Remembering Sylvia Lawson

Read about Sylvia Lawson in Sydney Morning Herald here.  

Sylvia Lawson

By Tina Kaufman and Jane Mills


When Sylvia Lawson died peacefully on Monday 6 November 2017 in Melbourne, Australia lost one of its most significant film writers and cinephiles. And, speaking personally, we lost a friend of many years (many more years for Tina than for Jane) whose love, warmth, wit, perceptive insight and understanding of cinema we will sorely miss. So, too, will very many others: Sylvia had a gift for friendship. Her death was not unexpected – she had become increasingly frail since being rushed to hospital from the Film and History conference in Brisbane in 2015. But this, of course, in no way makes any of us feel less sad or miss her any the less.

She‘ll also be hugely missed by officers present and past and friends of the Sydney Film Festival of which she has been an important part since the beginning. Tina recalls that the very first Festival began at Sydney University on June 11, 1954, on a cold winter’s night. It had been organised by a committee that first met in late 1953, with Alan Stout, Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University, as chair. Active members included filmmakers John Heyer and John Kingsford Smith, along with Sydney University Film Group President David Donaldson. And it was David Donaldson, by now the first Festival Director, who in 1956 invited the young journalist Sylvia Lawson to join the committee. She and Bob Connell became co-directors for the 1959 Festival, programmed in a rush and under emergency conditions, as she would later recall. It was the year the Festival returned to its June date after two not very successful years in October, expanded to seventeen days, and moved some screenings out of the University. It was very Sylvia to step up whenever screen culture in Australia needed a champion.

Sylvia remained a great supporter of the Festival, attending without fail and writing about it often. Her first piece was in the journal, Nation, in 1958; one of her last pieces in the online journal Inside Story was a review of the 2015 Festival. In this, while it was very like her to understand and share the sense of nostalgia for the early days of the Festival, the loss of the sense of community, as expressed to her by some older subscribers, she also argued strongly that the films that matter most are those for which we really need festivals: the South African, Indian, Korean, Chinese and the Chilean films. She was always particularly encouraged by (and indeed, personally encouraged) the Festival's support from the very beginning for Australian filmmaking, and especially for the work of Indigenous filmmakers.

It’s impossible to imagine the SFF without Sylvia buzzing in and out of films in a stylish array of colourful hats, insisting on seeing every film that she was going to write about at least twice –and, rightly in our view, scorning the poor intellectual commitment of those critics who saw films they were reviewing just the once.

But there is no cause to be completely maudlin. Sylvia is not going to disappear. How can she when so much of her writing exists? Above all, Sylvia was a journalist, an author and one of Australia's most important film reviewers. Her film criticism has appeared in the journals Nation, Sydney Cinema Journal, The Australian, Filmnews, Rouge, Inside Story, Framework and reprinted in An Australian Film Reader co-edited by Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan and also in Nation: The Life of an Independent Journal of Opinion edited by Ken Inglis. Her books include: The Archibald Paradox, Demanding the Impossible, How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia, The Back of Beyond (for the Australian Screen Classic series edited by Jane) and a novel, The Outside Story, that was aptly described as “a dance through the fraught and contested history of the Sydney Opera House.”

Her good friend (and former student) Professor Tom O’Regan considers Sylvia’s reviews for Nation

redefined what film criticism could be in Australia… she made film matter as a means to think with and think through the larger role film could play in social and national life. Film reviewing was a means, as Lawson would later assert, to demand the impossible… Her film interventions have been heady stuff. Her journalism was seminal to the successful campaign to re establish the Australian film industry in the late 1960s….Her consistent championing of political, feminist and Indigenous filmmaking and filmmakers over four decades brought important films and filmmakers to public attention.

As Tom concluded, Sylvia provided some of our most accomplished writing on film.

