A CHERISHED cinematic gem is poised to grace Freo’s big screen once again for its 30th anniversary during the 10 Nights in Port festival, which kicked off in Fremantle on Thursday.
The Joys of the Women – Le Gioie Delle Donne, directed by Franco Di Chiera, immortalises the journey of the Joys of the Women choir, Italian immigrants whose rediscovered love for the traditional songs of their homeland took them from domestic chores to being feted around the country.
Led by a young and enthusiastic Kavisha Mazzella who travelled back to Italy to source the original songs, at their height the choir played before prime minister Paul Keating as Australia celebrated the centenary of the women’s vote and sang the Dockers’ theme song for the club’s only grand final performance in 2013.
With its initial showings this week already sold out, Luna on SX has added an additional screening tomorrow Sunday, August 13, at 6.30 pm.
Di Chiera said the documentary captured an important turning point for the port city in the early ‘90s; kids who’d rejected their Italian-ness because of schoolyard taunts had found a new pride in their background while rubbing shoulders on the Cappuccino Strip with the thousands of Europeans attracted by the America’s Cup.
“The choir was a part of that whole sort of renaissance of Fremantle culture, because for a while, it became a bit sort of down in the dumps, Di Chiera says.
“My father never wanted to go there, because he thought it was a rough and tumble place. I think the choir really led the way in that cultural renaissance, and was really at the heart of what was happening.”
Di Chiera said it was serendipitous coming across the choir’s first-ever public performance. He was covering the Gemellaggio festival in Freo in 1991 and while it was just one of the snippets of Italo-Australian culture he filmed, it had a lasting impact.
”I was really moved by that because my mum passed away when I was eight and a half, and she used to sing all those songs to me.”
Di Chiera’s work not only narrates the choir’s performances but also offers a profound commentary on gender roles.
“Most of those women had been locked away in their homes, raising children, cleaning house for most of their adult lives, and suddenly their kids were grown up and they had the chance to contribute to the cultural life of Australia in a way they had never had the opportunity before.
“They were literally jumping out of their shells to show something of themselves; their real selves, because a lot of them had never learned English and so on.
“That was a battle in itself, because the husbands weren’t used to that; those tensions are sort of dealt with in a playful way in the film.”
The documentary also broke ground in its coverage of lesser-known aspects of Australian culture, something Di Chiera says made it initially difficult to pitch to investors, but important now as an ethnographic snapshot.
“It represents a time capsule really, and even more so because at the time, a lot of those songs were being forgotten in Italy and they were really still alive here.
“I remember going to the Australian Film Commission with this project… and they’d say, ‘Well, who’d be interested in a film about a group of little Italian ladies singing traditional Italian songs’, that was that kind of attitude.“
But the sold-out national tour of the film and choir showed how much Australians wanted to see their own culture – even mixed – on their cinema screens.
“The impact really was that after the film was released, we saw a documentary on the gay choir in Sydney, we saw another one about homeless people, the School of Hard Knocks on a TV series, there was the Indigenous women’s one from central Australia, so we started all of that and it’s continued on,” Di Chiera said.
“The film still has currency; it still plays like it did 30 years ago, still gets the most wonderful reactions..
Mazzella said watching the donnas become “super-famous” was amazing and hilarious at the same time, while the experience shaped her life.
She’d had virtually no experience running a choir and didn’t even consider herself a songwriter, but was simply pulled along by a great desire to connect with the women.
Mazzella said Freo’s great collaborative arts sector and a little serendipity were also crucial to the choir’s success.
One of the choir members, Emma Ciccotosto, had years earlier found herself sitting next to author Michal Bosworth on a bus, bending her ear and convincing the writer that her life story was worthy of a book. Their manuscript was picked up by Fremantle Arts Centre Press and Emma – A Translated Life was published in 1980. Fast forward to 1992 and with the Joys of Women enjoying some success, Deckchair Theatre artistic director Angela Chaplin commissioned Graham Pitts to turn the book into a play and Emma Celebrazione hit the stage.
Mazzella wrote the score, and says that given her inexperience at the time, she had to be asked twice before agreeing. It was a huge hit nationally and cemented her reputation as one of Fremantle’s great songwriters.
“Emma the play became a staple for Australian theatre, because all these communities around Australia wanted to hear this story,” Mazzella said.
“It was like the best type of atom bomb.”
Apart from Mazzella, the only surviving member of the original choir is 73-year-old Vincenza Mancuso, but she’s still going strong and will join the current line-up for performances at the first two screenings of the film. For the extended session Mazzella says she’ll be singing solo.
For tix to the extra session head to lunapalace.com.au and the film’s third from the top.
by STEVE GRANT