Years ago I remember watching a really fantastic documentary about the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras called, Feed Them to the Cannibals. As I recall, the title was a reference to the words of an Australian government official, who was asked what he thought should be done with those engaging in homosexual behaviour in the early days of European settlement here.
For me, that 1993 film was also an introduction to the larger-than-life character of Dawn O’Donnell, the subject of the movie I saw tonight, Croc-a-Dyke Dundee. For many years, a friend and I developed quite a routine between ourselves, as we remembered and laughed about some of the classic lines delivered by Dawn in that early film.
Co-incidentally both films were made by the same person, Fiona Cunningham-Reid. At tonight’s screening she mentioned how she had asked Dawn many years ago if she would participate in a follow-up documentary about her own life story. For many years, Dawn and her partner, Aniek Baton both refused.
At the Q&A session which followed tonight’s screening, Aniek explained what finally brought her around, was recognition the telling the story of Dawn’s life goes some way to telling the history of Gay & Lesbian life in Sydney in the last fifty years or so.
That said, the film also gives a really lovely insight into her life before she became a nightclub owner on Oxford Street. The film explains she was the daughter of a single parent, growing up in Sydney in reasonably rough circumstances, until she was sent to a convent school to “smooth off the edges”. She had an early passion for ice-skating, which eventually took her to live in both London and Paris, until an accident cut short her career.
On returning to Australia she married a man which, in the film she says, “lasted for about two months”.The film then goes on to explain how she made her career mostly in real estate, and then later in nightclubs.
The film doesn’t shy away from the more suspect parts of Dawn’s life. The film talks about her connections with the convicted criminal, Abe Saffron; the many allegations of nightclub arson; and even the suggestion she murdered someone. The film offers no new evidence on any of these allegations, but that’s okay, it wasn’t that type of film.
For me the really interesting insight into Dawn’s life, of course, came from Aniek, Dawn’s partner. They were together thirty years, and it sounds like they had an amazing series of adventures together, particularly the travel. Dawn died five or six years ago, and Aniek was left out of the will. At tonight’s screening she said she was still involved in a complex legal battle tonight which was “ongoing and private”.
Though the film wasn’t as ground-breaking and as memorable for me as “Feed Them To The Cannibals”, I really enjoyed it. I hope one day it will get a television screening as well.