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Red Matildas (1985)


Red Matildas tells the personal stories of three women who lived in Australia during the Great Depression – May Pennefather, Joan Goodwin and Audrey Blake. All three were touched by the massive unemployment, poverty and uncertainty of the time and all three became political activists as a result. Told through interviews and rarely-seen historical footage, the documentary is a unique look at Australia’s political landscape through the Great Depression of the 1930s, the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Curator’s notes

Although made in 1985 and telling the story of Australia’s pre-Second World War past, this documentary resonates with the Australia of today. The Great Depression has echoes of the financial crises of 2008–09 and this documentary is a window into that earlier time told through the personal stories of three terrific characters. It is a valuable and engaging document of an extremely important time in world events and Australia’s part in them.

All three women led very colourful lives that take us into crucially important historic movements of the 1930s: the Spanish Civil War, the Young Communist League of Australia and the Peace Movement. Joan Goodwin, then 73, remembers the impact of her father losing his job and turning as a consequence to drink; May Pennefather, at 75, remembers her father going off to the First World War; and Audrey Blake’s family was so poor they had to do midnight flits to avoid paying rent (see clip one).

The historical footage in the film gives texture and visual context to the women’s stories. Images of massive unemployment, extreme poverty, appalling living conditions, and huge peaceful demonstrations in Bourke St in Melbourne, all increase our understanding of why these three women signed up for a lifetime committed to political change (see clip two).

While at university Joan Goodwin, horrified by the social impact of unemployment and the subsequent growing militarism, decided to work for social justice and speak out against war. Audrey Blake joined the Young Communist League and lost her job as a result and May Pennefather became a nurse – one of four Australian nurses who volunteered to go to Spain to assist the republican forces in the Spanish Civil War (see clip three).

The women’s stories are the spine and voice of the film. There is no narration. The history emerges via their involvement in it and the footage that shows a world on the brink of collapse. This way of telling history was an important part of documentary filmmaking in the 1970s and ’80s. Part oral history and part political statement, it was a break from the narration-driven essay approach of official history telling. It was also representative of a body of work which documented political struggles and acknowledged women’s contribution to social activism and change. Other Australian examples: Rocking the Foundations (1985), For Love or Money (1983), Bread and Dripping (1981) and Thanks Girls and Goodbye (1988).

Red Matildas was released in Australian cinemas and broadcast on the ABC in 1985. It won the Erwin Rado Prize for Best Australian Short Film at the 1985 Melbourne International Film Festival, a Special Jury Prize at the Leipzig International Documentary Festival and the Soviet Filmmakers’ Union Award at the Tashkent International Festival.