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Rebel Penfold-Russell Filmmaker, business women, Arts patron, founder RebelStudio

07 March 2011

\"Most people view the lives of others and themselves as a set of goals and rules that have been followed and that have made them successful or not. That view is like being told if you're caught in a rip you need to swim parallel to the shore. It assumes you can swim.\"

Best known for her role as Executive Producer in the making of Frauds and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Rebel Penfold-Russell has had a life of learning. \"Honest learning,\" she terms it. The only child of an only child, Rebel remembers her grandfather as \"clever and very good at business as was my grandmother, but very establishment.\" Her mother, she says, was \"rebellious even reckless, hence my name\". And that \"childhood was good\", until the age of nine.

You show me yours...

Moving from the UK when she was three, Rebel grew up near Ingleburn, which was very much the country then. There were \"no fences, or very few, lots of riding, the discipline of looking after the horses, gymkhanas, running away from home, playing cowboys and Indians. It was an outdoor, blissfully free Oz existence sans the 'nanny state' we have now.

\"I rode on my own to school in Minto. My companion a big Bowie knife, which was great for cutting bows and arrows with.\"

Formal school-style education was not something that came naturally. Instead, Rebel found she was \"very good\" at drama studies, dance, couldn't sing to save herself and \"topped the state in ceramic glazes\". A little further down the track she went back and sat the matriculation exam – in the Paddington Town Hall. She also successfully auditioned for NIDA – which she counts as a highlight in her life – and went on to act and then make films.

\"NIDA was about doing something for myself and getting there on my own. It was also the era in which Gough [Whitlam] paid me to go and learn.

\"Acting is an absolute passion for me and it is always frightening to follow a passion because you may not actually be good at it. I no longer practice it but I can support it, just as I do with the stuff I do for kids.

\"I believe it is important to give back. I am very cautious when it comes to financial matters and I truly believe if you give it will come. Kids are where we should start.\"

Childhood for Rebel had its difficulties and they've impassioned her to support kids' causes. She grew up in a time in which people sat down to \"three-finger scotches and sucked back Rothmans [cigarettes]\". So while not surprising to her now, losing her father to throat cancer back when she was nine was a shock.

\"Gone with the wine\"

From acting at the South Australia Theatre Company for a year, understudying Ruth Cracknell, learning about makeup, movement, theatre production, the itch to go further took Rebel to the UK and more acting, tap dancing in pantomime, Guinness ads in Dublin and eventually the London International Film School to study.

But life and death again twisted the path.

\"My mother, who had been an advertising executive and photographer, which I am sure influenced the way I saw and lived life because that is what your parents do even when you try not to let it be the case, died.

\"I was young, financially ignorant. I came home to five tea chests of documents and was told to read them. I had not been taught by anyone how to be 'fluent in the comprehension of fiscal terms' and it did not come naturally.

\"I was lost and frustrated with out guidance and knowledge for months. I had to work this stuff out and I didn't even know what a balance sheet was.

\"What became very obvious to me was that you should take an active interest. That people who have protective families who guide and care are lucky. You can buy knowledge but how much better to have lessons from your family. To learn by example not by yelling at each other about some debt or other but by calmly working with your kids to show them real direction. That was my lesson conquering those tea chests.\"

Learning financial literacy and achieving financial independence remain strong motivators.

\"If you have taken the step and learnt the language then from there you can choose to be subservient or not. It is a decision made with knowledge. If you are subservient because you have made no attempts to learn about and understand the processes, then that is unforgivable.

\"I found you had to take responsibility for and understand what you cannot do yourself, and then find the right tutors or people to do it with you. For me, that has come in the shape of some very close friends and mates. It actually comes down to team-work which is why I choose the career paths I do, and do the things I do.\"

Rebel agrees she lucked out with her mates. Her contemporaries and peers (people such as John McGrath, Robert Maple Brown) were great supports and she was not afraid to ask for advice.

Slowly, she began building her business and her personal portfolio back brick by brick. At work she was also learning to produce films – at the hands of the \"school of hard knocks\" – making mistakes and having success along the way with projects such as Unfinished Business, which was invited to Sundance, Frauds, Priscilla and her directorial debut, Willful.

\"Finance is dry and very boring and I am very cautious. But to have something and then lose it all. I was determined to make it back. And very slowly, I have.

\"There is no formula. I mean, if you were asking me what are the tools I need to win an Oscar? I would not have put drag queens high on the list... Success is about discipline and tenacity and being prepared to do everything and staying curious and on the move. It's about working out what you can do and what others can do (not that I am a good delegator) and then finding somewhere pleasant to do it. For me that is outdoors and thinking on the move. I love exercise.\"

It was during these feature film years that she also sat down to write a family memoir, \"Gone with the wine\". Unpublished, it has, according to Rebel, served its purpose best as a way of \"expurgating the ghosts\".

\"I've always wished I'd stayed acting, stayed with theatre. If I think, who are my role models, the people I find inspiration through? They're actors, dancers, performers: Robert Redford, Fellini, someone like Sylvie Guillem, the dancer, because she is a creator and dares to stretch life into the years, Katherine Hepburn.\"

Life lessons

\"I think it is important to give our kids our passions. If those particular passions really don't interest them, then find out what does and see how you can help grow them.

\"We all have the potential to learn. It's important to take advantage of the ability to research and learn, whether it be about money, yourself or a product or idea you really believe in. I don't agree people should market themselves in the way Paris Hilton does. But, I do agree we should market ourselves if we have something to give, a great product, a great talent and if it comes truthfully and naturally for you to do it. If not, then teach someone else to do it for you.\"

Key Achievements

Getting into NIDA

Winning an Academy Award

Building a strong business and financial portfolio

Supporting the Arts

Personal Passions

My children

Snow sports

Having the tenacity to finish the job

Understanding that if you don't look after things you don't deserve them

\"Follow your passion. Try everything, stay curious and take pride in whatever it is you are doing.\"

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  • Jacqueline Coates

    Jacqueline Coates 6 years ago

    Great article thankyou! The creative path is the path less travelled. And its usually invisible unless you take the risk to stand on it. I always love hearing someone else's version of their creative path. Jacqueline Coates, Artist, Online & Workshop art Teacher and Artist Mentor