After 15 years of living next door to Kings Cross I decided to quit Sydney for the Central Coast. I had known the Cross pretty well, having visited its cafes, bookshops and nightclubs since I was a teenager in the 1970s. But by 2001 whatever romance I’d felt for the place was gone. From Friday to Sunday it had become a no-go area, a violent and lurid remnant of its former bohemian glory.
Zanny Begg’s The Beehive (2018), a commissioned work by Artbank and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image that just opened in Melbourne, brings all those Kings Cross memories back.
The experimental documentary is based around the 1975 disappearance of Juanita Nielsen, the community activist and street press publisher. Nielsen was part of a grassroots battle against the development of Victoria Street, which would see period terraces demolished for a vast apartment building.
Among all this Nielsen cut a striking figure, a tall woman with a trademark beehive hairdo, a private school educated heir to the Mark Foy’s department store fortune, but the living embodiment of romantic revolutionary resistance.
The battle pitted on one side, community and resident groups, Nielsen and her magazine NOW, and the Builders Labourers’ Federation; and on the other, a motley assortment of developers, ex-cops, gangsters and hired goons. With a ton of money at stake in the development, efforts to evict residents turned violent, with the head of the residents’ group kidnapped (and later released), and the destruction of residents’ homes.
Nielsen is widely believed to have been murdered by gangsters, and although the guilty have never been brought to justice, her story is a significant moment in the history of resistance to the seemingly unstoppable forces of gentrification in Australia’s inner cities. For Begg, the story also serves as the starting point for a meditation on identity, history, community and collective memory.
For her ambitious documentary project, Begg uses a few different approaches to tell the story, most of them documentary staples.
There are talking heads – people who lived in the Cross, knew Nielsen and the gangsters, and were community organisers, strippers, coffee shop owners and neighbours. Then there’s a cast of 12 women who speak for and about Nielsen, a generation or two removed from the actual story but who reflect on its meanings and contemporary resonance. And there are some quasi re-enactments, featuring a variety of players portraying Cross heavies and gangsters. Tying this all together is actor Pamela Rabe as The Beekeeper, the doco’s on-screen narrator of various visual metaphors and narrative analogies.
This latest work follows on from recent pieces by Begg, including 1001 Nights in Fairfield (2015) and City of Ladies (2017) – hybrid video art/documentary projects that foreground a non-traditional, non-linear method of storytelling. Visitors to ACMI’s gallery space are presented with a single screen video and a variety of chairs to sit and watch. The work is subject to an unseen software algorithm that reorders approximately 20 video sequences into a variety of iterations, a total of 1,344 possible versions of the work, running roughly 20 to 33 minutes each.
The whole process is invisible and non-intrusive, only becoming apparent on subsequent re-watches, and even then not immediately obvious.
As a metaphor for how history and memory are reshaped by subjectivity and conflicting accounts, the use of this iterative algorithm makes perfect conceptual sense. But as a viewing experience it’s slightly mystifying. I was constantly wondering how each iteration might differ.
It became apparent that the documentary – or at least the four iterations that I watched – was presenting a version of events that privileged a simple and sometimes uncritical treatment of Nielsen and her time. The “whodunnit” part of the story is also perfunctory – and confusing. At least half a dozen suspects are named, and the murder is left as a question mark.
The younger voices playing Nielsen add contemporary relevance and link community activism of the 70s to the way communities are established and prosper now, yet their views (scripted or not, I couldn’t tell) often seem romantic and naive. Imogen Kelly, a former stripper, community organiser and sex worker’s rights advocate and who was there and knew the key people, gives the story of the Cross in the 70s some badly needed nuance. The combination of voices is interesting, a mixture of wise heads and young kids, a little like the Cross in its prime.
There is a very contemporary feel to The Beehive as it reflects current concerns and perspectives, and yet Begg’s work is reminiscent of feminist experimental filmmaking from the 70s and 80s, documentaries and polemical works such as Pat Fiske’s Rocking The Foundations (1985) and particularly Helen Grace’s Serious Undertakings (1983), radical movies made in the shadow of the events in Begg’s documentary.
Artists making documentaries is now well established. Works such as Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves (2010), Richard Mosse’s The Enclave (2012–13) and Omar Chowdhury’s Ways (2014) explode viewer’s expectations of what a documentary can be simply because their images are spread across multiple screens, have extreme duration, and demand that the audience gets up and moves. As soon as an art project begins to resemble a more classically structured single-screen documentary, the more expectations of story and resolution come into play. To Begg’s credit, the work resists completion, leaving Nielsen’s story unresolved, a tangle of poetic allusions clashing with ugly street-level realities.
Near the end of one iteration, Pamela Rabe switches out of her narrator clothes into the black-and-white striped top that signifies an actor is Nielsen. Solve the puzzle of my disappearance, she says, and we will save the soul of the city. For those of us who quit the city 20 years ago, that seems like a tall order. But the value of the claim, and Begg’s documentary, is that it keeps the very idea of resistance alive.
Published in The Guardian, August 2, 2018.