There really was nothing quite like Australian cinema in the 90s. The amount of instant classics produced in this country during that decade is staggering to consider, not just for their incredible artistry but their entertainment value and cultural impact. With his debut documentary feature though, director Axel Grigor offers a portrait of one artist who links many of these films - in fact many classic Australian films of the last 40 years - together: acclaimed and Oscar-nominated editor Jill Bilcock.
‘Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible’ steps us through Jill’s extraordinary career, from learning her art in the boom of the 70s, to establishing herself in the 80s, to working on many of our greatest films during the 90s and 2000s. Grigor and co-editor Scott Walton construct a tapestry of Jill through archival footage and interviews with Jill’s family, collaborators and Jill herself, but the film also acts as a masterclass on the power of film editing by focusing on particular moments in many of her most notable films, often accompanied by commentary from Jill. Even at just over 70 minutes, the film covers an enormous amount of ground, giving you a sense of Jill as both an artist and as a person, and how vital the intersection of those two worlds are in making her the extraordinary artist she is.
I have to admit, I was embarrassed that I had never heard of Jill, especially as each successive achievement unfolded in the documentary, including Australian classics such as ‘Muriel’s Wedding’, ‘Head On’, ‘The Dish’ and all three of Baz Luhrmann’s first films, to international films such as ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Road to Perdition’, to recent hits like ‘The Dressmaker’. The cumulative effect of spending time on each of these projects (and many more) is to highlight both her versatility and her enormous contribution to the voice of each film. Grigor’s decision to highlight each film by focusing on a notable moment is a wise one, preventing it from feeling like a "top hits" compilation like many documentaries on filmmakers, and instead being an examination of what makes Jill’s craft so singular.
It’s also thrilling to watch how she constructs narrative, emotion and tone through the rhythm of images and sound. I had goosebumps seeing how the final dance number in ‘Strictly Ballroom’ or the Roxanne sequence in ‘Moulin Rouge!’ were pieced together and hearing Jill’s intention behind them, but equally amazed at the uncompromising and exacting craft in constructing harrowing moments of intensity in ‘Head On’ and ‘Japanese Story’. I found myself falling in love with these films all over again, marvelling at their artistry, and ashamed at not having seen the woman there in plain sight that was so responsible for their success.
Even at just over 70 minutes, the film covers an enormous amount of ground, giving you a sense of Jill as both an artist and as a person, and how vital the intersection of those two worlds are in making her the extraordinary artist she is.
Another careful element of the success of ‘Dancing the Invisible’ is how it maps Jill’s personal story, offering a window into her life and her family without even relinquishing her privacy. There’s a wonderful candidness to both Jill and the film, especially around her singular position as a woman rising through the ranks in the predominantly male Australian film industry in the 70s, and how her personal perspectives, both as someone fascinated by culture and as a woman, have informed her work. The interviews from her collaborators, from directors like Luhrmann, Fred Schepsi and Jocelyn Moorehouse, further highlight the personal investment Jill imbues in her work and working relationships, and how the trust they have in her is well-earned. One of the highlights of the film is in how Jill sees her responsibility as a mentor to help usher in a new generation in Australian cinema, and her willingness to work with new artists and new voices.
‘Jill Bilcock: Dancing the Invisible’ has one intention: to uncover a relatively unknown Australian legend, and that singularity of intention results in a clear, crisp film full of generosity and surprises. Axel Grigor circumnavigates many of the pitfalls that often encumber documentaries about filmmaking in the simple but effective narrative construction of the film, and by letting both Jill and her work speak for her. You’ll walk away with her name safely etched in stone in your memory, and with an insatiable desire to go back and watch all her great work again, if only to marvel, with all your new knowledge of her craft and philosophy, at how she conjures such magic out of the marriage of images.