When the Camera Stopped Rolling

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The long list of credits for this intimate, handsomely crafted documentary looks like a who’s who for the local film industry. It’s a tribute to the subject of the film, filmmaker Lilias Fraser, and to her cinematographer daughter, Jane Castle, who is its writer-director and narrator.

From the late 1950s until the 1970s, Lilias Fraser worked at the frontier for female filmmakers, pioneering a place for women in the industry at a time of considerable resistance to them in creative roles.

The doco opens with images of water birds from a film that Lilias made while she was pregnant with Jane, her second child. It was one of Lilias’ first films, marking the beginning of a successful career at the Commonwealth Film Unit (now Film Australia), making documentaries for government agencies, like the commonwealth dairy and wheat boards, and for commercial companies like Comalco and Hamersley Iron.

Her doco, This is Their Land, is now recognised as the first land rights film

By the time Jane had turned 5 years old, her dynamic mother had turned out more than 15 films. At the end of Lilias’ filmmaking career, she had notched up some 40 titles.

Though she was shooting celebratory nation-builder projects for corporate and government bodies, it is clear that Lilias was developing different political perspectives. In 1970, her film This is Their Land was released, a doco now recognised as Australia’s first land rights film. Throughout her career, she remained deeply committed to Indigenous issues.

At the age of 50, in late career, Lilias was a distributor for the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op. She also taught at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, where her trailblazing career made her the perfect role model for generations of young women aspiring to a career in filmmaking.

Lilias had been determined to pursue her interests from an early age. Although she wasn’t allowed to finish school and had to stay at home to look after her mother, she found ways to break free. She was drawn to the camera, experimenting on her father’s Super 8 camera, and buying her own equipment when she was 25.

Director Jane Fraser with her mother, filmmaker Lilias Fraser

There was a trip to London where she studied at a prestigious photography school. When she landed in Paris in 1959, she was in time to catch the crest of the French New Wave, and became the first Australian to enrol at the national film school of France. In a way, it is hardly surprising to hear that she crashed through the gender barrier at the Commonwealth Film Unit, the former name of Film Australia, becoming its first female film director.

Among the wealth of images, still and moving, for home movie and public exhibition, that capture Lilias’ life and career, there are some stills of her captured within her own doco films. Apparently, she often liked to step away from behind the camera on location and simply join the fun. These images capture a slim, vibrant figure with a broad smile, having a wonderful time of it.

Filmmaking suited her temperament, the occupation of choice for this person who wanted ‘to be free’, and who is remembered in obituaries by those she mentored as a vibrant woman of positivity and joie de vivre. Lilias was suffering Alzheimer’s disease when she died in a tragic accident in 2004, aged 74.

Richly textured, revelatory film brings the light and dark of the legacy of a little-known, trailblazing female filmmaker to light

Daughter Jane, a successful cinematographer in her own right, reveals she became a cinematographer to build a closer relationship with her mercurial mother. On the other hand, the camera lens gave her the means to create beauty and order in her own young life, overcoming the turbulence experienced at home, her parents’ deteriorating marriage, the parental absences and the alcoholism and abuse.

While this richly textured, revelatory film brings the legacy of a little-known, trailblazing female filmmaker to light, it reveals a dark side to the glamour and excitement of life with Lilias. With husband Norman Castle, 20 years her senior, Lilias ran Fraser Castle film productions and the family lived in a big house near Sydney Harbour, but the couple were chronically in debt and had to seek financial help from Lilias’ wealthy father.

A keen surfer, Lilias never got to make the ‘sea symphony’ she longed to make, a celebration of the ocean that she loved. At least it is conveyed to us through this brave and moving testament from her daughter.

M, 75 minutes

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 April 2022. Jane’s reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes