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Filmmaker and pioneer industry activist, 1926-2002

The death of Dick Mason at 76 severs yet another link with that fertile time in the mid-'60s when the passionate convictions of a new generation of filmmakers -- that Australians should see Australian stories on their screens -- led to the renaissance of the Australian film industry. Mason's films, and the many filmmakers whose careers he encouraged and nurtured, helped to drive the renaissance and are the legacy of his well-spent and fruitful life.

Mason's father, a parson in a South Coast coalmining parish during the Depression, instilled in him a high degree of social commitment while his mother, whom he described as coming from the squattocracy, gave him a love of the arts. He put the one in service of the other and made films throughout his career that tell stories about characters and events of great personal and social change.

Mason joined the film industry after serving in the army in World War II. He had enlisted in 1944 on his 18th birthday and, after jungle training at Kanangra, was sent to the Cowra POW camp as a guard, and then to Morotai in the south-west Pacific where he saw active service with the 63rd Infantry Battalion there and at Ambon. He was affected by malaria and was eventually invalided out.

A drama course at the Mercury Theatre under the guidance of Peter Finch began Mason's career. Despite his appearing in minor roles with Finch, including a performance in front of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Finch told him: "You'll never be an actor as long as you've got legs, boy; never be an actor."

The theatre's loss was the film industry's gain because Finch got Mason a job as wardrobe assistant on Eureka Stockade (1949).

After that experience, he used his service entitlement, designed to buy returned servicemen blocks of land, to make his first film, An Introduction to Australian Art. This documentary featured three young painters, Bill Dobell, Russell Drysdale and Roy Dalgarno. Sleeping on the curtains at the Mercury Theatre and entering the "world of Bohemia", as Mason said, brought him into contact with the "society of realist art people" and broadened his life experience at a time when he was not politically active and had, for a time, discarded part of his religious background.

Mason's career gathered momentum after this first film. Initially employed as an assistant to Lee Robinson at the Department of Information Film Unit (now Film Australia), he worked with such people as Shan Benson, Ron Maslyn Williams and Colin Dean in the early '50s, and in 1964 made the first of his own landmark films, From the Tropics to the Snow. This humorous take on Australia as a tourist destination and on filmmaking itself was made amid some controversy within Film Australia. Mason always claimed that the organisation's producer in chief, Stanley Hawes, a man whom Mason greatly admired, insisted that his director's role be shared with Jack Lee, an experienced English director (A Town Like Alice, 1956), on the grounds that no Australian existed who could direct drama.

Experiencing a loss of confidence despite the success of Tropics, Dick left for England. There he made Portrait of a Miner (1965) for the National Coal Board Film Unit, a film that confirmed his talent and his commitment to film as a tool for social change. He returned to Film Australia in 1966, taking up the role of producer and later, head of production. This was a seminal period in that organisation's life. It became a rare centre of artistic merit, providing a creative environment that fostered the development of filmmakers such as Peter Weir, Phillip Noyce, Matt Carroll, Chris Noonan, Donald Crombie, Oliver Howes, Stephen Wallace, Arch Nicholson, Dean Semler and Jane Oehr.

Mason's major producer credits at the time included Film Australia's first feature film, Let the Balloon Go (1976, Oliver Howes), and the innovative documentary, God Knows Why but it Works (1976, Phillip Noyce). In 1978 he proposed producing a feature film based on David Ireland's novel, The Unknown Industrial Prisoner, which dealt with industrial relations and foreign ownership issues. It was blocked by the federal minister, Robert Ellicott, despite having been approved by the board of the Australian Film Commission. This decision led to the Australian Film Commission's Act being amended to require ministers to table their reasons for blocking film proposals.

However, Mason, upset and with health problems, resigned and began a new career as an independent feature film producer. During this time, he was an activist, lobbying for a proper basis for an Australian film industry, and he joined the state executive of the Australian Theatrical and Amusement Employees Union. He was appointed to the Film and Television Board of the Australia Council and the inaugural council of the Australian Film Television and Radio School. He returned to the church and joined the Australian Labor Party. This didn't prevent him from criticising Senator Doug McClelland, then Minister for the Media, in an amazing policy stoush in front of the staff at Film Australia. Mason was later to repeat this exercise, though not so publicly, with Peter Collins over his ministerial responsibilities to the film industry in NSW, at a meeting facilitated by his brother John Mason, a former leader of the Liberal Party (and father of The Reels' Dave Mason).

Dick Mason was successful in the independent feature film industry, producing feature films including Winter of Our Dreams (1981, John Duigan) and Far East (1982, Duigan) and enjoying an important association with the Kennedy-Miller organisation. During this period, he was active in the anti-nuclear movement both through his church associations and by supporting films on this issue as a producer.

In 1995, he became the first recipient of the Australian Screen Directors' Cecil Holmes Award for significant contribution to directing and directors. He was the perfect choice, not only because he contributed to the careers of numerous directors, including supporting women in that role, but, unknown to many, had successfully fought against the exclusion of Cecil Holmes as a director at Film Australia on the grounds that he was once a communist.

Mason also worked tirelessly for the Pitt Street Uniting Church, assisting in its affairs and writing and directing plays for it.

His life was enriched and sustained by his marriage to Elaine Adam in 1952 and the arrival of Steve, Belinda and Gaby, their children, who also work in the film industry.


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Tim Read and Martha Ansara
Obituary - The Sydney Morning Herald - 23 January 2003

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