Paolo Cherchi Usai

Canberra, Australia, December 2–5, 2004

2004 has been a turbulent year in the 20-year history of ScreenSound Australia, the National Screen and Sound Archive (1). So it was with a sense of relief and jubilation that the 12th Biennial Conference of the Film and History Association of Australia and New Zealand (“Film and History Conference”) celebrated not only the 20th anniversary of the Archive, but the restoration of its former name – the National Film and Sound Archive – and the announcement of the vision of the Archive’s newly-appointed Director, Paolo Cherchi Usai. On December 1, the day before the Film and History Conference commenced, Cherchi Usai presented his vision for the Archive, which was the result of months of consultations with Archive staff, the Australian Film Commission (AFC), and stakeholders such as researchers and archivists. As part of this consultation process, Cherchi Usai read masses of submissions received in the wake of the publication of the AFC’s Directions paper. These submissions represented an outpouring of public support for the Archive that he considered unprecedented and overwhelming. Cherchi Usai’s vision was greeted with warmth and support from Archive staff and Conference delegates, even euphoria from some. At the Conference dinner two nights later, Cherchi Usai joked that he had recently been greeted as “the Messiah”, to which he expressed concern about the likely prospect of crucifixion!

Cherchi Usai’s plans for the future of the Archive have the support of the AFC. Recently interviewed for the AFC’s newsletter, he explains that the Archive “must afford equal balance and resources to our three fundamental areas of activity – collection development (acquisition), preservation and access.” In addition to returning to the Archive’s original name, Cherchi Usai has proposed “five areas of focus in a program to start immediately:

1. Developing a curatorial approach to the sound and moving image collections
2. Developing digital dissemination capabilities for access to the collection nationally and internationally, in parallel with our mission to preserve the original theatrical experience for film
3. Creating an Indigenous collection as well as strengthening the Indigenous focus across the whole collection
4. Developing international acquisition and collection – within the curatorial framework and with the Australian collection as the priority
5. Ensuring a balanced and equal distribution of resources across the three areas of acquisition, preservation and access
(2).”

After the Conference concluded, convenor Marilyn Dooley said that the 2004 Film and History Conference “will be remembered for the announcement by the Archive’s new Director … that his ‘vision’ for the future of the National Film and Sound Archive is to include a Centre for Scholarship and Archival Research based within a curatorial structure for the institution. A plan that we know excited many of you who have researched material from the Archive’s collection over so many years.”

Eureka Stockade

It was all the more fitting then that the 2004 Film and History Conference, which was held at the Archive’s centre in Canberra and the Australian National University (ANU), showcased the work of the Archive. In addition to the participation of Archive staff in presenting papers and chairing panels at the Conference, delegates were taken on behind-the-scenes tours of the Archive’s film processing laboratories and sound recording studios. Staff demonstrated restoration and preservation techniques and answered questions about the equipment they use. They also subjected us to the delightful odour of deteriorating film stock (now we know why they call it “vinegar syndrome”!). The fruits of the Archive’s labours were on display in three special screenings from the collection. To coincide with the sesquicentenary of the Eureka Stockade rebellion, the Archive presented an outdoor screening of a 16 mm, black and white print of Eureka Stockade (Harry Watt, 1949), one of several films produced by Britain’s Ealing Studios and filmed on location in Australia. Starring Chips Rafferty as Peter Lalor, leader of the goldminers’ rebellion, the film’s impressively staged set pieces of the pub fire and the violent confrontation between soldiers and miners momentarily distracted us from the chilly air of a Canberra starry night. Delegates were also treated to two screenings from the Kodak/Atlab Cinema Collection, a project to restore 50 at-risk Australian colour films over five years. The first of these, The Odd Angry Shot (Tom Jeffrey, 1979) followed the 2004 Longford Lyell Lecture, given by Sue Milliken, the film’s producer (more on the lecture below). The second screening, The Getting of Wisdom (Bruce Beresford, 1977), followed the official closing of the conference, and is the last film to be restored as part of the Kodak/Atlab project. This screening was introduced by scriptwriter Eleanor Witcombe, who explained her approach towards adapting Henry Handel Richardson’s 1910 novel: “you have to capture the essence of it – what is this book about? [The challenge is to capture] what the writer is really saying, not what she’s actually saying.” Witcombe suggested that the essence of the novel is the Nietzschean idea that the superior person can make their own rules. She also spoke about the process of compression from page to screen: “you can reduce a page-long description to one shot.” While the initial projection of the newly-restored print was prone to some teething problems with the sound, the image indeed looked handsome and clear, and Witcombe was only too happy to entertain us with further anecdotes about making the film while these technical problems were addressed. With these Kodak/Atlab screenings, it was a pleasure to see two strong casts – one predominantly all-male, the other virtually all-female – consisting of many actors still working today (Kerry Armstrong, Sigrid Thornton, Barry Humphries, Bryan Brown, Graeme Blundell) plus sadly-missed talents such as Graham Kennedy and John Hargreaves. Photography on both films was directed by Don McAlpine, with John Seale operating the camera for The Odd Angry Shot. Preserving our cinema heritage is all the more vital when one considers the established and then-emerging talents featured in these two films.

