There may well have been film societies and film screenings of so-called foreign films (anything that is not American, British or Australian) pre-dating the Festival of Perth film screenings, but the Festival and its organisers have been the seminal influence in the Perth film society and festival scene. Although the Festival of Perth is known outside of WA more as a performing arts than a film festival, screening films has been part of it since its inception. Part of the credit for this must go to John Birman and the situation in the University of Western Australia (hereafter UWA) out of which he helped create the Festival of Perth.
Birman came to Australia in 1937 from Europe. Living initially in Sydney he saw a number of foreign films at the Savoy. This enabled him to gain both a knowledge of and an enthusiasm for foreign films which he carried with him when he came to Perth in the late 1940s. In Professor Alexander, Birman found a willing ear for his plans to show foreign films. Alexander, the Director of Adult Education, was keen on arts and entertainment for the public that attended its annual summer schools in January. Birman recalls that the idea was to start with films and then to branch out to other entertainment.
These film screenings began by utilising the Sommerville Auditorium at the University. This was a venue which is still used for half of the Festival's film screenings. Its continuing popularity as a venue lies not only in its allowing people to watch films in the open air, but in the fact that, as a University facility, it does not cost the organisers as much as hiring a commercial theatre. These initial Sommerville screenings were successful enough to encourage Birman to expand them. As he later wrote:
The Adult Education Board of UWA introduced to the citizens of Perth foreign films with sub-titles and their popularity became so great that regular screenings were arranged in the Capitol Theatre. (p.13)
Birman vividly recalls the screening of Pastoral Symphony at the old Capitol theatre in the city - the many people who flocked to see it and their complaints about the foreign language and the sub- titles.
These film screenings were not an automatic success. Their potential audience was so conditioned to Hollywood films, which were diametrically different from the foreign films, that a lot of patience and persistence were required to break down its resistance to the foreign films. Birman recalls there being a 'physical difficulty' involved in getting people to accept sub-titles. Audiences did not like them and nor did they like the sound of a foreign language.
1953 marked the official beginning of the Festival of Perth as a cultural event held over the January school holidays for Summer School people. This festival was little more than a formalised extension of what Birman had been providing for Summer Schools over the previous couple of years. It was not until the following year that festival plans incorporated the idea that the film screenings constituted a 'film festival' event in its own right. In 1957 a French film festival was held. In 1959 the film festival assumed the form of an even more extended offering. That year marked for John Birman 'the establishment of an international film festival within the festival'.
If this 1959 venture met with instant success, it also resulted in the resignation of one member of the festival committee. She protested against the selection of the film The Virtuous Isador. This was a French comedy about the sexual initiation of a country lad by an experienced Parisienne. Some other titles screened at this particular festival were Fellini's La Strada and Tati's M. Hulot's Holiday.
Of course the film festival in the Festival of Perth was not and still is not a 'proper' film festival as are the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals. Titles were obtained, for the most part, from within Australia. Sydney and Melbourne festivals by contrast brought films into Australia.
Right from the beginning, Birman realised (as has his successor Blenkinsop) that films were producing enough revenue to help subsidise other Festival events - in particular the performing arts.
In the absence of any other Perth-based distributors for foreign film in WA, the film festival and the Adult Education Board became film distributors. In the process, the Festival of Perth became distributors, exhibitors and general entrepreneurs for foreign films in WA. In some cases the festival had an Australian premiere. This was the case for an opera film Der Rosen Kavalier that Rank had produced in the 1950s and had found difficulty placing in Australian cinemas. The film was promoted as an event. Every woman was presented with a rose as she arrived for the screening and the whole thing cost 15/- - quite an amount then. It sold out.
Indeed one of the striking things about the Festival of Perth film festival programs - both past and present - is the consistent place that opera films have there. I asked Birman about this:
The reason why David and I select opera films is simply that we do not get a chance in WA at the moment to even get a single visit by the Australian Opera - never mind a foreign one. There is simply no venue for it. And that is why these films have tremendous appeal and get a huge audience.
There is another reason for this popularity. Opera was a 'legitimate' art form in its own right. Having opera on film allowed film to cross over into the field of the performing arts away from its familiar popular entertainment moorings.
Birman obtained films through Sydney and Melbourne distributors. He sometimes used their bulk film purchasing to the Festival's advantage. As he put it to me:
The major distributors had to buy say ten films at a time and among those ten films they probably used to have one or two art films that no-one was interested in. I used to go to Sydney and find out who had these films and say to them: 'Look, you've got a couple of duds, I'll take them off your hands if you give me good terms'.
Birman's terms were inflexible: 25% to one thousand six hundred pounds ~$3 200) and 40% or 50% thereafter. These allowed Birman to make 'a lot of money out of them'. His visits to Sydney had a snowballing effect. Once the news got around that he was a buyer of art films, distributors started to send over to him their lists of titles. With distributors competing with each other for his business, Birman soon found himself in a buyer's market. This gave him the leverage to encourage the distributors that he continually dealt with to bring certain films into the country that the Festival wanted. Birman proudly claims that the Festival and the Adult Education Board 'were the only ones who entrepreneurially discovered this bulk buying business in Australia'.
