Australian literature has long been fascinated with disappearances. The ‘white vanishing’ trope,See Elspeth Tilley, White Vanishing: Rethinking Australia’s Lost-in-the-Bush Myth, Rodopi, Amsterdam & New York, 2012. in which women or children are lost within nature, stems from colonialist narratives of the Australian bush as a vast, treacherous, unconquerable landscape – one that exists in stark opposition to the supposedly safe domains of European agriculture and domesticity. Susan Dermody describes this trope as one in which white settlers are swallowed up by
the difficult terrain of the uncivilized wilderness, with episodic crises in the struggle to survive. Each small success tends to prove some attribute of civilization, against the orderless, indifferent wilderness. And the quest is for home, parents, the ordered relations of society.Susan Dermody, ‘Action and Adventure’, in Scott Murray (ed.), The New Australian Cinema, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, p. 81.
Time and time again, the bush is depicted in non-Indigenous Australian stories as an uneasy, liminal space in which people – especially white settler women – can simply vanish.Films featuring this motif include Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971), Lost in the Bush (Peter Dodds, 1973) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975).
Little Tornadoes, director Aaron Wilson’s second feature film, opens with shots of the ‘difficult terrain’ of this colonial myth: deep, dark rivers; vertical, bar-like eucalypt trunks; sweeping plains under a disorienting blanket of stars. Yet, significantly, the film features a woman who vanishes not from the bush, but from what is arguably the centre of ‘the ordered relations of society’ – the kitchen.
Leo (Mark Leonard Winter), a metalworker living in rural Victoria in the early 1970s, comes home one night to an eerily silent house. His wife, Camille (Anya Beyersdorf), has disappeared, leaving little but a red dress hanging from the clothes line, a lipstick in the bedroom and a handwritten note on the kitchen counter informing him that the kids are at a neighbour’s house. Snatches of voiceover – floating back from the past – suggest that Camille has been unhappy for some time with life in the suffocatingly small community in which they reside, yet has been unable to express these feelings to her husband. She has now left of her own accord, escaping to stay with her sister in Melbourne. It was not the bush, then, but rather the town that Camille found a ‘struggle to survive’.
A subdued domestic drama, Little Tornadoes focuses in on one family as the eye of a nationwide, generational storm. The screenplay, co-written by Wilson and acclaimed author Christos Tsiolkas, eschews traditional structure and pace in favour of a sprawling, atmospheric work that dips backwards and forwards in time, exploring a range of issues pertaining to early 1970s Australia including gender roles, migration and the ongoing effects of war. Beneath it all lingers a sense of agitation, aided by a deft soundtrack and sound design. Several scenes are undergirded by low wailing noises, reminiscent of the tornado sirens evoked by the film’s title. There is a feeling that something terrible is going to happen – or maybe, more alarmingly, that it is already happening and people are only just beginning to notice.
Little Tornadoes is set among the early stirrings of the Australian women’s liberation movement, a cause spurred by the publication of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in 1970. A significant text in second-wave feminist theory, Greer’s book broadly argues that the nuclear family and traditional gender roles have long disempowered women and must be actively dismantled.See ‘Germaine Greer & The Female Eunuch’, State Library of Victoria website, <http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/fight-rights/womens-rights/germaine-greer-female-eunuch>, accessed 13 August 2021. Wilson deliberately contends with these ideas in his film; in one scene, the camera settles on a television in Leo’s lounge room as it plays a real-life ABC news segment from the early 1970s in which women on the street are asked about The Female Eunuch, interspersed with a sit-down interview with a young Greer. ‘I think what men mistook for [women’s] happiness was in fact resignation and patience,’ she tells the reporter. ‘And now women are beginning to feel that patience is not the answer.’This segment is available online; see ‘Germaine Greer Brings Feminism to Australia (1972) | RetroFocus’, YouTube, 20 August 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eqr5pseRGtM>, accessed 5 November 2021.
It appears that patience was not the answer for Leo’s own mother, Betty (Edwina Wren), who is shown in the film, via flashback, to have died relatively young. Standing alone at the kitchen sink wearing a flowery dress, apron and lipstick, she appears as an archetypal housewife – until she suddenly collapses to the ground. Young Leo (Rory Dempsey), facing away from her as he plays in the next room, is unsure what to do to help. Although her cause of death is not specified, her location in the kitchen links her collapse to the psychological hardship and domestic isolation entailed by her role.
