The Bugle App
The Bugle App
Your local news hub
Get it on the Apple StoreGet it on the Google Play Store
FeaturesThe Bugle: latest issue24 Hour Defibrillator sitesSportsWin StuffKCR
The Bugle App

The 22 Year Story of New Charmian Clift Documentary: Life Burns High

The Bugle App

Lleyton Hughes

28 June 2024, 9:00 PM

The 22 Year Story of New Charmian Clift Documentary: Life Burns High

“Ask nothing of it and the soul retires, the flame of life flickers, burns lower, expires for want of air. Here, in the midst of all our difficulties, life burns high. Though it seems sometimes that we make no progress towards the ideal, yet the ideal exists, and our energies are directed towards it.” - Charmian Clift in ‘Peel Me a Lotus’ (Muswell Press, 2021) 

When writer/director Rachel Lane first read Nadia Wheatley’s The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (HarperCollins Australia, 2002) it was 2002. She immediately fell in love with Charmian and the “amazing, courageous heart that she had,” and she felt she needed to make a film about it. Unfortunately, someone else had the rights to the story, and so that idea was filed away.

Twelve years went by, it was 2014, the idea had sat there picking up dust, but also aged with wisdom. The rights to the book suddenly became available and, feeling the same way she felt more than a decade earlier, Rachel snatched them up and began work on a feature film.

Another five years went by, it was 2019, and Lane realised she didn’t have the money, traction or interest to make the film in the way that she wanted. And then she was hit with a thought: Why don’t I make it as a documentary? And so, she and co-producer Sue Milliken began work on a documentary about the life of Charmian Clift.

Now we are in 2024, 22 years removed from the initial moment of conception, and we finally have the documentary film Life Burns High. Written, directed and produced by Rachel Lane, the film follows Clift’s life from the early days in Kiama all the way to her tragic death in 1969.

Lane has since read that book which started it all, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift, multiple times. Not to mention she has read every article, novel and essay that Charmian ever wrote. She also watched obscure documentary films which feature Charmian in a few scenes, laboured over photos from her family archives, watched the miniseries that she helped write based on My Brother Jack and more. She consumed everything.

“In my spare room,” Lane says. “The whole wall is covered with the excerpts (from Charmian’s writings) as I was trying to figure out where they all fit. I promised my partner I’d take them down, but I haven't yet.”

Life Burns High had its premiere at the 2024 Sydney Film Festival, and Lane introduced it by thanking everyone that helped her. And then she added a special thanks to her partner.

“I then said, ‘on a personal note I’d like to thank my partner Jay for his love and support and being my sounding board.’ And I said, ‘I think he can relate to Princess Diana because there’s been three of us in the marriage: Me, Jay and Charmian.’ Because obviously I’ve carried her with me for a hell of a long time. She’s never far from my thoughts,” said Lane.

The two showings that were advertised for the Sydney Film Festival sold out immediately and Life Burns High ended up being chosen for an encore screening.

“So out of 200 odd films, there were only five that had quickly sold out and we were one of them. So, off the back of that they do an encore screening for 16 films, and we were selected for one of those encore screenings,” says Lane.

Life Burns High chronicles all the major parts of Charmian Clift’s life. Her childhood in Kiama, her first child that she was forced to give up, her time in the war, her affair with writer George Johnston, their marriage, their family, their time in Greece, their move back to Australia and, finally, Charmian’s death.

All of this is told through interviews, old images and videos of Charmian, as well as excerpts from Clift’s various pieces which are presented through creative visuals and a voice actor. Lane admits that it was difficult making a documentary about someone who isn’t alive, but she says that once she found a way to put Charmian’s actual words into the film, everything began to click into place.

“I always wanted to do it from Charmian’s perspective,” says Lane. “It was about her and it’s from Charmian’s perspective which is why her essays drive the narrative because that’s her voice.

“I really wanted to give her her rightful place in life. Because she was always very much overshadowed a little by George’s career, so I guess one of the things I was trying to do was put her forward, and give her her time in the light as she rightly deserves.”

As well as bringing Clift’s life to the front, Life Burns High also seeks to possibly deal with the tragic question of her suicide. And one of the ideas it successfully translates is that Johnston, through the act of writing his novel Clean Straw for Nothing (HarperCollins Australia, 1969), committed a double betrayal.

In the novel George uses the character that Clift created as an alter ego for herself, Cressida Morley, to illustrate her infidelities in their real-life relationship. Through this act, not only is he informing the public of her sins, but he is also stealing the character that she created and uses her in his own piece, essentially putting her creation under his control.

“It’s all about art imitating life and vice-versa and she (Clift) obviously just felt that no one would be able to differentiate, and she was so fearful of what people would think of her. Back in those days that would've been the most horrendous thing you could do,” says Lane.

Life Burns High does a terrific job at translating Clift’s fascinating and empowering life to the screen. Lane’s obvious obsession and passion for Clift and what she has done is felt through the screen. And, after a long 22 years of thinking about it, Lane says she is so happy it’s finally moved from her head out into the public.

“It’s been a labour of love, but it feels so good to get it out there and now it’s exceeding expectations and as I’ve always suspected there’s a very interested audience in this story which I’ve been trying to tell people for years,” says Lane.

Life Burns High will be playing at the Gala Cinema in Warrawong on Friday the 26th of July as part of the traveling Sydney Film Festival.