MILESAGO - Media - Film

Australian film 1964-75: an overview

Reporter: "What do you think of Australia?"
Nicholas Roeg: "Two stops overexposed."

The conventional wisdom about the Australian film industry is that, prior to the early-Seventies, there wasn't one. This is true in one respect, but wrong on almost every other count. Admittedly, there was no established, mainstream feature film industry in the Hollywood sense, but throughout the 60s and early 70s films of every length, style and genre were being made. Regrettably, the majority of these films were documentaries, short subjects and experimental or avant-garde works, independently made, and very few have been screened since they were first made, although happily the booming home DVD market has meant that important features like The Great McCarthy and Oz ahve been re-released on DVD; in the case of Chris Lofven's Oz, for example, it has been possible to include several of his short experimental works such as Part One: 808 (1969), which features priceless footage of Daddy Cool, Captain Matchbox and others.

The vibrant Australian feature film industry that blossomed in the silent era was gradually killed off after the arrival of talkies. Several factors combined to produce this outcome: the pernicious influence of American-controlled distributors, determined to stamp out any product that competed with Hollywood, compliant local exhibitors, and gutless local investors. Together, they ensured that there could be no sustainable local industry, and by the end of World War II it had all but died. Charles and Elsa Chauvel's 1955 classic Jedda boasted many firsts -- Australia's first colour feature, the first film with Aboriginal stars, the first Australian film to be screened at Cannes -- but it turned out to be the last all-Australian feature for nearly fifteen years. Despite the valiant efforts of people like Chauvel and Ken G. Hall, the Australian feature film industry languished, its history largely forgotten. It had to wait until the late '60s for the first stirrings of a revival.

In 1967 Anthony Buckley and Bill Peach made the influential documentary Forgotten Cinema. It chronicled our "lost" film history, from the pioneering silent films that led the world to the slow, sorry death of the Australian feature industry in the 1940s and '50s, and it included priceless interviews with film pioneers like Elsa Chauvel, Bert Cross and Ken G. Hall. It was a watershed for supporters of an Australian film industry, a powerful and passionate call for both the preservation of our film history and the revival of the industry. The cause was taken up by people like former ad-man Phillip Adams, and the surprise elevation of John Gorton to the Prime Ministership in 1968 gave industry advocates a powerful ally in government (although Harold Holt's biographer ?? asserts out that the initial innovations for change came from Holt). Thanks to the efforts of people like Adams, by 1969 Gorton had become convinced of the need to act and his government stepped in directly to assist and promote the revival of Australian film.

The much-touted Australian film revival of the Seventies was indeed an exciting period, although as noted earlier it is something of a misnomer. In fact, it was only a revival of mainstream commercial feature film-making. This phase of Australian cinema history is well-researched and well-documented, but there are many other aspects of the industry, both before and during that period, that are still coming to light and need more research and exposure.

One very important field of action was the Sydney underground scene, spearheaded by Ubu Films, the pioneering avant-garde collective led by Garry Shead, Aggy Read, Albie Thoms and David Perry. Ubu associates included people like artist Martin Sharp, and several other now-famous filmmakers including Bruce Beresford, Phil Noyce and Peter Weir. Ubu's history has been lovingly recorded by Peter Mudie in his outstanding book Ubu Films: Sydney Underground Movies, which is also of keen interest to music fans because of Ubu's work as Australia's pioneer concert lightshow providore, and their close connections to the Sydney music scene and the progressive/psychedelic groups like Tamam Shud, Tully and The Id.

Another important figure who finally gaining long-overdue recognition is the late Giorgio Mangiamele. After emigrating from Italy in the early Fifties, Giorgio embarked on a remarkable career as an independent filmmaker in Melbourne -- he made the first films to deal with the Australian postwar migrant experience, years before They're A Weird Mob, and he was the first Australian filmmaker since Chauvel to have his work screened at Cannes. But, like so many Aussie filmmakers before and since, a promising career was stalled by the lack of resources, and stifled by the absence of an established industry structure and/or government funding that could have supported him.

Another important element in the local scene was the surf film. As one of the major surfing cultures, Australia pioneered many aspects of the sport, including the new genre of surfing 'documentaries' that emerged in the late 50s, films specifically made by and for surfers. Inspired by the early American films like Bruce Brown's Endless Summer, directors like Paul Witzig, Albert Falzon and Bob Evans made new, Australian, genre-defining films: A Life In The Sun, Hot Generation, Evolution and the classic Morning Of The Earth. Like Ubu, these film-makers also had close connections with the local music scene and brought in bands they knew such as Tully and Tamam Shud to provide soundtrack music for these films. These films were also important for the fact that the filmmakers were able to sidestep 

Another important outlet In the late '60s and early '70s the fertile creative scene centred on Melbourne's La Mama and Pram Factory theatres and the Australian Performing Group, set up in the late 60s. Like Ubu in Sydney, a number of important actors and filmmakers gained early exposure with screenings at La Mama, and the close association between them and writers like David Williamson proved to be a major influence on Australian films of the early 70s.

Because of the lack of opportunities in film in the 60s, the local TV and advertising industries were vital training grounds. Many directors and cinematographers got their start working on TV and cinema advertising, and until the early 70s these two areas were virtually the only section of the local industry that attracted significant budgets and production facilities. The importance and influence of this training in TV programs and advertisements is just one aspect of the broader picture of Australian film that needs to be examined

Overseas film and overseas filmmakers were just as important and influential as the musicians and music that helped to shape the local music scene. There is little question that the handful of foreign-financed films"made in Australia" in the late 60s and early 70s -- Michael Powell's THEY'RE A WEIRD MOB and AGE OF CONSENT, Ted Kotcheff's WAKE IN FRIGHT and especially Nicholas Roeg's WALKABOUT -- were a turning point for the local industry and were critical in proving that feature films made in and about Australia, featuring Australian actors, could be successful overseas, both commercially and critically.

Censorship in the '60s and early '70s is another critical area that deserves detailed study. Throughout the '60s and into the '70s, scores of films from overseas that were either cut or banned by the Australia Censor, and many locally made films likewise fell foul of this repressive regime. Groups like Ubu, events like the Sydney Film Festival and individuals like David Stratton, among many others, were important in agitating for a broader and more mature approach. Many films made during the early 70s -- Alvin Purple is a classic example -- were reviled for their "vulgarity" and are still looked down on. Many reviewers and critics miss the important point that such films were often deliberately designed to be provocative, to test the existing boundaries of film censorship.

This section does not claim to be exhaustive, nor will it attempt to delve in the more abstract academic realms of film study. Happily, there is a growing body of reference material on the Internet that should satisfy this need and we commend it to you (see References). What we do hope to achieve is to present a comprehensive, accurate resource, with documents and links that will inform readers about the "forgotten history" of Australian film-making between 1964 and 1975.