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Homeward Bound: An Interview with Sue Thomson

Homeward Bound: An Interview with Sue Thomson

Women over 50 are the fastest-growing demographic facing homelessness in Australia, with 240,000 older women at risk. This issue and community, rarely represented in the media, struck a personal chord with writer/director Sue Thomson, who previously directed documentaries Tempest at the Drop-in (2013), about a group of people with serious mental-health issues performing Shakespeare’s The Tempest; and The Coming Back Out Ball Movie (MIFF Premiere Fund 2018), about an older LGBTIQ+ community. Her new film, the MIFF Premiere Fund–supported Under Cover, profiles 10 older women with lived experience of homelessness, including Wirlomin Noongar author Claire G. Coleman.

Critics Campus 2022 participant Ellen O’Brien speaks to Thomson about her connection to older women and homelessness, navigating the public storytelling of private and intimate experiences, and working with Hollywood star Margot Robbie.

There’s been a lot of fantastic recent reporting on homelessness, like the 3CR series
Homeless in Hotels, aired during the COVID pandemic. What drew you to make a documentary on homelessness among older women?

I watched a program on Insight at the end of 2018 about older women and homelessness. One woman worked her whole life, raised kids, her relationship had broken down, and she was living in a car. It struck a nerve. I felt like that could be me. I’ve worked in the arts since I was 18, and I haven’t amassed a lot of super. I have pretty much lived hand-to-mouth most of my life. I’ve got no money. It’s tough.

I’ve taken on the idea that, if I get this opportunity, I should share it and bring into the realm of film as many incredible people as I can. As an older woman, I felt like I was talking to myself. I do long-form films and they take me three to four years, which is a long time to spend with one subject. I have to feel passionate, committed and enthusiastic, and that there’s something that I can contribute to society.

Under Cover

Was there any tension with bringing such intimate stories into the public arena while also respecting your interviewees’ privacy?

Privacy is hard in every film. One of the things I ask when I start my interviews is, “Why are you doing this?” I want to make sure [my subjects are] fully cognisant that what they’re sharing could end up onscreen. I am very anxious about people’s mental health, privacy and families. This film, probably more than any other, was really tricky.

A lot of stories were taken out to protect loved ones. I tried to let the women share their stories, but if it got too dark, we would discuss whether they were confident sharing this. I lost a couple of women on the way. The thing about women is: we’re mothers, we’re sisters, we’re partners, and it’s incredible how much of this they’ve kept secret.

The film features direct-to-camera interviews, and there’s also a voiceover by Margot Robbie that ties the film together. Why have a voiceover rather than purely focusing on the interviewees?

There’s a lot of information that comes across through the narration that’s a bit didactic. I felt the audience needed to know things that no-one was telling us: home ownership is out of control, the lack of social housing, and that we’re not taking care of each other.

I had this idea that if we got a famous superstar, who was potentially sexy to younger people, maybe young people would come and see a film about older women. Fuck, we’ve got Margot fucking Robbie narrating a film about old women and homelessness! It was incredible.

I had a strong emotional response to Under Cover. What impact do you hope the film will have?

We want to effect change. Ideally, we’d change policy and government. If we don’t change it from the top down – if the government doesn’t take more responsibility for its citizens – we’re in trouble. There needs to be more housing. The waiting lists for social housing in Victoria are just out of control. Victoria has one of the lowest rates of social housing in relation to the number of people on the list, and that’s shameful.

I started this film thinking that I would tell you how to solve the problem at the end. I don’t know what I was thinking. Like, for fuck’s sake, Sue, you’ve got no idea!

With [social] impact [filmmaking], you start from the ground and move up. We will try and target politicians, probably businesses, and bring together women with lived experience and hear from them. The downward flow from that would be schools, financial literacy, and people leaving the audience and starting the conversation. My mum is 87, and she thinks of homeless people like someone on the street. But it’s much more complex than that.

Under Cover screened as part of the MIFF 70 program.
MIFF Critics Campus is presented by VicScreen and supported by the University of Melbourne.

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