From the heart

Sisters Margot and Diana Nash, circa 1955. Photo by NZIFF.
Sisters Margot and Diana Nash, circa 1955. Photo by NZIFF.
Margot Nash.
Margot Nash.

New Zealand-born, Australia-based film-maker Margot Nash's latest project, The Silences, could hardly have been more personal, writes Shane Gilchrist.

''The past returns, whispering its secrets,'' film-maker Margot Nash reflects early in The Silences, her highly personal examination of a family shaped by war, grief and mental illness, among other forces.

Alas, Nash begs that the key secret of her film not be revealed.

''You mustn't tell,'' she insists via phone from her Sydney home.

So let's focus on other aspects of the New Zealand-born auteur's project, the latest in a long series of big-screen work that began in Australia in the 1970s.

Using family photographs, oral histories, letters, documentary video footage as well as clips from her body of work as a film-maker, Nash goes fossicking in the family closet, The Silences offering an intimate portrait of a childhood in which she was often the focus of a barb-tongued mother.

As well as dealing with a mother who suffered from depression, Nash also discovered (at the age of 10) her father struggled with mental illness, including violent delusional episodes exacerbated by his experiences in World War 2.

''When I first started making the film, I wasn't sure where it was going to go, or even if I wanted to do it. It is highly personal, '' Nash says.

''However, it is a story I wanted to tell for quite some time. I thought it was a story that would touch others and bring up other people's memories, including repressed family stories.''

Having been shown in Auckland and Wellington as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, The Silences screens twice at Rialto Cinemas on August 13.

Nash, who will attend both screenings (''I hope a few old friends will turn up ...''), lived in the city during the mid-'70s.

Having left New Zealand for Australia as a child, she returned to Auckland for a women's film workshop in 1974, then headed to Dunedin the following year, working as a presenter on the children's television programme Playschool for several months before returning to Australia.

Almost four decades after her debut film about female sexuality, We Aim To Please, won a jury prize at a Paris festival in 1978, Nash has assembled an extensive CV, producing, writing and directing a number of award-winning shorts and documentaries.

Her 1982 feature documentary For Love or Money (about the history of women and work in Australia) received a UN Media Peace prize in 1985.

More recently, she has lectured in film at Sydney's University of Technology, although she has taken much of this year off in order to complete The Silences, then promote and tour it.

''The next big thing is to go back to work,'' Nash says.

''I plan to write about my family and childhood and I do have another idea for a film, but that will be about something entirely different.

''It won't be anything as personal.''

Nash had initially written a feature-length fictionalised version of The Silences.

However, financial necessity influenced the final result, which was completed only in March this year.

''Like many film-makers, you can spend years in script development and then it turns into a $10million movie and it becomes hard to find finance,'' Nash explains.

''Then I thought about telling it as a documentary, so I thought about what I had to use, how it would work, who it was for, why I was doing it, all of those things.''

A film-maker residency at the Zurich University of the Arts in 2012 gave Nash the opportunity to pull together the various threads of her story, the 14-week paid stint (during which she presented film-making masterclasses) also allowing her to play with the form of The Silences.

''It was an experiment in putting together a film by myself. When I returned I had a rough cut, so I began showing it to colleagues and getting feedback. That was the end of 2012 and it took me until March this year to finish it.''

Given a key theme of The Silences is Nash's attempts to make sense of what shaped her parents and, therefore, what shaped her, it is almost too obvious to ask if making the film was a cathartic experience.

Yet, she does book-end the documentary with scenes from Great Barrier Island that convey a sense of stillness.

Therefore, it's a question that deserves an answer: ''A lot of people have asked me that,'' Nash says.

''I guess I get anxious that people might think I've used the film as therapy ... this film came out of therapy but it wasn't used as therapy.

''It has been interesting for me, because in screening the film it has become distant. It has turned into something else. I can stand back and watch it and let go of it. In that way there is catharsis, but it's small.''

Nash (67), whose father died in 1986 aged 77 and mother in 2004 aged 93, points out there is no happy ending to The Silences.

Life is too complicated for that, she says.

''I think we need to speak about things such as mental illness in order to understand it and not be gripped by it. Mum was a stoic Kiwi woman from that generation that just `got on with it'.

''When the film screened in Auckland and Wellington, I thought, 'this is a film for the baby-boomer generation'. Our parents didn't talk about the war. I call it the amnesia of the 1950s, although we have to remember unspeakable things happened.

''I think my generation grew up wanting to speak about things; we were more radical. So there is a generational thing in The Silences, although I wasn't sure how much I wanted to highlight that until I saw how people responded to it.''


See it

• The Silences screens at Rialto Cinemas, Dunedin, at 10.45am and 6.45pm on Thursday, August 13. Film-maker Margot Nash will attend both screenings.



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