Of course during the fifties and sixties the major distributors were not the only source for films. Films were also obtained from the various embassies, smaller Sydney and Melbourne distributors and, of course, the Canadian National Film Board.
Birman claims another first for the Festival of Perth in its incorporation of an element of Asian culture from the outset:
I was keen to have one element in the festival of Asian Culture and that was hard to sell. It is even hard today. Yet we did it. My commitment, with WA being in such close proximity to that region, was that we should show the culture of that region. But even in terms of films - I used to bring in Ray films from India but they did not go very well either. People just could not absorb the slowness of the culture although they were beautiful films.
The Festival's example in this regard undoubtedly encouraged later developments such as the 1980 Indian Ocean Film Festival, which also did not do very well.
Festival films were selected, for the most part, from the film reviews in publications like Sight and Sound, Monthly Film Bulletin and Films and Filming. The films which these publications considered to be important, exciting or controversial would be listed and then Birman and later an advisory committee would check on their Australian availability. Birman, for the most part, seems to have used the advice of this committee. He still ran the film selections that he wanted though. Today's committee has a deal more autonomy in film selection than its predecessor.
Attendance figures could fluctuate quite a deal. For example, in 1962 l9,000 attended the Festival, whilst in 1963 that figure had increased to 40,000; but in 1964 it had gone back to 19,000. Sherry Hopkins, the Festival's Publicity Officer, suggests that these highs and lows indicate the way that audiences went to a particular program of Fesl;ival films. She says that this contrasts with today's audience which accepts the program without question.
The festival organisation under Birman, finding a surfeit of films available to it for summer screenings, experimented with mid-winter screenings of films in the early 1960s. This mid-winter festival was not as enduring or as popular as the summer event. Indeed the subsequent advent of the International Film Theatre (IFT) in 1965 displaced it somewhat.
During the 1950s the Festival of Perth was a much more minor venture than it is today. Taking the film event as an example: nowhere near the same number of films were screened then as are today. It was, to a large extent, a festival for Summer School students. But it was a festival which was gradually growing out of that role to become the separate entity that it is today. One of the important things to bear in mind about this period is the close association that it had with the Adult Education Board of the University. Birman, through his work for this Board, provided the platform from which a burgeoning film society movement could develop in the early 1960s.
There were film societies pre-dating the formation of the Perth Film Society in 1964 and the International Film Theatre in 1965. John McCrackan, a prominent figure in the film society movement in the 1960s and 1970s, remembers a film society operating in the city on a Sunday night at The Liberty Theatre, Barrack Street, in the mid 1950s. Those involved in it were mostly interested in old American films. Sometimes though foreign films would be screened. Indeed, McCrackan remembers seeing a Russian film (The Stone Flower) there. This film society watched films on 35mm and their screenings tended to be organised on an ad hoc basis. It was aided by theatre owner Lionel Hart who opened The Liberty Theatre and partly took over the Adult Education role. Around about the same time McCrackan and a number of fellow students unsuccessfully attempted to start a university film society. It folded for lack of interest. Another prominent film society figure and student contemporary of McCrackan's, Barrie King, thinks there was a film society operating in the early 1950s out of a 'cold and drafty hall' in Murray Street showing 16mm titles. He also recalls that, by the late 1950s, film appreciation classes were being run by the Adult Education Board at Chancery House in Howard Street in the city. Titles such as Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin and Sucksdorff's Rhythm of a City were screened there by an adult education officer by the name of Ian Hanna - son of the well-known stage and screen actor Pat Hanna.
So, too, both King and McCrackan remember going to see the odd foreign film and film classics at His Majesty's and the Capitol. These screenings of opera films such as Faust and Il Travatore, of Marcel Carne's masterpiece Les Enfants du Paradise, Wajda's Kanal, and the Italian neo-realist films were put on by Birman for the Adult Education Board. He also used The Liberty as a venue for Kurosawa's Rashomon. Birman's success with showing foreign films encouraged The Liberty to dabble in screening them now and then in the late 1950s. The University Labor Club also had foreign film screenings as part of its activities from time to time. Theo Bredmeyer was an important figure here. Its film screenings were increasingly well attended. Out of its success seems to have sprung the University Film Society in the early 1960s. Unlike the organisation which screens films at UWA today, this film society showed film classics obtained, for the most part, from the National Library. The University Film Society became incredibly popular at this time. As Barrie King recalls:
At one stage the University Film Society had so many people attending that they would show the film in two lecture theatres. They used the fact that the two Physics Lecture Theatres were one on top of the other. After the film had run through in the lower one they would take it upstairs and run it through in the upper one and vice versa. These theatres held about two hundred people each. So it was extraordinarily successful for a while.
It is difficult to give these events a precise date, but what can be given precise dates are the things that Ian Channell had a hand in creating. Channell, a catalytic figure in the film society movement, came to Australia from Leeds University as a Community Arts tutor-demonstrator in the employ of the Adult Education Board. In that capacity he acted in Roy Little's words as John Birman's 'offsider' in organising the Festival of Perth.
