2:30PM, Sunday April 30
Australian Premiere Introduced by Jane Mills and Helen Grace

12:00 PM, Tuesday May 02

Randwick Ritz

Director: Claudia von Alemann
Country: Germany, France
Year: 1981
Blind Spot Runtime: 72 minutes 
Serious Undertakings Runtime: 28 minutes
Rating: U15+
Language: German, French, English subtitles




"A provocative, smart, yet woefully underappreciated debut film by the German writer-director Claudia Von Alemann, a contemporary of Chantal Akerman." – Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Elizabeth, a young historian, leaves her husband and child in Germany and travels to Lyon to reconstruct the final months in the life of Flora Tristan (1803-1844). A women’s rights activist, Tristan traveled throughout industrial regions of France fighting for women’s emancipation, the ‘proletarian of the proletarian.’ Well over a century later, Elizabeth, with a tape recorder, wanders the streets of Lyon alone, reconstructing a sense memory of Tristan’s life. 2K restoration.

I was concerned…with questions of how one can possibly track down a person from another age, how memory relates to history, and how women remember.” — Claudia von Alemann

Elizabeth’s fascination with the embodiment of history is matched by von Alemann’s documentary-based vision, which makes the city’s ancient buildings, tall stone staircases, and celebrated secret passages reverberate with the passions and the horrors of the past.” — Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Screens with the recently restored SERIOUS UNDERTAKINGS (Dir. Helen Grace, Australia, 1983)

Serious Undertakings is a fascinating film about the construction of history, culture and politics. Divided into five segments the film explores how dominant ideas of Australian history, national character and sexual difference are determined by who is telling the story and how it is told.

“Serious Undertakings breaks new ground in understanding the construction of meaning itself and was a landmark Australian film when it was made in 1983…. Helen Grace’s brilliance lies in using the language of cinema to deconstruct and ridicule dominant cultural and political ideas.” — Susan Lambert, Australian film-maker

The 2:30pm screening on Sunday 30 April will be introduced by Helen Grace, director of Serious Undertakings, and Jane Mills, Hon. Associate Professor of the School of the Arts & Media, University of New South Wales.


Claudia von Alemann

Born in 1943, Claudia von Alemann began making films in the late 60s. Little of her work has been seen in Australia though recent exhibitions of her work in Europe  recall that in the early 70s she made a number of documentaries concerned with interrogating the status of women in relation to imperialist violence and capitalist exploitation. Following from these, von Alemann, together with Helke Sander, organized the First International Women’s Film Seminar held at the Arsenal cinema in West Berlin.

Her breakthrough feature Blind Spot/Die Reise Nach Lyon screened widely at festivals around the world, including the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals, in 1980 and 1981. It was followed by two dramatic features made for television and a number of shorts.

The Film
Notes by Claudia von Alemann
Die Reise nach Lyon is the story of a woman who abruptly leaves her partner and young daughter in West Germany to travel to Lyon. There, she wanders near-empty streets in pursuit of Flora Tristan, the socialist feminist activist and writer who spent time in the French city in 1844, just months before her death. Although it is ostensibly a fictional narrative, Die Reise nach Lyon is also a metahistorical gambit, a cinematic search for a feminist approach to the feminist past. Claudia von Alemann emphasizes the necessity of bringing greater attention to women’s achievements, while pointing to the limits of any approach that would leave how history is written unchanged. Die Reise nach Lyon suggests that the way forward might reside in the adoption of unconventional, self-reflexive modes of confronting the past and claims filmmaking as a site where this can occur.

The woman historian (played by Rebecca Pauly) refuses the traditional way of ‘looking' at history and gets caught up in a complex multi-layered pattern of reverberations. History and ‘her' story become a network of resonances. One life/voice imprints in another. A visually fascinating film, but nevertheless one of the few real ‘sound’ films ever made.

When the film was released Claudia von Alemann wrote an introduction to it which remains as good a lead as ever. Not just the why of making such a film but the how as well….

“l have been interested in nineteenth-century women - especially feminists - for many years. ln this film, however, I was concerned with more than just the reconstruction of a historical personage; also with questions of how one can possibly track down a person from another age, how memory relates to history, and how women remember. These various questions emerged from my work on the film and caused me to modify my original conception considerably. The original script already deviated from tradition by making use of the sort of collage technique found in the novels of Anna Seghers and John Dos Passos, for example. its underlying structure was nonetheless architectonically traditional: it had a beginning, a dramatic climax and an end; the twelve-year period in Flora Tristan's life was presented chronologically; the costumes and decor were historically accurate, and so on. At a certain point, however, I began to question this, conception. The form reinforced the notion that a film attempting an authentic historical reconstruction must necessarily represent the historical truth. Yet it was precisely this notion that I wanted to call into question. I decided that this position had to determine the very form of the film itself, rather than exist outside of and behind it.

