Maidens, is an autobiographical documentary about the filmmaker and her family; using personal archives and lyrical narration it also traces the filmmaking journey of its maker.

Funded by the  Australian Film Commission (1977), Maidens is set out in four parts. The first two parts document the lives of Thornley’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother using an archive of beautiful and uncommonly comprehensive family photographs. (Indeed in the credits the filmmaker thanks her maternal family for preserving their heritage.) The second two parts document Thornley’s own life, again using an archive of family photos, but this time interwoven with a new feminist archive in the form of excerpts from films with which Thornley had been involved, as well as Super8 footage she herself filmed.

The two halves of the film diverge stylistically. The clear, static testament of the first half becomes opaque, fluid and intensely personal in the second half. Time loses its order and the female subject is continually repositioned. The divergence reflects the film’s central dilemma: how to begin a feminist history, how to begin a feminist memory, what to keep and what to throw out, what to remember and what to forget. And the attempt to unify the assortment of concerns (expressed by the content of the images and narration) using music, editing and image texture is compelling.

It’s a recognition that a feminist film language, one which might somehow be capable of articulating the utopian dream of a new sisterhood, would have to overthrow not only cinema’s conventional content, but its very form. But how to do such a thing and still make a film? And what then of meaning? Big questions for feminist films to come.

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