In March 1964 Channell launched the Perth Film Society as one of the classes in the Adult Education Board's autumn program because he felt that many more people should see these films. It became an independent organisation at the end of the first year when Channell handed the reins over to McCrackan. McCrackan recalls Channell saying to him: 'I've shown you how it is done and that it can be done, now you do it.' The Perth Film Society was a 16mm film society geared to showing film classics drawn mostly from the National Library's Film Lending Collection. For McCrackan, and for those who made up its membership, the society enabled them to see the films that they had read about in the potted histories of the cinema that they were able to get their hands on. The Perth Film Society had a membership of 256 at one stage. Its most well attended screening was for the first screening in Perth of Bunuel and Dali's surrealist film Un Chien Andalou. The society screened for most of its existence at Science House in Hooper Street in West Perth.
The society continued in existence until the early 1970s when it was amalgamated into the International Film Theatre. McCrackan explains that this merger came about because of declining membership. This was due partly to the fact that by this time the membership had seen most of the films but also because there was not, by the mid 1970s, the same desire to see film classics. Prints were often damaged. So, too, with the advent of colour TV and with contemporary features being in colour, having increasingly dense and sophisticated sound tracks, and the fact that the classics were often silent and in black and white made them much harder to watch for a rising generation. They were appearing too technologically primitive. Finally, like all film societies, this one relied upon the dedication and continuing enthusiasm of a handful of people. By the end of the society the endless round of buying the biscuits, lugging and storing the projector, looking after the memberships and organising the films and the venue had all become too much for McCrackan.
But this was all in the future. Let's backtrack to some of the other institutions created around the same time as the Perth Film Society. With Brian Parke, a fellow Adult Education Board officer, paving the way before him in 1962/3, Ian Channell assisted and encouraged people in country towns and in Perth suburbs to set up film societies. Both their attempts were successful. Writing in 1966 Roy Little noted the existence of film societies in Albany, Northam, Kalgoorlie, Narrogin, Corrigin, Gibson's Soak, Collie and South Perth. Channell also helped to establish the WA Federation of Film Societies as a co-ordinating body for these country and suburban film societies. As part of this, yearly film screening weekends were launched for film society leaders and members. Weekend participants saw and discussed as many as thirteen feature films and numerous shorts which they could subsequently introduce along with relevant documentation to their various film societies. The first of these weekends was held at Yanchep. It was not, at least initially, explicitly geared to the WA Federation but tended to become more geared towards it over the years. Barrie King and Paul Duncan were two major figures in the WA Federation of Film Societies.
Through the WA Federation of Film Societies, films would be assembled each year and then rotated from community to community. The country film societies obtained their films mainly from the State Film Centre's collection and occasionally by loans -from the National Library organised by the State Film Centre. As Roy Little was to note in 1966, the assistance given by the Adult Education Board of UWA to these country groups was remarkable: '... few universities anywhere provide professional guidance in establishing and' nourishing film societies.' He went on to suggest that much of this comment and indeed the initial success of the film society movement in WA owed itself to 'the specialised knowledge and engaging enthusiasm of Ian Channell.' (p.2) Some of the success of country film societies, in particular, was undoubtedly due to the limited range of films country cinemas were able to offer. In 1966, for instance, the Albany Film Society not only showed 'classic' films like Little Caesar and The Blue Angel but it also showed, in Little's words, 'the contemporary blockbusters usually shown by specialised cinemas in most larger centres' (p.l). It is not surprising then that the advent of video and its quick take up in country areas has seen some of the raison d'etre for these societies being lost.
John Birrnan, in his history of the Festival, notes that after 1964 the film side of the Festival played a much larger part in it, with two venues being used. Channell's influence in the early 1960s extended to the Festival of Perth program. With Channell's obvious interest in films there was now someone who could give greater attention to the quality of the films in the Festival. Apparently Channell was able to secure goods shorts which were then fairly scarce. Birman claims that the Festival was, in this period, going against the norms of commercial exhibition (newsreel and double bill) by screening a short and a feature film. Today the short film is going out of vogue in commercial programming so it is difficult from this distance to realise just how important short films were to the overall success of an evening's entertainment.
There was one other film society that Channell was instrumental in creating in 1965. It is still in existence today and that is the International Film Theatre (hereafter IFT). IFT was created as, and has spent most of its existence as, a 35mm film society. The perceived need for a 35mm film society came as much from people such as Barrie King, Diana Robinson (now Warnock), Bill Warnock, Ian Cearns and John McCrackan as it did from Channell.