It is appropriate that this year’s Film and History Conference was organised by the Archive, as media archivists are one of the primary constituents of the Film and History Association of Australia and New Zealand. The Association also embraces media producers, media theorists and historians who use media as a resource. During one of the Conference’s plenary sessions, Ina Bertrand provided a history of the Association, which was established with the name “Australian History and Film Association”. The first conference, held in 1981, was intended to provide a forum for discussion and debate about the links between film and history, an interrelationship that was not catered for elsewhere. The Association began with the assertion that history is as important to the study of film as theory. Its membership consists of the delegates who attend the Association’s biennial conference, one of the few major forums in Australia and New Zealand for media academics, when most other conferences only offer media as a stream amongst other disciplines. Bertrand expressed her disappointment that the Association has not been as successful in attracting membership from the field of history as it has from cinema and media studies, and this lack of uptake from historians was acknowledged by the reversal of the Association’s name to “Film and History”. The Association also recently incorporated “New Zealand” into its title (3), in acknowledgment of the cross-fertilisation between Australian and New Zealand researchers and the participation of New Zealand media producers, theorists and archivists in the Association (4).

Other plenary speakers were filmmakers Anthony Buckley, who spoke about his collaboration and friendship with Michael Powell, and Sue Maslin, producer of Road to Nhill (Sue Brooks, 1997), Japanese Story (Brooks, 2003) and an impressive list of documentaries. Buckley was editor on Powell’s Age of Consent (1969), adapted from a Norman Lindsay novel and starring James Mason as a successful but disillusioned Australian artist who rediscovers his passion for his work when he meets teenaged Cora (Helen Mirren), who becomes his muse. Buckley presented entertaining insights into the production and reception of Age of Consent, such as the challenge of protecting the film stock from the humidity of the north Queensland location; James Mason’s habit of redubbing his voice after filming (he claimed to never to give the full vocal performance on set); and the ease with which the young Helen Mirren approached her nude scenes, in contrast to the titillation they provoked upon the film’s release. Buckley also revealed the frustrating history of Peter Sculthorpe’s original score commissioned by Powell for the film, a lyrical and rich work from which Buckley played an extract. Sculthorpe’s score was replaced by Columbia for the film’s release outside Australia, with a score written by Stanley Myers. Fortunately, Buckley was able to report that Thelma Schoonmaker, editor and Powell’s second wife, was currently “on the case” of restoring Sculthorpe’s original score as part of a re-issue of Powell’s films, to coincide with the centenary of his birth which will be celebrated in 2005 with film festival retrospectives and conferences around the world. Although Buckley and Powell did not collaborate on another film, they maintained a regular correspondence, and in his presentation Buckley read extracts of Powell’s letters. He spoke of Powell’s support for the nascent Australian film industry, and Powell’s firm belief that Australians must tell their own stories, rather than copy Hollywood’s. Over the years, their friendship deepened, such that Powell eventually signed his letters “Micky”. Buckley believes that it is in his letters that Powell most reveals himself, and the Conference delegates were privileged to share in the intimacy of Powell’s letter-writing, which included reflections on his first wife’s death after her struggle with cancer. Buckley’s presentation was a condensation of two chapters from his autobiography, a work-in-progress that will include extracts from Powell’s letters. These chapters promise to be a touching and illuminating portrait of Powell as artist and as husband and father.

