Fifty years of La Mama theatre is documented in the University of Melbourne Archives, offering an insight into the emergence of Melbourne’s avant-garde theatre scene in the late 1960s.
By Jane Beattie, University of Melbourne Archives, University of Melbourne.
Inspired by New York’s La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, founder Betty Burstall was confident that Melbourne performers and audiences wanted and needed a place for progressive music, poetry and film too.
La Mama nurtured local talent and rode the international wave of social and cultural change in the late 1960s to provide a platform for alternative voices in the arts. In a company newsletter from October 1969 this vision was expanded: La Mama would be a theatre to make possible “a new audience-actor relationship. It was informal, direct, immediate. It was also a playwrights’ theatre…where you could hear what people now were thinking and feeling.”
Early archival material, such as correspondence and newsletters, reveals the co-operative nature that Burstall was committed to; her policy of developing solely Australian work was financially risky in an arts scene dominated by the mainstream canon of mainly American and English work.
Censorship and controversy
“Revolutionary things are happening in theatre today and I want them here.” Burstall’s ambitions for La Mama were grand, and the revolution began almost immediately, with plays pushing the legal boundaries of decency of the time.
The earliest offender was the 1968 production of Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed. The final line of dialogue “fucking boongs” is delivered by Norm to Ahmed, a Pakistani student. Actor Lindsey Smith was arrested for using obscene language, and the play’s producer Graeme Blundell was charged with aiding and abetting Smith. In 1969, John Romeril’s Whatever Happened to Realism resulted in the arrest of nine actors for using obscene language in a public place.
Boxes of news-cuttings from this era tell the story of La Mama’s ongoing battle against censorship and the restrictions imposed by Australian social and cultural values of the time.
The archives also feature production posters, including lino-cuts crafted by Tim Burstall, Betty’s husband. The few styles repeated in different colours with handwritten production dates and times illustrate trends in grassroots art and design, as well as the collaborative nature of La Mama.
Other established artists such as photographer Peter Lyssiotis created production posters and art work – in Lyssiotis’ case posters and artwork for his playwright daughter Tes. A wild variety of style and quality is demonstrated in some of the earlier posters by anonymous artists whose work is marked with holes left by the staples used to distribute them on street corners.
Supporting other art forms
La Mama encompassed many more facets of the Melbourne avant-garde arts scene. Neo Kyma refers to a movement in Greek music that found popularity in the 1960s and 70s, extending well into the 1980s in Australian Greek communities. For around five years, Christos and Tasos Ioannidis played Greek and ployethnic music at La Mama.
“The 1970s and ‘80s were the golden era of Melbourne’s Greek community. Everything, including the arts, was blooming. Especially La Mama - it was not only for Greeks, it was a place of meeting, getting together, it became a culture” explains Christos. Burstall and Liz Jones, who followed her as artistic director in 1977, had created a space where artists from all backgrounds could practice, improvise and collaborate with their peers
Poetry and spoken word were also promoted from La Mama’s inception in 1967, led by Glen Tomesetti and Kris Hemmensley, and continues today as a regular in La Mama’s program. Each La Mama Poetica event featured multiple acts and showcased work from both emerging and established poets.
Mainstays included Jennifer Strauss, Wendy Poussard and Jennifer Harrison. University of Melbourne academic Kevin Brophy was a regular and a reading by Chris Wallace-Crabbe would have been rousing. Left field inclusions were the works of Indonesian poets performed by Geoff Fox, radical experimental poet and a founding member of Australia’s Poet’s Union. And there was Thalia, a night dedicated to the Perseverance Poets collective, featuring Louise Craig and Whitefeather Light.
Despite earlier confrontations with the law, La Mama continued supporting Australian writers, actors and directors, providing a place where collaboration and experimentation were centre-stage. Stalwarts of the Australian theatre scene like Jack Hibberd, David Williamson and Graeme Blundell were given the chance to practice and develop their craft, as were other performance artists, such as filmmakers Corinne and Arthur Cantrill.
In the decades following the ‘obscenity trials’, La Mama continued pushing audiences, exploring concepts of identity, and elevating voices of the silenced. Playwrights such as Mammad Aidani and Tes Lyssiotis used this platform to chronicle the variety of the migrant experience, whilst plays like Pundulumura: Two Trees Together (1990) by Aboriginal actor comedian Gnarnayarrahe Immurry Waitairie and prolific Melbourne writer and director Ray Mooney explored relationships between black and white Australian cultures.
From the first donation of records in 1977, the University of Melbourne Archive has seen its relationship with La Mama as a valuable one, not only for volunteer projects and exhibitions but in maintaining a comprehensive record of Melbourne’s theatre history. The La Mama Collection complements that of the Union Theatre Repertory Company which evolved into the Melbourne Theatre Company, as well as smaller collections of ephemera from the late 19th century to the 1960s.
The La Mama collection is open access to all researchers and its finding aids can be located on the UMA online catalogue by using the search term “La Mama”. A selection of records and production posters from the La Mama archive are on display in the Arts West building at the University of Melbourne.
Banner Image: Wikimedia
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It took Annie Murray 30 years to heed her calling as an animator. Now in the final months of her Bachelor of Fine Arts (Animation) degree, she talks about false starts, challenges, hard work, and her many inspirations.
My pathway to the VCA started when I was one year old. That’s when the asthma attacks started. From that time into my early twenties I spent many, many years in and out of hospital, on the benches during PE, and off school when my class went on camps. It was a blessing in disguise, really, as I spent that free time drawing and developing my love of storytelling and appreciation for cartoons from my bed (think Ren & Stimpy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and exploring films. I developed a passion for watching animation and drawing my own panel-strip comics, which usually entailed some kind of warped humour. I think when you're faced with your own mortality from a young age you have no choice but to develop a dark sense of humour.
When I finished high school I was offered a place to study archaeology at university, which I promptly deferred. I would have adored to have applied for something in the arts but I was far too unsure of myself and family pressure to choose something that would ‘make money’ loomed large. I then took a gap year … which lasted ten years. So much for making money – sorry Nana!
I moved to Scotland in my mid-twenties and it was there that I bit the bullet and started illustrating comics for an online company called Popcorn Horror, a small film company that promotes grassroots horror filmmakers. It was the first time my work was shown to the general public and it taught me an invaluable lesson: don't let the fear of rejection hold you back. If you’ve made something, show it to the world and see what comes back.
In my late twenties I decided I couldn’t work another decade in jobs I hated. I desperately wanted to pursue a career in something I had always loved, and it seemed an obvious choice to me – a degree in animation at the VCA. I spent a year researching the establishment, contacting people and asking questions. I packed up my life and moved back to Australia to apply for the 2015 intake of students.
At 30, I threw everything I had into applying for animation courses. I covered all my bases by applying to RMIT and other universities, but for me, VCA was the golden goose and I wanted to study there more than I have ever wanted anything. I submitted my application and hoped for the best but expected the worst. It was an insane feeling being accepted and every day I walk into the Margaret Lawrence building I feel a rush of pride to be among so many talented, inspiring and encouraging contemporaries and advisors. Secretly, I’m waiting for a letter from student admin saying it was all a mistake and that I should please leave now without making a scene, ma’am.
Inspiration comes from everywhere. It could be the whispered words of a stranger on public transport, a voyeuristic experience, smelling something that reminds me of my childhood, the sound of cicadas, or the tiny patterns on the wings of lace-winged moths. I am inspired by so many things on a daily basis that it’s hard to keep up. I would advise anyone looking to build a career in the arts to carry a journal with them at all times. If you see something, hear something or feel something that could be the basis for a story or project, write it down! I have lost so many keepers because I have thought to myself, ‘I’ll remember that later’. I’m constantly inspired by my classmates, and by my advisors, Rob Stephenson and Paul Fletcher. They are amazingly encouraging, personable, charismatic and learned. I wouldn’t be here today without their support and kindness.
Animation is a lot of work. Luckily, I very much enjoy sitting in a darkened room, frowning for hours on end at a computer screen. It's an amalgamation of all things filmic. We need to know in depth how to take an idea from conception to final production and everything in between. When you apply at the VCA they want to see original stories and ideas – and they'll teach you the rest. We learn directing, producing and editing. We must be storyboarder and cameraperson. We are our own lighting and sound mixers, colour graders and composers. We are the marketing, budgeting and promotional department as well as the animator. You really have to love this work. If you don’t, you will find it difficult to stick with. Pacing yourself and getting comfortable with schedules that are reasonable and attainable are skills that take time to learn, but are invaluable. You need enthusiasm and an open mind.
What I love about my study at the VCA is the freedom it gives me to produce work to a level of which I'm proud. I've grown so much in my skill level as an animator and writer. I have been exposed to all manner of filmic techniques and animation styles which I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I also enjoy the networking opportunities.
Recently, one of my very shortest films was selected by New York Film Week and received an official selection Laurel. The piece was a 35-second, abstract, stop-motion exercise that I created in my first month at the VCA. I find this hilarious – it just goes to show how subjective art is. That short film is nothing special in my opinion, but someone, somewhere on a judging panel watched it and it meant something to them. It may have helped that I titled it with an emotive name – You Are at First, Frightening – and banged a Nietzsche quote on it: 'All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks, in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity'.
Without the skills and networking opportunities I have been afforded at the VCA, I would never have even got my foot in the door of a studio. The VCA teaches us how to search for work in our fields, shows us avenues we can go down, and teaches us how to impress prospective employers with our work.
My life is better for having been able to develop myself as an artist, business woman and animator. I have made friends that will last a lifetime and think of my class as an extension of my own family.
I’m not sure what the next few years hold for me. I'm considering doing an Honours year. But whatever happens I want to continue developing my skills and hopefully, much like a leech, attach myself to something bigger than myself and work in the creative industry. I’m ready to make some money and look forward to taking my skills into the workforce.
OK, it’s advice time. Be inspired by others but never, ever try and be others. Be the best version of you that you can be. Go hard. Put yourself out there. Take risks – mistakes make great mates.
As told to Sophie Duran
Applications for the VCA's Bachelor of Fine Arts (Animation) close on 31 August 2017. Find out more.
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Banner image: Annie Murray in the VCA Animation studios. Photograph by Sav Schulman, animation by Annie Murray.
The relationship between elective facial surgery and feminism in China is at the heart of Su Yang’s short film Beauty, which recently won the Melbourne International Film Festival’s inaugural Powershorts Short Film Competition. Here, she explains why she made it.
I was introduced to feminism for the first time in the US and became very interested in it, having not heard or learned about it properly in China. I was doing my MFA studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo at the time, having graduated from a Bachelor Degree in Design in at the Tsinghua University in China. When I went back to China from the US on vacation, I was confronted by the phenomenon of cosmetic surgery in China. Many people I knew, including a number of my relatives and friends, had undergone facial cosmetic surgery, and I saw advertisements for cosmetic surgeons everywhere: on TV, billboards and posters in our apartment elevators.
It struck me that people had started cloning each other, losing their personal characteristics. And the notion of beauty in China seemed very singular to me, and the procedures for changing your appearance very oppressive.
I decided to start my graduation thesis on notions of beauty and the phenomenon of cosmetic surgery among the female population in China. And after graduating I still wanted to continue my research because I wanted to know more, not only about feminism, but also feminist art and western feminist art theory. I read some Chinese feminist art criticism but it wasn’t progressive feminism – I wouldn’t even call it feminism – so I decided to move to Australia and continue my studies here.
I was accepted as a PhD candidate at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2015, and am continuing my studies along this theme. The current working title of my thesis is Feminist Aesthetics: The Representation of Women in Contemporary Chinese Art.
Recently I co-created a short film Beauty as part of my thesis research with my husband Zhang Xiaoan, who is also studying a Foundations Film course at the VCA. It won the Powershots Short Film Competition and will be shown at an exclusive Melbourne International Film Festival screening this month. It's about one girl’s experience with cosmetic surgery. She goes through the process of choosing a new face from a number of different options presented to her. All of thee faces are actually my face adjusted on a phone app that's very popular in China at the moment.
Beauty (2017). Su Yang and Zhang Xiaoan.
In the past, the trend in China was to look European but recently the aesthetic, I’d say, is not even human. The chin has become very sharp, and the eyes are very long and very round … the facial features don’t fit the face properly. So the character chooses this style of face at the start of the film. As the trends change, so too does her dissatisfaction with her now ‘outdated style’ of face.
There have been many different understandings of feminism for ordinary people in China since it was introduced from the West in the early 20th century. The initial translation of the word in mandarin was 女权主义, which is close to ‘women’s-power-ism’. But in the 1990s, that word was seen to be too ‘man-hating’ and not aligned with Chinese values, which are underpinned by Confucianism – quite a sexist belief system. The core philosophy of Confuscionism is ‘harmony’, and people in China people believed that 女权主义 or ‘women’s-power-ism’ was too oppositional for the men. So the new translation became much softer, and much less feminist, in my opinion: 女性主义, which translates roughly to ‘women’s-feminine-ism’. This translation was supposed to be more in line with Chinese beliefs.
When I go back to China I am still shocked about the state of feminism there. I went to an exhibition by a Chinese woman artist who painted three-inch shoes, from the times of foot-binding in the Tong Dynasty, in a romanticised way. I was so shocked to see these shoes, which are symbols of female oppression, celebrated in the painting. She painted the shoes like flowers, and talked about how Chinese foot-binding was a great part of Chinese culture. I believe this attitude is still able to exist because people haven’t had a chance to learn feminism. They should have access to this knowledge.
I have spoken to young women and girls in China who, because of overseas travel and education opportunities and the internet, are learning a more progressive feminism. But it is not common enough. My current project is to identify and name a lot of these problems in China. For future projects I hope to help educate people in China about Western feminism.
As told to Sarah Hall
Banner image: Screenshot from Beauty (2017). Su Yang and Zhang Xiaoan.