Through swift editing, Betty is suddenly replaced by Camille, lying on the same floor, wearing her red dress. ‘Leo … I feel like I’m dying,’ she says. This parallel confers greater meaning upon the dress and lipstick she leaves behind, suggesting that a certain performative version of femininity has been cast aside as part of a wider rejection of the patterns of a previous generation. Camille feels she must leave, lest she end up like Leo’s mother. Just as the ‘white vanishing’ myth, in Ross Gibson’s words, sees ‘picnickers seep into [the Australian landscape], following the same path taken by countless innocents who have gone missing back of beyond’,Ross Gibson, South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 1992, p. 63. women and men can similarly seep into society, following the well-trodden path of gendered notions of work and domesticity, despite the evident harm such notions bring.
Indeed, one of the central ideas of Little Tornadoes is that strict, traditional gender roles negatively affect men as much as women. Camille’s disappearance is sorely felt by Leo, who spends the rest of the film adrift, trying to be a good father to his young children, Jack (Freddy Liszukiewicz) and Maudey (Minnie Liszukiewicz), while struggling with feelings of loneliness and ineptitude. Winter’s performance is subdued yet highly physical; he carries the tension of Leo’s character in his body, his barely suppressed agony evident as he plays with the kids and performs physical labour at work. The strict confines of Australian masculinity offer few sanctioned outlets for his emotional turmoil; on two occasions, Leo resorts to self-harm, raising the disturbing question of whether Leo is himself going to end up disappearing.
Expectations of male stoicism are shown to take a similar toll on Leo’s father, Jim (Robert Menzies), a farmer and World War II veteran who continues to be haunted by his memories of the conflict. He struggles to communicate, even to his close family; sweeping aerial shots of him operating a harvester at night convey his emotional isolation. ‘Why don’t you ever say anything?’ Leo asks him in a rare outburst, yet he is met with only silence. As with many aspects of the film, Jim’s role is highly symbolic: as Wilson has stated, Leo’s relationship with his father represents ‘the past informing the future’; the new Italian immigrants in town, in contrast, ‘represent change and a different perspective’.Aaron Wilson, ‘Director’s Statement’, in FanForce Films, Little Tornadoes press kit, 2021, p. 6.
For Leo, that change is put into motion specifically by Tony (Fabio Motta), a recent Italian immigrant who is employed alongside him at the metalworks. As Tony’s sister Maria (Silvia Colloca) is looking for extra work, he suggests that she come by and assist Leo with cooking and caring for the children in the afternoons. While this marks Maria’s physical entrance into the story, she has been the narrator of the film from its beginning, speaking with an almost-omniscient voice from some point in time in the near future. Wilson added this voiceover as part of the post-production process, in consultation with Tsiolkas, as a means to ‘speak about the world in ways [Leo] cannot’.Aaron Wilson, quoted in ‘Little Tornadoes – Q&A with Aaron Wilson’, Melbourne International Film Festival website, <https://miff.com.au/blog/view/6721/little-tornadoes-qa-with-aaron-wilson>, accessed 16 August 2021. The result is an epistolary-style narration that, addressed to Leo, fills in the interiority of his reticent character, as well as offering poetic ruminations on ghosts, rural life, and the differences between Australian and Italian culture.
Maria’s arrival in the kitchen brings warmth to Leo’s previously dull and enclosed house. Yet, even as she acts as a bodily stand-in for the spectre of Camille, Maria herself is rendered a somewhat ghostly presence in the film, relegated largely to her role as narrator. When she does appear within the frame, it is almost always in brief scenes within the kitchen, where she appears as a domestic dream, dressed in warm-toned, feminine clothing and always smiling. In one scene, Leo and Jack stand outside the kitchen watching as Maria and Maudey make pasta happily within, the wall between them demarcating their separate roles according to societal expectations. Despite constituting one half of the film’s ‘dual-protagonist’ibid. dynamic, Maria’s physical place in the film is noticeably diminished outside of the kitchen.
