Elsewhere: Anna Kannava

  Anna Kannava

Watching the very moving presentation of Anna Kannava’s work at Artist Film Workshop in Melbourne on 22 November 2018, I was struck by the absolute coherence of her relatively small but impressive and enduring output. The themes and concerns, the stylistic experimentation, the comic touch, the drift between fairy tale and melancholia, the steadfast autobiographical thread, the focus on female experience. In fact, everything is already there in her first, Rusden-made short from 1980, Kannava You Can’av’er (reproduced in its entirety in her best film, The Butler [1997]), in which we hear (under heavy reverb!) Anna speak this haunting refrain: “A woman is a woman is a woman. A woman is a clown”.


It is fortunate for all of us, today, that Anna’s talent, even at that early stage, was evident enough to attract faithful friends, mentors and collaborators such as John Cruthers, Annie Duncan, Graeme Cutts and Brian McKenzie (and, in later years, Natalie Vella, Bill Mousoulis and Chris Luscri) who helped some of her many projects come into being and stay in circulation.


The passage of years can help rack a particular historical context into focus. Today, I see clearly how Anna’s work participated in a certain loose “family” of Australian women filmmakers across several decades (some coming out of the same Rusden experience), freely mixing narrative, fantasy motifs, live action, silent cinema references, and animation (Virginia Murray’s The Lead Dress [1984] and Liz Hughes’ Cat’s Cradle [1991] also partake of this moment, as does the feature work of Sarah Watts). But Anna’s cinema is powered by a special tension that draws all its facets together.


Her vision, her sensibility, is one of eternal, nagging restlessness – always longing for an elsewhere, wherever she is situated. The very first shot of Kannava You Can’av’er shows the (at that moment incomplete) far-suburban highway that – as she comments in The Butler – she would eventually take in order to move far from home. Overseas travel (of which she did much, using that experience as the basis for both Ten Years After … Ten Years Older [1986] and her final film work, Kissing Paris [2008]) answers to the same yearning for escape, an escape from the various overlapping “scripts” laid down on her by gender, history, expectations, ethnic background, social status.


Home, family role models and prescribed destinies, siblings, national cultures, romantic relationships: all of them register for Anna, at some point or another, as stifling, suffocating prisons. Salvation and paradise loom elsewhere: in the past of origins and grandmotherly care in Cyprus; in the memory of one’s own pre-diseased face and body in the mirror; in an erotic, sexual love possible in some other, exotic place.


And yet – here is the tension – what could be more comforting or more fulfilling than the everyday pleasures of deep family ties, lasting friendships, maternal love, familiar vistas, and domestic routines?


It is all expressed so beautifully in the ending of The Butler, one of the greatest finales that Australian cinema has given us. Anna’s beloved brother Nino is hanging out the just-washed clothes while it rains, because – even if it means they won’t dry quickly – “they’re already wet”, anyway. The gesture is exasperating, funny, crazy and poetic all at once. Life, for Anna, is where you’re stuck – and what you’re stuck with. She dreamed of leaving it all behind; but always returned to scrutinise its unique magic.


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Postscript, 6 days later (on the publication of the above as part of a collective tribute to Anna published by Bill Mousoulis):

Just as Bill’s original idea for Senses of Cinema in 1999 once had the salutary effect of letting the cinephile globe at large know that Australia actually existed and had a thriving film culture of thinking, writing, speaking and creative people beyond a handful of official feature movies, I can only hope that his latest online publication adventure helps alert the fortresses of so-called World Cinema to the existence of Anna Kannava’s magnificent work.


We’ve all seen the amazing activism in recent times around women’s filmmaking and cine-feminism. Yet – and it’s not their fault – the cosmopolitan editors of MAI, Cléo and Another Gaze have probably never heard of Anna. It’s absolutely important to keep excavating the work of Chantal Akerman, Věra Chytilová, Barbara Loden, Agnès Varda, Kathryn Bigelow, Sarah Maldoror, Elaine May, Kira Muratova, and all the other greats. But Anna Kannava – and literally hundreds like her around the world, in small countries, neglected formats and disrespected genres (such as short, documentary and experimental cinema) – need attention too, just as much. Thank you, Bill, for being part of the devoted gang that keeps Anna’s flame alive.


MORE Kannava: Dreams for Life


© Adrian Martin 24 & 30 November 2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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