Screens for shar­ing

Even in a dig­i­tal age, old- fash­ioned film so­ci­eties are flour­ish­ing, writes Pauline Web­ber

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

THE de­sire to dis­cuss and an­a­lyse cin­ema is al­most as old as the medium. Film was the latest art form of the gen­er­a­tion born in the 1920s, and by the ’ 40s film so­ci­eties had be­come part of Aus­tralian cul­ture.

By im­port­ing and screen­ing Euro­pean and Asian films that the com­mer­cial the­atres ig­nored, so­ci­eties went some way to­wards ful­fill­ing a new cu­rios­ity about the wider world that had come about dur­ing the war years. Film so­ci­eties were the foun­da­tions on which the Melbourne and Syd­ney film fes­ti­vals and the Aus­tralian Film In­sti­tute, among other or­gan­i­sa­tions, were built.

In an era when any­one can watch just about any­thing at home on television, DVD or com­puter, film so­ci­eties have not only sur­vived, new ones have sprung up. There are more than 120 across the coun­try, in ev­ery state and ter­ri­tory. Some con­sist of a hand­ful of en­thu­si­asts who meet in private houses, oth­ers are large or­gan­i­sa­tions with mem­ber­ship of more than 1000. It is the sense of com­mu­nity that makes the film so­ci­ety ex­pe­ri­ence spe­cial.

‘‘ Al­though we’re a film so­ci­ety, I see us as a com­mu­nity. It’s a form of dis­cus­sion,’’ says Alex John­son, con­vener of the In­ner West Film Fa­nat­ics, a group that meets monthly in the Syd­ney sub­urb of Peter­sham. The IWFF, which was formed in May this year, com­bines the cul­tural with the po­lit­i­cal, se­lect­ing films with a so­cial agenda and invit­ing guest speak­ers.

‘‘ We wanted it to be broader than just film ap­pre­ci­a­tion,’’ John­son says. ‘‘ You can ex­tend the dis­cus­sion if you have ( guest speak­ers) who were in­volved in mak­ing the film or know about its sub­ject.

Aaron Pont is co- founder of the Braid­wood Film Club. ‘‘ It’s dif­fer­ent see­ing movies on the big screen and it’s dif­fer­ent with peo­ple around you,’’ he says.

We are in the NSW coun­try town of Braid­wood to see how a film so­ci­ety in the 21st cen­tury goes about its busi­ness. Pont and his part­ner Michelle Ro­bi­son be­gan the club in 2000. It has a mem­ber­ship of more than 100, in a town with a pop­u­la­tion of 1100. The club meets at the Na­tional Theatre, a rare ex­am­ple of a tin theatre, built in the 1920s and one of the long­est run­ning cine­mas in the coun­try.

Satur­day, 11.30am : The film day be­gins with a pro­mo­tional stint on The Barbed Wire­less, Braid­wood’s com­mu­nity ra­dio sta­tion. The an­nounc­ers, Chris Payne and Michael Gill, are also BFC mem­bers and with Pont and Ro­bi­son they trade jokes and snap out one- lin­ers about this week’s film, Ni­a­gara , a mi­nor Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe ve­hi­cle from 1953. We are in stitches.

A huge batch of scones is ready in the theatre kitchen when we ar­rive. Pots of tea are set out and there are lash­ings of cream and jam. Thus for­ti­fied, ev­ery­one be­gins work. Books on Mon­roe and on cin­ema are spread about.

4.30pm : The last touch has been added to the com­mu­nal seat­ing area, vases of spring flow­ers. Pont and Gary Hovey, the club’s tech­ni­cal ex­pert, are pre­par­ing the film for screen­ing. Pont climbs into the rafters to set the DVD pro­jec­tor at the cor­rect dis­tance, a scary job that must be done by hand. The club is sav­ing to buy an au­to­matic guide rail.

Cock­tail hour : Mem­bers be­gin to strag­gle in with wine and nib­bles. The in­de­fati­ga­ble Payne and Gill, hav­ing worked their artistry on the win­dow dis­play, whip up five- star cham­pagne cock­tails for ev­ery­one. Plas­tic wrap is peeled from bowls of curry, plat­ters of lasagne, sal­ads. The com­mu­nal area is full of chatty film en­thu­si­asts hap­pily graz­ing on their shared meal.

The books are picked up and browsed through. There’s a queue at the door. A fi­nal sound check and ev­ery­one moves into the au­di­to­rium. It’s time to be­gin.