Both Barrie King and Diana Warnock, for instance, had a great time overseas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Whilst there they had seen and could expect to see a lot of different films which were not at that stage coming to Perth or, in some cases, to Australia. This exposure gave them a keen sense of what first release material was coming through in Europe and the USA. It also, on their return, made them concerned about what Perth was missing out on. For people such as Cearns, McCrackan and Bill Warnock, on the other hand, their avid reading of international film journals had made them perhaps just as aware and enthused to see the same films as King and Diana Warnock. In a way, IFT was a natural extension of the interest created in both the cinema and foreign films by the Festival of Perth and the Perth and UWA film societies. These film societies were restricted to 16mm whilst the Festival only screened films in January and February - and sometimes ran a similar kind of mid-winter screenings. IFT came out of a desire to plug those gaps by having weekly screenings over 30 weeks of contemporary 35mm 'foreign films'. It also came out of a desire to get some of the good festival films of past years back for re screenings. Indeed some of its initial success was due to its acting as both a second release venue for popular Festival of Perth titles, and as a venue for earlier releases which had never reached Perth - Les Jeux Interdits and many other films of Rene Clement. Ian Channell, having been alerted to the need for regular 35mm screenings of foreign films, unsuccessfully tried to interest the Adult Education Board in the idea of their sponsoring a 35mm film society. Taking the matter into his own hands (and reaching into his own pocket), he started IFT as a joint venture with the manager-owner of the Dalkeith (now The Village) cinema, Trevor Palmer. Channell got together a package of 30 programs by writing to distributors in the East and sold the films to the public as a membership package. For £ 3 ($6) you could see 30 programs of foreign films. Film screenings were held on Sunday nights from March through to October. The venture attracted some 600 members. Screenings were not, however, exclusive - tickets for individual screenings could be obtained at the door by non-members.
Palmer, for his part, was happy to have IFT using his cinema. The advent of TV had forced him to contract his opening times to Friday and Saturday nights. IFT allowed him to be open for one more night, even if it was a Sunday. So, too, because the cinema was run on a shoestring as a family affair, it did not cost him much to open on a Sunday.
The Village is not a big cinema. It holds 800 people but it was able to accommodate both this membership and ticket sales at the door because not all members went to see all films all of the time. Barrie King, out of his long association with IFT over its 20 year existence, says that most members do not tend to come to more than 50% of the screenings. There is, he says, always a hard core that come to 9 out of 10 screenings; and there is always about 25 % of the membership who usually only get to a handful of screenings and then drop out of the organisation. So a membership in excess of 600 can count on only half that attending at any one time.
Having established IFT as a going concern in 1965, Channell wanted it continued as a public venture run by a film society rather than as a private venture between Palmer and himself. To accomplish this he called a meeting of interested people and had IFT turned into the 35mm film society that it still is today. The committee comprised people such as Channell, King, Diana Warnock, John McCrackan, Barry Thurn, Peter Dowding (now a Cabinet Minister), Arch Nicholson (now a film director) and the UWA Librarian Leonard Jolley (better known these days as the husband of novelist Elizabeth Jolley). Jolley was approached to be on the committee. Channell retained a dominant influence and appears to have been chiefly responsible for the expanding of IFT's operations to 60 programs over the same 30 week period in 1966. These programs were divided into two series of films screened on different nights. One package of 30 programs, 'the foreign films', was screened on Sunday and Monday nights. The other package of neglected but contemporary English and American films was screened on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. Palmer came to the party on terms advantageous to IFT, allowing the whole thing to be done cheaply.
This venture attracted 1,300 members to IFT. It also raised the ire of other exhibitors who had not minded foreign films being screened at low prices but did mind about contemporary English and American films being screened below the standard admission price. One of the offshoots of their complaints to distributors about IFT was that for a long time MGM would not supply any of their product to the group. Despite the extra program series, the Sunday night screenings of foreign films remained the big draw card. The bulk of the public and of the members came along then whilst attendance's were in King's words 'fairly thin but not negligible' for the rest of the week. As King recalls, this response led to a reassessment of the venture:
By the end of the year it was decided that the sound series was not worth the trouble and if one had been able to separate out the costing of it, it probably would have cost money.
So in 1967 IFT went back to the 30 programs retaining the Sunday and Monday night screenings. Membership declined back to around its 1965 level. Despite this reduction in membership, the reduced screenings still meant that IFT had waiting lists for membership to it over the next few years.
In its heyday, IFT even became involved in buying and distributing films that had not been taken up for Australian distribution. One such film was Wajda's The Wedding. The committee did this because they wanted these films to be made available in Australia. In 1967 Ian Channell left Perth for Sydney 'to do a PhD'. Whilst he may have been growing tired of Perth, his departure was influenced by disagreements and personality clashes with other Adult Education Board people. He did, however, retain his links with IFT for a while as a program advisor.
IFT continued on the foundation that he laid. Over its 20 year existence it has tried a variety of other formats. One notable venture was the attempt to establish another venue for IFT programs. Noting that it drew its membership from the six or so kilometres around Nedlands, IFT decided to seek another venue to open its films to audiences on the other side of Perth: over the railway line to the north and over the river to the south. From the late 1960s it began to screen films in the city at The Liberty in Barrack Street. The management of this cinema gave IFT reasonable terms for a Sunday night screening. This venture resulted, Barrie King recalls, in an increase in door sales and a slight increase in membership, but not in the expected enthusiastic response. Whilst this venture continued for a few years, it was eventually disbanded. Eventually too, the Monday screenings vanished from its screenings at The Village.
