Screens for sharing
Even in a digital age, old- fashioned film societies are flourishing, writes Pauline Webber
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 perfect: Aaron Pont, up the ladder, and Gary Hovey check the projector before a Braidwood Film Club screening