The Year My Voice Broke / Vanessa Berry

As a teenager in the 1990s I had about a dozen VHS video cassettes of movies and TV shows I’d taped off the television. I put them together carefully, pausing to edit out the ad breaks, and then watched them again and again. The tapes became compilations of my teenage obsessions: episodes of Twin Peaks, Cure and Joy Division video clips from Rage, and American teen films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Of all the films on these tapes that I obsessively watched as a teenager, there’s one that has followed me into my adult life, its resonances more than the nostalgia of returning to my teenage years. The Year My Voice Broke is an Australian coming of age film released in 1986, and the most well known of director John Duigan. It was a film that is set in the Australian countryside, rather than the urban environments of American teen films, and begins with a long shot across golden fields. The soundtrack to this is “Lark Ascending” by Vaughan Williams, the violin like a curious and melancholy spirit.

Set in the southern highlands of NSW in 1962 The Year My Voice Broke debuted Noah Taylor as 15 year old Danny Embling, awkward and unpopular, defiantly different from his peers. With his ink-black hair and pale cheeks, which readily blushed a blotchy red, his interest in telepathy, sci-fi movies, and learning pop songs on his guitar, he was instantly appealing to the nascent goth within me. The object of Danny’s thwarted affections is his childhood friend Freya, played by Loene Carmen, whose flyaway blonde hair and chipped nailpolish mark her, too, as an outsider. Freya is friends with Danny, but she is in love with the rebellious Trevor, a larrikin with a weird, high-pitched giggling laugh, who despite his football prowess is given to stealing cars and taunting the police.

It is a film about outsiders and rebels, and this struck a chord with me, being someone who didn’t feel as if I quite fit into the world around me. I especially loved the way that Danny and Freya created their own world alongside the town and the countryside surrounding it. They walk along the main street late at night, watching the moths fluttering up against the streetlight, imagining the dreams of everyone in the town. Outside of town they visit Willy Hill, a cluster of boulders and straggling gum trees on a hill above fields, which Freya describes as her “special place”, a place she finds solace, away from the town and its gossip and small-mindedness.

Underlying the film is the notion that places hold the events which occur there, leaving a trace, a force field, or some kind of energy. Danny and Freya visit the Jonah the train signalman, who lives in a decommissioned train carriage kitted out with his typewriter (he’s writing “the first truly erotic Australian novel”) and an enormous bottle of whiskey. Danny and Freya sip this whiskey from anodised cups as they talk about the abandoned “ghost” house on the hill. Jonah tells them his theory about how “the whole world’s a museum. Everything that’s ever happened in a place, it’s all there”. This idea is what has brought me back to this film over and over. Memories are kept in objects and places, and no matter how people change, or enter or leave each others’ lives, nothing is ever truly lost if it can be remembered.

I’d long been curious about Braidwood, the town where The Year My Voice Broke was filmed and a few years ago I made a pilgrimage to visit it. I found the Braidwood of the film was still recognisable thirty years later. I visited the op shop that had been Freya’s family’s cafe, and peeked into the former cinema where Danny hoped for a repeat screening of Forbidden Planet. These places seemed so familiar from the film that, rather than visiting the town where the film was shot, I felt like I was visiting the places where Danny’s and Freya’s memories are embedded. I could sense the force fields that they described, I could step into the world they had created.

Vanessa Berry is a writer, visual artist and blogger. She is the author of two memoirs, Ninety9 and Strawbery Hills Forever, and her third book based on her popular Sydney exploration blog Mirror Sydney will be published in October 2017. She is also a visual artist and her zines and maps have been exhibited at galleries such as the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and the National Gallery of Australia.

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