Who killed Juanita Nielsen? That’s the question asked by a non-linear, experimental documentary called The Beehive, commissioned by ACMI and showing there until 6th November. It’s free and running from 10 am to 5pm each day.
Juanita Nielsen was from a middle-class family. She was educated and well-travelled. In the 1960s she moved to Kings Cross for the bohemian lifestyle you could get there back then. But the real estate there was too valuable to be left to working-class employees and artists, and it had always been the headquarters of organised crime. Rich men bought up the cheap terrace homes and got their dodgy mates in crime and corrupt police to hassle the locals to move.
By 1975 things were getting tense. The builders union refused to work on the development and locals were protesting in every way they could. But key individuals were getting harassed and kidnapped, and warned off making trouble for the guys with money. Juanita was a journalist for a local paper as well as being involved in the protests, and used her platform and education to draw attention to the corruption. When she disappeared, everyone who knew her assumed she had been “gotten rid of” as a lesson to them all. No-one was ever convicted of her murder, and her body has never been found.
According to a review at The Guardian, the film is made up of about 20 sections, with a few of them selected randomly by computer to make a film-length documentary. Each screening is different because of this. In the one I saw, some sections are of the actresses playing Juanita, re-enacting scenes from her life. Others are the same actresses talking about what they have in common, or not, with her. One older lady plays a bee-keeper, a kind of ghost of Juanita haunting present-day Kings Cross. And there are interviews with people who knew her and were involved with the protests. It was an interesting way of showing the reality of any true crime story – that it is a mosaic with missing pieces and many points of view.
I misunderstood the details of the story, and so I went in to the screening thinking it was going to be about a nice white lady who opposed some development in her nice backyard, with not much controversy about who killed her even if there was no official answer. I should have trusted ACMI more! Nielsen was a tough lady in spite of appearances, and she was dedicated to using her bit of privilege in life to get a better deal for people who were worse off. She wanted to be a champion for people who were overloooked, and she knew it was dangerous to stick her neck out.
All film directors have to answer the question of “why should I care about this?” for the audience. Director Zanny Begg does a great job of connecting Nielsen’s story to issues still current today – misogyny, race and class. Affordable housing in Sydney is a way to bring all those threads together. This interview with Begg on YouTube (captions available) is really good at explaining what I liked about this film.
Sadly, the only mystery about who killed Juanita Nielsen is which one of the corrupt rich men affected by her power was responsible for hiring a thug to kill her. But finding the precise answer would shed a lot of light on how money controls the shape of a city. I’m not usually interested in Underbelly-style stories, but the more feminist and intersectional take on this case helped me get invested.
Two fictionalised versions of her story have been filmed – Heatwave (1981, directed by Philip Noyce with Judy Davis playing Juanita) and The Killing Of Angel Street (1981, no names I recognise but won some critics awards). If you’ve seen either one I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.