Australia and the world have lost a unique voice with the death last week of acclaimed director and writer Shirley Barrett.
Barrett rose to international fame in 1996 when she won the Camera d’Or – the Cannes Film Festival’s best first feature award – for Love Serenade. Following growing global attention, in 1997 The New York Times would celebrate her as “a pragmatic Australian with a quirky view of the world”.
Barrett’s quirky take permeated his work, including two other films – Walk the Talk (2000) and South Solitary (2010) – recognizable TV dramas such as Love My Way, Offspring and A Place to Call Home, and novels Rush Oh! and Le Bus on Thursday.
Barrett died peacefully in her sleep at her Sydney home aged 60, following a battle with metastatic breast cancer.
A social media post of Barrett’s daughter, Emmeline Norris, confirmed her mother’s death Wednesday morning.
In the post, Norris marked the loss of
not only a brilliant filmmaker and writer, but above all a loving mother to me and my sister, our father’s soul mate for life and the best friend one could ask for. ”
Exploring desire in wayward places
Barrett’s films presented a unique perspective on love, desire and the workings of life on the fringes – both social and geographical – of Australian society.
Between 1996 and 2010, Barrett wrote and directed three films, a feat in the Australian industry where second feature films can be difficult to make (especially for women).
From the isolated boredom of the geographically distant sets of Love Serenade and South Solitary, and the seediest fringes of fame on the RSL circuits of the Gold Coast in Walk the Talk, these films have been marked by the power of their locations to shape the stories and desires of their characters.
Love Serenade, selected for Un Certain Regard – the Cannes Film Festival’s program to explore new cinematic horizons – highlights Barrett’s unique perspective on storytelling.
Famous for one of the least erotic stripteases in movie history, Love Serenade subtly subverted the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. The film follows sisters Vicki-Ann and Dimity Hurley, played by Rebecca Frith and Miranda Otto respectively, through their misguided seductions, and then elimination, of new Brisbane radio DJ Ken Sherry.
Far from indulging in the expected love triangle and romantic tensions, the film instead focuses on the oppressive setting of the film: the town of Sunray, in the middle of nowhere.
In this place, Ken’s desire for the sister supersedes a larger set of desires; a “desire for something else”, as Barrett described it.
Barrett would return to themes of female desire and the power of (social) geography to shape it in her third feature, South Solitary, released in 2010. Again starring Otto, this time as the unmarried niece of a Lighthouse operator South Solitary examined the lives of the small communities that look after the lighthouse islands in the Tasman Sea.
Delving into the archives to research the film, Barrett noted the allure of this isolated setting where humans were forced to rely on unruly animals and even more unruly neighbors to survive.
As Barrett explained,
there are fascinating tales of tensions that would quickly develop between people, in this setting, with nothing else to ease them. Things often went wrong.
South Solitary was more than just a story about an isolated community, it was a film made by and for women. With a mostly female creative team, Barrett joked that it was “a film written for middle-aged women, by middle-aged women.”
Even today, such a description is considered a risky proposition for the success of a film.
Read more: We’re right to make a scene about gender equity in Australia’s screen industry
From screen to page
In 2014 Barrett published her first novel, Rush Oh!, with a backdrop telling the true story of a symbiotic relationship between a whaling town on the south coast of New South Wales and a pod of killer whales. , which facilitated the work of the whalers.
Eden’s story had begun life as a film script, developed over the years Barrett had worked to bring South Solitary to the big screen. After languishing as an unrealized project for several years, Barrett turned the story into a book.
After Rush Oh! Barrett would go on to write work for beyond the screen, publishing The Bus on Thursday in 2018 and penning another manuscript in later years.
Earlier this year, Barrett wrote two articles for The Guardian about her cancer experience and her terminal diagnosis.
In March, Barrett watched the strangeness of her last lychee season passing and the task of planning her funeral. She wrote, “It’s getting to a point where you can’t do it anymore, and I’m at this point now. I just want to quietly disappear into oblivion.
Read more: “I want to look death in the eye”: why dying inspires so many writers and artists
A source of inspiration
In 2018, I was lucky enough to meet Shirley Barrett, when we screened Love Serenade as the opening night film of the Melbourne Women in Film Festival.
Barrett, alongside the film’s producer Jan Chapman and editor Denise Haratzis, introduced her film and spoke to the audience at the after-film party.
Although brief, this meeting had an impact on myself as well as on many emerging filmmakers present in the room. Barrett’s generosity of time and spirit were incredible gifts. Her passing brought an outpouring of memories and grief to those she met.
Barrett’s films and novels leave a legacy that lies in his unique perspective and engaging storytelling, and in his generosity as an artist to encourage and inspire.