Indeed, Wilson seems to craft certain scenes to highlight Maria’s absence. Maria speaks in voiceover about how she came to love Australian football through barracking for Jack’s junior team, and how she always wore dresses to games; yet, as she says this, we see only Leo in the car watching his son training. Similarly, Maria tells a story of how she accompanied the family to Leo’s mother’s grave, where she was appalled at the decrepitude of Australian graveyards and began scrubbing at the headstone herself; again, only Leo and his father are ever shown beside the grave. In fact, Leo and Maria spend little time together overall – Leo is more often shown bonding with Tony. When Maria recalls at a point in the film that she ‘had started to get to know [Leo] by then’, we must take her word for it; this developing relationship is, for the most part, kept away from the viewer.
In a story that began with a female disappearance, Maria’s lack of bodily presence in the film is intriguing. The main female character, herself a replacement for a vanished woman, is in the process of disappearing from her own story. Perhaps this is a fault in the screenplay, but perhaps there is a deeper meaning. It’s not enough to simply replace one unhappy housewife with another, happier housewife; structural and generational issues must be addressed, or the same problems – people being overwhelmed or swallowed up by gendered societal demands – will repeat. Maria wants, and deserves, to be someone beyond the kitchen. Indeed, towards the end of the film, it is suggested that Maria has followed Camille to live in the city; as she tells us through voiceover, ‘I wanted a bigger world.’ Maria’s exodus is no surprise; she had already started leaving by the time she arrived.
In its portrayal of two women who choose to vanish from a town, Little Tornadoes offers a subtle inversion of the colonial myth of the bush as treacherous labyrinth and the town as sanctuary. More broadly, however, Little Tornadoes is a film about seeing. From the collapse of Leo’s mother as he faced away from her, to the downcast eyes of each of Leo’s fellow employees at the metalworks, to the striking, accusatory red colour of Camille’s forgotten dress, each character’s struggle for intimate connection is conveyed as an inability to see and, in turn, be seen. The film proposes seeing as the first step in recognising another’s pain, in caring for another person. When Leo suddenly pulls Maria into an embrace in the kitchen one night, she tells him through voiceover, ‘I wasn’t embarrassed. I was exhilarated that you saw me.’ Seeing is a hopeful beginning for future generations – a sign that old, restrictive ways of thinking about gender and work might be acknowledged and changed.
This idea is hinted at in a brief scene in which the kids are getting into bed. Jack, buzzing with the restlessness of youth, has spent much of the rest of the film hacking at a tin of paint or repeatedly throwing a ball against the bedroom wall. This time he settles down and looks over at his sister in the opposite bed. ‘Maudey,’ he says, and points two fingers to his eyes and then to her. I’m watching you. It’s a sibling’s promise of further irritation, but it’s also a promise of love. In both the bush and the town, people only disappear when you aren’t watching them.
|1||See Elspeth Tilley, White Vanishing: Rethinking Australia’s Lost-in-the-Bush Myth, Rodopi, Amsterdam & New York, 2012.|
|2||Susan Dermody, ‘Action and Adventure’, in Scott Murray (ed.), The New Australian Cinema, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, p. 81.|
|3||Films featuring this motif include Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971), Lost in the Bush (Peter Dodds, 1973) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975).|
|4||See ‘Germaine Greer & The Female Eunuch’, State Library of Victoria website, <http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/fight-rights/womens-rights/germaine-greer-female-eunuch>, accessed 13 August 2021.|
|5||This segment is available online; see ‘Germaine Greer Brings Feminism to Australia (1972) | RetroFocus’, YouTube, 20 August 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eqr5pseRGtM>, accessed 5 November 2021.|
|6||Ross Gibson, South of the West: Postcolonialism and the Narrative Construction of Australia, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 1992, p. 63.|
|7||Aaron Wilson, ‘Director’s Statement’, in FanForce Films, Little Tornadoes press kit, 2021, p. 6.|
|8||Aaron Wilson, quoted in ‘Little Tornadoes – Q&A with Aaron Wilson’, Melbourne International Film Festival website, <https://miff.com.au/blog/view/6721/little-tornadoes-qa-with-aaron-wilson>, accessed 16 August 2021.|