Secret histories: A review of Margot Nash’s The Silences.

by Claire White


“To a sister who never spoke, and a mother who never forgot.”

So goes the dedication at the end of Australian filmmaker Margot Nash’s feature documentary The Silences, which screened at the 2018 Melbourne Women in Film Festival.  Addressing three generations of women, The Silences is a deeply personal and beautiful essay film from Nash, as she attempts to fill the gaps in her family history and uncover the secrets that were kept.  

Nash never desired to start her own nuclear family. Looking at this representation of the family she grew up with, it is easy to understand why. Nash did not learn of her father’s mental illness — which would likely be known as bipolar disorder now — until her older sister told her when she was ten.

What we see onscreen is pieced together from archival photographs, letters, and clips from Nash’s own films. Nash’s previously shot footage often teams up perfectly with this new narrative from her childhood, leading us to a startling understanding of just how much she had consciously and unconsciously recreated scenes from her early life in her later fiction. We can see this especially in her debut feature Vacant Possession (1995) and experimental short Shadow Panic (1989).

The narration was spoken by Nash herself. In a strong and even tone, each word was deliberately and perfectly considered as she reflects on her fraught relationship with her mother, Ethel. It is shocking to hear that not only did Ethel try to abort the baby that would become Margot through drinking gin and jumping off a piano, but that she told her daughter this. These revelations made their relationship painful. Through grief, loss, and loneliness, this film is a tribute to Ethel, who passed in 2004. The Silences reflects a daughter’s desire to finally understand her mother.

It is in this vein that The Silences joins a tradition of filmmakers exploring the mother-daughter relationship. Nash lists Michelle Citron’s Daughter Rite and Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell as inspirations. In The Silences, Nash reveals that it was only through reading letters that she learnt about her mother’s depression, and her father was the one who revealed a shocking family secret. The silence from her mother is deafening.

When audiences reach the end of The Silences, they too may be speechless. How terribly affecting to look back on a silent life. 

Whitney Monaghan