The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

WHEN Cate Blanchett stepped on to the podium in Los Angeles this year to ac­cept her best-ac­tress Os­car be­fore a global tele­vi­sion au­di­ence, it was more than a per­sonal tri­umph. It seemed to many ob­servers a cel­e­bra­tion — per­haps a con­fir­ma­tion — of Aus­tralia’s grow­ing stature as a film-pro­duc­ing na­tion. Of course it wasn’t our first Academy Award, but this one, long an­tic­i­pated and con­fi­dently pre­dicted, car­ried a spe­cial sym­bolic aura. It was as if Blanchett were ac­knowl­edg­ing the work of le­gions of oth­ers Aus­tralians — ac­tors, writ­ers, di­rec­tors, cin­e­matog­ra­phers — who had made their mark at home and abroad.

Fifty years ago it was a dif­fer­ent story. When The Aus­tralian was first pub­lished in 1964, there was no such thing as an Aus­tralian film in­dus­try — not as we un­der­stand the term to­day. In the years af­ter the World War II un­til roughly the end of the 1950s, an aver­age of two Aus­tralian fea­ture films were re­leased each year, in some years none at all. Tele­vi­sion was erod­ing cin­ema au­di­ences, and the main busi­ness of film pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies (such as they were) was the mak­ing of TV com­mer­cials. There were no state or federal govern­ment bod­ies sup­port­ing an in­de­pen­dent Aus­tralian film in­dus­try, and cen­sor­ship was still a pow­er­ful force. Films were rou­tinely cut and banned, even those in­tended for exclusive fes­ti­val screen­ings.

The lo­cal in­dus­try was, al­most lit­er­ally, an un­der­ground move­ment. In­deed, “un­der­ground” was the term used by many in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ers to de­scribe their work, much of which con­sisted of travel and surf­ing doc­u­men­taries. There were fea­ture films of a kind, shot on min­i­mal bud­gets us­ing 16mm film, but few were screened in do­mes­tic cin­e­mas. The best known un­der­ground group was Ubu Films, based in Syd­ney, pi­o­neered by such brave in­de­pen­dent spir­its as Al­bie Thoms and Aggy Read. Our one big commercial suc­cess of the 60s was They’re a Weird Mob, based on John O’Grady’s novel and funded by the Rank Or­gan­i­sa­tion in Bri­tain. Look­ing back, it is hard to be­lieve that an in­dus­try

It was true. The 1970s and early 80s saw a spec­tac­u­lar bur­geon­ing of Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion, with a suc­ces­sion of iconic ti­tles — Ni­co­las Roeg’s Walk­a­bout (1971), Ted Kotch­eff’s Wake in Fright (1971), Peter Weir’s Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock (1975), Henri Safran’s Storm Boy (1976), Bruce Beres­ford’s great his­tor­i­cal drama Breaker Mo­rant (1980), and Peter Weir’s mag­nif­i­cent Gal­lipoli (1981) — the first Aus­tralian film I re­viewed in these pages. As the film writer David Kemp has ob­served, much of our budding film out­put was about “char­ac­ters start­ing out in life and fac­ing the of­ten daunt­ing chal­lenges of child­hood and ado­les­cence. It’s al­most as if the re­ju­ve­nated movie in­dus­try, af­ter ly­ing dor­mant for at least 20 years, needed ... to get back to the be­gin­ning again.”

Per­haps the defin­ing film of the 70s was Philip Noyce’s News­front (1978) — a vi­sion of Aus­tralian his­tory and so­cial at­ti­tudes seen through the eyes (and lenses) of Aus­tralian news­reel cam­era­men in the 1950s. What seemed more than 30 years ago a clev­erly con­structed nos­tal­gia trip now looks more like a pro­found con­tem­pla­tion of lost val­ues and ideals. My col­league David Strat­ton once rated News­front his top Aus­tralian film. As di­rec­tor of the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val, Strat­ton cel­e­brated the resur­gence of the lo­cal in­dus­try with a ret­ro­spec­tive of Aus­tralian films in 1975, in­clud­ing Peter Weir’s mar­vel­lously un­set­tling de­but fea­ture The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Ken Han­nam’s Sun­day Too Far Away (1975). My favourite film of that time was Fred Schep­isi’s The Chant of Jim­mie Black­smith (1978), based on Tom Ke­neally’s novel. It was the first Aus­tralian film to be screened at Cannes. A pow­er­ful in­dict­ment of big­otry, its story of a part-Abo­rig­i­nal young­ster who snaps un­der the pres­sures of racist hu­mil­i­a­tion and slaugh­ters a white fam­ily con­tains im­ages of shock­ing vi­o­lence that could never have been shown with­out the lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of cen­sor­ship laws en­acted in the 1970s.

