documentaries, short dramas and experimental films. Her filmography includes two widely acclaimed documentaries 'We Aim to Please' (Laurie & Nash,1977), a feminist documentary about female sexuality, and 'For Love or Money' (1983), a feature length compilation documentary on Australian women and their working lives in both the home and outside it. These films as with her more recent documentaries, can be located within a feminist and independent framework as they often reinterpret aspects of Australian history from a feminist perspective, are minorstream films which were often made as a part of Independent film-makers co-operatives. Nash's prior works also circulated within the international festival circuit, and won several awards at 'avant-garde' and feminist film festivals internationally.
Thus while 'Vacant Possession' has a far less narrow or specific audience in mind than her previous films, it can still be seen as a continuation of her previous cinematic interests and concerns. Furthermore as Adrian Martin notes 'Vacant Possession is above all a surrealist inspired dream film that evokes a history of womanise cinema running from Maya Deren to Susan Dermody's breath-taking 'Underwater' (1991). The film can therefore be seen as a part of a particular genre of film; 'women's cinema'. Furthermore I would locate the film as a part of a 'women centred cinema', like 'The Piano' (Campion,1993), 'The Last Days of Chez Nous' (Armstrong,1992) and 'The Well (Lang,1997), which also have women centred narratives, and a 'women friendly' crew and cast (O'Regan,1996:290). The cast also worked in a pre-production workshop, made possible by the women's program of the AFC.
Pamela Rabe, who plays Tessa has been involved in several prominent Australian films including 'Sirens' (1994), 'Lust and Revenge' (1996), Cosi (1996), and most recently performed in 'The Well' (Lang,1997), taking out the AFI award for Best Supporting Actress.
John Stanton who played Frank, Tessa's father, is an incredibly familiar face within Australian film and television, some of his roles include; roles in the TV series 'Homicide' (1964), 'Phar Lap'(1983), 'The Naked Country'(1984), and more recently Halifax: Lies of the Mind (1994)(TV).
Position and Value of Australian Film
As O'Regan suggests 'Value is an inescapable feature of all cultural objects', and thus 'disputes over value are likewise inescapable' (O'Regan,1996:111). This is illustrated in our ways of speaking about Australian film which inevitably involve processes of evaluation was the film 'good' or 'bad' 'worthy' or 'worthless' and as a result is the film valued or devalued. The value we place on films and other cultural objects, however is not settled, rather it is shaped by 'the will to value'. Thus for example according to the 'National cinema ideal' which values National cinema's at the expense of Hollywoods, 'Vacant Possession' is positioned according to it's cultural value and significance, rather than its commercial and economic success or appeal. Thus the vocabulary employed to discuss 'Vacant Possession' promotes the cultural over the commercial, so much so on fact that the commercial within this framework is seen only to function at the expense of the cultural. This framework constructs a distinct dichotomy between money and meaning and art and commerce, and is most commonly used by critics as I have illustrated above when, in my discussion of the critical reception of 'Vacant Possession'. This claim of cultural value is foundational to the space of a festival cinema, and also in terms of the legitimation of a positive cinematic standing and identity for Australian cinema at an international and local level (O'Regan,1996:111). On the other hand however Australian cinema, apart from cultural legitimation needs relative commercial success internationally, here another vocabulary is employed, this time valuing a films ability to 'speak to and connect with local and international audiences' (O'Regan,1996:112). What becomes obvious here is that the value of a film is far from settled rather deciphered according to a particular value system which can produce different estimations and thus 'truth effects' about a film.
For example within a national cinema milieu 'Vacant Possession' sits somewhere between a 'prestigious' and 'other' or 'counter' cinema, certainly not mundane, however within an international context it is different as the hierarchies of value change. That is among the hierarchy of value Australian national cinema is considered as a mundane, rather than prestigious, banal rather than 'different'. In relation to famous large 'art' cinema's such as the Italian and French, 'Vacant Possession', and other minor stream Australian films might be devalued as mediocre (O'Regan,1996:122).
