By David Pountain
Directed by Fiona Cunningham-Reid
“This is her story – well…one version at least,” the voiceover narration coyly announces in the opening minutes of Croc A Dyke Dundee, the cheeky yet touching new documentary from Fiona Cunningham-Reid about the life of Australian entrepreneur Dawn O’Donnell. It’s a good humoured admission that the facts have yet to be straightened out on the film’s central figure – a woman thought to have played a pivotal role in establishing and defining Sydney’s gay and lesbian club scene from the late “˜60s onwards – but it also perhaps undersells the inclusive eye with which Cunningham-Reid studies her subject. Rather than restricting itself to one side of the story, Croc A Dyke Dundee wisely embraces the intriguing ambiguities of O’Donnell’s life, providing a dark, mischievous undercurrent to this warm-hearted tribute.
The film’s title was, itself, a nickname given to Dawn O’Donnell by the Americans, and it actually seems to fit fairly well with her tough, brash persona. While the underground LGBT scene of Sydney is shown to have plenty of creative types, such as irreverent drag performer David “˜Beatrice’ Williams, Dawn is presented first and foremost as an ambitious, savvy businesswoman who quickly developed a monopoly on the culture, opening “˜clubs, bars, discos, sex shops, saunas and god knows what else’. Croc A Dyke Dundee largely tells its story in terms of what Dawn witnesses and how she reacts, though her receptive productivity isn’t exclusively linked to moneymaking ventures, acknowledging her philanthropy in response to the AIDS outbreak.
While the film is primarily a character study, it encompasses many of the extraordinary stories that intersect with Dawn’s life, especially those in relation to the infamous, purportedly sordid Purple Onion venue. One interviewee, for instance, recalls how a drag artist was stabbed on their opening night at the Purple Onion by an “˜irate lesbian’ mid-show, while the rest of the performers assumed it was part of the act. The film’s highly explanatory voiceover narration proves unnecessarily constrictive in this respect, making it harder for the film to truly get lost in its rich, distinctive environment – a problem which might have been solved with a more generous running time. But the film still provides some breathing space for the viewer in its admissions that it doesn’t always know how to distinguish fact from mythology, particularly with regard to the rumours and conspiracy theories that would place Dawn as an arsonist, a murderer and, above all, a gangster. These assertions find opposition in the suggestion that Dawn may have intentionally perpetuated these stories in order to maintain the fear and respect of her peers.
But despite (and perhaps, in part, because of) this mystery surrounding Dawn’s life, what we do know about her is enough to make her an enjoyable, sympathetic presence. By filtering history through this individual’s journey – be it her early days ice skating in Europe where she found it easier to indulge in her sexuality, or her firing from a general management job when her sexuality came to light – Croc A Dyke Dundee proves a joyous tribute to a larger-than-life personality and to the progress instigated by a woman we may never have fully figured out.
Watch Croc A Dyke Dundee on FilmDoo.