Sue Maslin’s plenary session “Screening history – telling the ‘truth’ and telling stories” demonstrated the close and complex relationship between film and history that runs throughout her impressive body of work in both fictional and non-fictional media. Maslin has produced several documentaries directed by Darryl Dellora that are characterised by their interest in public figures who have been marginalised and vilified by the mainstream media. She is unapologetic about her efforts to rehabilitate the reputation of former High Court Judge and Attorney General Lionel Murphy in Mr Neal is Entitled to be an Agitator (1991), which celebrates Murphy’s law reform and progressive social vision embodied in his judgments and legislation. Similarly, The Edge of the Possible (1998) was intended to “bring in from the cold” Danish architect Jorn Utzon, who has not returned to Australia since his vision for the Sydney Opera House was severely compromised. Maslin related amusing anecdotes about the frustrations of documentary filmmaking, including her fruitless attempts over the years to locate the reclusive Utzon, only to be surprised when he rang her hotel in Copenhagen and invited the crew to his home for an interview. The range of documentaries produced by Maslin extends beyond profiles of maligned public figures to the complex multiple narratives of significant events such as the Sydney Hilton bombing, documented in Conspiracy (1995). The event is retold and recreated through the personal accounts of victims and witnesses, layered over and shaping the sophisticated re-enactment of the event. The recreation’s high production values are enhanced by being recorded on film rather than video.

Maslin’s involvement with documentary filmmaking influenced her collaboration with Alison Tilson and Sue Brooks on Road to Nhill and Japanese Story. These feature films infuse their fictional storyworlds with documentary-style techniques, such as the interview scenes with Bill Hunter in Road to Nhill and the real-time pacing of scenes in Japanese Story, in order to evoke an emotional truth. A common thread linking all of Maslin’s films is the emphasis on people telling their stories, and she acknowledges the potency of the first-person narrative. She is also interested in the power of collective mythology and the possibilities and limitations of the screen for history. Maslin calls herself “a screen producer”; she says that she falls in love with other people’s ideas and provides them with the resources to realise those ideas on screen (5). Falling in love with the idea is the crucial factor for Maslin, as in her experience it can take from two to five years to complete a documentary film and at least seven years to realise a feature. Whether producing fiction or nonfiction, Maslin is drawn to entertaining stories that challenge prevailing orthodoxies.

The timing of the 2004 Film and History conference coincided with the Archive’s annual Longford Lyell Lecture, given this year by producer Sue Milliken, whose filmography spans three decades and includes Weekend of Shadows (1977), The Odd Angry Shot and Fighting Back (1981) all with her then husband, Tom Jeffrey, and three films directed by Bruce Beresford, The Fringe Dwellers (1985), Black Robe (1991), and Paradise Road (1997). The Longford Lyell Lecture commemorates the filmmaking partnership of husband-and-wife team Lottie Lyell and Raymond Longford, whose pioneering films in the silent era included The Romantic Story of Margaret Catchpole (1911), The Woman Suffers (1918), and the seminal The Sentimental Bloke (1919), based on C. J. Dennis’ long verse narrative. The Archive has worked tirelessly over the years to preserve and restore what remains of Longford and Lyell’s legacy. Milliken’s lecture provided a history of the Australian film industry since the 1970s, from the perspective of both a participant and a witness. Her pragmatic attitude towards film producing was demonstrated by the anecdote she offered to explain the title of her lecture, “If it was easy, they’d have girls doing it”:

It’s an expression I sometimes use to the men on a production when there seems to be an insurmountable problem and everyone is getting bogged down. I say ‘come on guys, if it was easy, they’d have girls doing it’. It always brings them up short, they don’t know whether to take me seriously or not, but it usually has the effect of making them laugh and somehow the problems get solved.

Sue Milliken

Milliken’s lecture was illustrated with clips from The Picture Show Man (John Power, 1977), The Odd Angry Shot, The Fringe Dwellers, Black Robe, Sirens (John Duigan, 1994), and Paradise Road, a sample of Australian filmmaking under diverse government, private and international funding schemes from the 1970s through to the 1990s. Milliken concluded her entertaining personal history of producing Australian film since the Renaissance on a sombre note, observing that “getting quality Australian films financed is as tough as it’s been since I started in the ’70s” (6).

