CLARA TELLS THE STORY of a young girl's experience of grief in Australian suburbia. It was selected for the Shorts competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival. In this interview, Van discusses recurring themes in her animation work and her love of working with dolls.
SALLY O'BRIEN: When did you start working with dolls? When did they become the stars of your work?
VAN SOWERWINE: It wasn't until I was about 22 that I started collecting dolls from op shops, and I always had them as a child and was particularly fond of a few. There was one big baby doll that I kept froom my childhood and became really attached too. Then I started thinking about making animations with dolls. I mean I had this baby doll, but I've always been much more interested in teenage dolls, or dolls between the ages of 8 and 13, on the cusp of adolescence.
About seven years ago, I began actively collecting dolls. I started seeing them in op shops--maybe I got sick of buying op shop clothes and I started looking at other things in the shops--and I'd find these dolls that had faces that appealed to me in some way and make up a story about where they came from, what their history had been before they came to the op shop.
The transition from childhood to adolescence seems to be an important period for your work--what is it about this time that is so fascinating to you?
I guess for me it's that childhood is almost a magical time. Your perception of the world is quite different to adulthood and I suppose it's when you start becoming aware of the world around you a bit more. And things like your own mortality.
I think most people go through a lot of angst as teenagers, and I know certainly for me, I had a really happy childhood and then quite an intense and traumatic break into adolescence.
I finished primary school and then went overseas for a year with my family and was about to start high school there, but just before I went, one of my best friends from primary school was killed. So I suppose that transition period for me was very intense.
I feel that, to a certain extent, everybody experiences that, not in such a violent way, but that change. You go from that childlike happiness to that adolescent angst. So I think it's quite an interesting period.
Another interesting thing for me is my parents, who are always surprised when I tell them I was unhappy at high school, so I must have kept up this pretence, this mask and never even admitted that I was unhappy, as I was at times. I pretended it was all fine, and that's part of the appeal of dolls--they've got this beautiful clean mask, this blankness, and underneath there's all this simmering tension ... perhaps.
There's a recurring theme in your work of young girls being 'trapped'--in a boarding school for example (Doll Stories: Mary). Do you think this is an experience unique to girls of a certain age? I think it resonates with a lot of people in general. I guess I think that human beings are afraid of change, which is probably quite natural. Even though you might be in an unhappy situation, a lot of the time it's familiar, and you'll stay in it, no matter what age you are. So it's probably something that people can relate to a lot. I can definitely relate to it. It's one of my worst fears--being in a situation that I can't control or get out of in any way. Not that I want to be in control of everything all the time, but [the problem is] if you have no say in what you're doing or what you want to do. And as an adolescent you're in very controlled systems most of the time--high school, your family.
That's another intriguing thing about your work--where is everyone? Where are Clara's mum and dad? Your work Play With Me has a little girl in a cubby house. Where have the adults gone? Or where do you think they've gone?
(Laughs) Yeah. One of the things that I've learnt is that you're always alone with yourself. …