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australian screen culture: the hard yards

tina kaufman

Tina Kaufman is a Sydney-based writer on film and media issues.

OVER AT LEAST THE LAST 50 YEARS ONE CONTINUING AIM OF THE AUSTRALIAN FILM COMMUNITY HAS BEEN THE DEVELOPMENT OF A LOCAL SCREEN CULTURE (EARLIER, ‘FILM CULTURE’), SOMETHING THAT WOULD, AMONGST MANY OTHER THINGS, EVENTUALLY INCREASE AUDIENCES FOR AUSTRALIAN FILMS. IT’S AN AIM, HOWEVER, THAT HAS OFTEN BEEN RATHER NEBULOUS AND UNFORMULATED, AND AS A GOAL IT’S RARELY COME EVEN CLOSE TO BEING MET.

So what is screen culture, anyway? Over those years, it has been defined in many and various ways: as the comprehensive nature of screen activity outside the mainstream; as the environment in which screen projects are developed, made, viewed, discussed and appreciated; even, in one lobbying foray, as “the glue that holds the industry together.” The importance of screen culture within the film industry, and within the wider film community, has ebbed and flowed, and the support it has been given, both financial and in kind, has similarly grown or, more often, decreased.

Back in the 1980s and 90s screen culture was actually high on the agenda; funding bodies held forums to define it and determine what their assistance to it should be, while the many and varied organisations and individuals who believed they had a role within a healthy screen cultural sector took part in many enthusiastic debates at festivals and other film events. Lobbying bodies with high-flown names were formed when needed to press the case for support. But, as more immediate issues relating to production, funding and government assistance took priority, screen culture receded as a topic, and has never really regained attention. Today, amongst the often ill-informed debates about the quality of Australian films and why they are not reaching audiences, a serious look at the importance of screen culture in this equation is conspicuous by its absence.

australian film institute

In 1958 a group of film lovers already involved in the early years of the Melbourne Film Festival set up a separate organisation to operate year-round. Aware of similar activities already being carried out in the UK by the British Film Institute, they called this local organisation the Australian Film Institute, and based its constitution on that of its role model. The AFI has now survived for an eventful 50 years, the only screen cultural body (apart from the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals) to do so, but just how secure is its continuing role in the cultural life of Australia’s screen community?

The AFI’s first 50 years have been captured in a book, Shining a Light, by Lisa French and Mark Poole, a relatively straightforward chronological history of the organisation which also records an interesting and diverse range of impressions and opinion on the events along the way. It does contain a very interesting and comprehensive chapter on screen culture, which, the writers contend, is where “the AFI’s pursuits over six decades have centred...this is arguably the AFI’s raison d’être.” Using many sources, articles and interviews, they have compiled a concise but substantial portrait of screen culture, concluding with an idea of what it could have been—and still could be. They define screen culture as including production, distribution and exhibition, but also “critical commentary, educational, promotional, lobbying and other discourses and contexts for the reception of screen products”; it’s “located within government bodies, institutions, film service organisations, industry guilds and associations, as well as those processes, audience engagements and discourses that encompass a film community.”

For them, the AFI’s survival for more than half a century promoting “the growth of a diverse film culture” is a “remarkable achievement, given its non-government structure and its membership base”; and they argue that Australian screen culture and the AFI are “clearly inseparable”, something I find hard to agree with. In fact, it’s the AFI’s role in the demise of several important screen cultural initiatives that the organisation has been most criticised for over the years.

the film society movement

The aspect of screen culture that most people recognise and desire is related to exhibition, to enjoying films that they normally wouldn’t get to see. While in recent years digital technology has made it possible to see an enormous range of restored, rediscovered or just very obscure titles on DVD or through digital download, there’s still that innate desire in most film lovers to see films on the big screen, in the dark, surrounded by friends, acquaintances and fellow film lovers. And while film festivals and other events go some way to satisfying this desire, the dream of a national screening circuit offering, year round, a rich and diverse range of curated programs, retrospectives, other national cinemas, all presented within a contextual perspective, is still on the agenda, despite many disappointments.

