December 21, 2018


The lady vanishes: ‘The Beehive’ at Sydney Festival

By Steve Dow
Image from ‘The Beehive’

Pamela Rabe in The Beehive. Photograph by Philippa Bateman

Zanny Begg and Philippa Bateman on their enigmatic film that explores the unsolved disappearance of Juanita Nielsen

Sydney, the city of ever-rapacious development, killed Juanita Nielsen. A journalist and small-time publisher, Nielsen took on the might of sin city’s capitalist network, a honey pot that connected developers to seamy nightclub kingpins, their mutual sense of entitlement to exercise their capitalist clout strengthened by verbal threats and physical intimidation.

Organised crime had flared in New South Wales during the decade of Robert Askin’s Liberal government, which was in power from 1965. As a coda to that era, the botched police investigation of Nielsen’s disappearance in Kings Cross in 1975 would be tainted by allegations of corruption.

Nielsen had swung her newspaper, NOW, behind union green bans to stop bulldozers moving in on terraces in Victoria Street, where she lived. “What she was doing in the 1970s was what we now understand to be contemporary journalism,” says video and documentary artist Zanny Begg.

Begg’s film The Beehive, to be shown at UNSW Galleries in Paddington (January 5 to February 23) during the Sydney Festival, combines documentary interviews with Nielsen’s contemporaries alongside scripted musings of actors playing different versions of Nielsen, including Pamela Rabe as Nielsen’s ghost, tending a beehive on a Kings Cross rooftop.

“Juanita would pose in front of all these buildings that were going to be knocked down, dressed to the nines in these incredible outfits, and she would put these photographs in her newspaper,” says Begg. “She always wrote in the first person. It was like a video blog or an Instagram account, way before they ever existed.

“Her journalism was personal, straight off the top of her head, direct from her heart. She talked about what she had for breakfast that day, who walked past in the street. In amongst that, she was talking about green bans and development. She was [also] trying to support local businesses. That’s why I think she was an Instagram influencer before the internet.”

Glamorously photogenic with her big eyelashes, designer clothes, long boots and beehive hairdo – like the flashy façades of her city, it was a wig – Juanita Joan Nielsen had turned away from the bourgeois values expected of her as heiress to the Mark Foy’s department store family fortune.

Instead, she had pursued a bohemian life, living in an open relationship with her younger lover, photographer David Farrell, at their narrow two-storey terrace, where she published NOW.

On July 4, 1975, Nielsen, then 38, left her home and office at 202 Victoria Street to attend an appointment at the nearby Carousel nightclub on the corner of Darlinghurst Road and Roslyn Street. The night before, Eddie Trigg, who worked for Kings Cross nightclub boss Abe Saffron and his associate Peter Farrugia, had phoned Nielsen, saying the club wanted to advertise in her newspaper. Nielsen was never seen again. She is thought to have been murdered in the club’s basement.

Trigg would be convicted of conspiracy to abduct Nielsen, and be sentenced to three years in prison, but no one has ever been charged with her murder. Many of this milieu – Trigg, Saffron, Farrugia, businessman developer Frank Theeman and club manager “Big Jim” Anderson – are all now deceased. Marilyn King, Trigg’s former girlfriend who worked at the Carousel and whom police wired up in 2005 to secretly but unsuccessfully record Trigg, is also dead.

“I still feel a sense of outrage, yeah, totally, and I would still love for there to be a sense of justice for Juanita,” says Begg. “I still think it’s possible [to solve]. They could hold a royal commission, and they should.”

Until then, mythology and supposition continue to surround the famous cold case. Partly in recognition of the many sides of the activist publisher who dared question criminal and official power, as well as the complex capitalist hive that swallowed her, Begg’s film is a “non-linear experimental documentary”, using algorithmic editing constructed by software engineer Andy Nicholson.

The video reorders scenes in an estimated 1344 possible variations. “Because it’s a true crime story, this was a really great way of leaving clues throughout the whole project, which people can find to work out who they think did it,” says Begg. “That was my initial motivation, and then discovering what a complex and interesting person Juanita was, it allowed us to peel off various layers: the fashion layer, the trade union and green bans, her sexuality and polyamorous radical personal life.

“A third motivation for me is that cities, by their nature, are dense, complicated places. You can’t really have a linear narrative about a city. Unfortunately, development tries to impose a linear narrative on a city; this homogenising of space through the prism of profit and private gain.

“What was amazing about Kings Cross in the 1970s was that it had all that bottom-up, organic complexity: you had rich people living next to poor, artists next to the wharfie community. That’s what made it such a fabulous neighbourhood, and what Juanita Nielsen was prepared to give her life for.”

The Beehive, meanwhile, scores two coups: filming takes place partly inside 202 Victoria Street, with the supportive present-day owner’s permission, while Nielsen’s lover, David Farrell, who was devastated by her murder, is interviewed on camera, and even recreates the phone messages he left for her on the day she disappeared.

The film’s producer, Philippa Bateman, notes that after Nielsen’s death, developer Frank Theeman succeeded in building Victoria Point, a “horrendous eyesore” apartment development where terraces once stood. Artists and students still managed to rent homes in Kings Cross in the 1980s and 1990s, but, says Bateman, “For the last five years, the aggressive push for development that Juanita was fighting against is back with a vengeance.”

Pamela Rabe, meanwhile, playing Nielsen’s ghost, descends the sandstone steps from Victoria Street. She says, enigmatically: “The puzzle of who killed me lies at the heart of this city.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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