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Film in Australia

The Silent Era

The Story of the Kelly Gang

The Story of the Kelly Gang.

The Australian film industry got off to a flying start, producing what was probably the world's first full length feature film in 1906. The film was the Tait brothers production The Story of the Kelly Gang , a success in both Australian and British theatres, and it was also the beginning of a genre of bushranger stories

While Australians took to bushranger stories, the censorship boards of the day did not. South Australia banned the screening of bushranger films in 1911, Victoria followed in 1912. The NSW police department banned the production of bushranger films in 1912. The Kelly story, however, outlasted the ban and has been refilmed a number of times since although only a few minutes of footage from the original film have survived.

Australian cinema continued to thrive during the silent era thanks largely to the work of the pioneers of Australian movie making such as Ken Hall, Charles Chauvel and Raymond Longford, director of the Australian silent classic The Sentimental Bloke .

In these early years Australian filmmakers were interested in forging and exploring Australian identity and films such as For the Term of His Natural Life were notable for their peculiarly colonial themes of convicts and bushrangers.

In spite of the fact that Australian audiences were interested in seeing their own stories on the screen the industry went into decline in the 1920s. The ever expanding U.S. and British production companies took over the Australian distribution and exhibition chains and Australian features were often excluded from cinemas. The state of the industry was so dire that a Royal Commission was held into the film industry in 1928, but it did little to stop the decline.

The Sound Era

Poster for

Dad and Dave Come to Town poster.

Cinesound was the most active of the Australian film studios in the early sound era producing a number of Australian features including a popular series of films based on Steele Rudd's Dad and Dave characters during the 1930s as well as newsreels and documentary films. It was the latter, Cinesound's documentary Kokoda Front Line, which earned Australia's first Academy award in 1943.

Poster for the movie

Jedda poster.

Colour production came to Australia with the 1955 Charles Chauvel film Jedda , still one of the most debated films ever produced in Australia. It was a daring film, not only was it the first Australian produced film to be shot in colour but it was also the first to use Aboriginal actors in lead roles and the first to feature at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Jedda's theme of conflict caused when an Aboriginal girl is separated from her culture is still prescient today and its representation of Aboriginal people is much debated.

An extensive Jedda bibliography is available from the AFI site and clips can be viewed online at Australian Screen.

The Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit

The Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit operated in Sydney from 1953 to 1958 and was the first film production unit within a trade union anywhere in the world. The Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit offered an alternative to the mainstream media of the day. They made 14 films on subjects that other production units would never tackle. Perhaps the Unit's most significant film was released in 1955 and was entitled The Hungry Miles . This film highlighted the working conditions on Sydney's expanse of wharves, and the struggles endured by the wharfies and their families - most of whom lived near the wharves and in slum conditions in inner-city suburbs such as Surry Hills, Pyrmont and Woolloomooloo. The Hungry Miles received wide acclaim and won an award at the 1957 Warsaw Youth Festival. In a fascinating 'recycling' incident, some of the Unit's dramatised footage was (mis)used in the ABC mini-series The True Believers and labelled as 'archival footage' and not attributed to the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit.

The New Wave

The decline in the film industry became almost terminal in the late fifties and early sixties with the industry coming to a virtual stop. The intervention of the Gorton and Whitlam governments in the early 1970s rescued the industry from its probable oblivion.

Judy Davis and Sam Neill in My Brilliant Career.

Judy Davis and Sam Neill in My Brilliant Career.

With the establishment of the film funding bodies and the training of film makers through the Australian Film Television and Radio School finally a new generation of Australian filmmakers were able to bring their visions to the screen.

The 1970s saw a huge renaissance of the Australian film industry. Australia produced nearly 400 films between 1970 and 1985 - more than had been made in the history of the Australian film industry. The 1970s also saw the emergence of the film directing auteurs of Gillian Armstrong, Peter Weir, Phil Noyce and Bruce Beresford and the launch of international careers for many screen actors including Judy Davis, Sam Neill and Mel Gibson.

The concerns of film makers had changed little since the early days of Australian cinema, historical stories set in the outback dominated Australian cinema and films with contemporary settings, such as Beresford's Don's Party , continued the Australian film makers' obsession with exploring Australian identity.

After the New Wave

Poster for the movie

Shine poster

The huge 10BA tax concessions during the 1980s led to some dubious filmmaking but the period also saw the consolidation of a more diverse film culture in Australia from the highly successful Mad Max (Road Warrior) and Crocodile Dundee films to the quiet achieving styles of John Duigan and Paul Cox.

In the 1990s another new wave of Australian directors hit the screens producing internationally successful films like the Academy Award winning Shine and 'quirky' features including Muriel's Wedding and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert .

Contemporary Australian cinema is more complex and diverse than ever, exploring Australian peoples and cultures from a diverse range of viewpoints in recent films such as Looking for Alibrandi , Two Hands , The Boys , Head On , and Radiance .

Murmurs about Australia becoming a Hollywood backlot from poor box office results for the 1999 crop of films saw some claim the demise of the industry, although others were more upbeat about the future of the industry.

Those who were confident in the industry have helped to develop an expanding industry. Australian film's share of the box office went from 4 per cent in 1998 to 8 per cent in 2001. There's still a long way to go, but the industry seems as vibrant as ever and willing to take the challenge. For more information, check out the latest Australian film statistics from the Screen Australia website.

This vibrancy is continued by the release of films such as Till Human Voices Wake Us , and the compelling historic drama about the removal of Indigenous children from their parents Rabbit Proof Fence .

The National Film and Sound Archive

Australia's National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) plays a leading role in preserving and collecting Australia's unique film, television and sound heritage and has preserved many of Australia's memorable film moments. Check out classic scenes from Australian films at the NFSA's website Australian Screen.

Useful links

Listen, look and play

Australian online film magazines

For aspiring filmmakers

Resources for film professionals

Film funding bodies

Last updated: 22nd November 2007

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