Hannah Samuel graduated in Screenwriting at the Victorian College of the Arts in 2015 and is now Office Coordinator at Matchbox Pictures. She shares her thoughts on what it’s like to love what you do, and offers some tips to budding screenwriters.
Day-to-day of VCA life was pretty great. Nearly every single day of my degree, I’d saunter down from Flinders Street Station listening to Let it Go, as it was the only song that I’d worked out how to put on my iPhone, and head into the campus cafeteria to hang out with fellow screenies before class. Then we’d all saunter in to class, watch some scenes and discuss them, learn about structure, learn about each other, do some writing exercises – anything you could imagine. I'd then head back to Flinders listening to Let it Go, feeling excited by the thought of heading back to uni the next day.
Originally I thought I’d study law, but my English teacher at school suggested the VCA to me. I went along to the Open Day and sat in on a session about Screenwriting. Until then I didn’t know such a course existed – it was everything I loved wrapped into one university degree. Who knew a reality existed where you could do what you love and love what you do? The VCA – those three letters became a magic spell for me, my own little Hogwarts that I’d give anything to attend.
Studying screenwriting comes with its challenges. It’s a time-consuming degree, the hours are long and you need to spend hours on top of that, outside uni, writing, reading and watching. But can cramming in the last 50 years of cinema into your weekend really be considered homework?
I loved my cohort and the teachers. We watched movies and dissected them on a Thursday morning. We had tutorials made up of four people, where we shared our scripts and became so invested in each other’s work that these alternate worlds became part of my university experience. We learned from each other and grew together – and I can’t wait to work with those people in the future. We were instilled with a drive and work ethic that made us believe we could actually make a career out of our passions.
My highlight was when I broke the table in the cafeteria in my first week and everyone lost their lunches, all because I thought it would be easier to climb over the table, rather than get up and walk around. But really, the highlight of my degree would be producing my graduate film WOOF! which was written and directed by fellow Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) student Nina Buxton. The process taught me so much and watching it surrounded by family and friends on the big screen at ACMI was definitely the highlight of my three years.
I’d like to continue working at Matchbox Pictures and, in the coming years, work as a script coordinator on one of their shows. Eventually I’d like to work my way up to script editor until eventually I get the dream gig of realising my first script. In the meantime I’m going to continue writing my own stuff. I’d also like to collaborate more with my screenwriting buddies.
The VCA taught me to make the most of opportunities, to work hard, and that networking is one of the most important skills to have. It also taught me to be prepared. Things often don’t work out so you have to keep at it and be in it for the long-run.
To budding screenwriters, I’d say feedback is everything and you need to learn how to take it and give it. Write as much as you can and listen to the feedback of your peers and teachers. Email writers you like and ask them to meet up for coffee, pick the brains of those around you. Make the most of the support you’re given and create creative partnerships for the future.
As told to Sophie Duran
Main image: Hannah Samuel at Matchbox Pictures. By Sav Schulman.
Applications for the Victorian College of the Arts' Bachelor of Fine Arts (Screenwriting) close on 31 August 2017. Find out more.
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Gillian Armstrong's debut My Brilliant Career was the first Australian feature to be directed by a woman in nearly half a century and set the path for an outstanding international career. As she looks forward to a festival screening not just of her own films but daughter Billie Pleffer's graduating film from the Victorian College of the Arts, she explains why she's become a vocal advocate for more women in the industry.
By Sarah Hall
When director Gillian Armstrong was studying film in 1968 there was no Australian film industry. A series of smart moves, lucky turns and an abundance of creative talent landed her in the front seat of the industry just as it was taking off again.
Her debut feature, My Brilliant Career (1979), was the first feature-length Australian drama to be directed by a woman in 46 years (the previous being Two Minute Silence by the McDonagh Sisters in 1933, before the local industry crashed).
I was lucky enough to speak with her in the lead-up to the screening of two of her films – Starstruck (1982) and High Tide (1987) – in their original 35mm format at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).
I began the interview feeling a little woozy from a late night re-watching of Armstrong's 1994 film Little Women, me and my sister's childhood favourite, and opened with a question relating to her documentary series Love, Lust and Lies, which began in 1976, following the lives of three lively Adelaide girls, who have been revisited on film four times since.
If you were a star in your own documentary series, Love, Lust and Lies, what parts of your life would be shown on the trailer?
Well, we try to have very sensitive trailers, not sensational ones. So it depends if it's an ABC trailer or …
No, it’s a sensational Hollywood trailer that gives everything away.
Oh, right, well ... I don’t think I’ve actually had a sensational Hollywood life. If they wanted a sensational Hollywood thing, they’d probably make a trailer similar to the one that was made for me for the Cannes Lions Advertising Awards this year. They said to me, “We just put the bits of your films in that had famous actors because that makes you look more important”. So if they were cutting a trailer for my life it’d probably be me with handsome young Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett, Diane Keaton and Ralph Fiennes.
And of course all the Little Women ...
Oh yeah, and Winona and Susan Sarandon. They certainly wouldn’t be interested in the reality of a director’s life – in a parka, a baseball cap and gumboots trudging through mud at dawn shooting in a freezing English countryside …
Before deciding to study at Swinburne did you know that filmmaking was what you wanted to do?
Well, let me just give a little context. Before I studied at Swinburne, Australia had no film industry at all. I don’t think too many people ever thought about having a career in film. If you were interested in a career in drama there were two options: Crawfords for [the long-running police procedural TV show] Homicide, or the ABC for drama.
I had an interest in theatre, literature and art in in high school and it just so happened that my brother went to Swinburne to study business and accounting and he told me, 'There’s this amazing art school at Swinburne, you should come and have a look at it'. So I did. At that point, Swinburne had set up a filmmaking school as part of the art school and it was the first one in Australia. It had really only been going for three years. Both Ian Baker and Jill Bilcock were above me in the cohort, and so was Michael Leunig.
When I went there on Open Day and saw all of these amazing arty handheld student films with cute boys with long hair running around, I thought, 'I want to do that'. So I applied and got in to the full-time diploma.
Did you know much about film before that?
I think I wrote down at the start of my time in film school that my favourite film was The Graduate. The person next to me was writing down Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. I really had no idea. I’d never seen a foreign film. I grew up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, in Mitcham, and my family had nothing to do with film.
Gilliam Armstrong's 1971 graduating short film The Roof Needs Mowing, from the VCA Film and Television Film Archive.
Had you not become a filmmaker, what would you have done?
Pretty much all the girls in my year in high school became teachers, secretaries or nurses. Because I was quite academic, I probably would have gone to uni and done teaching.
How did it go from Australia not having any film industry to you making My Brilliant Career?
Well, timing was really key. Just as I was graduating, the government was setting up the Australian Film Commission [established in 1975] to restart the Australian film industry. Two years later people like Fred Schepisi, who was always an incredible role model for us at Swinburne, was directing his first feature film. So were people like Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford. Fred also gave big breaks to people like Ian Baker and Jill Bilcock.
After waitressing for about six months I managed to get a job in the commercial industry. Despite all of our teachers at Swinburne sending us the message that women could only get jobs in continuity, someone gave me the advice, 'Don’t get into continuity or you’ll never move anywhere. Get a job as an editor'.
I moved to Sydney, despite having no contacts there and, after a year working as an editor in the commercial industry, I saw the ad for first year of the National Film School. I was really driven at that time, really motivated. It was there I realised I had wasted so many opportunities at Swinburne, just having a really great time. I was very lucky, timing-wise, to get into that pilot training scheme at the film school at the same time Australian directors and Australian films had really started taking off.
Then my ambition became getting a grant. Then, after making a number of short films, I realised you couldn't make a living from short films as the director’s entire wage goes into the film, so my ambition became making a feature film. I lived on the dole then … all of us did. We thank the Australian government for their support of the arts. You know I went on the dole for a year to make The Singer and Dancer (1977). But I think I’ve paid it back in tax by now.
And in your contribution to Australia culture …
Yes ... But I just grew up and learned things step by step. Now I say all I want is creative freedom! I don’t want pressure from investors or exhibitors or distributors. In the end I’m back to where I began at Swinburne; I’d rather do something small and creative and call myself a filmmaker.
Do you make films with a particular social impact in mind?
Not consciously. The stories I’ve chosen over the years have all been things I’ve had a gut reaction to, stories that reflect your beliefs and ethics, and mine are of a humanist, and yes, feminist, nature of course, as well as those with themes like justice and fairness. When I first started making films The Sydney Women’s Film Group was very active, and you know they looked down on my films – like my AFTRS graduation film, One Hundred a Day (1973). They said it wasn’t proper propaganda for women, because it showed women who weren’t being really nice to each other. I’ve never wanted to be a propaganda filmmaker. I’m a storyteller.
Will you be sitting through your own movies, Starstruck and High Tide, at MIFF this year?
I will sit through High Tide, because I haven’t seen it on the big screen for more than 30 years. It’s the 35mm print so I’m really interested to see it. I always watch the end of Starstruck because I love the final scene, and I've actually seen it a lot recently as I was involved in regrading the NFSA restoration with the producer David Elphick and cinematographer Russel Boyd. But generally I find it very hard to sit through my own films. I spend a lot of time thinking how I could have made it better.
Unfortunately High Tide clashes with my daughter Billie Pleffer’s VCA graduating film Fysh which is screening as part of Australian Shorts.
Did it come as a surprise that your daughter decided to study film?
A complete surprise! She actually secretly enrolled, having already done a double degree in fine art. We did everything possible to discourage her from going into this incredibly brutal film industry.
Is there a part of you that’s secretly happy that she's a part of it?
Well, I’m very proud she’s done this whole thing on her own. She’s a writer/director which is something I never was. She’s won numerous awards for her short film Bino (2011). She won a national award last year. I’m very proud and in a practical sense think it’s much better to be a writer/director because you can write your own material.
Bino (2011). Dir. Billie Pleffer.
Would you like to work with her?
Oh no! I don’t ever want another director on set! I mean, I do kind of envy all of those brother director pairs, like the Coens. It’s such a lonely thing being a director, it’s hard, you have to make a lot of decisions. You obviously do make all of these decisions with your team. But having someone on your side with whom you have a complete shared vision and taste and shorthand, and the ability to sort of protect each other … that could be good.
But no, Billie and I have kind of different tastes in filmmaking. Her style is not only different – it's unique and it's wonderful.
When you made My Brilliant Career in 1978, you were the first woman to direct a feature length drama in Australia for 46 years. Now, has the situation changed much for women? Do you still feel like an outsider in the industry? Is this frustrating?
When I made my first feature film, being a woman was all anyone ever asked me about. It really, really annoyed me and I found it quite sexist in the end. I thought, 'You know what – I’m just me and this is a Gillian Armstrong film'. Not all women are going to do the same films and the same stories, and I was really put in this box, because it was a feminist story in a lot of ways, they thought that’s all I ever wanted to talk about. So yes, initially it was frustrating to talk about.
But 40 years later, when the figures of women directors worldwide are still so appalling, I am speaking up a lot about the reality – that it’s not a level playing field and there is an unconscious bias, and this bias needs to be readdressed. We need diversity and it’s time for real action.
These talented young women are coming out of film school, where they’re represented 50/50, but they aren’t getting the breaks and the boys are. The reality is only 17% of feature films in Australia are directed by women and for commercials, only 9%.
I went to the Australian Director’s Guild when I heard these figures and said, 'You know what, we should really do something about this'. The guild formed a working committee of which I’m just a very small part. The whole Gender Matters movement comes from this guild.
We’re thrilled that we really have had an effect and money has been put towards developing female writers as well as directors. There have always been women producers, but why aren’t there more women artists? There should have been a million more Jane Campions.
Is there much doubt involved in making a film, with what script you choose to work with and the process of the filmmaking?
The process of working on a script has many ups and downs. Sometimes the development of a screenplay takes so long you can start to look at it and think, 'I don’t know if I’ve really got the passion for this anymore', because actually making a film takes two years.
When it comes to making the film I always tell young filmmakers that there's never enough time and enough money for a director – whatever the budget is, your ambitions are bigger.
Of all of your films and documentaries, which one stays with you the most – which one makes you think – if I were to die tomorrow I’d be happy because I made that?
Probably my personal baby, my Adelaide series, Love, Lust and Lies. I’m stopping short of saying it’s over because maybe there’s a possibility it'll return in a few years. It’s really captured Australia and Australian lives. Just after we did the second meet, when they were 18 (in the first they were 14), I happened to be in Canberra. I ran into some politicians, Susan Ryan and Bill Hayden, who had seen it, and they said to me, 'Oh, what’s happened to the little blonde girl driving that car with the bumper bar nearly falling off?' They were talking about Josie.
I felt really proud to have made something that had reached the people who could make our country a better place. At least that’s how we used to feel about politicians. I was proud they had a chance to look into the life of someone as brave and wonderful as Josie, where otherwise she just would have been a figure and a number – 'unmarried teen mother'.
It’s an incredible document of 30 years of people's lives. In the first episode the girls all said, “The man’s the breadwinner and I’ll be looking after the babies'. Just to see how that changed over the installations was fascinating.
It’s not as if I went out with that intentional social consciousness, but I have felt very proud when my films have affected people in a good way.
What's your advice to budding filmmakers?
Just do it, don’t talk about it. Try to be different and original but not in a fake way. Push the boundaries, get out there and make it. The more you make the more you learn. Be free and be brave.
Gillian Armstrong's films are showing at the 2017 Melbourne International Film Festival: Starstruck on 11 August and High Tide on 13 August. More details.
Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2007, Alethea Jones has won numerous festival awards for her short films. Ahead of the release of her debut Hollywood feature, Fun Mom Dinner, she explains where she’s at and what’s coming next.
By Paul Dalgarno
Hi Alethea, what’s your life like at the moment, ahead of the release of Fun Mom Dinner?