So­ci­eties op­er­ate un­der strict guide­lines, set by the Coun­cil of Aus­tralian Film So­ci­eties, that en­sure they don’t step on the toes of com­mer­cial film dis­trib­u­tors and ex­hibitors. Ad­mis­sion is by mem­ber­ship so peo­ple see them­selves as mak­ing a long- term com­mit­ment. ‘‘ Peo­ple who come have a feel­ing of own­er­ship,’’ is how one en­thu­si­ast puts it. For most mem­bers, that sense of own­er­ship of the view­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is the key el­e­ment dis­tin­guish­ing so­ci­eties from or­di­nary cine­mas. ‘‘ Our mem­ber­ship is eclec­tic,’’ Ro­bi­son says. ‘‘ We have a bar­ris­ter, a doc­tor, an Angli­can min­is­ter, farm­ers, artists, shop­keep­ers.’’ In towns such as Braid­wood, which have few en­ter­tain­ment op­tions, the club of­fers an al­ter­na­tive to the cafe or pub. ‘‘ If we just said let’s all meet once a fort­night for a so­cial gath­er­ing it wouldn’t work,’’ Pont says.

Film so­ci­eties have al­ways been more than so­cial gath­er­ings. At the height of the Cold War, some film so­ci­eties, pre­cur­sors of the IWFF, de­fined them­selves by their left- wing poli­cies and pro­gram­ming. Oth­ers were equally com­mit­ted to the Right. But most kept to the mid­dle ground, pro­mot­ing film, en­cour­ag­ing film cul­ture and push­ing for im­prove­ments in screen tech­nol­ogy and ac­cess.

Pont, who de­scribes him­self as a cinephile, loved learn­ing about the tech­ni­cal side of film ex­hi­bi­tion. ‘‘ Gary and I did a course so we could get a pro­jec­tion­ist’s cer­tifi­cate,’’ Pont says. ‘‘ It was amaz­ing. We found out so much.’’

Hovey, whose love of cin­ema goes back more than 30 years and whose tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise is highly val­ued by the com­mit­tee, agrees, but adds that the club ful­fils an­other role for him. ‘‘ I feel I can con­trib­ute to the town this way. There’s only so much you can do for the vol­un­teer fire brigade if you’re over 60.’’

Like the BFC, IWFF has a core of reg­u­lars but it also at­tracts vis­i­tors who come be­cause they have a spe­cial in­ter­est in the topic be­ing cov­ered. This year, John­son has pro­grammed films on Oz rock of the ’ 70s and ’ 80s, en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, po­etry, pub­lic broad­cast­ing and Abo­rig­i­nal ac­tivism. He is also a cham­pion of Aus­tralian cin­ema and searches far afield for mi­nor clas­sics to screen.

Pont and Ro­bi­son’s film se­lec­tion is more main­stream but still broadly eclec­tic: Bri­tish, Aus­tralian and Hol­ly­wood clas­sics, con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean and a scat­ter­ing of films from Asia. They’ve ex­per­i­mented with movie- themed food feasts ( suc­cess­ful) and dou­ble fea­tures ( less suc­cess­ful). ‘‘ Peo­ple in coun­try towns don’t have any stamina past 10pm. They have to get up with the cows.’’ Once in a while they pro­gram some­thing re­ally chal­leng­ing, but they’re both aware that keep­ing an au­di­ence’s at­ten­tion and en­thu­si­asm is a tricky busi­ness. ‘‘ Sub­ti­tles scare a few peo­ple,’’ Ro­bi­son says.

9pm: The film ends to a round of ap­plause. The din­ner plates have been re­placed by a spread of tea, cof­fee, bis­cuits, choco­late and cake. Ev­ery­one seems to have made some con­tri­bu­tion. A bat­tered felt hat ap­pears on the ta­ble. It’s time for cha­rades and a crowd stays for the lively game. Well over an hour later the last slip of pa­per is out of the hat; game over for tonight. Fresh cof­fee is made, a small group set­tles in for con­ver­sa­tion while oth­ers start the clean up.

Out­side, fog has turned the main street into a noir film set. Lamps are hazy ha­los of yel­low light, smaller ver­sions of the full moon that hangs above the theatre. Muted farewells are ex­changed. We climb into the car for the long drive home through swirling sheets of dense fog. It is well past mid­night. Lucky th­ese lo­cals like an early night for to­mor­row we too must be up with the cows.

Pic­ture: John Sta­hel

Pic­ture per­fect: Aaron Pont, up the lad­der, and Gary Hovey check the pro­jec­tor be­fore a Braid­wood Film Club screen­ing

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