film education: rich resources & more to be mined

tina kaufman

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR LISA FRENCH HAS BEEN TEACHING A COURSE IN AUSTRALIAN FILM AT RMIT FOR 10 YEARS, AS PART OF THE CINEMA STUDIES MAJOR IN THE SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA. WHILE THE COURSE ALWAYS LOOKS AT AUSTRALIAN CINEMA HISTORY, THE LOCAL FILM INDUSTRY AND THE CONCEPT OF A NATIONAL CINEMA, ITS STRUCTURE AND THEMES CHANGE FROM YEAR TO YEAR, TO KEEP IT FRESH AND INTERESTING, NOT ONLY FOR THE STUDENTS BUT FOR FRENCH HERSELF.

Australian Cinema is a 12-week course taught to undergraduates as part of the major or as an elective, with usually around 100 students. Films are selected in relation to the story the course is telling in any particular year, but are drawn from all periods of Australian cinema history and include shorts, features, docos, animations and experimental films.

an indigenous dimension

Whereas last year’s course looked at the themes, resonances and deep storylines throughout Australian culture that built Australian national cinema, this year there will be a stronger focus on Indigenous filmmaking, which will also make the course more contemporary. It’s been designed around films that are made by, or connect with, issues or representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, providing an integrated look at the artistic practice of Australian Indigenous filmmakers, examining how Aboriginal traditions have been cinematically or visually translated by filmmakers through innovative, imaginative and culturally specific approaches; films by non-Aboriginal filmmakers are examined in relation to how they contribute to the representational history and debates. “I’ve been able to hire a young Indigenous academic, filmmaker and activist, Simon Rose, to work with me on this course,” Lisa French explains, “and his ideas are different to mine. He’s particularly interested in humour as a critical aspect of Indigenous filmmaking and we’ll be screening films to illustrate that, such as Stone Bros and Bran Nue Dae.”

The course is built around a two-hour screening, a lecture and a one hour tutorial, with some of this time spent at ACMI; “the mediatheque at ACMI has such a rich resource of Indigenous material that it will be invaluable,” says French. Most of the students are doing a Bachelor of Communication, mostly majoring in Media. “The students are spoilt because they see the films at Hoyts, on 35mm; in a cinema, not on DVD,’ she explains, “although of course they do watch lots of other films on DVD, or through other sources, even YouTube.”

She also has a large number of exchange students; “this is fantastic, as they see our cinema completely differently. They think Muriel’s Wedding is a tragedy; with its elements of cancer and suicide they don’t think it is at all funny.”

australia beyond the mainstream

Margot Nash has just embarked on a new course in Arts and Social Sciences at UTS (University of Technology Sydney), part of a sub-major open to students from anywhere in the faculty, made up of three strands: Reading Australia; Past and Places; and Australian Film. “When it came to designing the course I felt quite daunted at first, but coming to it as a filmmaker rather than a film historian, I felt I wanted to approach it not through the accepted film canon, but rather through an underground, oppositional film history, a non-mainstream film history.”

So while the course provides the study of key moments in Australia’s film history such as the revival of the Australian feature film industry in the 1970s, it also looks at the new wave of avant garde, documentary and feminist film practice in the 70s and 80s and the latest wave of Indigenous and transnational filmmakers in the 90s through to the present. There will be a particular focus on independent and oppositional film practice through the study of recurring themes and issues such as Crime and Punishment, Indigenous stories, Migration, Working Lives, Alternative Lives and Women Make Waves.

This year’s course was over 13 three-hour sessions, although Nash is hoping to increase this to four-hour sessions next year, allowing for the screening of more complete films. This year films that were shown in their entirety included Wrong Side of the Road (1983), with one of the filmmakers, Ned Lander, in attendance, and Rocking’ the Foundations (1986), with producer-director Pat Fiske, screened in the session on activist documentary. But the course started with clips from The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) and the 2004 three-part Film Australia History of Australian Film from 1896 to 1940, all of which gave students some understanding of the early years of the industry.

“The students had no idea about any of this. They only knew about the big mainstream films and not even much about them. It was a revelation for them,” Margot Nash says.

At the completion of this subject, students are expected to be able to explain the importance of a pivotal figure or figures in Australia’s film history, critique a film produced at a key moment which challenged ideas and conventions and reimagined Australia in some way, or create an imaginative and critical response to the imaginary produced in a recurring key theme or issue. Their responses came in the form of blogs, essays or films: “There were some really creative responses to the films in the strand, and they had reached such an understanding of the richness and diversity there,” Nash said. “One girl embroidered an evening bag as a tribute to the McDonagh Sisters and their witty, worldly silent features from the 20s, filling it with copies of contemporary reviews of their films.”

documentaries: resurgence & diversity

Associate Professor Dugald Williamson at the University of New England (UNE) School of Arts teaches Documentary studies, with a particular emphasis on Australian documentary. He is co-author, with Trish FitzSimons and Pat Laughren, of Australian Documentary: History, Practices and Genres (Cambridge University Press, 2011), a most timely and substantial look at documentary in Australia. He recalls that “when we did ‘market research’ for the book, two or three years ago, at least 29 higher education institutions in Australia had some practical and/or theoretical work on documentary, though the word ‘documentary’ wasn’t necessarily always present in course/subject titles. This range included some 70 individual subjects (units), across both undergraduate and postgraduate level.” As he says, “the diversity of offerings suggested a critical mass in recognition of the relevance of documentary for several kinds of educational purpose— production education and training, media skills and literacies in a changing technological environment, discipline knowledge of media/communications/screen and interdisciplinary interests including history, cultural studies, ethnography etc.”