This week especially has been pretty hectic because I’ve been directing an episode of a TV show called American Woman that stars Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari and some other really brilliant actors. And they just had me come back for reshoots on other episodes that needed a little bit of help. I’ve also just started on a new feature film and I’m in the office tomorrow on that, and doing press all week for Fun Mom Dinner. It’s been very exciting.
What’s your elevator pitch for Fun Mom Dinner?
It’s a broad R-rated ensemble comedy about four mothers who assume the only thing they have in common is the fact their children go to pre-school together. They embark on a night-out with varying expectations of the evening, from not wanting to be there to perhaps wanting to be there a little bit too much. They find out there’s a lot more to each other than the roles of motherhood, and they just cut loose.
As an Australian filmmaker, did you notice the differences in sensibility working on an American script? Did you bring any Australian humour to it or did you just work off the script and shoot it as it was?
The script always tells you what it wants to be and how it wants to be expressed, and I nearly passed on this one. I rang my manager and said, ‘I don’t think I should be considered for this film, it’s not me, I’m not a mother, and it’s very broad and I make very specific kooky comedies'. He explained they were looking for someone to bring something unique to the film and that they wanted a first-time female director. He said, ‘Alethea you can wait forever for your first feature to come along or you can rip off the Band-Aid and prove to people that you can do it. These are really special people to work with, and they’re probably going to get a great cast.’ And so I did it, and I had the time of my life.
Where’s your heart – in TV or feature films?
I’m more drawn to features. I haven’t consciously gone for television, because I was really nervous about it. I think my style of filmmaking is gentle, and I wasn’t sure I was robust enough for television. But I’ve done a few TV things here in America, it’s been the most delightful experience – the crews here are a joy. So I’m actually very open to doing more television as it comes up, but I also have a few features on the back-burner that seem to be stacking up quite nicely.
And you’re Hollywood-based now?
Yeah, I live in Los Angeles, even though I never meant to pursue a career here. I never thought I was good enough. My short-film Lemonade Stand won Tropfest in 2012 and part of the prize was a trip to LA, all-expenses-paid, and the opportunity to meet with industry people. I didn’t feel ready but I went, and from that point on I got an agent over here. I visited for two years, back and forth, while I was directing commercials in Australia and teaching film at Swinburne and the VCA. Eventually my agent said, ‘You’re making great progress here, but we lose it all every time you go home for three months.’ I made the move with my two dogs and, as soon as I did, booked my first episode of television with Amazon Studios. That’s when it all started happening.
When you found out you’d won Tropfest did you have a sense of that being a real career-starter?
I was incredibly naïve and overwhelmed. But I think I was most excited when my first short When the Wind Changes got into the Melbourne International Film Festival’s Accelerator Program in 2010. I cried because no-one had wanted to produce or even edit that short. We had to beg the crew to take part, and we'd entered the film in MIFF by writing on the DVD with a marker pen. And then I got a letter saying, “You’re in Accelerator,” and I lost my shit. That was the game-changer for me.
What’s your next film?
I don’t know if I can say, but I think I can say I’ve just signed a development deal with Sony Pictures Studios and am developing one of their projects with them. If it’s greenlit I will direct it.
For Fun Mom Dinner, you mentioned they were looking for a woman director, the film stars four women, and the screenplay was written by a woman, Julie Rudd. Do you think there’s finally a sense of the tide turning, where we’re actually going to see more women’s stories told by women?
Yep, the tide is absolutely turning. I could sense it starting to happen about two years ago, but in this industry, like others, it takes time. A couple of years ago, when lots of articles were coming out about this issue, people were saying it was all hot air and that nothing was actually happening to really change things. But it takes a long time to get films green-lit. I’m so glad that I moved here two years ago. Back in Australia, when my shorts were winning awards and I was like, ‘I wanna work in TV,’ someone literally said to me, ‘It’s not your turn, you have to get in line’. And I thought, ‘Well, if I have to get in line, I may as well do that in America.’ I’m glad about that, because I’ve taken hundreds of meetings and many of those are coming to fruition now that I’ve proven I can do it.
I read somewhere that you’re interested in doing a musical at some point. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s right, and in fact this studio deal with Sony has bunch of musical numbers in it. My ultimate musical would be a sort of old-school film like the Pajama Game. And I’m actually doing one like that next year in America, which is really exciting – it’s technicolour with a really kooky bent to it. I’m also developing a musical with Aquarius Pictures, with Polly Staniford, who I went to VCA with, and Angie Fielder.
As a director, is it the finished product that gets you noticed within the industry, or does that come from the process of actually making the film?
It’s 100% process. People just want to know that you can do it, that you’ve made a profit for the financiers, that you can work with big stars and not be phased by them, and that you can get good performances out of your actors. Fun Mom Dinner was shot in 19 days and the budget was extremely low. You can’t tell an audience that, but the producers and studios here in LA know what the numbers are and they all talk to each other to vet you. I booked an episode of Santa Clarita Diet starring Drew Barrymore. When I went in for my interview the show-runner said, ‘Drew’s looking forward to working with you,” and I’m like, ‘What? How?’. He goes, ‘Oh, she rang Toni Collette. We wouldn’t even be talking to you if you didn’t check out with Toni’. I was like, 'Wow, Jesus'.
Even if technical directing skills can be learned on the job, I’m guessing a director’s interpersonal skills have to be there at the outset?
Yeah, that’s right, and I’m really conflicted about that in relation to film school because we weren’t taught that. You’re trying to learn every part of the craft but there’s no room given for leadership and interpersonal skills – even learning how to send a succinct email that just gets to the point to busy people who get hundreds of emails every day. I would love to go back to the VCA and talk with students about that some time. But then I think about how much I just needed to focus on the technical side of film-making and I understand why we didn’t get to that part of things. Like most industries, if you’re starting out and you’re a jerk, you probably won’t get recommended for your next job.
Why did you choose to study at the VCA?
I went there for two reasons. I saw that Robert Luketic, who directed Legally Blonde, went there, and I loved that film. And I saw that Emma Freeman, who directed Lamb, went there too. Emma came in and spoke to us one time and she told us that she was the worst student in her class. I knew I was the worst person in my class, too, so that gave me hope that I would improve one day. The more mistakes you can make at film school, the better. I felt the same with Fun Mom Dinner. Watching it, I still cringe, from what we missed or shots that I wish were wider. It was an extraordinarily fast film to make and I had to compromise every step of the way. But now that I’m looking at doing a studio film I know exactly what mistakes I don’t want to make and how determined I am to avoid that nauseous feeling again. And that’s exactly how it was at the VCA – I made really bad shorts but was able to course-correct with the three short-films that I made out of film school.
You’ve mentioned you’d like to direct science fiction movies in the future?
Oh yes, I want to really muscle-up and direct tent-poles. I’d love to do science-fiction or a superhero movie. I saw Wonder Woman three times and bought the soundtrack – I loved it. And I loved Spider-Man: Homecoming – it was just so joy-filled and well-crafted. I love Guardians of the Galaxy, too. The people at Marvel are really special and I’d love to play in that universe. But, you know, one of my all-time favourite films is Contact. And I’d love to make something like that too – a grounded and human science-fiction with a big feel.
Would you like to shoot films in Australia?
Absolutely. I was poised to come back and do a film at the end of last year. We had the money but it just wasn’t the right cast. I’m dying to come back and make something really special and punchy. I’d like to bring a big film with American money to Australia. I know it might sound strange to Australians but I love making big commercial stuff because I like the entertainment factor – that’s what spoke to me as a little girl, that’s what made me happy. If I could bring one of those films back to Australia I’d be thrilled. Everyone would get paid well and I think it would be a treat to work with my Aussie friends again.
Fun Mom Dinner is at the Melbourne International Film Festival on 11 and 13 August. Full details.
Banner image: Alethea Jones. By Alex Vaughan.
Despite an initially unsuccessful application to the Victorian College of the Arts, Gabriel Hutchings persevered. Now a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) student, he shares some of the joys and challenges of his filmmaking journey so far.
I knew the VCA was the right place for me when I came across the 2013 graduate screening trailer. It was set to this lovely melodic music and there were a bunch of images that jumped out at me, like a man sitting on a white horse in someone’s bedroom. In the last ten seconds the trailer takes a really dark turn and the music becomes abrasively distorted industrial percussion. I remember thinking, 'Any course that cuts their promotional material like that is for me'. Film should make you feel something. It should be compelling, not just pretty images.
The first year I applied for the course I didn’t get in. I’d spent a year travelling after high school and then started a film course in Perth, but I realised pretty soon that it wasn’t what I was looking for. I decided to move to Melbourne with the hope of getting into the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) at VCA, but when I didn’t get in I ended up doing the VCA Foundations course instead. That year turned out to be super valuable: I met a lot of people that I still work with, did as much crewing as I could, and got some great on-set experience. I got into the Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) the second time.
Filmmaking is a challenge in almost every way. It takes a lot of people, time and resources to make a film and it’s a very personal and exposing process. But it’s also an incredibly collaborative and rewarding art form. All of the challenges along the way are what you learn from and how you develop.
One of the most rewarding parts of the course is seeing the films screened to an audience. You know the work and effort that has gone into all of them and often you are involved in many of the projects in various crew roles. It’s great to see what you and your classmates are capable of up on a screen in front of an audience.
I’m influenced a lot by music and images. The mood and textures of photographs can be great references for a visual medium like film. Inspiration comes from everywhere. For me it’s more about filtering it down and trying to distill my own style. It’s about discovering what will help me to tell the stories I’m interested in.
Over the past few years my focus has shifted from directing to cinematography. I’ll finish my degree at the end of this year, and moving into the industry I want to continue developing my knowledge shooting as much as I can. My goal is to be making a living shooting stories I’m passionate about with good people.
To anybody out there who wants to be a filmmaker I’d say: hustle and keep producing work. It can be frustrating seeing the divide between the work you like and what you’re able to create yourself but the more you do it the more that divide gradually closes. If you want to be a director, direct as much as you can on any level. If you want to be a cinematographer, shoot as much as you can. Along the way you learn a lot from the theory and study that feeds into your work, but the best way to get better at making film is by making films. Go out and do it.
As told to Sophie Duran
Lead image: Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television) student Gabriel Hutchings in the VCA Film and Television studios. Image by Sav Schulman.
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Serkis continues to revolutionise screen performance using a motion captured avatar, conveying extraordinary emotional depth in the role. His success, often attributed to the mastery of animators and technicians, is testament to the rise of an entirely new approach to acting animals in an age of CGI, animation and motion capture.
Performance Capture (the total recording of a performance using a motion capture system) was first used in 2004. It is inherently theatrical, since a performance is filmed in its entirety - without multiple takes of a single scene. Actors wear suits with markers to help computers track their movements during the scene.
To perform as apes, Serkis and others are drawing on the techniques of method acting to emotionally connect with their simian characters. For Serkis, and Planet of the Apes movement choreographer and actor Terry Notary, this has meant going to extraordinary lengths to feel their way into their roles.
Serkis was led by Notary on all fours for hikes in the Canadian woods. They would spend two-hour stints not talking, only communicating as apes. The aim, says Notary, was to allow “the human conditioning to fall away”.
A brief history of monkey business on film
1968 was a big year for apes on film. Primates appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Planet of the Apes, starring Charlton Heston, first aired. In Space Odyssey, actors such as John Ashley donned monkey suits and set about charting the early history of tool use in the celebrated opening sequence known as The Dawn of Man.
In Planet of the Apes, actors such as Maurice Evans and Roddy McDowall relied on monkey masks with furry hands and feet to convey their simian characters. Their bodies were clothed in remarkably human-looking outfits.
Fully costumed performances of primates in films continued until 1995, when Misty Rosas as Amy the Gorilla in Congo performed alongside “enhanced gorillas” running through the jungle at an extraordinary pace, complete with appendages to extend their front limbs.
Over the last decade, we’ve seen a resurgence of cinematic apes, with a full reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, a couple of King Kongs, and more than one Tarzan. But the monkey suit has shifted from a furry outer layer to the modern motion capture suit as actors such as Ace Ruele in The Legend of Tarzan (2016) and Notary (alongside Serkis and others) in War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) transform how they perform - and we consume - monkeys on the screen.
Feeling like an Apeman (or woman)
With these new technologies, comes a revitalised interpretation of “The Method”. Primate actors are now exploring their performance by inhabiting and feeling “Ape”, and have developed their own “system” to perform as primates.
This system is built around the aspirations of Stanislavski - the father of method acting. It includes embodying the emotional state of the primate via practising regimented gait and walk cycles and using specific breathing techniques and even numbered approaches to gaze and smell. So, for instance, the scent of another primate in the distance would be given a number and a correlating pose, which ape actors would be instructed to adopt.
The Ape method includes a bespoke, non-verbal language used by actors to communicate with each other during filming. Aspiring actors can even take masterclasses with the likes of Notary, as seen in this video.
Serkis calls Notary (who also starred in Kong: Skull Island) “the greatest unsung hero of this entire [Planet of the Apes] franchise”.
Notary talks of “de-conditioning” to play an ape and finding each ape character’s “first position foundation” (a neutral non-human, pose). He says,
most of the actors that do play apes have told me that it’s been one of the most profound things they’ve done, because you have to be so honest with yourself.
He describes his own ape character, Rocket, as “that open, vulnerable, grounded, connected, feeling creature that I aspire to be all the time”.
As humans, our development of tools was made possible by our eventual rising to two feet, releasing our hands from the earth, Freed from holding objects (such as bones and babies) our hands and mouths could then perform other functions.
Our hands and minds now grasp vastly complicated objects, like virtual studios and motion capture systems, and use these to perfect the art of pretending to be monkeys. It’s a strange full circle – an origin story returning.
Banner image: Andy Serkis as Caesar in War for the Planet of the Apes. Chernin Entertainment, TSG Entertainment.
