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“We’re gonna be bloody tired”- A Woman’s Career in Film

Dr Susan Thwaites and I sat across from each other at the desk in her office as we discussed the Australian film industry’s tendencies towards women at length. I asked her how she felt when people specifically preface the title ‘filmmaker’ with ‘female’ when describing a woman in film.

“So, it’s a bit like saying indigenous filmmaker or indigenous film, or women’s film because we never say male film or white person’s film. So it is astoundingly problematic. I wouldn’t describe anyone as a woman filmmaker, I would say that Tracy is a filmmaker and she makes-you know, like, that’s the sentence.”

Archival photo of Susan manning a cinema camera in a New York Yankees baseball cap.
Susan as the cinematographer- the head of the camera department- on a short film set.

Susan developed her interest in cinematography during high school. Her passion for black and white photography would direct her towards the film industry in the early 90s, as Susan set out to pursue a career in the film department most dominated by men.  This, in the already gender imbalanced world of Film.

In 1993, during the last year of her bachelor at Sydney’s highly competitive Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), Susan’s cinematography work was nominated for an AACTA award. The Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Awards are best known for sharing the same status as Oscars or BAFTAs, and the year after she graduated; Susan was nominated for the same Non-Feature Film award again.

Having built a work portfolio of recognised short films, documentaries, music videos and scripts, Susan became a credited member of the ACCTA and the Australian Writer’s Guild. She’s now an academic in film production and the Vice President of the Australian Screen Production Education & Research Association (ASPERA).

As much as Susan’s success speaks for itself, she’ll be the first to tell you her journey had plenty of uphill battles. Having broken through the film industry’s ‘celluloid’ ceiling, Susan has a lot of stories to share about how her gender, and the gender of others in the industry, did and did not play a part.

Susan stands in her office at UC.
Susan is the Discipline Lead for the Film Major at the University of Canberra.

Lyndsey: Were there many female role models for you to aspire to when you started in the industry?

Susan: In cinematography, no. Full stop. Haha. Um, no, that’s not true- there was one. Her name was Jane Castle and she shot a lot of music videos that her sister directed, and their mother was a filmmaker as well. There’s actually a fantastic article- I just happen to have it here and I did not prepare this- it’s basically ‘When Girls grow up to be Cameramen’ by Jane Castle. So, it’s a whole article about this sexism and stuff.

Lyndsey: From your experience then, how would you describe the gender ratio in the industry?

Susan: Then, it was…it was a boy’s club. Really the only job that girls were in the camera department was often the clapper loader. But when I went to UTS (University of Technology, Sydney), that particular (film) degree was predominately taught by women. This would have been in the early 90s, in Sydney and it was really comfortable to be a female cinematographer. WIFT (Women in Film and Television organisation) existed then, so I was seeing a lot of women filmmakers. In our cohort there was probably 60-40, so 40% women, and they were really strong women, really really strong women. So I felt totally comfortable.

Then I went from there and applied to AFTRS and got into the cinematography department. And everyone in the camera department was a man, as in all the teachers were men, the gaffers were men. I’ve never really thought about this, but saying it now, I think that UTS experience- and just seeing women doing whatever they wanted to do- allowed me to go ‘of course we can do this’. There was this sense of ‘women can do whatever they want, they can do it all’. Which is actually not true.

Susan laughed.  

Lyndsey: Oh no, why do you say that?

Susan: Well, no. In that we can do it all but we’re gonna be bloody tired. This idea of doing it all, it’s a very different thing. I was telling some students the other day- this is off topic- but they saw this week of women and there was this great post of a woman holding a poster saying:

Anything you can do, I can do bleeding.

And that was just fantastic, it was like fuck yeah. We are literally sitting at these meetings with period pains and ‘oh my god what if I’m about to flood’ and you know, or ‘I’m pregnant’ or ‘I’ve gotta look after my mother’. It just never ends, it never ever ends; this other stuff.

A photograph on Susan's wall of a heavily pregnant woman holding a cinema camera.
“(My office is covered) with pictures of women with cameras because that’s obviously an obsession I have.”


Lyndsey: Did you ever feel that being the only woman in AFTRS, made it hard for you to pursue your cinematography career?

Susan: Well I decided, whilst I was at film school, to have a baby. As you do. And my logic was if I had a baby and had a year off film school then I’d have something to come back to because you know, there’s no maternity leave in freelance work.  I really wanted to have a baby- and  I was worried that if I didn’t fit it in now, that once I left film school I had to pursue my career so- I was 28 or something and in love- I just thought ‘ok, this is what we’ll do’. And I remember, a lot of the women who were in other areas like editing and directing and all that, they were incredibly supportive and understood it. And so, I would be waddling around in my end of second year. And a lot of the male teachers thought I wouldn’t come back cause I was having a baby.

When I did come back, I went to book some gear for a shoot from the grip– the guy who had all the power of the equipment, so the guy you need to negotiate with to get the best camera. And he said, “Didn’t you have a baby?”

And I go “yeah, yeah I did, last year. A daughter.” I thought he was just being friendly.

And he went “well who’s looking after it?”

I said, “my partner is.”

And he just looked at me and went “what sort of mother are you?”