In addition to the plenary sessions, special events and Archive tours, over 50 papers were presented at the Conference across two-and-a-half days in parallel sessions. While it is impossible for this report to cover all the papers presented, I would like to offer an overview of the topics and issues covered, in order to provide some insight into the range and depth of research that comes under the heading of “film and history”. The papers embraced a variety of methodologies, from oral histories, to histories of exhibition and reception; from close textual analyses, to analyses of government policy and legislation at state, federal and international levels. While Australian and New Zealand cinema and television, both fictional and nonfictional, dominated, papers also examined contemporary European cinema; representations of Australia seen through foreign eyes; and American films ranging from propaganda movies and film noir to rock’n’roll musicals and blaxploitation flicks. In many papers, history informed the subject matter being portrayed in feature films and documentaries, while other papers provided a micro-history of a particular media form. These media forms included film festivals, video games, experimental films and animation, in addition to feature films and television programs.

The Conference convenor, Marilyn Dooley, is preparing a publication of selected papers. Selected papers from the 2002 conference, held at Flinders University in Adelaide, were published online earlier this year (7). Previous conferences have also published papers in book form and there are plans to establish a permanent website for the Association (8). The next biennial conference of the Film and History Association of Australia and New Zealand will be held in Melbourne in 2006 (late November–early December), to be jointly organised by RMIT and Monash Universities. It is proposed that the 2008 conference return to New Zealand (9), to be hosted by the University of Otago.

The 2004 Film and History Conference was an intellectually stimulating and friendly gathering, characterised by a spirit of collaboration across diverse constituencies and a mutual interest in the various links between film and history: film as history, the history of film, and history in/on film. Perhaps more importantly and at a crucial time, the conference was a celebration of the Archive, both its past and its future.

Fincina Hopgood attended the 2004 Film and History Conference with the support of the School of Art History, Cinema, Classics and Archaeology, the University of Melbourne.

Endnotes

  1. In 2003, the Federal Government placed the Archive under the authority of the Australian Film Commission (AFC). The AFC published a review of the Archive’s operations in December that year, Review of Programs: Stage 2 Directions (known as the AFC’s Directions paper). For full details of these changes, the controversy they caused and the responses of stakeholders, see Ray Edmondson’s article in Senses of Cinema, issue 33, “Parallel Lives: Britain’s National Film and Television Archive and Australian’s National Film and Sound Archive Under Threat”.
  2. See http://www.afc.gov.au/screensound/highlights/director.aspx for the full interview with Paolo Cherchi Usai, published on the AFC website following the presentation on December 1 of his vision for the future of the Archive.
  3. In discussion following Bertrand’s paper, there was some confusion about when exactly New Zealand was formally added to the Association’s title; it seems to have been either 1998 or 2000, the year of the first conference held in New Zealand.
  4. For more information, there is a paragraph dedicated to the History and Film/Film and History Conference in Bertrand’s entry, “Conferences” in Brian McFarlane, Geoff Mayer and Ina Bertrand (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999, pp. 77–78.
  5. Maslin’s current project with Darryl Dellora is a documentary broadband website about William Bligh, whom she regards as another maligned historical figure. It should be available on the ABC website from February 2005. See http://www.filmartdoco.com/current.html for further information.
  6. Milliken’s lecture is available as part of the Archive’s new series of monographs: Sue Milliken, Longford Lyell Lecture 2004, “If it was easy they’d have girls doing it: A Life in Australian Film”, Screensound Australia monograph no. 5, The Australian National University Printing Service.
  7. Selected papers from the Film and History Conference, Adelaide, November 2002, edited by Mike Walsh, Screening the Past, 16, May 2004.
  8. Publications resulting from previous conferences include Wayne Levy, Graeme Cutts and Sally Stockbridge (eds), The Second Australian History and Film Conference papers 1984, Australian Film and Television School, North Ryde, 1984; Tom O’Regan and Brian Shoesmith (eds), History on/and/in Film: selected papers from the 3rd Australian History and Film Conference, History and Film Association of Australia, Perth, 1987; Ken Berryman (ed.), Screening the past – aspects of early Australian film: selected papers from the sixth Australian History and Film Conference and other sources, National Film and Sound Archive, Acton, 1995; Jeff Doyle, Bill van der Heide, and Susan Cowan (eds), Our Selection On – Writings on Cinemas’ Histories: selected papers from the 7th Australian History and Film Conference, National Film and Sound Archive and ANU, Canberra, 20 November–2 December 1995, National Film and Sound Archive and Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, 1998.
  9. The 2000 Film and History Conference was hosted by the University of Wellington.

About The Author

Fincina Hopgood is a freelance film writer and academic, currently writing a book on the portrayal of mental illness in Australian and New Zealand films, based on her PhD research. She is also the Book Reviews Editor and Australian Cinema Co-Editor for Senses of Cinema.