A community stitched together

Woodend Community Bags members Susie Game, Sally Scanlon, Deann Collier and Sheila Brennan showing off their work. (Damjan Janevski). 252039_04

By Oliver Lees

From the back room of the Woodend Neighbourhood House, a group of self-proclaimed ‘granny activists’ is the subject of a new short film currently featured in the Melbourne International Film Festival’s (MIFF) digital program.

Founded by Sally Scanlon, the Woodend Community Bags has met for three hours every Thursday since 2017.

According to Ms Scanlon, the group was founded with a simple goal in mind: to help rid Woodend entirely of plastic bags.

Using materials recovered from landfill or donated from the community, the group of retired women apply their sewing skills to the cause, fashioning reusable shopping bags which are then handed out to the community.

“We joined together as a group of women wanting a connection within our neighbourhood and to something positive,” Ms Scanlon said.

“We make each bag by hand, give most of them away, and also sell them at the farmer’s market. It gives us an opportunity to talk to people about the environment.

“Really we’re just a group of grannies trying to make a difference in plastic.”

The group caught the eye of final year film student Tess McArthur-Dowty in early 2020, as she was looking for a subject for her next documentary project.

After the devastation of the 2019-20 bushfires, Ms McArthur-Dowty wanted to feature a positive story of environmental activism.

Having grown up in Macedon, Ms McArthur-Dowty said conversations with Ms Scanlon made it clear she had a story worth telling.

“She had so many great stories to tell, I just felt there was something there,” Ms McArthur-Dowty said.

“I really love first-person observational documentaries, and this was my first time making one,” she said.

“You can hear me asking questions, but I’m not a character, the main thing is focus on them.”

Ms McArthur-Dowty said shooting her documentary during the pandemic had its challenges, but it also helped to develop the story in a way she hadn’t expected.

“I think the biggest surprise for me was that originally I wanted to show a story of positive environmental activism, which was felt so needed after the bushfires,” she said.

“But as the story developed, and I spent more time with these wonderful women, it also became a story of the importance of community.”

With the group unable to meet regularly during the pandemic, Ms Scanlon said the past 18 months had made her realise just how much she had missed her sewing friends.

“We’re focused on that cup of tea at 11am and the natter and chatter that goes on, that’s more important than making the bags,” she said.

“Last week was the first time we could get together for ages. We didn’t even get the sewing machines out.”

Ms McArthur-Dowty’s short film, ‘Stitched Together’, has been made available to watch for free on the MIFF website.

Details: play.miff.com.au/