Lyndsey: Oh my God. What year was this?

Susan: Um, so, ’93. And so I thought, wow… You know, they can say- this fucking patriarchy- that it doesn’t exist and that there’s equality but there’s just an innate- an astounding innate…thing that they, that we-yeah.

I remember thinking, if I do my usual response which is to tell him to go fucking fly off the fucking fucking fucking, I will wreck my chances of getting the gear that I want. So I knew immediately that I had to play a game, which we all do as women, and I’m sure maybe men do too but we’re not talking about them. So I just went “ah well, it’s gonna be okay”- I can’t remember. But I remember that I went to report him because then, when I had finished using him, I would have a record. But he never did it again, because he could just see that I wasn’t going to bite cause that was probably all that he was after.

Lyndsey: Was that something that people didn’t do? 

Susan: I was definitely this person who people had heard about: “oh yeah, she left to have a baby”. It was a 3 year bachelor then so it was like, this was your chance, why would you risk it? Doing something as ‘insane’ as having a baby.

Lyndsey: Did you ever experience any of this treatment on set, in your professional career?

Susan: I think as a head of department, I never suffered because I had been employed as the head of the cinematography department which meant I was the head of all of the blokes. They knew they got the job because I employed them. So I didn’t suffer. The director chose me as their cinematographer so there was power that came with that.

Archival photo of Susan working a vintage cinema camera.
Susan ‘manning’ a 16mm Bolex Vintage film camera at UTS.

Lyndsey: And the idea of females against females, did you see any of that when you were in the industry?

Susan: So basically, in my career, I had shot enough short films, a few music videos, some documentaries- you know, getting nominated for awards; ready to shoot the feature, really felt that that’s where I should be. And I managed to get interviewed for a feature film that was happening. The story was about motherhood, the character was an artist and had children. By then I had my second child. So I just thought- I would just have been an absolutely perfect choice for this film. Anyway, I didn’t get it. The producer rang me and to her credit I really appreciated it because she didn’t agree with it- basically the director had said:

“Look, I think Sue’s great, I think she’d be a perfect fit but I really need someone to flirt with on set so I’m going to need a male cinematographer.”

At that point I just thought, you know what? Fuck this. Fuck this. I am over it.

I cannot win with men, I don’t seem to be able to win with women.

That was probably the worst moment in my career because I didn’t know then, how I was going to get that first feature if I had to deal with that. You know, the director had said ‘you’re ready, you’re ready’ but it was such a ‘I’m ready but who’s going to take me?’ But if that was me now, with all the technology that’s available, I would have been shooting films with my friends. So, really different world.

Lyndsey: What would you say to the men who claim that awards like LCA‘s Best Female Filmmaker are just ‘unfair hand-outs’?

Susan: Looking back at my career there was an opportunity for funding for women who had left the film industry and needed to return. So I got funding to make a show reel; it was extremely useful. But that was specific to women who had left, not for parents who had left. I remember talking to some men and they had that similar attitude, sort of like “well, my wife is the primary earner in my family and I have looked after the children, but I’m not eligible for that”. And I go ‘hmm, yes, that doesn’t seem fair’.

I remember for a while- if you were a white male, you would never get any funding and they were pissed off by that. And I’d go, look I get that you’re pissed off but historically speaking, we have had the white male story for fucking, 100 years. So there has to be, in that sense- and I don’t like the terms ‘positive/reverse discrimination’ because I think they’re really dangerous- but I guess if I was going to use a word, it’s pretty insipid, but it’s encouragement. Or, finding a gap- a space- in this patriarchal dominant sphere that allows another voice in. And of course they’re going to be pissed off, cause it’s just like ‘well, we don’t get that- not fair’. It also could come from the fact that they may actually be thinking, like some women are, which is ‘do we need this? Like why is there a separation of women filmmakers at all?’

Another story about women and men- so years and years and years ago, no woman had ever won Tropfest.  And then the first time, officially, that a woman won best film- I was at the thing- it was a guy. And he came up and he said “yeah, this is embarrassing”. It turned out that that’s why he put his name down as Frances such and such, so that it would get into the Top 12. And you think, oh look, this is…this is all just not working. It’s pretty worrying…

Lyndsey: It’s such a gross situation cause it’s just like…what do we do?

Susan: Don’t give up.

Susan posing with a group of her student filmmakers.
Susan and fellow film tutor, Tim Thomas; with their third year students at UC’s 2020 Graduate Film Showcase.

Lyndsey: It’s a big question but how do we go about trying to fix how people view these awards and female filmmakers in general?

Susan: I actively use she. When a screenwriter does something she does this, when a director does something she does this. I will use she whenever I possibly can, just to subtly say every single one of these people are shes and they can be. To get rid of the he that we’re used to. Slowly chipping away at centuries of…crap.

I have a daughter and a son, and I knew when I had the son that it was my responsibility to create a son who was going to be worthy of being in the world with women. And he is well and truly a feminist.

It’s having to unfortunately educate, or correct, or “did you notice you just said that?” That’s our role as well, and I think that’s something that men have never had to do. But you know, whatever you can do, I can do bleeding. It just sums everything up.


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