IFT had by the mid-1970s fallen on hard times. In this it was not alone. Other film societies around Australia in the mid to late 1970s also felt the pinch. Part of the problem was the introduction of colour TV which brought audiences back to TV, diminishing in the process the audience for its films. But most of the problem lay in the fact that IFT's existence had created an audience for art films that exhibitors like The Village began to tap by screening art cinema in their own right. Another problem lay in the fact that the Student Guild at UWA had itself begun to screen 35mm films. Of course these films were not the IFT kind of films, but their existence took away, to a certain extent, the student audience that IFT had relied upon getting to maintain its high membership through the 1960s. Barrie King notes that there was a slow and inexorable decline in both membership and in door sales which could not be arrested by experimenting with programming and advertising. To compound the problem, cinema expenses continued to rise. In this context, losses on seasons were inevitable. Although the IFT committee was able to absorb these losses from the reserves it had built up over the years, there came a time when it could not go on doing so.
In response, IFT looked for other, cheaper venues - at The Perth Institute for Film and TV (hereafter PIFT - in Fremantle), at the University theatre and at the Art Gallery. The committee chose the Art Gallery, then in the CIB building in James Street, which had a small 90 seat theatre. This move might have gone some way to putting IFT back on a firm footing, but it did mean foregoing quite a lot. The art gallery meant two screenings to accommodate the membership. It also meant 16mm films, which restricted the range of titles available to IFT. Sometimes 35mm films were screened but to make this happen committee members had to borrow the Festival of Perth's 35mm projectors and transport them into the bio box. As anyone who has seen a 35mm projector knows, this is a task for a group of people. So, too, if the cost of the auditorium was negligible in comparison to The Village and The Windsor (where IFT had gone to because The Village had become too expensive for them), this was in part because members - usually committee members - had to do the work that the cinema management had previously taken care of, 1 manning the door and projecting.
After a holding operation of a couple of years at the Art Gallery, IFT moved back into a proper cinema in the recently renovated New Oxford in Leederville The ready availability of 35mm broadened the programming possibilities once again an membership did increase. This encouraged the IFT committee to experiment one year with a set alternate screenings running concurrently with the two main screenings at 5.30 and 8.00 p.m. You could thus see the alternate screenings in the smaller of the New Oxford's two theatres at, say 5.30 and then see the main feature at 8 or vice versa. The alternative screenings were, Barrie King recalls, mostly made up of 16mm films from the free libraries. The screenings represented, in a sense,an attempt to reclaim some of the ground that the Perth Film Society had covered. Although film buffs like McCrackan and King got a lot out of these screenings they were not popular enough with other members to warrant their continuation.
But in another spiral of rising theatre costs (as the New Oxford established itself as an alternative cinema venue) and declining membership under the impact of video, IFT is shifting once again. 1986 it will be shifting to the theatre in the Alexander Library Building in the new cultural complex. This is a well-equipped 200 seat theatre Being a public utility, its costs are held down and the library is glad to have an organisation like lFT using it. The seating is expected to accommodate the current 200 person membership. It also has the added psychological advantage of not looking empty if there are only 50 people in it for any one screening.
The reduced standing of the IFT over the latter ] of the 1970s and into the 1980s has affected place within people's cinema-going habits. IFT has competition from other sources performing what it once did. I do not mean just commercial exhibitors seeking to till the ground that it had prepared, but also competition from subsidised cinemas such as PIFT (now the Film and TV Institute - FTI) in Fremantle from the early 1970's.
No longer as attractive to distributors, no longer able to afford the price tag put on films by them, IFT has had to content itself with screening the films that others, like the Festival of Perth and the commercial and non-commercial exhibitors, have rejected. Whereas once people did not bother to see Festival of Perth films because they would later turn up at IFT, IFT members now actively seek films out at the festival so as not to miss them. So, too, it is almost as if FTI in Fremantle has taken over the IFT's mantle. It now plays host to films rejected by the Festival committee, as IFT once did, and has return seasons of past Festival successes. FTI also replaced IFT as the venue for National Film Theatre of Australia seasons and then Australian Film Institute seasons. Finally, FTI has also been involved in putting on seasons of 'film classics' which the Perth Film Society and IFT had once done.
But you could not quite say that the FTI in Fremantle has totally taken over IFT's mantle. This is the case because Fremantle is not in a central position. It is not a good location for those living near the city of Perth and an even worse one for those living in the eastern suburbs. Indeed, with the move to the Alexander Library theatrette and the return of life to the inner city area, IFT could well find some increase in its attendance's again. There might be film societies which are older than IFT in Australia, but there are none which have survived so long on a self-sustaining and non-subsidised basis.
IFT's influence can be seen in other quarters. A long term IFT committee member, Michael Brock, now hosts the TV program about recent cinema releases, called Clapperboard. His extensive knowledge of film gained through IFT has allowed him to host this show. It has also helped him to become a successful video library proprietor.
The existence of IFT gave members of its audience like David Roe the enthusiasm for the cinema and the confidence of there being an audience for art cinema that he could take with him when he created the Perth International Film Festival in the early 1970s. Perhaps the most important influence of IFT can be seen in education at both a secondary and tertiary level in WA. School teachers have always made up a good proportion of IFT's audience. They often carried their enthusiasm for film into the classroom and into organising regular extra-curricular film screenings for students. Lastly IFT's legitimation of an interest in the cinema as an art form in its own right went some way to creating the possibility of film and media studies in such institutions as the WA College of Advanced Education, the WA Institute of Technology, and my own institution, Murdoch University.
