Australian Cinema and Me

Today (26 January) is Australia Day, the official national holiday. It is the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet at Port Jackson, New South Wales, in 1788. The eleven ships carried between 1000 and 1500 convicts, thus founding the first European settlement in the vast continental island. Australia celebrated its bicentenary in 1988, but by then there was an awareness that as the country had a history much longer than two hundred years. The length of that history is reflected in the title of George Miller's 1997 documentary produced as part of the Century of Cinema celebrations, 40,000 Years of Dreaming, though current evidence suggests that there were people in Australia even longer ago than that.

At the time the settlers arrived, the country was declared terra nullius – belonging to no one, despite the presence of Aboriginal peoples. This was the case until 1992, until the Mabo court cases, brought by a group of Torres Strait Islanders led by Ernie Mabo, established the principle of Aboriginal Land Rights. The treatment of Australia's Aboriginal peoples has been a contentious issue in the country, including the Stolen Generations forcibly removed from their families, resulting in the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's public apology to them in 2008. These themes have been tackled by Australian filmmakers, both white and Aboriginal. But there is a sense among many people that Australia Day commemorates an invasion rather than a settlement.

I have reviewed Australian films on DVD, in the cinema and on Blu-ray for this site since I started contributing in 2000. Back then it was called DVD Times and there was no method of scheduling reviews and features: they went live when you uploaded them. Since 2002, I have showcased Australian films, and television (now that we have separate film and television sites), on Australia Day each year, and this year will be no exception. The six films I reviewed on DVD this day sixteen years ago were Better Than Sex, Sunday Too Far Away, Head On, Malcolm, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Storm Boy.

I'm not myself Australian, although my surname can be found there, including in the Aboriginal community. The lead actor in The FJ Holden, his only screen role, is not related to me as far as I'm aware. And if you were to meet me, you would hear straight away that I don't speak in any of the three varieties of Australian accent. So why Australia? The answer is, it was a country I became interested in in my teens, a time of life when lifelong interests are often formed. This was to a large part by being exposed to the country's culture, in particular its film industry. (Reading many of the novels of Patrick White, Australia's first Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, was no doubt another factor.)

The first Australian film I ever saw was The Overlanders on its BBC2 showing on 4 August 1977, two months before my thirteenth birthday, as part of the channel's major retrospective of Ealing Studios, most of which I saw for the first time then. My second Australian film was Walkabout, on its second showing on BBC1 on 22 January 1979. My mother and I watched it to the end: it finished at 11pm on a school night. However, what really got me started were the several seasons of Australian films that BBC2 put on in the 1980s. The first one began with the UK television premiere of, and my first viewing of, Picnic at Hanging Rock, on 5 January 1982. In 2016 I visited Hanging Rock, which is a nature reserve near Woodend, an hour's train journey from Melbourne. No one disappeared though.

Both The Overlanders and Walkabout were made by British directors on location in Australia, Harry Watt in 1946 and Nicolas Roeg in 1970 respectively, and are in reality coproductions. However, filmmaking in Australia goes back further, much further. The first film showings in the country date to 1896, at the Athenaeum in Melbourne. This was also the venue of the premiere in 1906 of The Story of the Kelly Gang, directed by Charles Tait, the first feature-length film (over an hour) made anywhere in the world. Sadly only fragments of the film survive, totally about a quarter to a third of its original running time.

The next decade saw a great increase in the number of films produced in Australia. Key filmmakers of the time included Raymond Longford, whose films include The Sentimental Bloke (1919, and named by George Miller as one of his favourite Australian films). Also beginning in the silent era was Charles Chauvel, whose filmmaking career spanned the late 1920s to the 1950s. His films, including what remains of his two silents, is available in a DVD box set, and his final feature, Jedda, was the first Australian film in colour, and groundbreaking in telling a story with not one but both of its lead roles played by Aboriginal actors, and not white actors in blackface.

Another important figure was Ken G. Hall, who owned his own studio. There were also the Sydney-based McDonagh sisters – the oldest, Isabel, played the lead roles under the name Marie Lorraine, Phyllis produced and art-directed and Paulette, the youngest, wrote and directed, during the changeover period from silent to sound. Their fourth and last feature film, the now-lost Two Minutes Silence, was the last Australian film directed by a woman for forty-three years. Actors who would became internationally famous, such as Errol Flynn and Peter Finch, began their careers in Australia.

