In her 1980s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, American cartoonist Alison Bechdel featured a female character who says she only watches movies that: 1. have at least two women, 2. who talk to each other and 3. about something other than a man.
You’d be surprised how many films fail the test, even if they feature major female characters. There are the obvious blockbusters, such as the original Star Wars films, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Pulp Fiction? The Big Lebowski? The Bechdel Test doesn’t claim to be a stringent, all-encompassing scientific method – it doesn’t check for quality, measure violence, evaluate how women are treated. It just asks if women are visible. And it’s a good way to get people thinking.
With a strong cohort of women filmmakers, this year’s Sydney Film Festival offers an opportune moment to talk about the disproportionately low number of lead roles, lack of serious character development and typecasting for women.
Festival films aren’t necessarily – or to a lesser extent – tied by the same market constraints as mainstream films. Touch is an example of this. This debut from first-time director Christopher Houghton is a stirring and masterful mystery-thriller about a woman and her daughter on the run. The pair hole up in a hotel and we watch as the lead character, Dawn, unravels. While desperately trying to keep her daughter hidden, at night Dawn maintains an intense sexual relationship.
The team behind Touch agrees that gender bias in Australian filmmaking is definitely “out there”. Leeanna Walsman, who plays Dawn, says there is a lack of roles for women of a certain age: you’re sexualised in your early twenties – then you’re invisible – and then you age into the roles of a divorcee or a mother.
Touch was made on a small budget (half a million) and was developed through the South Australia Film Lab. It selects a film to produce based on just a one-page outline. Houghton knew exactly what type of story he wanted. Depth was important and without big-budget expectations he could make his lead raw and unexplained.
Matt Day, who co-stars in the film, says that Dawn is so hard to describe that it’s, “A good thing Chris got his money beforehand.” She is a real person under a great deal of stress who makes serious choices.
“Dawn is not a victim, or a seductress … she is unpredictable and there’s a persistent sense of danger,” adds Walsman.
“There is emotion running through the entire film,” says Houghton. “It’s a feeling that will stay with you.”
Don’t miss Touch on Sunday at 6.30pm.