Thus we can see how at a national level 'Vacant Possession' may be valued as a culturally significant 'quality film', positioned as intrinsically more significant than Hollywood cinema. Within the international context, however the film may similarly be devalued because of its status within an international hierarchy of value as mundane. This points to the ways in which valuing a film is part of a process, motivated by goals to value or devalue films as a part of a specific national and international projects and not 'essential attributes of particular national cinemas or parts of a national cinema' (O'Regan,1996:144)
Australian national cinema as a medium sized English language cinema
As a part of a medium sized English language cinema 'Vacant Possession' occupies a minor position in terms of international circulation, presence and significance, this is evidenced in the lack of critical attention and value the film has received at an international level and national level . 'Vacant Possession' operates marginally as a result of it belonging to a 'coherent and significant language community dominated by a larger international cinema, that of Hollywood (O'Regan,1996:89), and also through its belonging to a medium sized cinema which lacks the 'extensive or valuable export markets of larger cinemas such as the British or French (O'Regan,1996:90). While a film like 'Vacant Possession' is not made to compete with the dominant Hollywood market, functioning instead as a part of an 'international art cinema vehicle', it is at this level too that the film can also be seen as occupying a more minor position than some of its European or counterparts. That is through sharing a common language and other 'common cultural infrastructures' (O'Regan,1996:87) with Hollywood cinema the 'lingua franca' of cinema (O'Regan1996:82) local cinema feels competition more intensely than French or Italian cinema which may have relative cultural autonomy because of the 'protection' offered 'by the barrier of language'. More specifically as a part of the art-house genre, local product is often valued with respect to imports, comparisons which inevitably disadvantage it, for example as being 'not different enough', not expressing Australianness as intensely for example as French cinema may be seen to express its difference in terms of its 'Frenchness'. Thus because of Australia's social and cultural proximity to Brtitish and American, in an international art house context in particular an Australian film may appear to have a compromised identity and culture, one which could be seen as passing for American or British.
Thus while many Australian films have been successful internationally in the 90's, these have often been ones which define 'Australian difference' in terms of a 'quirky' or 'offbeat' manner. Australian difference therefore seems to be most positively accepted when it is represented in terms of 'prevalence of parody, especially of urban.suburban mundane pretentiousness and portentousness. . . .a contribution to ocker grange' (Malone,1994 cited in; O'Regan,1996:96), thus within this context a film such as 'Vacant Possession' while focussing on overtly 'Australian subject matter', might be percieved as 'colourless and ordinary', positioned in terms of the long list of 'faults' of Australian film making which have been articulated as 'a reliance on social realism, social problem film making', 'too much dialogue' and 'colourless and ordinary leading men and women' (O'Regan,1996:97). Situating 'Vacant Possession' within this framework thus points to the problem of 'differentiation' in Australian cinema. That is with its close connection with, and difference from, American and British culture negotiating a cinema that is percieved as distinctively 'Australian' is an impossibly complex procedure, furthermore as O'Regan suggests 'one persons original Australian film is anothers imitation' (O'Regan,1996:109)
CORBETT, Claire (1995) 'Sacred Land and Haunted Houses', Cinema Papers, no. 104, June:18-21.
DZENIS, Anna (1996) 'Vacant Possession-Film Review', Cinema Papers, no.110. June:52&54.
MARTIN, Adrian (1995)'Vacant Possession- Film Review', The Age, June 6. (Viewed on Microfilm)
STRATTON, David (1995) 'Vacant Possession-Film Review', Variety , June 16:38
Discussion in Books
O'REGAN, Tom (1996) 'Australian National Cinema', Routledge:london/New York;14&56
Presence online and in the literature
'Vacant Possession' proved to be a very challenging film to find information on. There was generally a lack of response with general searches on the net. 'Excite' proved to be the most useful, although even here there were only a few listings; mainly of its presence at film festivals; such as the French Film Festival 'Cinema tout ecran', which I have put as a link below, and a listed as a part of an 'Australian Film Seminar' in Johnannesburg, South Africa. These sites themselves proved useful, not for the information they provided, which was fairly limited, but instead for the indication of the films position in the international film information landscape, as a part of the festival circuit.The large movie sites such as Internet Movie Database provided a useful starting point, however as I have suggested below information here was also fairly limited. Whilst I expected the films lack of exposure in international web-sites what I found most disappointing was the lack of information in Australian based Databases such as RML Reviews Page, The AUSfilms Australian Film database etc. Similarly lots of the sites did not provide general search options which made finding information extremely difficult.
The literature on this film was similarly hard to come by, I think this was for several reasons, firstly that it occupies a relatively minor position in the Australian cinema film milieu, furthermore finding articles in journals is possibly the most difficult task in this assignment due to the lack of really good search engines for journals, while APAIS provided some, it seemed to mainly focus on 'Cinema Papers'. Therefore while I knew there was a review by Adrian Martin in 'The Age', as the articles I read referred to it, it didn't come up on any of the search engines, so I had to look through microfilm versions of the paper in the year of the films release, to eventually find a review which was two tiny columns long. Similarly while I knew there would be some information in 'Encore' it was not referenced anywhere, thus the only way to find info was to search through the journals by hand.
The area most lacking however was discussions in books, as the film was released in 1995, there was a limited number of recent publications which covered this year.Frustratingly many publications went up to 1994, thus if 'Vacant Possession' was included, as it was in 'Australian Film 1978-1994' ( Scott Murray Ed.), it was really only as a 'post script'.
While I found a limited amount of information on 'Vacant Possession', I do feel confident that this assignment has introduced me to the information landscape available on Australian film, and in this sense has been a really useful exercise.
Below I have listed the major sources under headings of 'Positive', and 'Negative'. The websites I found most useful are functioning links
Internet Movie Database
This provided basic information on the cast and crew, with links to previous works. It also provided a small synopsis, however in relation to what it provided for other films the information was fairly limited. There was no information on box-office, or critical reviews online as there was for many other Australian titles.
This site provided similar information to the IMD, however there was more information provided on the cast. There were also no listings for reviews or critical papers etc.
Australian Film Database
This also provided similar information to AMG and IMD, however in a little more detail. There was more up to date information on prior works of the cinematographer, Dione Beebe- 'Floating Life' (1996), however once again 'Vacant Possession' was not reviewed.
This site, once again provides information on cast and crew, has a small synopsis, and connects to other related information on the films awards at Melbourne Film Festival.
Cinema tout ecran
This is a film festival site in France, the information was limited unless you read French! Although there was a synopsis in English, some good stills and a filmography for Margot Nash.
Australian Feature Films CD ROM:
This provided a small synopsis, and also similar information to the online databases, however it did include a reference for a review in cinema papers;
- CORBETT, Claire (1995) 'Sacred Land and Haunted Houses', Cinema Papers, no. 104, June:18-21.
APAIS ON AUSTROM:
On a general title search 'Vacant Possession', this provided two articles on the film, one already listed above an another in Cinema Papers:
DZENIS, Anna (1996) 'Vacant Possession-Film Review', Cinema Papers, no.110. June:52&54.
Searching under 'Margot Nash' came up with no responses, under 'Pamela Rabe', there were two articles, but both were on her more recent and reviewed work 'The Well' (1997,Lang).
International Indexes to Film/ TV Periodicals:
Under the film title two articles were found, however they were the same two from Cinema Papers that I have listed above.
Variety International Film Guide:
The 1995 edition was missing, although the 1996 volume provided a small amount of information. The film was discussed briefly as a part of Australian Film in 1995 by David Stratton. There was a reference for one article in 'Variety Weekly', which was hiding in the serials room!;
Stratton, D (1995) 'Vacant Possession-Film Review', Variety , June 16:38
- Microsoft Cinemedia
- Film Index International CD Rom
- Culture and Communication Reading Rooms; Nothing found under general search.
This page was produced as part of the Australian Cinema Unit at Murdoch University 1998