This sort of specialised exhibition has long been a major aim for local screen culture. The rapid expansion of the film society movement in the 50s, which coincided with a rise in university film groups and was followed by the early underground and surf film screenings in the 60s and the so-called film renaissance of the 70s, saw in many cases the emergence of new filmmakers from backgrounds involved with such showings. This led to an oft-repeated argument that the exposure to such screenings would not only lead to more informed filmmakers, but to larger and more appreciative audiences; as such it was often put to government funding bodies. And to be fair, there were some short, glorious periods when it actually existed.

the national film theatre of australia

The National Film Theatre of Australia was founded in 1967, and grew rapidly in the 70s, gaining a national membership of over 9,000. Run by an extensive network of volunteers and a small but enthusiastic staff, it managed to screen a wide-ranging and well-curated program of films all round the country for a number of years, including some wonderful imported seasons. However, even as it acquired some funding support from the Australian Film Commission, this led to its demise; the AFC, which was already funding the AFI to provide specialised exhibition (which it had done, but in a much less organised and inclusive way), brought about what was originally portrayed as a merger of the two bodies in 1979. However, the NFTA was swallowed up by the AFI, and while its programming continued under the AFI’s banner for a while, it soon disappeared entirely, leading to some long-held bitterness.

the melbourne & national cinematheques

In many of the lively debates about film culture in the 70s and early 80s there had been much talk about a national cinematheque, especially after the demise of the NFTA. The argument was that not only would audiences profit from such screenings, but that filmmakers and film students could benefit from being exposed to such a rich diversity of filmmaking practice, with the Melbourne Cinematheque, which had been running an admired annual program of screenings put forward as a model. Commencing as the Melbourne University Film Society (MUFS) in 1948, and changing to the Cinémathèque in 1984, this self-administered, non-profit, membership-driven group of committed cinephiles, determined to screen films as closely as possible to the way they would have originally screened (big screen, 16 and 35mm prints), every year programs a diverse selection of classic and contemporary films, curated retrospectives and thematic series, using both archival and new prints sourced from all around the world. In the late 80s the AFI proposed that it take the Melbourne Cinematheque program to Sydney’s Chauvel Cinema, and in 1993 this became the National Cinematheque, screening around Australia at a circuit of cinemas including the Media Resource Centre in Adelaide and the Film and TV Institute in Fremantle, with the support of the AFC. However, when the AFC told the AFI in 1999 that it would no longer fund its distribution, research and information activities, it offered additional funding for exhibition, which kept the national cinematheque going for a few more years, until it petered out.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The Melbourne Cinematheque still runs a very full and enticing calendar, and screens at the excellently resourced ACMI, which has its own interesting program. The MRC in Adelaide curates a solid annual cinematheque program, as does the exciting and relatively new Arc cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra. Sydney’s not totally without alternative screenings: the NSW Art Gallery runs an imaginative program of free screenings allied to its exhibitions; the WEA struggles on screening to a small but very committed audience every second Sunday; and the Japan Foundation, weekly for most of the year, shows a fairly eclectic range of current and archival Japanese films.

goma’s australian cinematheque

But the jewel in the crown is the Australian Cinematheque, located at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, which presents an incredibly rich program of retrospective and thematic films showcasing the work of influential filmmakers and artists. It has two state of the art cinemas, together with a dedicated gallery for screen-related exhibitions and facilities for video production, and could well provide a reason for travelling north.

how to do screen culture: aftrs

Given the current lack of focus on screen culture, it’s exciting that the Australian Film, TV and Radio School is now offering a Graduate Certificate in Screen Culture. The course has just started this year, and is aimed at people who are interested in engaging with ideas, in broadening their knowledge and understanding of screen production practice, history and culture, and in contributing to the shaping of a local screen culture. AFTRS hopes to develop students to function in a range of roles, as critics, commentators, dramaturgs, festival directors, teachers, administrators or project officers, and hopes that people already working in the industry could join the course, learning how to build their community and expand their network of contacts and ideas.

It’s refreshing that AFTRS, which has usually favoured the professional and the technical in its teaching, is offering such a course; run from the Screen Studies Department, where department head Karen Pearlman is hoping “to create a community of well-informed and actively engaged people with an interest in developing and influencing the direction of our screen culture, including production, exhibition and distribution, audiences, experiences, ideas and the level of discourse about what we make, why we make it and who it is for.” She believes that screen culture not only helps Australian films find their audience, but also helps Australian cinema find out where it fits in the wider film world.


Alongside Jack Sargeant’s article on Australian genre films [RT95] , Mike Walsh on Asian film in Australia [p17] and Thomas Redwood’s account of the new Mediatheque based at ACMI [p19], this article is part of an ongoing OnScreen series addressing Australian screen culture.

Tina Kaufman is a Sydney-based writer on film and media issues.

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 16

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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