In this new occasional series, we hear from VCA & MCM students on what makes them tick, where they've been and where they're going. First up it's CJ Welsh, who recently graduated from the VCA's Master of Producing program.
My pathway to studying at the VCA was somewhat serendipitous. I finished an undergraduate degree in New Media at the ANU in 2009 and somehow found myself working in a completely unrelated industry, travel and sales, for six years. I was lost and wondering why I never did anything with my film degree, when I quite literally stumbled across the University of Melbourne Open Day in 2015. [VCA Master of Producing lecturer] Gus Howard gave a talk about the course and a chat afterwards convinced me to apply for the course. The kind of filmmaker produced at the VCA is the kind I want to be.
I’m inspired by the tenacity of my fellow creatives. Watching their hard work come to fruition, and watching them push themselves to succeed makes me push myself. I read a lot of science-fiction and that inspires me too – seeing the positivity, faith and creativity that goes into imagining a future for the human race. That kind of imagination makes me feel like anything is possible.
Set-backs, workload, rejections, creative blocks, negativity from others – it all adds up. When I started studying at the VCA, the biggest challenge for me was my friends and family questioning why I would quit a "stable" career in the travel industry to go into an industry fuelled by uncertainty and risk. It can be hard to explain to people who don’t feel the creative urge, but being surrounded by like-minds make it easier.
2016 was a huge year for me. As part of the Masters of Producing course, I produced three short films: The Last Man, Ruby Tuesday and Creating a Monster. The amount of effort required to pull this off was gargantuan; I had never pushed myself so hard before. It was exhilarating and terrifying, but in the end, absolutely worth it. I received the VCA's 2016 Producer of the Year award and all three films were selected for the St Kilda Film Festival in 2017.
In the next few years, my major goal is to establish myself in the industry as reliable and hard-working. I have several projects I’m developing myself including two web series and a feature film, for which I hope to receive development funding.
If you want to pursue a career in film producing, it’s good to keep things in perspective. The pressure to succeed can seem overwhelming at times, but the relationships you form with your fellow creatives will not only help but also make it a load of fun. Don’t be afraid to lean on your colleagues and remember to be there when they need to lean on you.
As told to Sophie Duran.
Image: Master of Producing student CJ Welsh at the Film and Television studios at the Victorian College of the Arts. By Sav Schulman.
Faculty staff and alumni were well-represented among the winners at the 2017 Helpmann Awards.
By Sarah Hall
Seven staff and alumni from the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music won Helpmann Awards on Monday evening, in the fields of theatre, dance, music and production.
The VCA’s recently-announced 2017 Keith & Elisabeth Murdoch Travelling Fellow Leticia Cáceres won the Helpmann for Best Direction of a Play for Belvoir Theatre’s The Drover's Wife, for which alumnus Mark Coles Smith also won in the category of Best Male Actor. The Drover’s Wife additionally took the awards for Best Play and Best New Work (Leah Purcell).
“I’m really so happy this has happened, it’s amazing,” said Ms Cáceres on her win for The Drover's Wife, a reimagining of Henry Lawson's story of the same name. She described the Helpmanns, which recognise distinguished artistic achievement and excellence in the arts in the live performance sector, as Australia’s equivalent to the Tony or Olivier awards.
“We never lost sight of why we wanted to tell this story the way we wanted to tell it,” she said. “To have had this recognition means not only that were we able to talk critically about the issues that were important to us, but that we did so in a way that was satisfying for audiences and critics alike. For me that is a massive achievement.”
Alumnus Barrie Kosky's Opera Saul scooped several awards, one of which went to Kosky for Best Direction of an Opera, and another of which went to the MCM’s Senior Lecturer in Early Music Dr Erin Helyard for Best Music Direction. Saul was financed by the South Australian government as the centrepiece to this year’s Adelaide Festival, following rave reviews from the UK’s Glyndebourne festival.
Alumna and Lecturer in Design at the VCA Anna Cordingley won Best Scenic Design for the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Jasper Jones; alumna Anna O’Byrne won Best Female Actor in a Musical for My Fair Lady, produced by Opera Australia and John Frost; and alumna Lilian Steiner took home the award for Best Female Dancer in a Ballet, Dance or Physical Theatre Production for the Lucy Guerin Inc and Arts House’s production Split.
Head of VCA Theatre Associate Professor Matthew Delbridge said he was delighted with the continued success of staff and alumni from across the Faculty.
“Having representation from alumni across all areas of the performing arts is further proof of the ongoing legacy of our programs, the sustained excellence of our graduates, and our rightful position as the pre-eminent training institution in the country," he said.
Banner image: The Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Jasper Jones, for which VCA lecturer Anna Cordingley won a Helpmann Award for Best Scenic Design. Photo: Anisha Senaratne (LPA).
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Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2006 Ari Wegner has worked on dozens of commercials, short films, TV series and feature-length films, before landing the gig as cinematographer for Lady Macbeth, which hits cinemas on 29 June.
Interview by Sarah Hall.
Ari, how did you get into cinematography?
I’ve been interested in photography since high school, or even before, and I’ve always liked writing. I guess at film school (Bachelor of Film and Television, VCA, 2006), I realised that cinematography encapsulated both of those interests.
How did you get from your Bachelor of Film and Television at the VCA to Lady Macbeth?
After the VCA, I did really small stuff, then moved on to bigger projects – making commercials, TV shows, feature films and short films, including Night Shift (2012), which did really well. I also shot Ruin (2013) in Cambodia, which was received really well and won a prize at the 2013 Venice Film Festival (Special Orizzonti Jury Prize).
On the back of Ruin I signed with an agent in the UK and we were both really excited about Lady Macbeth. The director [William Oldroyd] and I hit it off right away, and agreed on how it might look and how we wanted to work together.
How do cinematographers and directors tend to work together?
Ideally, in collaboration. Some directors are really loose and free-form; some work best when everything is planned out meticulously. Some have a very clear idea of what they want, and others prefer to have a cinematographer lead the visuals a lot more. Every project and director is so different, which is a huge part of what I love about this job.
Of course, there are so many other people involved too: the production designer, the editor, the cast, wardrobe people, location, sound – it’s such a team effort, and really needs to be for the whole thing to look great.
What was it like to work on Lady Macbeth with star-in-the-making, Florence Pugh?
Florence is fantastic. I don’t think we realised until much later how uncomfortable that shoot must have been for her – she was wearing very tight corsets the whole time and some of the dresses she had to be sewn into … Plus, the dresses were all period pieces, so she had to be super-careful not to damage them.
Can you talk us through some of your cinematographic decisions for the film?
Both myself and the director William Oldroyd wanted to establish quite formal cinematographic rules, not least because the lead character Katherine has very strict rules in her life. Our idea was to shoot Katherine in these locked frames in parts of the film where she doesn’t have any freedom or agency. At other times there’s a more freehand style of filming. We didn’t pan or tilt or move the camera at all until those moments.
What attributes best serve you as a cinematographer?
I guess I’m quite a calm person naturally, and I can see that kind of energy really trickle down. I sometimes feel a bit like the MC – trying to set the tone and make sure we’re moving at the right pace, listening to anyone who’s having a hard time or needs some extra attention.
What other projects have you been working on?
I shot a film called Stray last year with the first-time-feature director Dustin Feneley, who I met at the VCA. It’s in post-production now and, given we’ve been talking about making it for 10 years, it’s so great to have finally done it.
What advice would you give emerging filmmakers?
Trust your gut. Don’t be afraid to say no to projects that really aren’t for you. As much as that might feel weird it’s actually more respectful to everyone involved – and it frees the job up for someone who really wants it.
Lady Macbeth opens in Australia on Friday 29 June 2017.
Banner Image: The filming of Lady Macbeth; Ari Wegner holding the camera. Image by Myron Jonson.
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Victorian College of the Arts Film and Television graduate Qiu Yang has won the prestigious Palme d'Or - Short Film award and a Jury Special Mention at the Cannes Film Festival 2017 for his short film A Gentle Night/ Xiao Cheng Er Yue (2017). The 15-minute film is set in a provincial Chinese town, following a woman’s desperate search for her missing daughter.
Yang is a 2014 Master of Film and Television graduate, whose VCA graduation film Under the Sun has already received numerous awards, and screened at Cannes in 2015.
Trailer for Under the Sun (2014) by Qiu Yang.
Head of VCA Film and Television Nicolette Freeman said she was "thrilled" to hear of Qui’s success at Cannes, but not surprised. "It's so good to see Cannes recognise Qui Yang's talent. It's an extraordinary achievement for him to be screened, let alone awarded, at Cannes in such quick succession.”
“Qiu is a very talented new director with a strong and unique artistic voice,” said Ms Freeman. "That was clear to us during his two years in our Masters program in 2013 and 2014. I can’t wait to see this new work.”
Yang was joined at Cannes this year by another VCA Film and Television graduate, Ariel Kleiman, who, with co-director Jane Campion, presented Top of the Lake: China Girl.
Trailer for A Gentle Night/ Xiao Cheng Er Yue (2017) by Qiu Yang.
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Banner image: Screen capture from A Gentle Night/ Xiao Cheng Er Yue by Qiu Yang.
On 23 May 2017, RN's Books and Arts aired a one-hour broadcast from the Victorian College of the Arts on what it's like to go to art school, to coincide with this year's ongoing ART150 celebrations.
Guests included: graduates Dannika Horvat, Linton Wilkinson, Nicholas Pearce and Louisa Wall, classical guitar student Louis Virgil Smith, Director of the VCA Professor Su Baker, Head of Music Theatre Margot Fenley, Music Theatre students Sian Crowe, Olivia Morison and Chloe Honig, and VCA Enterprise Professor and internationally-acclaimed visual artist Patricia Piccinini.
You can listen to the full broadcast here:
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Image: RN Books and Arts presenter Michael Cathcart with, left to right, Sian Crowe, Chloe Honig, Olivia Morison, and Chris Nolan on keys. Picture: Sue Thornton.
The University of Melbourne is pleased to announce the second round of successful applicants to the pioneering ACMI X co-working space in Melbourne’s Arts Precinct.
In 2016, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) established ACMI X, a state-of-the-art, 2,000-square-metre, 60-seat co-working space in Southbank which enables greater collaboration, innovation and industry connections for creative practitioners and researchers working with the moving image in fields such as filmmaking, digital production, web development, visual art and design.
The University has committed to a significant industry partnership with ACMI X which includes the funding of six shared desks in the co-working space for current students and recent graduates, five for research students and recent graduates from the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, and one to research students and recent graduates from the Faculty of Arts.
Emma Roberts, a Faculty of Arts graduate, and Ben Andrews, a PhD candidate at the Faculty of VCA & MCM and Faculty of Arts, have been working at ACMI X since 2016 on a number of virtual reality (VR) projects.
Ms Roberts said her passion lay in supporting and enabling new creative work. “In a nascent medium such as VR, the residency at ACMI X is allowing us to explore and experiment in this exciting medium,” she said. “The space has allowed us to connect with a bunch of creators in similar fields.”
Nicolette Freeman, Head of Film and Television at the VCA, said she was delighted with the partnership.
“ACMI X is an ideal parallel workspace for our scholarly community to develop their creative practice and, in particular, to develop new creative partnerships within the broader ACMI X community. We look forward to the future realisation of the many great projects enabled by the partnership.”
Bjorn Nansen, lecturer in Media and Communications in the School of Cultre and Communication, expressed similar enthusiasm, noting that: “ACMI X offers a space of potential in which networks of creative workers and social researchers could converge and mingle to produce new formations of productivity and insight.”
The following creatives and researchers have been offered a 12-month residency at ACMI X:
Malcolm Bloedel (Film and Television, Documentary)
Marleena Forward (Film and Television, Documentary)
Jack Keele Wedde (BFA Screenwriting)
Jack Rule (BFA Screenwriting)
Quinn Hogan (BFA Screenwriting)
Brianna Nixon (BFA Screenwriting)
Brodie Marchant (BFA Screenwriting)
Meegan May (BFA Screenwriting)
Charmaine Peters (BFA Screenwriting)
Nikki Tran (BFA Screenwriting)
Simon Trevorrow (BFA Screenwriting)
Michael Bentham (PhD, Film and Television)
Simon Bowland (Master of Production)
Shontelle Fisher (BFA Honours, Film and Television, Screenwriting)
Emilie Walsh (Visual Arts)
Thomas Schmocker (Dance)
Rohan Schwartz (Visual Arts)
Sarah Pass (Master of Producing)
Emma Roberts (B.Arts Film Production)
Ben Andrews (PhD Film and Television)
Donna Hensler (PhD Film and Television)
Tara Lomax (Screen studies)
Andrew O’Keefe (VCA and FoA)
Alexa Scarlata (Screen studies)
Natalia Grincheva (Transforming Technologies Research Unit)
Stephanie Hannon (Media and Communications)
Robbie Fordyce (Media and Communications)
Further information can be found on the ACMI X website.
By Steve Thomas, Lecturer in Film and Television (Documentary)
As an independent documentary maker, my journey through asylum seeker terrain began in 2002, when I was researching a documentary on the history of the township of Woomera. That research eventuated in Welcome To Woomera (2004), the first of what’s turned out to be a trilogy of films I’ve made touching on the situation and lives of asylum seekers in Australia.
From those films, and the years working on them, I’ve noticed certain patterns and gained first-hand insights.
My second film, Hope (2008), was a collaborative documentary about the life of the late Amal Basry, one of a handful of survivors of the SIEV X people-smuggling disaster of 2001, when 353 people drowned en route to Australia.
This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.
By Kate Lefoe, Masters of Film and Television (Narrative)
Sweat forms on my neck under my camera strap. It’s a humid Saturday morning in Guihua Park, Suzhou, China. A man in his sixties is talking sternly to my producer Ann. A crowd gathers around us. I look to Ann for a translation but she avoids my gaze. I can tell things are getting tense. Ann is 23 and majors in Kunqu Opera at Suzhou University. We’re here filming the marriage market where parents come to meet and arrange blind dates for their kids, hanging signs that reveal their children’s statistics. ‘Man. Born 1980. 165cm tall. Bachelor of Commerce. Accountant. Own apartment.’ It’s our first day of shooting my documentary Age, Height, Education, part of the two week Looking Suzhou Film Scholarship Program. Ten students from Film and Television are here to make their documentaries with the help of a local student.
Later I’d find out that the man claimed we were invading their privacy and that their kids didn’t know they were trying to set up dates for them. He was threatening to call the police and said we should delete the footage. A crowd gathers and more people start weighing in – a middle-aged women says ‘He’s being kind to you, if he was being mean, he’d break your camera’. It’s time to go. Ann tells me just how serious things were getting. We decide to call Professor Ni, Head of the School of Film and Television at Suzhou University. A warm and funny man well respected by his students, he is just as surprised as us to hear about the sensitivity of the parents using the dating market. While we sit in the shade, a few strangers who watched what happened come up to us to offer their support and suggestions for the documentary.
Over dumplings we discuss what to do next. The People’s Park in Shanghai is rumoured to have dating markets on a Sunday. Undeterred by our first experience we book tickets on the 7am bullet train and plan a more discrete approach.
Ann and I share a terrible sense of direction, and we get a little lost finding our way to the park, huge in size and filled with markets and dozens of professional matchmakers with rows of paper signs with eligible singles. The matchmakers are happy to be interviewed and explain how it works and what the expectations are for a compatible partner. But we still need to interview parents!
I admire Ann’s tenacity as she gets politely knocked back again and again by parents. I wander around filming the market by myself. Occasionally being shooed away. By a large tree, an old man is quick to start up a conversation in English with me and more people gather. Ann returns and has almost convinced Mrs Ye, a woman looking for a daughter-in-law, to be interviewed. The men I’ve been chatting to chip in and Mrs Ye is happy to be interviewed. Interestingly, her views are more old fashioned than the mother we interviewed in Suzhou in terms of what’s important in a future daughter-in-law. We get what we came for.
The next week is a blur of translating and editing. Our VCA lecturer, Siobhan Jackson, and Professor Ni, come in to watch our rough and fine cuts throughout the week. Siobhan offers a fresh perspective and great advice. With all of us from the VCA busily editing in our dorm rooms, we drop in to share advice, frustrations and snacks. Ann and I have a marathon 12 hour session of translating and finalising the English and Mandarin subtitle tracks. The more tired we are, the harder it is! Despite our frustrations with the project, we both still make jokes and laugh. We make a good team.
After a week in the edit cave, it’s time to screen our films. It’s fascinating to see the ten different stories from Suzhou. I’ve loved the process of learning about an aspect of another culture and it has been amazing getting to know Ann and learning about her life. We’re all incredibly sad to get on the bus and wave goodbye to our new friends.
The documentary we made Age, Height, Education was a finalist in the Phoenix Documentary Awards in Beijing and is expected to start the festival run soon. I’ve already started planning a return visit to make another documentary with Ann.
More information about Looking China 2015.
This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.
By David C. Mahler, Bachelor of Fine Arts (Film and Television)
Like all good filmmakers I know the audience loves drama; I think I’ll start with it.
My Chinese filmmaking partner/translator Wang Yutong and I had been developing our project for three or so days already. Props had been bought, specific costumes purchased, locations scouted, the whole shebang. To be honest I was surprised our project was given approval when I pitched it on day one. The idea was set almost entirely on a boat, drifting down a river through various parts of the Chinese landscape. Boats, on water, with actors, sound gear, cameras… and a film crew of one, moi. OK, on reflection we were a little ambitious. Unfortunately foresight is not my forte – after those three days of prep we gathered our young actors to read through the script and begin shooting.
A little lesson, when an actor reads your script, looks you in the face and says ‘you’re never going to make this’, you might want to take a moment to reflect. Awkwardly laughing and giving a reassuring pep-talk may not be the way to go. By that afternoon, after struggling through 40 degree heat, a stinking, rented garbage barge and an uncomfortable amount of gawking onlookers I finally accepted it was time to go back to the drawing board.
I met with Siobhan Jackson, our supervising producer, at the Soochow University bubble tea cafe. I was lucky to have spent all of the last year under her expert tutelage in my second year of the VCA Film and Television course. Our relationship meant we could speak openly and truthfully. As I rattled through all of my production worries and woes, the truth set in; maybe it was time for Plan B. We discussed a few possible new directions, realistic projects that would suit both the program’s criteria (a ten minute film, preferably documentary, relating to our location of Suzhou, China) and my interests in filmmaking. An hour, and many more delusional/over-ambitious ideas later, we found my new direction.
The impetus actually came from our Chinese partners. All but one of the ten volunteers were young women. To be completely transparent I had a very misguided understanding of what modern China would be like before visiting Suzhou. Our Western media definitely paints this incredibly diverse country in a specific light. Unfortunately, it is quite often an unjustly negative one. Meeting these young women and hearing their hopes, ambitions and goals for the future affected me deeply. On reflection I think the deciding moment came in a conversation I had with Siobhan’s translator Jessy. We were waiting for a cab one night after having explored the historic, beautiful Ping Jiang Road. Most of the group managed to score cabs back to the dorms, but we’d been left behind.
The image of Jessy’s smile is still vivid in my mind – she was happy to discuss her aspirations as a business woman and producer. I was surprised but glad to hear she had such ambitious goals. I asked her if there were many opportunities for young women such as herself. I explained to her that in the West equality is not a word strongly associated with China. She laughed. I felt embarrassed, and of course rude. She explained it’s true that men are more favoured in a business environment than women. If she managed to find a job working for a company she expected to be paid less. But, she asked, is it not the same in Australia? She had me there.
She explained that her hopes for the future were high because the younger generations seemed to be developing more liberal mentalities. The unavoidable influence of the internet meant new perspectives were being introduced to the collective consciousness. China was changing, has been changing for decades now. Advances in equal rights and opportunities, and acceptance of minorities were progressing day by day. Her openness and bright energy filled me with warmth. I had made a strong connection with a new friend. Perhaps there was something I could do to help spread the message?
My film ‘Dig a Little Deeper’ follows a day in the life of a young Chinese woman: waking up, grabbing breakfast, a bit of shopping, meeting friends for a day on the town. A reality of freedom, independence and normality that many of us in the west are oblivious to. Over these visuals are placed the seven interviews that Wang Yutong and I conducted with young women. They discuss their aspirations, situations, pasts and futures. We touch on a dark history – condescension and scorn towards young women from an older generation, specific derogatory words which were once commonplace – but overall, the film’s message is one of a hope, strength and pride.
I was given an incredible opportunity, the chance of a lifetime to create a film in China. Ten young, naive Australian filmmakers were met with warmth, kindness and generosity, and we all came home changed for the better. Our entire experience was an adventure in positivity and wonder, and I look forward to revisiting the inspiring new friends I am grateful to have made.
This article was first published on VCA & MCM Channel in 2015.
By Alix Bromley
Journalist and author John Bailey traveled with Melbourne-based children’s theatre company Polyglot to Minamisanriku in 2013, a small town in Japan’s Miyagi prefecture that was devastated by the 2011 tsunami.
In his capacity as an arts journalist, John tried to document both the experiences of people and how they were dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami. He turned to the graphic novel, as his art form of choice, working with a large range of illustrators to tell this traumatic story.
“I realised that what I can do, which is put words together, wasn’t enough to tell this story.”
In the Wake of the Wave is John’s story, as told by Irene Metter, a filmmaking graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts.”
The project saw VCA film and television graduates team up with artists who have received support through the VicArts Grants program to make short documentaries that go behind the scenes with artists and give an insight into their creative process.
Each week we’ll release a new film in the series in partnership with Lido Cinemas who will be showing the films on the big screen ahead of all evening screenings throughout November and into the summer period.
In a world of virtual reality and multi-stranded games narratives, creative manipulation of cinema audiences’ expectations is more important than ever
By Nicolette Freeman, University of Melbourne
Back in 1983, when Sunday night came around, you, like me, might well have tuned in to the iconic ABC TV show, Countdown. So ubiquitous was Countdown, that in Jane Campion’s 1982 short film Peel, dramatic tensions rise considerably when her dysfunctional siblings, waylaid on a country by-road, realise they might not get back to the city in time to tune in to the weekly music show.
And if you were watching Countdown you might remember the show’s first ever computer-enhanced-animation opener, made by two students of the Swinburne School of Film and Television, Sally Pryor and Andrew Quinn.
Countdown introduction. 1984.
When we watch it now that opener looks so retro, but Pryor and Quinn’s design, targeted to the youth market and the associated music industry, captures the future-facing feel of the early 1980s; referencing both the familiar grid pattern dance floors of 70s disco, as well as the aesthetic of the burgeoning video-games industry.
The Swinburne School started its unique tertiary degree in 1966, transferred to the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts in 1992, and this year celebrates its golden anniversary.
Film and Television Digital Archive Project Trailer.
Over the decades the school has graduated many Pryors and Quinns – emerging filmmakers hungry to build on the industry they inherited, and talented and motivated enough to create the changes that the next generation would take for granted.
Over the last six weeks we have been publishing a series of articles looking back over the school’s history, its graduates, and the stories of Australian society during those 50 years, as evidenced in the 50 short films by past students being made available to the public for the first time.
In this, the last article of the series, I’d like to focus on what comes next for the school.
Blue Tongue. 2004. Justin Kurzel.
A few short years ago, the buzz was all about 3D, but already that has abated and we rarely see 3D versions of films on offer. Today the conversation gravitates to either VR/AR (Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality) or games. Internationally, the screen-based games industry is worth roughly twice as much as feature films’ box office. The feature-film version of a game is even regarded by some as mere marketing for the game’s release.
The school’s first interactive computer game made by a student was Martin Gardiner’s Monkey Antics, in 1989. We probably don’t even have the technology to play it now.
I recently attended a VR/AR presentation at one of the city’s private animation and digital design schools. Sharp young code writers and computer programmers told of their difficulty in leading and influencing their viewers’ attention in a story world that has infinite horizons.
Celebrating 50 Years of Film and Television.
These new program-makers are crawling towards a mastery of storytelling and audience manipulation, at a snail’s pace compared to the dexterity and capability of their coding sophistication.
Sitting among them, I imagined being with cinema’s earliest pioneers and audiences – in one of those auditoriums where the viewers ran for the doors when a locomotive headed for them from out of the screen, as was reputedly the case with the Lumiere Brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (1895).
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. 1895. The Lumiere Brothers.
Coincidentally, another of the school’s graduates, Daniel Crooks (Graduate Diploma Animation 1994), has recently exhibited his latest work Phantom Ride, an imaginative and technically complex piece, during this, our anniversary year.
Daniel’s student film Food For Thought (below) has recently been digitised and is being released as one of the 50 films showcasing the range of the school’s work.
So how is the school addressing these newest forms of screen-based storytelling in its curriculum? Well, it might seem strange, but it is principally in the discipline of screenwriting.
Food for Thought. 1994. Daniel Crooks.
Our two newest degrees are a Bachelor of Fine Arts: Screenwriting and a Masters of Screenwriting, degrees that focus on the fundamental skills of good storytelling, of what captures an audience – skills as old as time, certainly from a pre-cinema world – and yet skills that are needed today in an expanding array of mediums.
In this world of virtual reality and multi-stranded games narratives, clever and creative manipulation of the audience’s engagement with the action and story is more important than ever.
It is exciting to consider where and how the mechanics of digital games will enable storytelling to develop, and particularly the audience’s part in that storytelling.
The audience/player now has unprecedented agency, acting as the protagonist, and is able to influence the story’s direction with their choices and reactions. This gives the audience/player a real and visceral feeling of having their own unique part in creating the story, while still sharing the story world with the broader audience and community of players.
As the school’s anniversary year comes to a close, many eyes and ears will tune in with great excitement for one of the major screen releases of the year, Assassin’s Creed: The Movie (2016).
This first installment in a planned trilogy is the highly-anticipated feature film adaptation of the phenomenally successful Assassin’s Creed computer games. Game devotees are already scrutinising whether their beloved games characters will appear in the film version.
With a budget somewhere in the vicinity of US$200 million, the film stars Michael Fassbender, who, as the film’s producer, chose as his director and cinematographer VCA Film and Television alumnus Justin Kurzel (Graduate Diploma Film and Television 2004: Blue Tongue) and Adam Arkapaw (Bachelor of Film and Television 2005: Catch Fish).
Catch Fish. 2005. Adam Arkapaw.
The three collaborated on Macbeth (2015), Kurzel’s screen adaptation of the Scottish Story, originally written for the stage over 400 years ago by Shakespeare.
Which all just goes to show that story is possibly still the world’s most fluid and enduring medium. As we, as a screen-based storytelling school, consider our move into the next 50 years, we would be wise to continue to foreground and treasure this ancient instrument, in order to best prepare our students for the yet-to-be-invented storytelling technologies of the future.
Banner image: Still from Blue Tongue. 2004. Justin Kurzel.
This is the seventh article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts.See Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five and Part Six. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.
Three films from the Film and Television archive show us what, and who, we were in the early years of this century
By Alice Pung
This article is the sixth in a series to mark the golden anniversary of Australia’s oldest film school, at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. The films embedded are among 50 by past students and today’s filmmakers, being made available to the public, for free, for the first time.
You go to the movies. Once, your friend took you to see The Fighter (2010) at some arty cinema down Lygon Street, and you said to her, “Why did I pay 18 bucks to see ferals in Braybrook?”, even though you knew they were American – your point was, the entire thing was plotless and depressing: the boxer, played by Mark Wahlberg, his half-brother, played by Christian Bale, their seven sisters with bad hair and teeth.
