Review : Juanita : A Family Mystery

by Ed Illades

The documentary form has always encouraged and benefitted from formal innovation. Filmmakers with scarce funds at their disposal find new, interesting solutions to overcome their shortcomings and this necessity is often the mother of invention. Just as often, a by-the-numbers, rote formal exercise is helped tremendously by just having a fascinating and important story. This latter situation is what we have in JUANITA, the highly compelling story of Juanita Nielsen, the young heiress whose genuine love for her neighborhood (King’s Cross in Sydney) led her into a passionate life of activism, muckraking journalism and hard-nosed confrontations with the power structure of the city. On July 4th, 1975, she went to a meeting with Edward Trigg, an employee (read: enforcer) of Jim Anderson, the mobster who ran King’s Cross in those days. She was never seen or heard from again. 

The story is dark and riveting and Juanita herself emerges very quickly as a fascinating character through interviews with people who knew her: family members, a boyfriend, fellow activists… the film excels at bringing many facets of her personality and work to life while avoiding the kind of hagiography so common in documentaries of this type. 

Where the film falls a bit short is in its framing device: Juanita’s niece and cousin, Keiran McGee and Pip Rey, are trying to find answers to the many questions raised by Nielsen’s disappearance so many years ago. What actually happened? Who was responsible? Why wasn’t anyone prosecuted? These are all important questions, and having her family members conducting the search as well as the interviews should make things more compelling, but having established their commitment to discovering the truth, the filmmakers don’t really know what to do with the two women. I kept wishing they were either less obtrusive, or more central. Instead they seem to take up just enough time and attention as characters to be distracting from the primary story.

It’s a story worth telling though, and certainly worth watching, delving as it does into a world that we don’t often see as part of the Australian story: A world of protestors, of unionists and unions, of communist organizers, of emerging Aboriginal resistance, of opposition to the capitalist machine; a story of a wealthy woman whose sense of justice and of her own indestructibility brings her in conflict with her own economic class. I wish the documentary had spent more time fleshing out the history of these movements that Juanita became involved with and ultimately gave her life to. In a time of conglomerate media consensus, we need more exposure to, and investment in, these stories of resistance, of activism and uprising. We may never know the details of what happened on the night Juanita Nielsen disappeared, but we do know the issues that she was passionately fighting for. These issues have not gone away. In many ways they have only escalated and become more entrenched. May this documentary inspire future Juanitas.

Juanita : A Family Mystery is now streaming on ABC Iview.

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