One of Sydney’s most enduring unsolved mysteries — the 1975 disappearance of journalist and activist Juanita Nielsen — is being explored in a new video artwork shown at this year’s Sydney Festival.
Nielsen is presumed murdered over her campaign against rampant development in Kings Cross although her body has never been found and no one was ever charged over her death.
The new video artwork, The Beehive, explores the complexities behind the woman and the continuing legacy she left behind.
Artist Zanny Begg said the title was a metaphor both for Nielsen and the city she tried to save.
“Juanita Nielsen was iconic for her massive beehive hair-do, but a beehive has also been used traditionally as a symbol for how we think about cities, because beehives have three things that really encapsulate what we think about cities — architecture, community and density.”
Begg and many others widely believe Juanita Nielsen was silenced by developer Frank Theeman, his business associates and corrupt police for her ongoing campaign against the destruction of historic terraces on Victoria Street.
The film looks at the many different facets of Juanita Nielsen’s life, as an heiress, fashion icon, union activist, environmental campaigner and journalist.
“I think there’s a lot of obsession on who killed Juanita and I think that’s understandable. It’s a cold case,” Begg said.
“But for me what I was really interested in was why did they get away with it?
“I think that’s the story of Sydney — why her killers got away with it.”
Producer Philippa Bateman said the issues Juanita Nielsen fought for in the 1970s remained relevant today.
“In a sense it’s not a whodunnit because we know that her murder has never been solved,” she says.
“Zanny’s approach was a contemporary one because it combined what happened in the 70s and who Juanita was as a human being, but is absolutely relevant to a lot of the issues that are being dealt with now which is development, favouring the inner city basically for the very wealthy, the kind of cleansing of inner cities in a sense.
“She was ahead of her time as an Instagram, social media kind of writer but she wrote about political, social, community issues.”
No one audience will see the same film, with the complex case examined in over 2,000 different versions, created by a special algorithm.
“What the algorithm does is it allows the ambiguity of what actually happened to her to play out,” he said.
Twelve actors play the role of Juanita, interwoven with interviews with friends and key players in the case.
Green Bans campaigner and former NSW Labor president Meredith Bergmann says she still gets “a chill” remembering Juanita Nielsen’s disappearance.
She said the artistic film was a unique way of keeping alive the story of her battles with developers and corrupt officials.
“It is important. She did lose her life for an important political struggle in Australia and we’ve got very few of those sort of political heroes and we should celebrate them.”
The Beehive is on at UNSW Galleries as part of the Sydney Festival.