An excerpt from the booklet essay by Professor Joy Damousi
In the three decades since it was released, Celia has enjoyed several readings and re-readings. When it first came out in 1989 it was seen as a coming-of-age film about 9-year-old Celia Carmichael.
Surrounded by an adult world which she finds punishing and perplexing, intriguing and repressive, Celia attempts to navigate adult emotions in response to the rapid changes happening around her. Celia experiences deep loss and grief during the film. The moral dilemmas presented by the arrival of the Tanner family and political persecution unsettles Celia as she sees the sinister and punishing effects of the Cold War play out before her firsthand. Under Ann Turner’s deft direction, as a study of childhood Celia neither romanticises nor demonises children and childhood; rather it captures the complexity of it. The layers of childhood are exposed here where we see the vulnerability and innocence of children but also the way they can be cruel and punishing.
As historian Mary Tomsic has noted, the reading of Celia as a feminist film gained credence in the 1990s and 2000s as feminist filmmakers had begun to make their mark in Australian cinema. Celia is a strident, outspoken young girl who is active, engaged and opinionated. She shows no interest in conforming to the domestic femininity expected of girls of the 1950s, but rather shows a feisty, assertive personality who acts, initiates, and leads. The extraordinary and brilliant performance by Rebecca Smart delivers a Celia who is fiercely intelligent, a multi-dimensional character with depth and nuance. Her mother, Pat Carmichael (Mary-Anne Fahey) is on her own quiet journey, coming to her own understanding of the world with an understated steely resolve. Alice Tanner, a Communist firebrand and intellectual, who Celia sees as a role model of what she might become, is forced to navigate the sexism of the male world of political activism and the unwanted sexual advances of Celia’s father Ray Carmichael (Nicholas Eadie). Ray is a father who Celia clashes with, but who she also adores. Ray and Celia challenge each other but hold a deep love.
In recent times, the horror element in Celia has been the focus of contemporary analyses. The merging of fantasy and reality through the terror represented by the Hobyahs ¬comes to symbolise Celia’s inner turmoil. In the documentary made to accompany this luminous Blu-Ray release from Second Run, Barbara Creed discusses the horror elements in the film which lead to Celia’s ultimate horror act: the repressive and restrictive family life in stifling suburbia; the unacknowledged grief and losses that Celia experiences; and the terror instilled into her with the story of the Hobyahs. As Creed describes, this combination evokes a world of horror for young Celia as both the victim and perpetrator.
Appropriately, Cold War politics provide a rich and intricate tapestry for the film as the backdrop for Celia. A period of persecution and paranoia, when differences of opinion or alternatives views were suppressed and at times punished, the 1950s era is characterised by a fierce anti-Communism and political purity. Growing up at that time could be challenging for children of Communists or Communist sympathisers as the political climate was a deeply conservative one. It was a punitive era and there could be consequences for children growing up in it.
Joy Damousi's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.
(i) Celia: a work of feminist public history by Mary Tomsic
(ii) Monsters, Masks and Murgatroyd: The Horror of Ann Turner’s Celia
(iii) Rabbit Unrest by Joy Damousi
(iv) Trust Your Instinct: An Interview with Ann Turner
(v) The Australian Communist Party in the 1950’s
(vi) Australia's battle with the bunny