Williamson believes there’s a resurgent interest in documentary, partly because of the development of infotainment, “but I find that students are often also interested in the discussions (occurring in industry and academia) about whether and how doco can engage with real people and wider situations not just constructed for the show. This goes to students’ own experience of media and what they value. It’s important and rewarding to see what students’ own conceptions of documentary are and to offer ways of widening these, exposing them to a variety of forms and voices with which they may not already be familiar—independent work, experimental, animated and digital doco, as well as the many appealing forms of observational and essay documentary.”

As he says, Australian documentary in its diverse forms has had a role comparable to other arts in interpreting and influencing national culture: “Thanks to our heritage institutions there’s a rich archive of such work, giving a window onto history, engaging with the changing ‘imagined community,’ while documentary continues to evolve and show different perspectives, such as the Indigenous retelling in First Australians: The Untold Story of Australia (2008; Blackfella Films, directors Rachel Perkins and Beck Cole).”

He believes that using documentary in higher education “provides the opportunity to look at how it ties into a range of disciplinary knowledges and social purposes, especially as resources increase online. Studying or making docos can help students see there have been changing forms of independent and community filmmaking as well as mainstream industry and institutions, so there are multiple points of access to making/using media.”

resource riches

The already rich and growing digital resources available to students online are obviously important in these courses and include Australianscreen Online (ASO, http://aso.gov.au/), the ABC’s A Place to Think and Screenrights’ EnhanceTV, while Dugald Williamson says his students have also been using Channel 4 and BBC sites—”it’s amazing what they find.”

ASO, operated by the National Film and Sound Archive, is a promotional and educational resource providing worldwide online access to information about the Australian film and television industry. Audio-visual material is sourced from the NFSA’s archives as well as those of its collection partners, the National Archives of Australia, public broadcasters ABC and SBS, and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies—all the major audio-visual collections in Australia.

ASO contains information about and excerpts from a wide selection of Australian production from the early days to the present, in a digital resource which encourages the exploration of Australia’s screen heritage. The collection currently has almost 1,500 titles covering a wide range of formats and genres, from professional productions (feature films, television programs, shorts and advertisements) to factual programmes (documentaries, newsreels, corporate films and other historical footage) and non-commercial content (home movies). The website also has a separate section that draws together Indigenous content from the general format categories and profiles of Australian filmmakers in its “People” section. Information available for each of the audio-visual titles in the collection includes a list of the main credits and other production information, synopsis, curator’s notes, filmmaker comments and up to three three-minute clips from the original material. In some cases, as with advertisements and newsreels, items can be viewed in their entirety directly from the website. For other titles there are links to information about how to access a copy of the complete film.

Targeted at a wide and diverse audience including primary and secondary schools, tertiary researchers and students, screen industry practitioners, screen organisations and the general public, ASO receives around 90,000 visits per month, of which around 25% come from outside Australia. Around a third are from the education sector.

film research app

Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM), who have been making their well-respected study guides for over 20 years, have now launched what they believe to be a world first, an interactive film study guide app to be distributed initially through the iTunes App Store; this interactive study guide incorporates clips, animation and web functions. It was launched last month with two major productions, the Jim Loach Australian-UK co-production Oranges and Sunshine (2010) and the documentary Kapyong (Dennis K Smith, 2011).

hidden treasures

Of course, there is much valuable material that is not yet available as a digital resource. I was editor of Filmnews from the late 1970s to the mid 90s; over the same period, Cinema Papers was also going strong. Both publications have a wealth of interviews, production stories, reviews and debates on much of the local filmmaking and filmmakers of the period, as well as articles on the issues, often contentious and hotly fought over, that were important, to do with government policy and practice and the policies and performance of the various institutions within the film community. And there are other publications, both earlier and later, whose valuable contents are rarely accessed now; as online resources they could provide much invaluable support to the students looking at Australian film in various courses. Let’s hope they can soon become available.

additional film resources

AFTRS film journal, Lumina, now in its 7th edition (it can be purchased through www.aftrs.edu.au/explore/lumina.aspx); Dreaming in Motion, Celebrating Australian Indigenous Filmmakers (edited and produced by RealTime for the Australian Film Commission, 2007; the PDF of the book can be downloaded from www.screenaustralia.gov.au/documents/SA_publications/DreaminginMotion.pdf); RealTime has online Archive Highlights on Australian animation and Indigenous film can be found at; ATOM’s Metro Magazine with its enormous archive can be accessed at www.metromagazine.com.au; and there’s the OzDox site www.ozdox.org providing articles, interviews and news focused on Australian documentaries. Eds

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 29

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 August 2011