Tina particularly recalls with gratitude and much admiration that as early as 1961 she argued strongly for an Australian cinema. In her review of The Sundowners (Fred Zinnneman, 1953) for Nation, Sylvia was highly critical of the overseas takeover of this very Australian story about a sheep droving and shearing family from a novel by the Australian Jon Cleary. Pointing out that this film, a US-UK-Australian co-production, boasted an American director and screenplay writer (Isobel Lennart), and starred a British and US lead cast (Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, and Peter Ustinov) with only a smattering of Australian supporting cast, she wrote: "we need our own film industry to show us who and what we are." Adding the perceptive comment: "film is, possibly, more bound up with nationality than any other art."

Again in Nation, reporting  in 1959 on some of the early stirrings of Australian film activists (a role she played with commitment and gusto) and in government, she wrote: "the bedrock reason we need a film industry . . . is that we need what our film makers could give us, just as much as we need what our painters, novelists, playwrights, musicians and TV entertainers give - for better or worse."

It seems appropriate to give Sylvia the last word – a position she was never afraid to claim (although she always intended her words to lead to further dialogue). Jane recalls Sylvia particularly admired Ivan Sen’s films and, as an example of her skill as a film critic who drew upon an extensive and eclectic range of cultural knowledge while always remaining politically radical and focussed, we offer the following passage from her review of Sen’s film Mystery Road that opened SFF in 2013:

As a Western, this is also a thriller; from the dark opening on the road, with the long track along the culvert underneath, the tension is extreme. The uncertainties, the silences and broken-off exchanges, the crazy set-pieces in which Jack Thompson does dementia and Jack Charles does the scheming old know-all, all compose a world in which nothing’s going to be wrapped up. There will be the ominous passage with the roo-shooters, intimations of evil right out of Boorman’s Deliverance. There will be moments of lightness, even of promise, with the kids playing in the dust, and in the comedy of [lead actor Aaron Pedersen’s character] Swan’s strung-out negotiation with the boy who found a lost mobile phone. There will be the second murder, while the great rigs, the Titans of the outback world, go thundering along the highway; the speed and noise are relentless. Here, as in Beneath Clouds [Sen, 2002], the roaring juggernauts signal the forces against which the people of this town – any town – can do so little. As they loom up, drug dependence, petty trafficking and beer-soaked idleness make a terrible kind of sense; this account doesn’t even let in the struggling schoolteacher whose kind we saw last year in Sen’s Toomelah [2011].

In that film, too, a small town has its place on the drug trails, a network criss-crossing outback Australia; Ivan Sen is giving us parts of a map we would rather not recognise as our own. It has been said that within every strong feature film there’s a documentary, the whole film’s grip on the world, and it’s true of Mystery Road. Some commentators have found it lacking for leaving those loose ends, the open gaps in Swan’s and the audience’s knowledge. If you pay close attention to the final quarter of an hour, there aren’t in fact so many gaps; but in any case, the kind of detective work that wraps the case up completely, with all the ends tied off, belongs with Agatha Christie and Poirot. Tight plots can be part of cinema, but the richest and most interesting cinema makes doubt and silence visible; Ivan Sen has acknowledged the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky. (Those who want to see what he means should head for Brisbane immediately; all Tarkovsky’s films are playing in that city’s international film festival, until 24 November.)

The town in Mystery Road, not far from Massacre Creek and Slaughter Hill, belongs in Australian history, past and present. It inherits – and with the two murders indeed continues – what Henry Reynolds has recently named as “the forgotten war” between black and white, and the destruction of Aboriginal society over two centuries. The banal desolation of the town, with its untended yards, littered interiors and boredom, is wreckage from exactly that war. Some will say that this response calls into the film too much that lies outside it; but it’s exactly the inconclusiveness, the supposedly unanswered questions, that hold the story open on to history: consider those huge skies. This film is a small masterpiece. [Inside Story 13 Nov 2013:]


Tina Kaufman is an Honorary Life Member of SFF (she was a board member for 24 years); she was editor of Filmnews (1977-’94), and has written on film for a number of different publications since.

Jane Mills teaches film studies at UNSW, is a former member of the SFF Board of Directors and a member of the SFF Advisory Panel since 2012. As the Series Editor of Australian Screen Classics, she commissioned and edited Sylvia Lawson’s volume on John Heyer’s The Back of Beyond.