“I therefore replaced the original chronological conception with a kaleidoscope of short, sell-enclosed sequences. More importantly, I shifted
the focus from the historical personageto a contemporary woman, and the
relationship of her life to her almost obsessive attempt to reconstruct Tristan's...

“Because the relationship to the reconstruction of the past remains central, the film remains a historical one. The woman who undertakes the search for the lost Flora Tristan is a former historian who has very consciously broken with her academic past. Her experience has made her mistrustful of traditional modes of transmitting historical knowledge. She has found the diary of the nineteenth- century woman and would like to uncover traces of her but isn't sure how. And that is precisely what concerns me: how does remembering, forgetting, re-remembering function?

“However, I didn't want to construct a simple antithesis between intellectual
and naive modes of appropriating history. That would be too simple, and
would fit too well into a male- determined scheme. That is why I had
the woman, Elisabeth, reject the intellectual mode that she herself had
mastered. The question then becomes the possibility of other forms of perception and reconstruction – forms which still have to be developed ...

“Apart from the diaries of Flora and Elisabeth, the most important medium in my film for reconstructing the past is sound. Using a cassette recorder, the woman tries to discover sounds that people in 1844 could have heard. She
does go to Lyon, where Flora Tristan worked towards the end of her life. But then she follows paths that she imagines the historical person could have taken. She expends a great deal of energy in the form of ‘phantasy work' which is demanded from the spectator. The film frequently collides with the pubIic's audio-visual expectations. The searcher frequently goes up dead-ends - what I would call positive dead-ends - which lead away from Flora Tristan's life but lead to her own life, and the lives of others she encounters. A decisive role in this search is played by the trail of sounds she follows. Remembering is largely effected acoustically. I have tried to make a sound film in which sound is neither a mere background nor the means by which an illusion of authenticity is induced. I use many sound elements in order to transmit differentiations in hearing. Just as one can speak of ‘subjective camera‘, I would like to speak of the ‘subjective microphone‘."

The Restoration
Notes by Thomas Bakels
The digitization and restoration of the film in 2017/18 was performed by Marie Bendl and Thomas Bakels of Alpha-Omega digital in Munich, supervised by Martin Koerber of Deutsche Kinemathek and Claudia von Alemann herself.

The film element to be scanned was the original A/B-cut 16mm negatives, scanned at 2K resolution and color corrected after the digital cleanup of dust and scratches. There was a first color grading done in the process, and another final color grading on a cinema screen in Munich, in presence of Claudia von Alemann and Martin Koerber.

The grain of the 16mm negative purposely was not manipulated or digitally reduced in the process, to ensure the original look of the film wouldn’t be altered. Some difficulties were found in remastering the German and French audio to the film. The subtitles for each version were incoherent and needed revisiting by the director herself. Also some audio elements that were digitized seemed incomplete. In the French audio version a passage with a poem appeared missing on the tape, but needed to be there to understand the connection.

Ultimately Claudia von Alemann visited the lead actress Rebecca Pauly in Paris at the final stage of the restoration and re-recorded these poems with her original voice, which hadn’t changed too much over the years.

The deliveries of the restoration is in 2K-DCP in French and German versions, as well as TV-broadcasting master files.
Die reise nach Lyon | Director: Claudia VON ALEMANN | West Germany | 1981 | 112 mins | 2K Flat DCP (orig. 35mm, 1.66:1) | Colour | Mono Sd. | German with Eng. Subtitles | U/C15+.

Production Company: Alemann Filmproduktion | Producer:Director: Claudia VON ALEMANN | Photography: Hille SAGEL | Editor: Monique DARTONE | Music: Frank WOLFF | Sound: Daniel DESHAYS.

Cast: Rebecca PAULY (‘Elisabeth’), Denise PÉRON (‘Bistrowirtin’), Jean BADIN (‘Fernand’).
Serious Undertakings
Notes by Susan Lambert, reprinted from Australian Screen a website produced by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.
Helen Grace (b Gunditjmara Country) is an artist, writer and teacher, based in Sydney (Wangal Country) and (formerly) Hong Kong. She was the Founding Director of the MA Programme in Visual Culture Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong and is now Associate, Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney; in 2012-13 she was Visiting Professor in the Department of English, National Central University, Taiwan on a National Science Council Fellowship.

Helen is an award winning filmmaker and new media producer. Her photo media work is in the collections of Artbank, National Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of NSW and Art Gallery of South Australia as well as private collections nationally and internationally.