You go to the movies to get away from that sort of shit because you see it everyday: the triangles of factory roofs, the four gutted cars in every third house, the young mums doing their best with an $89 baby carrier strapped to their chests, a ciggie in one hand.
But, back in 2010, the audience in the cinema were loving The Fighter. They lapped up the sordid scenes and their four-dollar salted caramel choc tops. “His finest role,” said one when the film ended, meaning Christian Bale. To be honest, you preferred him as an American Psycho (2000).
It’s a shame the tops of Australian society are filled with the sort of people who see a film and think it’s a reflection of the state of a nation, then they go home and drink some pinot noir, and the next day make a policy about it. Policies that affect you, the Ordinary Australian ...
Or they get to talk on telly about their views on Australia and what makes it great, when half the time your normal person’s got no idea what those people are rabbiting on about. Where are the hardworking triumph stories they used to tell, like Spotswood (1992)?
The friend who took you to see The Fighter makes you watch three short Australian films with her because she’s writing about them for this website, as part of a series to mark 50 years of filmmaking at what she tells you is Australia’s longest-continuing film school, at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
You’re no film critic but you know that The BBQ (2007), by Shpend Mula, is supposed to be about good old-fashioned Australian values. An old woman and a younger man must have their cook-off, even as suspicious coppers drag their cowering neighbour from his home.
You think: How dare the forces of the government interrupt the Australian way of life, your inalienable right to roast lamb, your lawn-sets planted on neat green squares? This is your turf, you’ve gotta defend it! Why can’t politics and religion and those refugees keep out of our backyards? Farrrk. What a farce.
296 Smith St
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, which might as well be a different part of the country, or a different country, because there is no country for old men who don’t speak English here, except the independent republics of their small businesses, you see a pawnbroker, Ahmed – the protagonist of John Evagora’s 2007 short, 296 Smith Street (2007).
At first, when you see Ahmed mark up his prices 300% you think: What a dodgy bastard. But then some deadbeat white guy who looks lazy-as keeps coming in and bugging him about a job, and some shonky Asian nicks off with a couple hundred bucks of Ahmed’s, the crook!
There’s a knife in Ahmed’s hand, not used for guaranteeing his place as “Man of Middle Eastern appearance” in the seven o’clock news but for peeling away stone to reveal comforting nubby shapes of small animals.
Scrape, scrape, scrape goes the knife, and you think about the robbery, and you think about the fat kid who comes into the shop and how Ahmed smiles at him but the kid’s mum drags him out of there in a flash, and scrape, scrape, scrape goes the knife, and you realise the man is just scraping by with his own wit and tolerance.
You look at your friend who is writing this article. Newspapers say she’s given them a glimpse into the window of multicultural Australia because she’s Southeast Asian and from a refugee background.
But you’ve known her for 30 years – you grew up together in the factory suburbs and you can sometimes see through the bullshit.
What a relief to suddenly be in the mainstream, to be a culture-maker, to be a “Brave new Australian Voice”, a label applied to her writing and no doubt to the work of these filmmakers.
But the shades on the windows come down when she thinks they will come knocking on her door with their sniffer dogs and batons and sirens, because her parents escaped that horror back home. Those folks thought Australia was supposed to be the lucky country, the safe country.
But what a sad relief for her that the reviled people have gone from being yellow to all shades of brown.
This is How You'll Make Your Bed in Prison
“This is how you’ll make your bed in prison,” Vickie Lee says the youth shelter staff told her, in the 2009 short film of the same name by Katie Mitchell.
But Vickie is just a little girl at the time and not a crook. And you think: Some people are forgiven for small and large mistakes – private-school boys who knock letterboxes off their hinges or let air out of tyres. Even when they bash up homeless men, they still have lives left after jail time.
Your friend’s telling you that The BBQ is about “Un-Australian happenings” from our own backyards, 296 Smith Street looks at the lives of everyday Un-Australians, and This is How You’ll Make your Bed in Prison gives a voice to Un-Australian non-citizens who don’t deserve the right to vote.
This Is How You’ll Make Your Bed In Prison (2009) by Katie Mitchell.
There are too many “Un-Australians” in there, which you reckon makes for bad writing, but for ten years the government has given you this verbal pointed finger to direct at anyone you reckon fits the bill: “They’re hopeless, those Aborigines”. “They’re shifty, those ethnic pawnbrokers”. “They’re lazy welfare cheats, those bogans”. They’re all Un-Australian.
At the start of the 2000s, you had green and gold stars in your eyes, the Olympics were on your turf; but then a year later the Twin Towers fell and suddenly there was an Axis of Evil. So you pointed that finger to keep evil out of your country, only to have those ethnic Others come to you.
People You Know
You like these three films, coz they show you people you know. Others might assume you aren’t cultured and only have dreams of making it big with your own McMansion, but they’re not the ones living next to and alongside the Ahmeds and Vickies. They’re safe in their inner-city suburbs while the “Un-Australians” get shoved with yous and you suppose that’s how 30-year old friendships are forged.
The media warned that the 2000s would begin with a major technological breakdown, but instead all you’ve seen are massive technological breakthroughs. You, the Ordinary Australian, are now connected to every kind of person in the world; but at the end of the decade, you realise that the stories closest to you are still the ones closest to home.
Banner image: Still from 296 Smith Street (2007) by John Evagora.
Alice Pung is a writer, lawyer and teacher. She was born in Footscray and grew up in Braybrook, attending local primary and secondary schools in the Western suburbs. The author of Her Father’s Daughter (2011) and Unpolished Gem (2006), and the editor of Growing up Asian in Australia (2008), Alice has received enormous critical acclaim for her writing. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in Law, LLB (Hons), and Arts (BA), in 2004.
This is the sixth article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.
How did films in this decade rework, reject, radicalise or reinforce feminism and portrayals of women on screen?
By Dr Meagan Tyler
Feminism on film underwent a makeover in the 1990s. The decade started with a gritty aesthetic of boots and torn tights, influenced by riot grrrls rejecting patriarchy. It ended with the illusion of “glamancipation” and candy-coloured messages about individual empowerment being sold by the Spice Girls.
This shift mirrors long-standing debates about the nature of sexual liberation and the fracturing of the women’s movement: can power be gained simply by smiling through the status quo, or does freedom require outright revolution?
There are different and competing narratives about women, femininity, sexuality, and feminism in 90s cinema. The late 1980s saw the beginning of the backlash against second-wave feminism. Deep cultural anxieties about the possibility of single, economically and sexually independent women – epitomised by the misogynist mess that is Fatal Attraction (1987) – came to the fore, as explored by the American journalist Susan Faludi in her 1991 book Backlash.
Despite this, a feminism that recognises the suffocation of patriarchal control and the promise of female rebellion continued to be articulated in films such as Thelma and Louise (1991) and, in somewhat less bleak terms, Muriel’s Wedding (1994).
The three short films embedded within this article – Virgin, Whore, Saint (1990); Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances (1997); and Titsiana Booberini (1996) – were produced within this context at what is now Australia’s longest-running film school, which started life at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in 1966 before moving, in 1992, to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
As the official anniversary of the school on 19 June approaches, some 50 student films have been digitised and are being made available to the public for the first time. So what can be gleaned from the three in focus here?
Virgin, Whore, Saint
Niki Caro’s short film Virgin, Whore, Saint (1990) fits well within the “rejection-of-patriarchy” mould. Three versions of a woman – bride to be (virgin), dominatrix (whore), and actress playing Joan of Arc (saint) – are shown. Each is dissatisfied with her place in the world.
The (brief) male characters – a father, a lover, a sex buyer who is also a paedophile, a husband to be, a boss, and a surreal stranger at a bar – represent misogyny and patriarchal control in different ways, but we understand that they are all connected. It’s a 90s version of #yesallwomen.
Virgin, Whore, Saint. 1990. Niki Caro.
We are shown that it doesn’t matter which role you inhabit – you lose out, and the most effective way to fight back is to band together, say “fuck you”, and walk out on the game completely. A more optimistic view of the ability of women and girls to succeed within male-dominated norms can be found in Caro’s most famous directorial work, Whale Rider (2002).
There are, of course, valid but less stark ways to criticise sexual inequality. Some even claim that 90s “girly films” such as Clueless (1995) or Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997) constitute, in the words of Hilary Radner, a kind of “neo-feminism”, in part through presenting a parody of hyper-femininity.
Parody, though, is risky business, especially when the subject is gender stereotypes. Norms of gender are so entrenched that you can guarantee a good percentage of the audience is likely to miss the point. Ultimately, it feels as though “girly films” did more to sustain the tired narrative of women as vacuous, fashion-obsessed caricatures than undermine it.
Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances
Parody is more successfully taken up in Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances (1992), by Emma-Kate Croghan, who went on to direct the indie-cool Love and Other Catastrophes(1996).
Here, her Sexy Girls short pairs a late 1950s/early 1960s aesthetic with over-the-top erotic representations of women in domestic contexts: from fellating a vacuum cleaner, and slapping a side of beef, to the more familiar cliché of a woman getting off while sitting on a washing machine.
Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances. 1991. Emma-Kate Croghan. Warning: Sexual references, simulated sexual activity.
The sexualised commodification of women’s bodies is intertwined with the commodity fetishism of the household to create an imaginary world where women are shown loving their daily chores so much that they are literally brought to orgasm by carrying them out.
Sadly, this commentary feels almost radical in the current context of eroticised cooking shows on television and the cultural re-romanticising of the 1950s housewife, all cupcakes and sexualised subservience. The rise of “choice feminism” has moved the discussion away from structural-level, cultural critique and positioned even traditional gender roles, founded on women’s’ sexual inequality, as potentially liberating, individual choices.
Indeed, the ability to choose empowerment through conformity is the crucial message of Robert Luketic’s Titsiana Booberini (1996). This short film – to quote from Emily Rustin’s essay in Australian Cinema in the 1990s – slots quite neatly into the “glitter cycle” of Australian cinema from the 1980s-1990s, where “luminescent and colourful” flair is married with narratives of an individual’s ability to overcome circumstance.
In some ways this short is also a very Aussie take on the “girly film”, a musical about love, set in a supermarket, complete with colourful backdrops of Cottee’s cordial and Samboy chips.
Titsiana Booberini. 1996. Robert Luketic.
Yes, there is a nod to issues of outsider status in a suburban landscape where beauty is constructed as whiteness/blondeness, but the gender narrative is completely reactionary. Our heroine is both overly visible, with prominent, dark facial hair, and yet she is invisible in terms of heteronormative, white beauty standards.
That is, until Titsiana is transformed with the help of some eyebrow reduction, moustache bleaching, and make-up. Once she conforms correctly, she is confident and rewarded with male approval. It might be tempting to put Titsiana Booberini in the category of parody, but given that Luketic went on to direct Legally Blonde (2001) and The Ugly Truth (2009), the heavy gender stereotyping is clearly an ongoing theme.
Looking back, the version of lipstick liberation offered on screen at the turn of the millennium – one that is occasionally still evident now – seems frivolous and flippant in contrast to the darker critiques of patriarchy and rebellion offered earlier in the 1990s.
But such things are often cyclical and, as early-90s fashion is returning to trend, with any luck some of the early 90s “fuck you” feminism might find its way back into pop culture as well.
Banner image: Still from Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances. 1991. Emma-Kate Croghan.
This is the fifth article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.
Dr Meagan Tyler is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow, at RMIT University. In 2009 she completed a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne, where she completed a Graduate Diploma of Education in 2004 and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in 2003.
Making an animated film has never been easy, but in the 1980s it seemed the artform’s future was bright
By Robert Stephenson, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne
In the era of Pixar and Aardman it would be easy to take animated films for granted. But it wasn’t always around, and its evolution in Australia has been complex.
Two of the films embedded in this article – Pleasure Domes by Maggie Fooke (1987) and my own student film, Still Flying (1988) – were produced during the 1980s at what is now Australia’s longest-running film school; it started life at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in 1966 and in 1992 transferred to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
To mark the school’s golden anniversary, some 50 films are being made available to the public for the first time which, in my case, offers a chance to reflect more broadly on animation in the 1980s.
Growing up as a television addict during the 70s I saw most Australian animation in the form of television commercials such as Mr Sheen, Louie the Fly, Norm from Life Be In It and IC POTA.
Although agnostic, I loved watching the animated Christian Television Association commercials with their cartoony blend of irony and virtue.
Christian Television Association commercial, 1970s.
In 1976 Bruce Petty’s animated film Leisure picked up an Academy Award, and in 1977 the Yoram Gross feature film Dot and the Kangaroo had a local cinema release. But there was little else out there in terms of original Australian animation visible to the broader public.
Animation Studios in Sydney such as API, Hannah-Barbera Australia and Burbank were busy but most of the films by these studios were generic adaptations of classic stories such as Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island, paid for by entertainment companies in the USA to create budget-priced telemovies and direct-to-video material in the new home-video entertainment market.
In 1981 Australian filmmakers Alex Stitt and Phillip Adams created the ambitious, animated feature Grendel Grendel Grendel. It didn’t look or sound like any Disney movie and the design was reminiscent of Alex Stitt’s television commercials, such as Life Be In It.
Grendel Grendel Grendel (1981). Part one.
It was highly stylised and bold but what it did have in common with the previous decade was a fascination with classic stories, in this case Beowulf.
I was exposed to short films made by independent filmmakers and students for the first time at the now-defunct Melbourne State College and later at the original Swinburne School of Film and Television.
Most aimed at an adult audience. These were personal, insightful, bizarre, experimental, provocative, humorous and sometimes puzzling films that often ditched the so-called rules of filmmaking, design and storytelling, either out of a mistrust of filmic orthodoxy or simply not knowing. Teachers would show locally-made films sourced from the State Film Centre (now ACMI) and others from their extensive school archives.