Gen­er­ous tax con­ces­sions en­sured an­other boom for the in­dus­try in the 1980s and 90s. The no­to­ri­ous Sec­tion 10BA of the in­come tax act al­lowed in­vestors to claim de­duc­tions greater than the amounts they had in­vested in a film. But some­one ac­tu­ally had to make a film to claim the ben­e­fit, and any old film would do. So most 10BA films were rubbish, but the in­dus­try, its con­fi­dence boosted, thrived on its own re­sources. The 80s saw some no­table box-of­fice tri­umphs, among them the Mad Max films, which launched Mel Gibson’s in­ter­na­tional ca­reer, and Peter Faiman’s block­buster com­edy Crocodile Dundee (1986), which launched Paul Ho­gan’s.

The 90s marked other changes, from smaller, quirkier films such as Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ball­room (1992), P.J. Ho­gan’s Muriel’s Wed­ding (1994), Rob Sitch’s The Cas­tle (1997) and Stephan El­liott’s The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) to The Piano (1993), Jane Cam­pion’s haunt­ing love story set in New Zealand. The 21st century has brought such clas­sics as David Mi­chod’s gang­land drama An­i­mal King­dom (2010) and Ray Lawrence’s Lan­tana (2001), based on Andrew Bovell’s play. I rate it the best Aus­tralian film of all.

Yes, we’ve had our share of flops and duds and tur­keys. But on the whole it’s been half a century of achieve­ment. The in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of the in­dus­try that be­gan with Crocodile Dundee is re­flected in the le­gions of tal­ented Aus­tralians who have made their mark in Hol­ly­wood — above all, our ac­tors.

It’s an ever-length­en­ing list — Ge­of­frey Rush, Ni­cole Kid­man, Eric Bana, Rus­sell Crowe, Hugh Jack­man, Rose Byrne, Judy Davis, Mia Wasikowska, the late Heath Ledger. My apolo­gies to all whose names I have over­looked. And my apolo­gies to the many film­mak­ers whose work I have un­justly ne­glected. Cate Blanchett’s Os­car speaks for all of you.

Mad Max, Lan­tana, Wake in Fright Crocodile Dundee that pro­duced the world’s first full-length fea­ture film, The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, should some­how have dis­ap­peared with­out trace.

An early push for change came in 1969 from Barry Jones, the for­mer quiz cham­pion and La­bor Party el­der, and my col­league Phillip Adams, now a much-loved colum­nist for this news­pa­per. To­gether they per­suaded John Gor­ton, the newly ap­pointed prime min­is­ter and a self-con­fessed fan of Hol­ly­wood westerns, that some­thing had to be done to fore­stall “the Amer­i­can takeover of our imag­i­na­tion”. With Gor­ton’s bless­ing, and ac­com­pa­nied by Peter Cole­man, chair­man of an in­terim com­mit­tee ap­pointed to in­ves­ti­gate the es­tab­lish­ment of a na­tional film school, they set out on a world­wide tour in search of ideas for re­vi­tal­is­ing the lo­cal in­dus­try. On his re­turn, Adams be­gan a re­port for Gor­ton with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-ev­i­dent. It is time to see our own land­scapes, hear our own voices and dream our own dreams.”

Gor­ton was as good as his word. In one of his last acts be­fore he was de­posed as prime min­is­ter by Billy McMa­hon, he ap­proved a grant to launch an ex­per­i­men­tal film fund. Two other pro­pos­als were gain­ing sup­port at the time — the cre­ation of a film de­vel­op­ment fund (later sub­sumed into the Aus­tralian Film

Com­mis­sion, now Screen Aus­tralia) and a na­tional film school. All three pro­pos­als were en­dorsed by Gor­ton and im­ple­mented un­der Gough Whit­lam. In May 1973, Whit­lam in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to set up the Aus­tralian Film and Tele­vi­sion School, whose first di­rec­tor was the Pol­ish film­maker Jerzy Toeplitz. (Work­ing for Whit­lam at the time, I helped draft his sec­ond-read­ing speech.) In 1975, with strong in­dus­try sup­port, a bill to es­tab­lish the Aus­tralian Film Com­mis­sion was passed by par­lia­ment af­ter early ob­struc­tion by the Se­nate. The South Aus­tralian Film Cor­po­ra­tion, the first of sev­eral such bod­ies set up by the states, was launched in the same year. In Adams’s words: “Overnight, it seemed, Aus­tralia be­came the eas­i­est place on earth to make films, rather than the hard­est. And within a cou­ple of years the new kids on the block were pick­ing up awards at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, all over.”

1. 2. Fred Schep­isi








10. ON­LINE: What were your favourite films of the past 50 years? Join the con­ver­sa­tion. Go to theaus­tralian.com.au/re­view

(1993), Jane Cam­pion

(2010), David Mi­chod

(1975), Peter Weir

(1978), Phillip Noyce

(1981), Peter Weir

(1980), Bruce Beres­ford

(1970), Ted Kotch­eff

(2012), Wayne Blair

ON­LINE theaus­tralian.com.au/re­view READ: Evan Wil­liams’s first film re­view — of Peter Weir’s 1981 film

June 14-15, 2014

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