Peter Tammer's
A Woman of Our Time

by John Cumming

(1972, 26 mins, 16mm, dir: Peter Tammer)

The following text was written for the screening of the digitally restored version of A Woman of Our Time, which premiered at La Mama on December 11, 2021 as part of their Cinematica series.

A Woman of Our Time is a unique portrait of a renowned author, social commentator and educationalist – a role-model for a whole generation of Melbourne Women – Myra Roper, made in 1972 by pioneering independent filmmaker Peter Tammer.


Born in England, Myra Roper moved to Australia in 1947, at 36 years of age, to serve as principal of the Women's College at The University of Melbourne. She is fondly remembered as a mentor to many young women. In 1960 Myra left the university to pursue a public life that influenced the course of Australia’s relationship with China, the development of national cultural institutions, adult education and, especially in the media, the status of women.  Peter, whose father was Lebanese, entered filmmaking as a young, second-generation migrant worker and emerging filmmaker in the almost exclusively male, Anglo-Celtic domain of film production in early 1960s Melbourne. In his first job, as a film library assistant at the State Film Centre of Victoria, he adapted 16mm film-checking equipment for the purpose of editing his own short films.




Both Myra Roper and Peter Tammer were engaged in cultures of community enterprise and cooperative action. When they met around 1969, Peter was a young freelance editor. His client work included campaign advertisements for Gough Whitlam’s, progressive and soon to be elected, Australian Labor Party. Myra needed help to edit 16mm footage she had filmed, to illustrate her lectures on Communist China. Accounts from both Myra and Peter
indicate that some men in positions of authority could and did go ‘out of their way’ to foster their emerging talents as writer and filmmaker. In the absence of policies, guidelines, training, and professional development programs, it appears that the simple and expansive sociability of peers, employers and informal mentors was critical to the induction of these new entrants to their respective fields.  Peter has said that when he explained to Myra why he saw her as being worthy of such a film he felt that she was thinking ‘in her natural humility … “Oh but I’m not that interesting”’. In her first book 'China - The Surprising Country' she writes of her recovery from self-doubt with reference to a stereotypical and gendered self-image as a ‘misguided female’ and an alternative, gendered image of herself as an ‘enterprising woman on an unusual venture’. Myra encountered several male allies who recognized and affirmed that alternative image. Peter was one of them. Sadly, however, most of the difficulties facing women that Myra identifies in this film persist. Despite the passage of fifty years, she and this little film are still of our time.


During the 1960s, student arts organisations at The University of Melbourne and a vibrant immigrant Italian community in the adjacent inner suburb of Carlton, stimulated a burgeoning post-war art, theatre and film scene. Carlton soon became a social destination for young people, including students from the new outer-suburban Monash and La Trobe universities and technical and teachers colleges across the state. Its share-houses, cafés, cinemas, and small new theatres became a focal point of cultural activity around the anti-war movement, feminism, and an internationally engaged effort to develop Australian culture independently of colonial influence and British and American commercial interests. By 1971, when Peter and fellow filmmakers officially incorporated the Melbourne Filmmaker’s Co-op (MFC, 1968-1976) a wider movement for cultural experimentation and the democratisation of media was also underway in print, radio, and community video. The Co-op films were notable for their diversity of form. Peter’s filmmaking was, and continued to be, literally experimental. As an artist, he has never repeated himself but has sought to push into new dimensions of what film can be, structurally and spiritually.




In A Woman of Our Time, two committed non-conformists provide a unique, unadorned window on early 1970s Australia, inviting comparison with the status of progressive ideas in filmmaking and gender politics today. The film brings into sharp relief the lack of progress towards gender equity in general, and in Australian film production specifically, both in terms of the diversity of on-screen representations and regarding entrenched gender imbalance in many professions. It is a personal work, rather than the work of a producer, a director, and their ‘crew’. Out of necessity and enthusiasm, Peter conceived, organised, did most of the cinematography, the sound, all the editing and even the negative matching for this film.


In his several unique portrait films, and A Woman of Our Time in particular, Peter explores the idea that a film about someone can, in a painterly and poetic sense, be turned to modernist portraiture (think Cubism) rather than being locked to the narrative logic of biography. Peter frees himself from the documentary routine of ‘talking heads’. The central organizing principle is neither narrative nor rhetorical – it is dialectical. A Woman of Our Time engages its viewer-listener at the level of ideas and emotions: ideas about power, sex, and gender, about representation and about filmmaking; emotions of love, compassion, respect and dignity. All this is achieved while being playful with images, with sound and with the subject. The film threads images and sounds together densely into a rich tapestry that encompasses and interweaves the everyday, world historical events and a whole complex of political, philosophical, and aesthetic concerns and ideas. This little film is sensitive and dense, the result of a rich working relationship between Myra and Peter and of the richness of their creative engagement with the world.




For fifty years, as often happens with independent films that avoid sensation and adhere to no tradition, genre or orthodoxy, A Woman of Our Time ‘fell between the cracks’ of programming categories and fashions. In 2018, Melbourne’s Artist Film Workshop held a retrospective of Peter’s films, including a rare public screening of A Woman of Our Time (only its second screening since its 1972 premiere at the MFC). For me it was a revelation. Together with his Flux (1970) this film reveals a level of innovation, especially in its editing, that may prove significant in the language of cinema. It is certainly a wonderful portrait of someone who remains A Woman of Our Time.


John Cumming

Melbourne, January 2022


VIEW THE FILM: Courtesy of the filmmaker, you are able to view A Woman of Our Time for a limited period by clicking on this link:

John Cumming is a filmmaker, author, and custodian of the archives of Rusden-Deakin Film, TV and Animation and Open Channel. Their book The Films of John Hughes: a history of independent screen production in Australia is published by ATOM.

Published Jan 6, 2022. © John Cumming, January 2022.