The Perth International Film Festival (1972-1976)
I have already mentioned that the Festival of Perth screenings have never been a 'proper film festival' in the generally accepted sense of a program of Australian and world premiere films, flown in and out of Perth for one-night-only screenings. The film festival in the Festival of Perth has always been part of something else.
But Perth did have a proper film festival for a number of years. It was started almost single- handedly by David Roe when he was only 23. After the second festival, he worked in with Sylvie Le Clezio. Roe had gained experience in film by helping organise film screenings out of the Student Guild at UWA. Active in student politics and in the student newspaper, he developed a taste for testing censorship provisions. Indeed censorship controversies were to dog the entire life of his festival, contributing more than its share to its ultimate demise.
Today with 'video nasties' and 'pornography' dominating censorship debates, it is hard for us to understand how important the goal of relaxing the existing censorship on films, books and magazines was for a generation of cineastes, intellectuals and student radicals. It should be borne in mind that right into the late 1960s Australia had some of the most draconian censorship laws of any western country. Film society groups, in particular, waged a long campaign to have these censorship provisions loosened up. They wanted to view the sophisticated foreign films - the art films - that were being produced with adult audiences in mind. These were films whose content and images did not conform to the censors' and cinema trade's image of 'films for the family'.
So too, 'bringing sex out into the open' and ideas of liberating the body and the mind held a currency amidst the loosely defined 'counter culture' as a potentially disruptive and utopian, social force. This background enables us to understand the milieux in which Roe both thought through the necessity of a film festival and mapped out the kind of entity it became.
Roe could have tried to establish a film festival on the model of those in Sydney and Melbourne. Such a middle-of-the-road model might have found some more success and stability within a conservative city like Perth, but there would have been problems in trying to ape the much larger Sydney and Melbourne Festivals. These festivals had been going longer and they had a much larger population to draw upon. But also they had cornered the market on the new releases of established film makers like Fellini and Visconti which made these festivals viable. Over a number of years, they had built up their contacts with distributors and established film-makers. Both festivals were locked into the art-house film establishment.
In a real way the Perth Film Festival had to be different from Sydney and Melbourne's in order to secure its own distinction and sources of films in the international film festival milieux. This meant that it had to go for 'less commercial films' despite the fact that there would be less of an audience for them in Perth.
Roe, for his part, probably would not have been interested in aping the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals even if he could have. Instead he had the Perth Film Festival push what was initially conceived of as its own 'independent' and 'highly individualist line' - a line which had become by 1975 a commitment to presenting 'independent cinema'. Probably the best description of the Perth Film Festival and its achievements is provided in the program for its final 1976 offering:
From the start the festival established itself as a champion of independent film. There was no need, we argued, for the festival to duplicate countless others and exist for the glory of the event itself. This Festival has brought to Australian audiences works by film makers not established in this country and has helped create a market for their product. In this, the Festival has been remarkably successful - it is easily the most important influence in encouraging independent distributors in Australia to take on such films. We saw no need, for example, to champion the work of such film makers as Claude Chabrol, Miklos Jancso or Luchino Visconti. As established film-makers, their films would be seen in Australia irrespective of their participation in Festivals. We did, on the other hand, consider it essential to champion the work of Werner Herzog, Jean Eustache, Thomas Koerfer, Claude Farraldo, Peter Von Gunten, Alexander Kluge, Theirry Zeno, Shuji Terayama, Hans Jurgen Syberberg and Roland Klein, to name but a few (p.4).
All through Roe and Le Clezio' s public pronouncements about the festival and why it existed, they persisted in defining its role as a conduit for film distribution. By bringing films into the country and showcasing them at the Festival, they helped their Australian distribution. At first this insistence puzzled me and the funding bodies as well. Whilst all film festivals do serve such a facilitatory function, few actually so explicitly foreground it. There is usually more of an emphasis upon the event in itself and its place in the cultural and social calendar of the city or state it's held in. Indeed Mike Harris' review of the 1975 Festival for The Australian confirms this:
Perhaps the most striking feature of the Perth Film Festival that makes it unlike any other Australian festival that I've attended is the total lack of 'social occasion' that exists among members. They're at the cinema to see a film they want to see: not to be seen seeing it. It's really quite heartening.
I think we can see the emphasis upon the Festival as a showcase for both serious film viewers and film distribution some of the purposes behind its creation. Roe, like the Birmans, the Channells and the Kings before him, was made aware of what was becoming internationally available, but not available in Australia through his reading of overseas magazines hiring of films and his overseas trips. Whilst overseas he became acquainted with a rising generation of film makers whose work was yet to appear in the schedules of the major festivals, so avant garde did it seem. He wanted to see their films shown in Australia. His emphasis upon distribution as the raison d 'etre for the Festival was undoubtedly rooted in a belief in the power and efficacy of these movies in themselves. The films represented a social and aesthetic force that could transcend national boundaries. It was thus enough to have a festival doing its bit for the international circulation of these films.
