in a Mirror
All documentary filmmakers are familiar with the lure of the archives. Although documentary is frequently reduced, in the public's mind, to the "you are there" school of on-the-spot reportage, a far greater part of the genre's history (both in cinema and television) is devoted to the research and presentation of pre-existing bits of film.
Films about artists – especially if the artist is no longer around to tell his or her own story – tend to be exercises in "reanimating" the archives. Such projects work especially well if part of the artist's archive has hitherto gone unseen in public.
Kathy Drayton's excellent Girl in a Mirror is an excavation of the career of Australian photographic artist Carol Jerrems (1949-1980), whose hard-edge but lyrical portraits of people in the bohemian counter-cultures and sub-cultures of the '70s deserve that over-used label of "iconic".
Drayton does not shy away from the complexities of Jerrems' "participant observation" in the often extreme situations she caught on film.
This assemblage of materials by Drayton (who has made some striking experimental shorts) is midway between a conventional television documentary and a more personal, distinctive essay-film. It benefits enormously from complete access to the artist's proof sheets and diaries. The talking-heads part includes candid interviews with Jerrems' teacher Paul Cox, musician Ross Hannaford, and several of the "models" from her best-known images.
Particularly revealing are the clips from Jerrems' own short movies, Hanging About and the unfinished School's Out, which anticipate the film work of Larry Clark. Yet such tantalising glimpses reveal the limit of the archival documentary form, because it often leaves us longing for an old-fashioned, curated exhibition that could show us more at greater leisure. Indeed, the DVD of Girl in a Mirror takes the opportunity to expand the movie with many valuable archival extras.
Drayton has been accused of peddling an easy nostalgia for the libertarian '70s. But if the film sometimes gives such an impression, is that really a problem? In truth, it is hard to imagine anyone equivalent to Jerrems, nurtured by a similar atmosphere of artistic and political experimentation, emerging today.
Girl in a Mirror weaves a fascinating portrait of a complex personality and a lost time in Australian cultural history.
© Adrian Martin October 2005