The Forgotten pioneer of Australian cinema
Despite her trailblazing work as a filmmaker, Ayten Kuyululu has been almost erased by the arts world, writes David Stratton.
It has frequently been asserted most recently in the episode of Julia Zemiro’s Home Delivery on ABC television that was devoted to the film director Gillian Armstrong that Armstrong’s magnificent My Brilliant Career (1979) was the first feature film directed by a woman in this country since 1933 when Paulette McDonagh made Two Minutes Silence.
But this is not the case. No disrespect to Armstrong and achievements, but the credit for the first feature-length film made by a woman in this country for more than 40 years must go to Ayten Kuyululu, a Turkish migrant 70-minutes film The Golden Cage was made in Sydney in 1975.
The Golden Cage is a story of two Turkish Migrants. The older of the two, Murat Ilhan Kuyululu, husband of the director), is a hard worker who wants to earn enough money to buy his own truck: but in the end he returns to Turkey to attend his sister’s wedding. The younger man, Ayhan, (Sait Memisoğlu) falls in law with Sarah (Kate Shiel), an Australian girl, but the fact he is a Muslim poses challenges not easily overcome.
The film was scripted by the director in collaboration of İsmet Soydan and photographed by Russel Boyd, that same year that Boyd had been in charge of the unforgettable photography of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Ayten Kuyululu’s assistant on the production was Phillip Noyce, a recent graduate of Australian Film Television and Radio School, this was before Noyce made his own first 16mm feature, Backroads (1977).
Kuyululu, nee Ürkmez was born in İstanbul in 1930. She studied acting, was an accomplished opera singer and began writing plays for Turkish radio while still in her teens. In the mid 1960s she moved with her three children to Stockholm, where husband Ilhan had found work. In Sweden she made the medium length film The Outsiders, about the lives of migrants in that country.
In 1971 the family migrated to Australia. Ayten Kuyululu found employment singing in the chores of Opera Australia and performed in the new Sydney Opera House when it opened 1973. She also found acting roles in locally produced TV shows including Matlock Police and Homicide.
In 1974, using a grant obtained from the newly introduced Experimental Film Fund, Kuyululu wrote, directed and starred in a Handful of Dust, a powerful 40-minute drama about two Turks living in Sydney who fall in love, only to discover that back in Turkey their families are involved in a bitter feud. The film reached the finals of the Greater Union Awards at the Sydney Film Festival in 1974 and was highly regarded.
The Golden Cage was a much more ambitious production, but artistically it was less successful. Kuyululu was forced to make compromises that diminished the strength of her concept, and the characters are a bit less convincing.
Nevertheless, the film became a landmark in Australia’s cinema history when it premiered as part of the International Women’s Film Festival in Sydney in August 1975. Subsequently, Kuyululu was unable to find a distributor for the film.
Undeterred, she next planned to make a film of the Battle of Broken Hill. The so called battle took place on January 1, 1915, during world war 1. The two Muslim men, Badsha Mahommed Gool and Mullah Abdullah former camel drivers, had come to Australia from India. They decided to declare war against the Australians who were fighting Muslims in Turkey, and they chose New Year’s Day when a traditional picnic was held annually at Silverton, just outside of the city. Using an ice cream cart for cover, the two men opened fire on a train carrying 1200 picnickers riding on open-top wagons. Ultimately four died and several were wounded; the Muslim men were hunted down and killed.
Kuyululu wanted to tell this story from two perspectives, depicting the points of view of the Muslim men and of the outraged towns people. Originally she wanted to cast Turkish actors, but no production company in Australia was willing to support that kind of casting. At one stage she approached Anthony Quinn, a Mexican actor who regularly played larger-than-life ethnic characters, but his asking price was far too high. Kuyululu also had the interesting idea of casting Paul Hogan, then known only as larrikin comedian on TV(this was several years before Crocodile Dundee) to play a straight role as a policeman, but he declined. She scouted locations and decided that Cobar was logistically a more realistic location that Broken Hill.
Production companies and funding bodies, however made it clear that they did not want a Turkish woman, whose previous film had not been successful, to be given the large budget the project required. Kuyululu reluctantly agreed to supply the screenplay and to work as a producer behind the scenes, and Donal Crombie, a well-regarded and established filmmaker, was to to take over as director.
But the film was never made and Kuyululu gave up trying. Late in the 70s she returned disillusioned, to Sweden, where she directed and performed in musicals for the Swedish Opera Company.
Kuytululu returned to Sydney in 1985 and worked with actor John Howard in the Australian People’s Theatre, She also worked with a multicultural theatre group. In the mid90s she formed a Turkish amateur theatre group with her son Warren, and they performed plays and musicals at a venue in surry Hills for several years.
Ayten Kuyululu died in Sydney in May 2019 following a long illness. At the time of her death she was almost completely forgotten by the mainstream arts world, despite the fact her pioneering work as a female filmmaker, and a migrant woman at that, earns her an important place in the history of Australian cinema.
January 30-31, 2021 REVIEW WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN.