Op shop preview from The Age, March 24, 2005

Op shop world

Op shop mainstays Lil and Mavis among racks of clothing treasures at the South Melbourne shop.

Op shop mainstays Lil and Mavis among racks of clothing treasures at the South Melbourne shop.
Photo: Supplied

It's a second-hand concept with a social role, says Clare Kermond.

There's a lovely moment in The Op Shop Ladies of Emerald Hill when one of the elderly regulars, Joe, does a spry little dance step as he heads out the door, cheerily waving goodbye.

With failing eye sight and other health problems, Joe probably doesn't have too many reasons to dance these days, but then the Community Chest Op Shop is like that, a kind of oasis of long-lost treasures, kindness and patient calm.

Married filmmakers Cath South and Stewart Carter took their cameras into the Emerald Hill op shop at a time of drastic change. When South Melbourne council was merged with its neighbours in 1994 to create the City of Port Phillip, the staff of the op shop down the road from the chambers wondered if their new masters would let them stay on with the same peppercorn rent.

Other changes were afoot in the mid 1990s: South Melbourne was climbing the social ladder, house prices were taking off and Joe and the other op shop regulars were turning into strangers in their own neighbourhood.

The documentary, which picks up the story from 1996, follows the stories of Lil and Mavis, op shop volunteers for more than 40 years. The two elderly friends are unflappable amid the dramas playing out around them. Their new landlords call for demographic and business surveys to help decide the shop's future. Lil and Mavis carefully pencil in the required details on a survey form.

But what about those things that don't fit into the bean counters' surveys. As Cath South says, "they gave out six cups of coffee and spent two hours sitting still talking to an old man, it doesn't fit in with how we justify the existence of anything in our world any more".

South and Carter have been op shop fans since their university days. It was Carter who became a regular at the Emerald Hill shop and began kicking around ideas for a film. When the government began amalgamating councils and the shop's future was in doubt he had his film.

The affection that these filmmakers had for their subjects is obvious in the film, at one point we hear Carter offering to carry boxes for the volunteers. At a recent screening of the film at the South Melbourne Senior Citizens' Centre, Lil and Mavis were special guests.

Carter and South have worked together for about 15 years since studying at Swinburne University, making documentaries since before they "became fashionable"

They have won three awards for The Op Shop Ladies, including a 2003 Atom Award and a highly commended at the 2005 Flickerfest International Short Film Festival. They have also collected awards for earlier projects, a mix of educational films and documentaries.

The couple also became part of the changes sweeping through the South Melbourne area when rising real estate prices and the needs of their growing family pushed them out of the neighbourhood. They now live in country Victoria, near Castlemaine.

Asked about the appeal of op shops, one of the Emerald Hill shop's volunteers decides it's about memories, and the pleasure of seeing things from your childhood. "It's a form of keeping up with your past."

South says op shops are a rare place in today's world, a place where there is no pressure to spend money. "For me, the op shops are both places where people who don't have a throwaway dollar don't have to spend money, but also they are about looking at stuff from the past and, I think, processing. When you're an older person and you've seen so much, it's almost a place to meditate on the fact that you have been in the world for this time."

Return to Op Shop Ladies Intro Page

Stewart Carter & Cath South

Director of Photography: Stewart Carter

Sound Recordist:
Cath South

Rod Quantock


ATOM Award Best Human Story Documentary 21st ATOM awards.

Winner Highly Commended Award at the 2005 Flickerfest International Short Film Festival

IF Audience Choice award at the 20th St Kilda Film Festival


The Age 24 March 2005

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