I was inspired by the humour and poetry of former Swinburne student animators including Dennis Tupicoff, John Skibinski, Sabrina Schmidt, Peter Viska, Maggie Fooke, Glen Melenhorst, Ann Shenfield, Steve French, Noel Richards and many others, all of whom progressed into continuing as professional independent filmmakers, set up their own animation companies or worked for emerging animation studios of the 80s such as Funny Farm and Video Paint Brush.
The old Swinburne film school, together with the media courses at La Trobe University and teachers colleges such as Melbourne State and Rusden were an active intertwining culture of production activity where many things became possible. In the 80s, making animation on video, Super-8 or 16mm film was an expensive endeavour but tertiary institutions had equipment, instructors and technical support that no 18-year-old could normally get their hands on.
Five animated films by Dennis Tupicoff.
Today, of course, it is not unusual for a student to have a computer better than the one supplied by the university. That, in addition to free open-source animation software, means getting an animated film made, at least technically, is easier than ever.
Once graduated, animation students either went knocking on studio doors or headed to the Australian Film Commission (AFC) for a grant. These days Screen Australia regards short films as a “stepping-stone” to a feature film or TV series. But the in the 80s and 90s the AFC regarded the short as a form in its own right and actively supported short-filmmaking including animation and experimental.
This fostered a great number of animations that made their way into film festivals in countries that had rarely if ever seen an Australian animated film before.
In 1983 Dennis Tupicoff’s Dance of Death won the jury prize at Cracow Short Film Festival and also an AFI award back home.
Pleasure Domes. 1987. Maggie Fooke.
The Melbourne International Film Festival was one of the few places in the early 80s to get an animated film screened.
In 1983, the St Kilda Film Festival defined itself as a festival that only screened short films and this triggered the emergence of more Australian short-film festivals into the early 90s, when Flickerfest and Tropfest kicked off.
Still Flying. 1988. Robert Stephenson.
Towards the end of the 80s, it looked as if Australian animation production was making headway into television. In 1989, I was invited by the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF) to attend a weekend creative conference of new and established writers, illustrators, musicians, puppeteers and animators.
The foundation was looking to harvest ideas for a new a pre-school TV series that eventually became Lift Off. This summed up the decade – producers could see the varied and available wave of new artists and together with experienced practitioners embraced them to search for new ideas, characters and stories.
Film and Television Digital Archive trailer.
They began to produce the animated series The Greatest Tune on Earth, and had engaged independent animators and studios to contribute to programs such as Kaboodle for ABC TV, a collection of animated short films for kids. Animated shorts for adults also found a home on Eat Carpet, the late night SBS anthology of independent short films, now sadly defunct.
Making an animated film has always been a precarious business, but a lot looked possible during the 1980s.
Banner image: Still from Pleasure Domes. 1987. Maggie Fooke.
This is the fourth article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Five. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.
A number of films by students at the VCA will be shown at the 2016 Melbourne International Animation Festival, 19-26 June. Details here.
Every human being has a story to tell, but these three student films from the 1970s offer lessons that go way beyond the individual
By Arnold Zable, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne
In grouping films by decades, it’s crucial to note the labels “quiet 50s”, “turbulent 60s”, “hangover 70s” and so on, are at best generalisations.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Australia’s longest-running film and television school. Starting life in Swinburne Institute of Technology, the school moved to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts in 1992.
As selected student films from the school’s archive are released, decade by decade, for an ongoing Digital Archive project, I was invited to look at some of the school’s films from the 1970s, among them my own, shot while I was completing a one-year diploma in film in 1979.
To understand the 1970s it helps to reflect upon the two decades that came before. The 60s exploded out of the so called “quiet” 50s, when youth seemingly turned against suburbia, marched against the Vietnam war, and were imbued with visions of remaking the social order. The ideals of the 60s can be seen as culminating in the 1972 election of the Whitlam Government. Heady times.
The big man set out to deliver. He succeeded in part, but crashed when the real 1970s caught up with him – a kind of collective hangover and reorientation from the turbulent times that preceded it.
This context is critical to understanding the types of stories that began to emerge in the 1970s. The cultural shifts of the 60s set it up, triggering a desire among filmmakers, playwrights and writers to challenge the cultural cringe, and Australia’s over-reliance on stories produced elsewhere – in particular, the USA and Europe.
We yearned to focus, instead, on Australian stories, told by uniquely Australian voices, and we were prepared to experiment in a search for new ways to tell the stories.
The themes marked a return to that which had not changed, and were driven by an understanding that there were Australians who had missed out on the excitement, people still living lives of quiet desperation in suburbia.
Artists were also in search of stories that documented the overlooked individuality and creativity being expressed in the suburbs. After all, that’s where most Australians lived. The artist’s eye was also drawn to those who struggled at the margins, the outsiders, the alienated, especially among the youth sub cultures – as storytellers we were in search of unique characters, and unsung lives.
The Roof Needs Mowing
Award-winning director Gillian Armstrong’s student short, The Roof Needs Mowing (1971), sits neatly between the two decades. It has something of the romance, energy and youthful optimism of the 60s: Armstrong was drawn towards recording, as one critic put it, “the magic in everyday life”. But there is also a darker subterranean current in her work, one that hints at suburban boredom, disorientation and regret, albeit expressed with whimsy and a light touch.
The Roof Needs Mowing. 1971. Gillian Armstrong.
Mind you, Armstrong has a young couple bathing in a bathtub filled with the beans, and a middle-aged man stuck in a rowing boat within the pool.
The Roof Needs Mowing heralds the distinctive, eccentric vision of a filmmaker who has sought to balance bold, edgy feature films with documentaries concerned with social issues – Armstrong’s stories are driven by a deep affection for her wide range of characters, both contemporary and historical, and a deep empathy for human fragility.
George and Needles
Greg Dee’s groundbreaking George and Needles (1972), bears some striking similarities with Armstrong’s short. It is also shot in black and white, and driven by an edgy, youthful energy. He too employs a restless roaming camera, which lights on telling details: a table littered with beer bottles, the worn furniture of a shared household, sturdy frayed work-boots tapping out the rhythms of the guitar player.
George and Needles. 1972. Greg Dee.
But Dee’s film is more confronting, more frenetic in its pace, and more disturbing in its uncensored, gritty, realistic portrait of two directionless young men engaged in erratic, beer-fueled conversations over drink, under the bloody tattoo needle, and over music.
When the two men sing the blues, it is an anguished howl. They speak the uninhibited language of alienation and disaffection. The 60s are well and truly gone, and in its place there is confusion and a simmering anger.
As already mentioned, I was privileged to do a one-year diploma in film at the tail end of the decade, when the film and television school was still located in Swinburne Institute of Technology. I was drawn to Glenn’s Story, based on a one-page piece, penned by a 15-year-old boy in a writing class.
That class was run by my friend, Sue Dunstan, in Poplar House, the maximum security unit of the Turana Juvenile Detention Centre – an institution of the Victorian Welfare Department. When she showed me Glenn’s piece, I immediately saw that it could form the basis of a poignant documentary.
I was struck by the simple eloquence of the piece, the scope it covered in so few words, and by one of the opening lines, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”, quoting the words of the man who succeeded, indeed overthrew, big Gough – Malcolm Fraser.
Glenn’s Story. 1979. Arnold Zable.
The film was conceived and shot within days on a budget of less than $1,500. The course lecturer, accomplished filmmaker Nigel Buesst, acted as mentor and cameraman. We were permitted by the relevant authorities to have Glenn read the piece as the voiceover, and to film inside the centre, and to crouch in “the isolator”, the tiny solitary confinement cell while Glenn re-enacted the horror of pacing the cell like a caged animal, pounding the walls, high window, and finally sinking to the floor cursing, “I wish I was never born”.
I recall vividly the intensity of Glenn’s re-enactment. This scene is followed by close-up shots of some of the incarcerated boys – staring straight at the camera, among them Indigenous kids. Those faces are as haunting and confronting today as they were then. Each one cries out for a story to be told.
With hindsight we come to understand that the human drama is always complex and diverse. There are always so many tales to tell, and many ways to tell them. We see that social injustice persists, and that there are many unsung voices aching to be heard, and many sub-cultures, awaiting recognition and documentation.
To reprise the Carl Jung quote I placed at the beginning of the film: “Every human being has a story to tell, and it is the denial of this story that leads to torment and discord.”
Banner image: Kurt Bacuschardt/Flickr
This is the third article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part Two, Part Four and Part Five. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.
Ian Baker’s film, shot while a student, reveals much about the era in which it was made
By John Hughes, Honorary Fellow at the Victorian College of the Arts
Roxanne, Japanese Story, Evan Almighty …
If you watch film, chances are you’ll be familiar – even unwittingly – with the work of Melbourne’s Ian Baker. As one of Australia’s most highly-regarded and talented cinematographers, and a long-term collaborator with the director Fred Schepisi, he has shot a great many feature films and television series all over the world.
But chances are even higher you’ve never seen the film Baker shot while a film student at Swinburne in the 1960s. That film school, which began life in 1966, relocated in 1992 to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, and is currently celebrating its golden anniversary.
To mark that anniversary, Baker’s student film is one of 50 that will be made available for free for the first time in the coming weeks, as part of an ongoing Digital Archive project.
And it’s certainly worth taking a look at.
A Context of Cool
Cool All at Onceness was made in 1968, when Baker was 19.
At that time, industry lobby groups were agitating for Commonwealth support for a local film industry. The production sector was grounded in industrial, public relations, training and commercials production, underpinned by regulations in 1960 mandating 100% television and cinema commercials screened in Australia were to be made by Australian companies and crews.
The ambition for creative Australian content was informed by a tradition of cultural nationalism dating back to the 1890s, promoted by the Left, and a growing disdain for American commodity culture.
Activist and experimental “underground movies” – as has been pointed out by authors such as Peter Mudie and Albie Thoms – articulated an even more radical resistance to the heavy-handed censorship and conformism of the period.
By 1968, avant-garde creative practice in painting, theatre, music and film was well-established and was directed against, among other things, the American war in Vietnam.
This “alternative” sensibility was far more ambivalent about commodity culture, and used it ironically in mash-ups and pastiche.
Riffing on Marshall Mcluhan
Cool All at Onceness is infused with this ambivalence. In 1964, under the National Service Act, compulsory National Service was introduced for 20-year-old males in Australia. Had Baker been called up in 1969 he would have been legally obliged to spend two years in the army, possibly in Vietnam – a prospect that no doubt focused the mind.
Canadian media critic and “guru” Marshall McLuhan was among the thinkers in this era whose writing nourished hope, by promoting so-called alternative world-views and “radical” lifestyles.
The ideas he’d expressed in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964) were re-purposed and condensed for his 1967 bestseller The Medium is the Massage, in which he explores, among other ideas, the nature of media and the role of technology in our lives.
Baker’s film, coming in at just under five minutes, is an audio-visual essay riffing on McLuhan.
The opening scene exposes the industrial production of the television presenter (a move nowadays known as “self-reflexivity”) as the camera pulls back to reveal the studio in which a presenter (played by graphic arts student Andrew Clark) is established as a TV “talking head”, narrating texts from McLuhan.
Baker’s allusion to war is oblique: the second sequence of the film uses graphics to illustrate McLuhan’s texts with images from the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, often considered the earliest art depicting in detail the horrors of war.
Not So Fallow
Contrary to received wisdom, the “fallow” 1960s nurtured a creatively ambitious and internationally informed film culture in Melbourne, as can be seen in the 2003 documentary Carlton + Godard = Cinema by veteran Swinburne staff member Nigel Buesst; in films by Giorgio Mangiamele; in essays by Adrian Danks and Adrian Martin.
The city’s film societies and festivals were among the most active in the world, partly because UK and US commercial, distribution and exhibition made it difficult for audiences to access world cinema otherwise.
It was a period in which – despite a functioning film production sector making sponsored “utility films” for industry, and factual film and documentary for government – very few independent features were made. Those that were found the road to cinematic release blocked by the UK and American distribution and exhibition duopoly.
Cecil Holmes’ feature film Three in One (1957), for instance, was praised in Edinburgh, sold into the USA, China, Sweden and France, but was not released theatrically in Australia. Instead, Ken Hall bought the film for Channel 9.
The ABC made Skippy the Bush Kangaroo (1966-68), and Crawford Productions in Melbourne made the highly successful police drama Homicide(1964-75), then Hunter (1967-69), and later Division 4 (1969-1976). But 97% of drama on Australian television in the late 1960s was American.
The writer Sylvia Lawson was one of those agitating for an Australian feature industry. In the pages of Nation, she pointed out that “they make films in Nkrumah’s Ghana, Soekarno’s Indonesian and Castro’s Cuba. But not in Menzies Australia …”. It was a period in which filmmakers such as Cecil Holmes and Ken Coldicutt were secretly blacklisted from Commonwealth film units because they were “adversely known” in the eyes of ASIO.
On the industrial front, independent producers, writers and directors organised with trade unions and Guilds representing actors and technicians in the TV Make it Australian campaign, seeking regulation to support Australian content on commercial TV. The success of that campaign has underpinned Australian drama production for decades.
Film historian Ina Bertrand, in her 1989 book Cinema in Australia – A Documentary History, described the climate of the 1960s as one “in which the government of the day could expect to win some esteem by launching an arts assistance programme with provision for film”.
And that view seemed to hold some sway.
By May 1969 the Film and Television Committee of the Australian Council for the Arts, initiated by “Nugget” Coombs, had proposed concrete mechanisms for a Film Development Fund, a film school (later AFTRS), and an Experimental Film Fund.
Those initiatives were loudly derided by the “trade” establishment and the conservative press, but an infrastructure had at last been established that enabled talented and determined filmmakers to build a life’s work around film and television in Australia.
Cool All at Onceness nurtures the seeds of all this, and is infused, inevitably, with the rebellious spirit of ‘68.
I would encourage you to watch it.
Banner image: Still from Cool All At Onceness (1968). Ian Baker.
