19 Aug 2018 | BY Sarah Thomas - @SarahTtheWriter
Sheilas, a new web series by sisters Hannah and Eliza Reilly, addresses one very important question: “Why is Australian history such a goddam sausage party?” they ask.
The four eight-minute shorts, which the Reillys wrote, directed and associate produced, delve into the historical vault to highlight the stories of extraordinary Australian women who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The comedy performers, last seen in the brilliantly acerbic Growing Up Gracefully on ABC TV, have mined the rich histories of Australian women to present a vibrant whirl of inspiring true tales. There’s Fanny Durack, who, lacking support from sporting bodies who were against women competing in the Olympics, funded her own way to Stockholm in 1912 where she went on to seize gold. There’s Nancy Wake, a private-school girl turned kick-ass World War II spy. There’s fearless bushranger Mary Ann Bugg, partner to Captain Thunderbolt, who fought to be recognised in her own name. Then there’s Merle Thornton, who protested Queensland’s ban on women in pubs by chaining herself to a bar and kicking off a new era in women’s liberation.
The Reillys act as the narrators and interpreters of these women’s achievements, alongside the stellar talents playing the heroines: Nikki Britton (Durack), Cecilia Morrow (Wake), Megan Lilly Wilding (Bugg) and Brenna Harding (Thornton).
Each story is an epic adventure in trailblazing endeavours – so why does a series like Sheilas need to be made to put the spotlight on these incredible women? Why are their stories so unsung?
“I think it’s mainly because the victors of history get to write the history books,” says Hannah. “And of course, men have always been the ones writing history. Plus, history is an interesting thing. It’s not a truth, it’s a perception of events taken down by a certain group of individuals, which have usually been white men in powerful, privileged positions. So, of course they’re going to illuminate the stories that they want to illuminate and focus on their own achievements, and the achievements of women have been largely overlooked, underestimated or just completely disregarded.”
Sheilas is the first production funded by Screen Australia’s $5 million Gender Matters initiative, which supports storytelling by women and, Hannah says, is “totally crucial” to the creative landscape in Australia. The Reillys thought a focus on female historical figures would be the perfect pitch for the program, and doing it as an easily consumable, short web series taps straight into the social-media world. It also allows access to a global audience, something the Reillys were already across with the success of their 3.43 clip, a song about the gender pay gap, which scored 8 million hits.
So, back to the women and their lack of recognition. “The classic one is Nancy Wake,” says Eliza. “She was the most wanted woman of World War II, had a 5 million-franc bounty on her head and she grew up three streets from where we went to school, and we didn’t know about her. We’re just trying to level the playing field – these women cannot be talked about enough.”
The stories are retold in the distinctive Reilly voice: smart, sharp, blunt, with a bit of bad language and a few songs thrown in. They say it’s a series that they would have liked their 16-year-old selves to have seen, growing up on the Central Coast, and they hope it has the potential to be shown in schools. Eliza says she also hopes it connects with blokes.
“That’s really important to me,” she says. “I feel like there’s so many amazing stories that you can talk about over a beer in a pub. However, a lot of them have been about men, and that’s great and their stories are amazing, but it would be nice for one of those men in the group to chirp up, ‘Actually did you know about Nancy Wake? Or did you know about Fanny Durack, she sounds awesome,’ and just having these historical figures, like who Don Bradman and Ned Kelly are, sewn a bit more into the fabric of who we consider ourselves to be and where we take lessons from in our history.”
The women chosen for the four shorts were picked for many reasons, including the broad timespan covered, and the Reillys say they have a long of list of Sheilas they want to feature and are in negotiations about expanding the series.
The stories, they say, provide much to learn from. “Even if a straight, linear line to getting what you want isn’t available,” says Eliza, “you can always circumvent it and come up with amazing creative ideas, like Fanny Durack did, funding her own campaign to get to the Olympics, which was unbelievable.”
The Sheilas, says Hannah, are the “real superheroes”, and at their core is refusing to take no for an answer. “In all of these women’s contexts, in whatever time and scenario, they faced obstacles to what they wanted to achieve, or in some way faced a ‘no’ in their lives, and nevertheless they persisted,” she says.
And it’s not about tagging these figures as novelty “strong women”, that tired old tag that really just means, well, women doing stuff.
“All of the work that we do, we want it to be a coincidence [that it’s women],” says Eliza. “Even though these issues are very female-centred, we want it to be that they’re just people. As soon as you can get over the stigma and perception of watching female content, you can probably actually just get to the fun stuff of the story.”
The message is clear, says Eliza. “At the end of the episodes we say something like, ‘So next time somebody tells you that you can’t do something because you’re being bad to your gender, tell them to f–k off’.”
Sheilas premieres on YouTube and www.sheilas.tv on August 21.
Sarah Thomas is a contributing editor at The FIERCE @SarahTtheWriter