In the process an innovative and prestigious festival was created. But it was a festival that could not find a way to translate its priorities and understandings to either the provincial cultural ministers or the arts bodies whose conception of what was fundable culture remained firmly fixed on the performing arts. But even if there was an enthusiasm for film on the part of the government and its cultural bodies, it would have been difficult for the Court Liberal Government to condone let alone support it. The Festival enthused over the fact that its program 'collectively reflected the growth of the independent cinema movement, of a cinema free from the control and invidious ideology of big business and mass production.' (p.3, 1975 program). This independent cinema involved some films with a political content antithetical to the government of the day; whilst the targeting of the festival program by religious and moral groups for public demonstrations and outraged letters drew government attention to and eventually action against the festival.
These groups complained about alleged obscenities of sex and violence in Festival films. The government out of their lobbying brought in legislation to limit the Festival's freedom to import and screen films without having to go through the usual censorship procedures because the films were being screened for one night only to those over the age of eighteen. To some extent, Roe and those who reviewed the initial festivals for The West Australian and The Australian did contribute to this. They singled out the fact that the festival was not only showing films such as Bunuel's classic Viridiana (1961) which had been banned in Australia till then, but also films which were still banned, or films which had caused considerable censorship controversies in say Paris or New York for their explicit content or political subject matter.
Roe's emphasis upon censorship needs to be understood not as a means to generate conference publicity, but rather as a reference point for his film society audiences. Having been banned in this context was often a mark of its quality not obscenity. This was certainly true of Viridiana The opposite conception held for the moral guardians who saw the fact a film had been banned, was still banned, and was now showing right here in Perth, as an indication of profligate degeneracy on the part of the festival organisers and their audiences. The Perth Film Festival thus became embroiled in the censorship backlash that had quickly developed against the ensconcement of R-movies in suburban drive-ins and picture theatres. Of course, the Perth Film Festival was an easier target than they were: it was a small organisation showing films to a handful of people over a couple of weeks; pillorying the Festival was much easier than demonstrating outside of drive- ins or sex movie houses for the whole year. The Festival became, in the placards of those demonstrating outside of it, 'The Perth Filth Festival'.
Two films, Theirry's Vase de Noces (The Wedding Trough) and Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses, generated the most controversy. The former, with its scenes of bestiality, had to have its film director and screenwriter/actor explain the film to the audience as a condition for it being allowed into the country to be screened. Oshima's film was, however, the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back for Roe and Le Clezio. The problems they had in getting this Cannes award-winning film screened directly led to their calling off the 1977 Festival.
Censorship discussions tend to cloud the Festival's achievements. Right from its outset Roe placed the screening of new Australian cinema high on his list. It fitted with the Festival's emphasis upon new, up-and-coming film-makers whether they be the Werner Herzogs and Fassbinders from Germany or the Gillian Armstrongs, Phil Noyces, Bruce Beresfords or Fred Schepisis from Australia. The highlight of the first festival was the raucous premiere of The Adventures of Barry McKenzie with its director Bruce Beresford (of Breaker Morant and Tender Mercies fame) present. Barry McKenzie was a rude, outrageous and energetic film from an underground comic strip penned by Barry Humphries. Thereafter the festival regularly showcased Australian cinema, particularly that funded by the Experimental Film Fund (which later became incorporated into the Australian Film Commission's Creative Development Branch). In this way films such as Esben Storm's 27A, Gillian Armstrong's The Singer and the Dancer and Bert Deling's Pure S were shown. Retrospectives became a feature of the Festival. There was, for example in 1975, a retrospective of Alexander Kluge's films. With Kluge coming to the Festival that year, organisers published a monograph of his film The Occasional Work of a Female Slave and the publication was seen as the Festival's contribution to International Women's Year. The British critic Jan Dawson was involved in putting this publication and the programme together.
There were also retrospectives of Merchant-Ivory, Herzog, Fassbinder, recent Japanese and New American cinema. A good proportion of these films were Australian premieres. The Festival even had the occasional World Premiere with Australian films and sometimes with overseas films, such as Louis Malle's Black Moonfor the 1975 festival.
The festival programmed boldly. Part of this was due to its timing in August so soon after the Cannes festival. This allowed it to have access to films before bigger festivals like those in New York and London. Perth Festival audiences thus saw films, which were later to become international art-film classics, before their New York counterparts. So, too, in 1974, the Festival became affiliated to FIFI (The International Federation of Independent Festivals) which made easier the task of locating, selecting and documenting those independently produced films screened.
This August timing could bring with it some problems however. John McCrackan, for instance, feels that it was on at the wrong time of the year for it to maximise its local audience. He reckons that Roe should have given more careful consideration to University and school terms.
In the Australian and international press, the Perth Festival was consistently compared to 'that other little festival - the Edinburgh Festival' - held shortly after it. So. too, it is its program of films that is consistently praised. A 1973 article in the national film publication Lumiere praised its program for being 'as extensive as has ever been shown together in one festival in this country and as up to date with current trends in the cinema as was possible' (October 1973, pp.31-32). This same writer went on to note the fact that the Festival had assumed, whether intentionally or not, the position of a counter- festival to the more established events in Sydney and Melbourne 'in much the same way as the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes and the International Forum of Young Film Makers at Berlin have began to eat away the established events.'
