‘World changed’ during movie’s production
When director Unjoo Moon saw her husband had been seated next to Australian singer and feminist icon Helen Reddy, she made him swap their place cards.
"He had no choice!" Moon told news.com.au over the phone while in hotel quarantine after arriving in Sydney from the US.
"I always try to stay open whenever I'm anywhere because you don't make films from being a filmmaker, you make them from real life," she explained. "And I wanted to hear Helen's story.
"She had such a big impact on the women that affected me when I was growing up as a young child in North Sydney. I know when her music came on, I know the change it made in my mother and her friends who were discovering feminism and independence."
That slightly manipulated encounter between Moon and Reddy at a G'Day LA dinner in Los Angeles, where the Melbourne-born Reddy now lives, formed the basis for I Am Woman , a biopic releasing on streaming service Stan today.
"I wanted to hear Helen's story not necessarily because I thought she would be a movie but because I was so curious," Moon said. "Then as I sat there and listened to her, I realised she had an extraordinary story and I could immediately see it being a film. I was really surprised when I found out there wasn't already one."
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Moon, best known for directing doco of The Zen of Bennett, spent a year with Reddy, eking out her story, often while walking along the beach - "She loves the ocean", Moon explained.
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival this time last year, I Am Woman played to a packed theatre of 2500 people (impossible nowadays), who gave a standing ovation after singing along to the final scene.
For Moon, she knew the movie would say something to people, but when she and producer Rosemary Blight set out years earlier to make it, they had different ideas about how it would resonate with audiences.
"Rose and I would look at each other and say, 'This is so exciting, when we release this film, America's going to have its first president that's a woman and people will watch this movie and say what a long way we've come'.
"Of course, the world changed and that didn't happen."
But as Moon and her collaborators were working on the story, a different movement came to the fore, that of the Women's Marches, starting with the marches attended by millions around the world the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated in January 2017.
Reddy even broke out into song on stage next to Jamie Lee Curtis at the Los Angeles march, leading the crowd in a rendition of her anthemic song, "I Am Woman".
There's an inextricable connection between Reddy's 1971 song and the second wave feminist movements of the time, tied into the marches of those days and the battles for the US Equal Rights Amendment. The reverberations were felt around the world.
"I went to a women's march in Washington and there were over a million people there," Moon said. "And it was amazing to see, to walk through the crowds in that main mall, and people were holding up signs that say 'I am woman, hear me roar, I am strong, I am invincible'.
"Words from Helen's song, it was really quite extraordinary."
When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted I Am Woman's original theatrical release plans - it had been slated for a May release through Transmission Films - Moon and her producers didn't want to wait until 2021 and see what the state of cinemas would be.
"Rose and I both felt very strong that we really needed to get this film out now that we needed to get this film out now. We believe this film has a strong message and it can, I hope, help people, especially women, make really good choices in a time that's very crucial to make good decisions.
"Even though this story is set in the past, it really reflects strongly on the journey of women today.
"We all stand on the incredible shoulders of these incredible women before us but when you watch the movie, and you relate to the women's marches, I hope that people walk away and really feel that there's still work to do, and that they're inspired to make change happen.
"It does have a different resonance now."
Moon said when she was in Toronto last year, a young woman of about 20 or 21 approached her after the screening and said to her, "I didn't even want to come here, my mother made me come with her but I loved this movie and I want to thank you because it's going to help me understand more about where we've come from and what we need to move ahead".
For Moon, that's at the heart of this film about Reddy, as a piece of entertainment that will inspire.
"We want to inform a younger generation, who doesn't know this story and who may not know a lot about what happened in the women's movement before them.
"They are our hope. They are our future."
I Am Woman is streaming now on Stan
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Originally published as 'World changed' during movie's production