Screen culture: be alert, be alarmed

Mick Broderick

U.S.S Abraham Lincoln, Mick Broderick

U.S.S Abraham Lincoln, Mick Broderick

Strange things are happening out west. As the federal government strengthens its preparedness to wage war against Iraq and escalates its national public information campaign alerting Australians to be ever vigilant against domestic terrorism, West Australia seems to be bearing the brunt of defence commitments with a corresponding shrinkage of cultural resources in the screen area. Perth-based SAS troops have had leave cancelled and US Navy jets will fly bombing sorties north of the state capital, dropping shells within kilometres of the fishing village and summer holiday destination of Lancellin.

The massive nuclear aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its numerous escorts, which moored off Fremantle in the week before Christmas, has returned “indefinitely”, no doubt teeming with undisclosed Weapons of Mass Destruction. But with it comes over 6,000 personnel, millions of greenbacks for the local economy and political assurances of heightened national security as a result of the visits. It all seems a strategic pact of Faustian proportions.

And here’s the rub. While there has been discussion and dissension over the American alliance and the potential for aiding and abetting unilateral attacks, the ongoing mandatory detention of asylum seekers and the heightened powers of domestic and international intelligence agencies, little commentary has been directed at the cost to taxpayers and how these unanticipated federal spending initiatives are to be funded. The answer, it would seem, is the stealthy removal of cultural expenditure under the pretext of a federal arts economy drive.

Around the same time as the nuclear navy visits to Perth, Arts Minister Richard Alston ordered an inquiry into the top 15 cultural institutions—a decision reluctantly admitted to under Parliamentary questioning in the Senate. The rationale for Alston’s review is to find ‘greater efficiencies’ and to see if taxpayers are getting ‘value for their money.’ It’s a hoary old chestnut, and a political pretext of grand transparency. Within hours Greens Senator Bob Brown was decrying Alston’s ploy as a secret “arts tax” to pay for the anticipated war on Iraq and scandalous ongoing refugee incarcerations. Labor’s shadow arts spokesman Bob McMullan was more muted, though equally fearful that the exercise was one of “stripping funds from the cultural institutions and hoping no-one will notice.”

In many ways Alston’s rhetoric of additional public accountability rings false—what of government appointed board members, Senator, or mandatory government audits, or biennial external and/or internal reviews, agency annual reports to Parliament and annual Senate Appropriations hearings…? Given the cyclical and exhaustive accounting these institutions already must undertake, with the added assurance that in many instances the Minister may himself intervene and direct the agency, it appears as McMullan insinuated that “the review is really a cost-cutting exercise that will pay no heed to achieving cultural goals.”

After 8 years of the conservative Coalition’s governance, no-one should be surprised by Alston’s move, particularly at a time when the returned government is riding high in the opinion polls during its early to mid-term run. But unlike earlier cultural reviews such as the Mansfield enquiry into the ABC and the Gonski review of the film sector, with their ‘independent’ chairs, it would seem that the Minister himself will be in the driving seat with no sign of sustained criticism from the Opposition.

Nevertheless, Alston’s review, with its predetermined budget savings, is merely the logical extension of nearly a decade of Coalition reorientation, if not marginalisation, of cultural subvention. A case in point is the near erasure of the ‘National’ Cinematheque.

After a brief flourish, Perth is now entering its second year without a Cinematheque program. For cultural enthusiasts in ‘the world’s most isolated city’ this is an appalling state of affairs. One year (2001) there was a program, in the following there was not. The Fremantle based Film and Television Institute (FTI), which previously coordinated the local programming with the Melbourne Cinematheque, also exhibited the program at its funky, though somewhat decrepit cinema. Audiences fluctuated considerably from screening to screening, but without a marketing budget or dedicated PR staffer, promoting the Fremantle screenings was largely the responsibility of Brigitta Hupfel (now an FTI board member) who saw the still largely untapped tertiary student market as a major potential audience.

But how could these Perth screenings fail and the future programs be pulled with little more than a whimper of criticism? Like the Rashomon rape/homicide, it depends on your perspective. According to the AFC, funds were literally doubled in the year the Perth program was axed by the FTI. Former AFI chief Deb Verhoeven and Melbourne Cinematheque President/programmer Adrian Miles respond that, while technically correct, the increase came at the demise of ancillary funding for administrative and other exhibition infrastructure which the AFI could previously sustain within general overheads. For nearly a decade the AFI has been suffering death by a thousand cuts. It is symptomatic of government pressure that the AFC has devolved many screen culture responsibilities onto state agencies, particularly those emanating from Victoria. Yet Screenwest says that assisting the WA component of the Cinematheque complies with its advertised brief to support screen activities but they weren’t approached, since FTI felt that their principal sponsors, AFC and Screenwest, would consider this double dipping.

Regardless, the lacklustre show of bums on seats greatly figured in the FTI decision to drop the program. Like other state-based screen organisations, FTI has refocussed its output increasingly onto training, with fewer resources available for cultural activities. It’s a sign of the times—federal dollars for training, development and production, while screen ‘culture’ withers. Indeed, the counter argument, rarely heard today, is that government subsidy of the arts supports cultural outputs not considered commercially viable. This rationale underpins most political subvention. Hence Perth’s very isolation makes it an ideal candidate for special federal treatment, not mere parity with other states.

There is some light on the horizon, however. In 2001-02 Victoria’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) received AFC funds previously earmarked for the AFI’s national exhibition program. ACMI’s Lisa Pieroni is keen to develop a National Cinematheque program this year—including Perth—based on a model that offers components from the extensive and self-sustaining Melbourne program. Pieroni is confident that by April enough of the core Cinematheque material, complemented by short specialist programs of Alliance Français, Goethe Institut and Screensound, will attract interest in Tasmania, ACT and WA. Here’s hoping.

Overall, though, transposing the government’s own official agitprop, those committed to the screen culture sector should now be not just alert, but alarmed.

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 15

© Mick Broderick; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003