This is the second article in a series to mark 50 years of filmmaking at Australia’s longest-running film school. See Part One, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.
Never-before-seen films by some of Australia’s top filmmakers anyone? Sit back, relax, and take a trip through five glorious decades on screen
By Nicolette Freeman, Head of Film and Television, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne
Anyone who still frequents those picture palaces with comfortable seating will understand my association of movies with armchair travel. Indeed, magic-lantern shows with glass slides of far-off destinations, and accompanying travelogue narration, were the earliest precursors to cinema-going.
Of course, jet technology has long since freed us from relying on the cinema for travel. These days we watch movies while we sit on those planes, or on our phones as we amble around.
I have been on my own journey via film recently, meandering through a 50-year-old archive of little-known film treasures. I have the great fortune of heading Australia’s oldest film school, which is celebrating its golden anniversary this year; it started its life at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in 1966 and in 1992 transferred to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
In recognition of the school’s legacy and enviable contribution to the Australian screen industry, we are using this milestone to make freely available, for the first time, 50 student films from the past half century – four of which are embedded within this article.
The Roof Needs Mowing (1971). Gillian Armstrong.
Those 50 films will be released gradually over the coming weeks, in the run up to our anniversary on 19 June, accompanied by articles that contextualise the filmmakers and the eras in which they were working. It’s just the start of a larger Digital Archive project that will eventually see our entire back catalogue made available to the public, to researchers, to teachers, and to filmmakers.
And there is much to be gained from watching them.
While viewing these films, and considering our school’s and our nation’s history, I have been reminded of how remarkably we have changed our view of ourselves as a nation, in the context of the wider world of exotic destinations, and of filmmaking.
Life is Elsewhere
It’s worth remembering that the school started before the moon landing, in an era when most of us thought the “important stuff” only happened north of the equator – London, San Francisco and Paris had The Beatles, the Summer of Love and the French New Wave respectively.
But in 1966, the year the school opened, the top box-office film at Australian cinemas was not a foreign story (as had been the norm since the demise of our local industry at the end of the 1920s); it was They’re a Weird Mob (1966), a film based on the novel of the same name by John O’Grady, about Australia’s bizarre and xenophobic culture, told through the eyes of a fictional Italian immigrant.
Although, alas, it was realised not by “one of ours” but by the brilliant British director Michael Powell.
Pleasure Domes (1987). Maggie Fooke.
The establishment of our first Australian film school was part of a dream by visionaries including Philip Adams, Fred Schepisi, and the school’s first Head, Brian Robinson, to change that situation – to get Australian directors, producers, and crew telling their own stories in their own way.
Australia, by the way, is credited with making the world’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). Yet even in 1970 Kelly was played by Mick Jagger in the UK director Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly. It wasn’t until 2003 that our own Heath Ledger played Kelly in the Australian director Gregor Jordan’s version.
Choosing the Films
So how did we choose the first 50 film?
Of course, there are award-winners, and films made by students who went on to make titles we all recognise – films such as The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978), Mad Max (1979), My Brilliant Career (1979), Muriel’s Wedding (1988), Evil Angels (1988), Death in Brunswick (1990), Chopper (2000), The Proposition (2005), Animal Kingdom (2010), Mary and Max (2009), Snowtown (2011), Red Dog (2011), and The Dressmaker (2015).
296 Smith Street (2007). John Evagora.
But there are also films that shine with a different value: they give us insight into what Australia was like during those 50 years, into unique and memorable characters both real and fictional, and into the fears and dreams that characterise those times.
As a filmmaker, I have spent considerable time in archives, in Canberra, Washington, and New York. When looking through archival footage, you recognise the inherent qualities of each individual fragment but, more interestingly, you discover metaphors for something that is connected to you personally.
Bino (2011). Billie Pleffer.
The process of re-looking, from a greater distance, at films that were devised for other audiences, in other contexts, gives us a unique opportunity to reflect, while also imagining what if.
If you are curious to see the early work of some of our most influential filmmakers (Gillian Armstrong, Jill Bilcock, Ian Baker, Robert Luketic, John Hillcoat, Matt Saville, Nikki Caro, Tony Ayres, Glendyn Ivin and Emma Freeman) or to see both the real and fictional Australia of the last 50 years, then I urge you to visit the films we will be releasing, decade by decade, in the coming weeks.
Spend a while travelling to other times and perspectives. In doing so, you’ll experience the social, political and cultural shifts that have influenced our sense of ourselves as Australians, and given us the drive and confidence to tell our own stories on our film and television screens.
Of course, the story of the school and its emerging filmmaking talent is not over. We look forward to the next 50 years and the travel it continues to afford us from our comfy armchairs, or our screens on the go.
Banner image: Still from Happy Country (2008). Corrie Chen.
This is the first article in a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part Two, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.
By Alix Bromley
The former Victoria Police Hospital, opened in 1914 on the corner of St Kilda Road and Southbank Boulevard, was officially re-opened by Vice-Chancellor Professor Glyn Davis this month after a year-long refurbishment of the heritage-listed building.
The “Old Police Hospital”, as it is now called, provides accommodation for the Dean’s office and administrative units of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (VCA & MCM) who are lucky to have it as a Faculty Hub.
The building is light and open. In fact there isn’t a space which doesn’t have access to natural light – atypical of a University workspace as is the building’s history, which now has meeting rooms with such names as The Dispensary and The Operating Theatre.
History of the Site
The former Victoria Police Hospital operated as a hospital for some 65 years from 1914 and was not only the first police hospital in Victoria, but is claimed to be the first in the world.
During the First World War it was used as a military hospital and then for the public during the Spanish influenza outbreak, with the police resuming control of the site in 1920.
Its design was based on the pavilion principle, which expressed the late 19th and early 20th century attitudes to hospital design. Intended to provide ample sunlight and ventilation for the convalescing patients, it also included a two-levelled verandah on the north and south elevations.
The police transferred their hospital to a new building nearby in 1980 and the site was taken over by the VCA, which had commenced occupation of the former Police Depot from 1973.
The building was subsequently converted to a print-making school and employed as such until 1992. Since then it has been used for offices and storage and allowed to fall into a dilapidated state.
The Balancing Act of Heritage Refurbishment
Luke Flanagan has been the project manager for the site since the beginning of 2013. He has been working on the design and build alongside lead architect Louise Goodman and senior architect Fleur Downey from Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp (FJMT) and heritage specialists RBA Architects and Conservation Consultants.
For Flanagan, the greatest challenge of any heritage project is getting the balance right between retaining the original fabric, working within the heritage restraints set by Heritage Victoria, and achieving an acceptable standard with the functional and aesthetic requirements of the space.
“There’s always conflict and tension there. Every heritage building has its own characteristics and qualities and the trick is to exploit, amplify and take advantage of them – while at the same time ensuring any interventions or additions are made sensitively,” Flanagan says.
Architect Louise Goodman believes the success of the project has been in stripping back the building to its original plan.
“This allows the elegance of the new forms and materials of the building additions, which have a beauty in their own right, to complement the existing brickwork and proportions of the original hospital,” she says.
“Don’t overwhelm the original but compliment it. That’s the real challenge,” says Flanagan, “The end result justifies the pain and anguish because what you end up with is a building which is very unique.”
The Old Police Hospital brings together many of the new and existing elements, in a shared space, to be enjoyed by all of the staff.
One of the key design features of the site is the addition of a two-storey glass curtain wall extension, with terracotta louvres, to the Southbank Boulevard frontage.
The original verandah was replaced in the 1950s with a balcony and small extension on the ground floor. In removing these additions, the building resembled its original form. The new addition was designed to act as an enclosed verandah, referencing the symmetry of the vertical columns on the southern verandah.
The differing angled louvres filter the sun and provide privacy as well as breaking up the horizontal elements. The terracotta used for the louvres is a natural complement to the deep red of the existing brickwork.
The spiral staircase has been beautifully restored. The balustrade was originally built using rare red pine, which unfortunately didn’t meet the structural requirements. So the new timber is ironbark, a mix of two types to achieve the variance required, with a French polished finish.
The staircase didn’t meet current balustrade height requirements, so the balusters were replaced with longer lengths and the newel posts extended with new timber additions. The additions are designed to show a visible line between old and new.
There are tile features left over from another age tell their own story, and the new wall openings are defined by the use of a blackbutt timber portal to clearly distinguish new from existing building elements.
Outside, new steel and glass entry canopies to the north and south of the central entry tie in the language of the new building elements, and an eye-catching copper lift has made it to completion after initially being out of budget (before the price of copper plunged). The interpretative garden adjacent to the lift, designed by Oculus landscape architects, is intended to resemble the outbuilding which was located in the same place.
Southbank Boulevard connection
The new glass extension creates a significant impact on Southbank Boulevard and adds a touch of contemporary flair to the streetscape – “it has a bit of drama to it”, says Flanagan.
Given the plans for Southbank Boulevard, the building is situated in an important location. The City of Melbourne is looking at running a kilometre-long park from St Kilda Road down to Queen’s Bridge. Tram alignment will remain the same but the existing four lanes of traffic will be reduced to two with aim of increasing pedestrian traffic instead.
“The real driver there is to create a meaningful connection from the city into the art’s precinct,” says Flanagan.
All of this fits within the broader development of the VCA & MCM’s Southbank campus, a venture funded jointly by The Myer Foundation, The Ian Potter Foundation, the University of Melbourne and the State Government through Creative Victoria.
Last year, the Grant Street Theatre was reopened with Lionel’s cafe and bar, named after major supporter Lionel Gell. This year, the Brian Brown Recording Studio underwent a substantial renovation, and the old industrial Teaching Workshop has also been re-opened as a cutting edge research facility.
In 2016, the stables that were once occupied by police horses will be transformed into visual art studios. In 2017, a new purpose-built museum will be opened to showcase Michael Buxton’s contemporary Australian art collection, and plans for a new Conservatorium building are also slowly gaining momentum.
For staff and students at the VCA & MCM, it’s an exciting time. These new developments aim to set up the University’s Southbank campus with the best facilities to teach young artists for the next 50 years.
Banner Image: Ground floor of the two-storey glass curtain wall extension. Photographer: Ben Hosking.
By Alix Bromley
In a short six months, the Victorian College of the Arts’ (VCA) Teaching Workshop on the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus has transcended from an industrial blue-collar workshop to become a cutting edge research facility where manufacturing outcomes are unlimited.
Around 700 students from visual art, production, and film and television, who have not collaborated in the past, will now come together over the course of a year to share ideas and build in specific process spaces, including a central construction area, a welding and foundry room, a wet mould room, a wood machining shop including a special sanding room.
The students may be building for different artistic mediums, but pragmatically they often undertake very similar processes.
Workshops Manager Dr Tim Edwards, who’s been working on the project for four years, says after reading, thinking and talking to people about workshop design in the University environment, he believes there’s nothing else that exists like it.
The workshop staff were able to tell architect Steve Hatzellis exactly what they required in the space since they’ve been working there for years. From experience, they know exactly what does and doesn’t work.
Edwards, who began at the VCA as a casual lecturer in Sculpture and Spatial Practice in 2008, previously worked at the University of Tasmania where he was involved in designing the School of Visual and Performing Arts Sculpture Workshop. This meant he had a clear idea of the requirements and process of building a good workshop.
It was like a game of chess with room space size and placement.
The external skeleton of the old workshop has remained intact, but the roof trusses dictated where walls had to go. “Previously there was lots of wasted space and the rooms were too small to function very well, so combining them we were able to get more space and usability and make it much safer,” says Edwards.
Occupational health and safety (OHS) standards have a scale of low, medium and high risk activity. Just about everything that takes place in the workshop is high risk, so the underpinning design brief was to combine the different workshop spaces with best OHS practice.
In principle, you bring your materials through the 3 metre high soundproof doors, get them on to the table, mark out, measure, fit your safety protection gear from the OHS station, take the materials into the machine shops on the custom-built four-wheel tables, then wheel them back out into the construction area to assemble.
It’s all about workshop flow.
The wet area is for ceramics and mould making out of clay and is also part of the foundry where the initial object is made from wax. There is a specific wax working area with a granite benchtop and Bunsen burners.
In the hot metals room there is a new foundry furnace, a foundry kiln and a new ceramic kiln. There’s a long, thick solid steel bench which is completely dead flat.
“When you’re a metal sculptor, that welding bench is like a Louis Vuitton handbag!” says Edwards.
Welding creates highly toxic fumes, so rather than use ducts which pull the air across your body (as in 90% of other spaces), a bank has been made above the bench so all the smoke, dust and fumes are pulled away from you in the opposite direction.
In the wood machining shop there’s a computer-controlled router and various methods of carving and sanding. New ducting means the wood dust won’t be swirling around the space any more.
For a space with concrete floors and masses of wood, the acoustics have been dampened thanks to the wool insulation in the roof which was previously exposed tin.
“Everything is ramped right up,” says Edwards. “You can see how thick the walls are! The windows are triple glazed, the walls are triple thickness with insulation.”
There is very little sound bleed between each workshop. Because you can’t hear the students, the large windows were a key component of the design brief.
“We need to be able to see them at a glance, to make sure they’re okay,” say Edwards. The upstairs office, which creates a better use of space, also provides an opportunity to see what’s going on below.
From the lighting, heating and sound acoustics to the removable plywood panels on the walls (rather than leave a big hole in the wall in such a hard-wearing space, you can simply put a new panel on), Edwards is brimming with enthusiasm about the new workshop:
“You could come in with any kind of design and we’ll have the technology, skills and staff to work it out and build it.”
The Teaching Workshop fits within the broader development of the VCA & MCM’s Southbank campus, a venture funded jointly by The Myer Foundation, The Ian Potter Foundation, the University of Melbourne and the State Government through Creative Victoria.
Banner Image: The central construction area with an overhead office. Photographer: Ben Hosking.