Her recent projects include Justice for Violet and Bruce, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, 2022, The Housing Question (with Narelle Jubelin), Penrith Regional Galleries, Home of the Lewers Bequest, 2019, Thought Log, SCA Galleries, Sydney (2016) and Map of Spirits, Gallery 4A, Sydney (2015). Her recent books include Culture, Aesthetics and Affect in Ubiquitous Media: The Prosaic Image (Routledge, 2014) and Technovisuality: Cultural Re-enchantment and the Experience of Technology. (Co editors, Amy Chan, Kit Sze and Wong Kin Yuen) IB Tauris, 2016)

In 1983 Serious Undertakings won the Rouben Mamoulian Prize for Best Short Film, Sydney Film Festival (judged by an international panel, Ken Wlaschin, Director, London Film Festival, Linda Myles, British Film Institute, Peter Greenway, film director), the Greater Union Award for Best Film in the General Category, Sydney Film Festival. Australian Film Institute Award for Best Experimental Film, Non-feature Section, Australian Film Institute. It was selected for screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival, London International Film Festival, Festival d’Automne, Paris, and festivals in Figueira da Foz, Melbourne, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Sceaux, Ann Arbor, Hong Kong and many others.

The Film
"I have the impression [some feminists] are relying too much on an existentialist concept of woman, a concept that attaches a guilt complex to the maternal function. Either one has children, but that means one is not good for anything else, or one does not, and then it becomes possible to devote oneself to serious undertakings." (Helen Grace)

Serious Undertakings is a fascinating film about the construction of history, culture and politics.

Divided into five segments headed by quotes, the film explores how dominant ideas of Australian history, national character and sexual difference are determined by who is telling the story and how it is told. It manipulates sound and image in the film to expose and subvert these ideas.

Serious Undertakings breaks new ground in understanding the construction of meaning itself and was a landmark Australian film when it was made in 1983. It had a profound influence on many of the independent documentaries that followed it, including films such as Landslides (Sarah Gibson and Susan Lambert, 1985), Camera Natura (Ross Gibson, 1986) and All that is Solid (John Hughes 1988). Funded by the Women’s Film Fund, Alex Gerbaz described it in the NFSA Journal as 'a powerful piece of oppositional feminist cinema’ (2008, Vol 3, No 1).

The film exemplifies the impact of 1970s screen theory on the making of independent films. This theory proposed that challenging established political power meant subverting the very language in which it is embedded. Helen Grace’s brilliance lies in using the language of cinema to deconstruct and ridicule dominant cultural and political ideas. By exposing its own construction, Serious Undertakings self-consciously illustrates how the meaning we give to events and ideas is constructed by who reports them.

Underlying the film is the attempt to show that there are many other experiences and perspectives that, if documented, would tell a very different story. In this regard Serious Undertakings highlights the lack of women’s voices and experience in the construction of cultural and historical analysis. By inserting this female voice, the film challenges the male-dominated discourses of the day. A central and recurring theme throughout the film is the experience and imagery of motherhood and maternity. Grace introduces the film with this voice over:

Woman’s voice: She wanted to make a film about childcare.
Man’s voice: I’d rather make a film about the Baader-Meinhof gang than about childcare.

This underlines the difficulty of getting the everyday experience of women’s lives up on the screen.

Serious Undertakings was a dramatic break away from more traditional documentary forms. It was conceptual not descriptive. The content was not observed, not simply experiential, and didn’t tell a story. It was in no way factual or based around an event. It was constructed using all the cinematic techniques available to documentary and fiction films. As a film it blurs the boundaries between drama and documentary, fiction and non-fiction. Episodic in structure, it is divided into five chapters each exploring a different perceived 'truth’.

Fundamental to the film is the use of filmic techniques to remind the viewer that cinema itself is a construct. Juxtaposition of voice and image, fragmentation of the narrative and altering the film’s texture through optical techniques all serve to subvert the power of interviews with 'experts’, classic moments in cinema, and accepted myths about Australian culture and history. Sound grabs from radio, news, ads, children’s voices reading poetry, sound effects and personal stories all provide the soundscape, set against non-literal images to give them a different meaning.

Throughout the film academic experts are filmed in interviews discussing the history of Australian art, film and sexual politics. These interviews are often drowned out by a woman’s voice espousing a different perspective. Increasingly the interviews are interrupted – a woman vacuums though the frame, another does the dishes in the background – as the male interviewees continue to pontificate. Finally, the interview is visually interrupted with optical effects that obliterate the 'talking head’ as it keeps talking.

Serious Undertakings was a groundbreaking film when it was made and today remains a valuable reminder of how important form is to content in cinema and to the meaning we give to our understanding of culture, politics and history.
Director: Helen GRACE | Australia | 1983 | 26 mins | 2K Flat DCP (orig. 16mm, 1.37:1) | Colour | Mono Sd. | English | (G).

Production Company: Stunned Mullet Productions, with the assistance of the Woman’s Film Fund | Producer: Erika ADDIS | Script: Helen GRACE | Photography: Erika ADDIS | Editors: Sara BENNETT, John MORRIS | Sound: John CRUTHERS, Alasdair MACFARLANE | Artwork and Animations: Lee WHITMORE.

Cast: Judy Ferris, Helen Grace, John Witteron, Robert Hughes, Julie Rigg, Chris Winter, Robin Laurie (Narrators).

Cinema Reborn acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we live, learn and work. We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.