However, by the time Jedda was made, Australian cinema was in decline, with the films shot there being mainly overseas productions using the country for its locations, from Britain by Ealing (Eureka Stockade, Bitter Springs, The Shiralee, The Siege of Pinchgut) and the Children's Film Foundation (Bush Christmas) and from Hollywood (Kangaroo, On the Beach, The Sundowners). Many Australian filmmakers and actors were working overseas for the greater opportunities, which is the reason why you can see actors like Leo McKern, Ray Barrett, Charles Tingwell and Reg Lye in many a British film or television show of the time. When Michael Powell made They're a Weird Mob in 1967, Australian film production was virtually non-existent. However, the film's production attracted a lot of interest and the film went on to be a great local success, prompting lobbying of the Australian Government for support of a local film industry, for Australian writers and directors to put their own stories onscreen.

The seeds of what became known as the Australian New Wave of the 1970s were sown late in the previous decade, with tiny-budget, often experimental films made mainly in Melbourne and Sydney, often based around local theatre groups. Then in 1969, a British-born director, Tim Burstall, made a black-and-white 35mm feature, 2000 Weeks, which became the first Australian-made film to have a commercial release in the country in over ten years. Unfortunately it was a commercial and critical failure, but the start of the Australian Film Revival can be dated from it, as well as two coproductions shot in the country by foreign directors, Wake in Fright (originally released overseas as Outback) and Walkabout, both critically lauded but commercially unsuccessful. Burstall took his film's reception very hard, and moved in a more avowedly commercial direction as a result. However, 2000 Weeks, dramatised questions of whether it is possible to create art in Australia, or whether you have to go abroad to do it, and why you should when everyone watches British and American films anyway? At the time of writing, it's all but impossible to see 2000 Weeks without visiting an Australian archive (though you can see clips from it here) and it is long overdue a restoration and release, not just for its historical significance but for its merit.

The first commercial successes in Australia were the “ocker comedies”, beginning with Stork and Alvin Purple, both directed by Burstall, and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, directed by Bruce Beresford. (Trivia note: the sequel to the latter, Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, marks the point where co-writer and co-star Barry Humphries's character Edna Everage – here, Barry's aunt – becomes Dame Edna, a title bestowed on her in the final scene by then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.) While these films attracted big audiences, critical reaction was more negative, objecting at this image of Australia as a land of loud, drunken, chundering and sex-obsessed men. These films, partly enabled by a liberalisation of previously draconian local censorship, stand up quite well, while others are truly dire – the start of what became known as Ozploitation, chronicled in the 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood.

Critical respectability soon came, with the success (commercially as well) of Peter Weir's second feature Picnic at Hanging Rock. Other directors who came to the fore in that decade included Ken Hannam (Sunday Too Far Away), Fred Schepisi (The Devil's Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith), Donald Crombie (Caddie), and the first generation of filmmakers from film school, such as Phillip Noyce (Newsfront) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). The Dutch-born Paul Cox began to make distinctive European-flavoured arthouse films such as Man of Flowers. And, in 1979, George Miller made Mad Max, which for many years was the most profitable film compared to its original lowish budget of any film in the world, and it made a star of Mel Gibson.

By the 1980s, many of the big names of the previous decade had been attracted to work overseas, often in Hollywood, and some of them rarely, if ever, came back. The 1980s saw a boom in film production due to tax incentives and a new market in the shape of homevideo, and in 1986, Crocodile Dundee, starring and co-written by Paul Hogan, became a huge international hit.

Since then, Australian films have continued to be made, including hits both commercial and critical. Some of them, such as the films of Baz Luhrmann (beginning with Strictly Ballroom), and George Miller's sequels to Mad Max, the latest being 2015's Fury Road, have been seen by audiences worldwide. Others have not travelled far beyond Australia, but then the Internet means that they are still available to us on DVD and later Blu-ray. Since Gillian Armstrong, there have been new generations of women filmmakers, with Jocelyn Moorhouse's The Dressmaker becoming a big hit in Australia, if not anywhere else, in 2015. Also notable are the number of Aboriginal filmmakers now able to tell their own stories, including Ivan Sen (Mystery Road and Goldstone) , Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae and Jasper Jones), Wayne Blair (The Sapphires) and Warwick Thornton (Samson & Delilah and Sweet Country.

Australia has a rich cinematic heritage and industry which continues to thrive to this day. Personally, I hope to carry on championing its films, and writing about them - old and new - for The Digital Fix now and in the future.

I'd like to acknowledge David Stratton's book The Last New Wave (1980); his history of the 1970s Film Revival. More than any other source it taught me about Australian cinema and its past.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Mike Sutton (1971-2015), a longtime contributor to and one-time film editor for this site, who often had a good word to say about my Australia Day reviews. His birthday was the day before, 25 January.

Latest Articles