Perhaps the last word on its programming belongs to Bill Warnock:
David Roe's festival was the most interesting film festival in Australia in its heyday for 2 or 3 years. Mainly I think because he really was outside of the mainstream. He was bringing in stuff that others were not even thinking about let alone thinking about bringing in. And the audience, and it was a reasonable sized one, were copping it sweet.
Roe had a good sense about the make up of the program. He had a half a dozen of the big name directors every time and used them to sell the basic package. Then he got all the alternative movies and those movies from the younger directors (some of whom he brought to Perth) to fill it out.
The near universal praise the festival received in film circles was not matched by praise for its overall standard of presentation. Over its existence it screened in different suburban cinemas like the Cygnet at Como, the Regal at Subiaco, and The Windsor at Nedlands. Often projection facilities and projectionists were not up to scratch. In one case antiquated equipment damaged a film. In another reels were shown in the wrong order. Some films were shown in the wrong ratio. For one festival, guests were put up in compromised accommodation for want of finance. These problems were due to the fact that the entire festival was run on such a shoestring budget. Roe subsidised the festival out of his own pocket. The federal money he received was often tied to the Australian part of it and could not be used for basic activities like theatre hire and publicity. Although the WA Arts Council provided money from the 1973 festival on, the money that it provided was never enough. Memberships could not provide enough revenue either. The Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals, on the other hand, have large theatres as their venues. These venues allow for three times the audience than at the Perth Festival's suburban cinemas. These problems were compounded by the increasingly strained relations between the government of the day and the festival organisers over the make-up of the festival's program. Against this backdrop, accusations and counter-accusations were made over the levels of funding and whether the organisers had or had not presented their grant application in on time to the Arts Council.
Immediately after the 1976 Festival, Roe and Le Clezio seem to have decided to go for broke in terms of putting the Festival on a firm financial standing of substantial government support. They wanted to have decent screening facilities, to be able to afford a better venue and to afford greater publicity. They also wanted to be remunerated for what they had been doing for free up to that point. Also they needed to clear the debts hanging over them from the 1976 Festival. Their claim for a subsidy from the WA Government to the tune of $40,000 seems to have been met with derision. Indeed Roe claimed in his press statement announcing the abandonment of the 1977 festival in March of that year that the Minister for Cultural Affairs had told him that the responsibilities of the WA Arts Council did not include film. The Minister later claimed that he did not remember saying this.
With the cancellation of the 1977 Festival, attempts were made to refloat the festival idea. PIFT organised a mini-Festival in 1977 to keep the festival idea alive and to help pay off some of the accumulated debts from the previous year's Festival. The mini-Festival was a success and the debt was totally repaid. The stage seemed set for a resumption of the Perth International Film Festival in 1978. Roe had been able to secure the accreditation from FIFI for a year despite it not going ahead. And the WA Arts Council had a new director, Timothy Mason, who was alive to the significance of the Festival as a cultural event in a capital city in a way that his predecessors were not. Indeed the Council offered the Festival over double its 1976 level of funding - $10,000. Roe had also been able to raise an additional $10,000 from the private sources that had backed him in the past, such as the TV stations. But the Arts Council's grant was conditional upon an equal amount coming from the Australian Film Commission, which was not forthcoming. So Roe and Le Clezio once again called off the Festival and took the name of the Perth International Film Festival with them.
PIFT took over the running of the festival idea. It launched a bigger and more extensive mini- Festival that and the following year, showing material from the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals. Both were again successes. This enabled PIFT to attempt its own full scale first- release festival in 1980. It called it the Indian Ocean Film Festival. Looking for a way to make it a singular event in both the Australian and International Festival calendar, it focused upon Asian cinema in conjunction with the more traditional Europen cinema output. To help with the make-up of the program, the Festival organisers obtained the services of David Overby - the Paris correspondent for the American Film Institute's publication American Film. Despite promotional efforts, the Festival was not a success. Its failure killed off the festival idea for a number of years afterwards. As Bill Warnock recalls:
PIFT made a series of disastrous mistakes. We just did not get it right at all. Somebody thought of the idea of an Asian Film Festival and we went out to the Oxford Theatre which was in a pathetic state at the time. And although some rather good things came out from France and there were some nice movies in it, the Festival was very badly sold and very badly packaged. There were no big name films for a package to sell people the basic cost of the Festival. We tried to do it on obscure films.
Failure it might have been, but ahead of its time it certainly was. One wonders what the fate of such a festival would be today with the increased teaching of Asian languages, the rising interest in Asian culture and the perceived importance by many in industry and government that Perth become Australia's gateway to Asia. So too, the Indian Ocean Arts Festival has been running on a biennial basis for a number of years now and it is steadily gathering more momentum.
Certainly Roe and Le Clezio were gifted entrepreneurs as their subsequent careers in Melbourne and Sydney demonstrate. Perhaps the Festival under their control could have gone on in its own fashion with them using 'a couple of big names to get people in but basically running an avant-garde line.' But it would still have been difficult. The avant-garde (whether modernist or post-modernist) has been slow to inflect Australian, let alone Perth. cultural life. And it will always be difficult to keep organisers in Perth who, when faced with difficulties and limited opportunities in WA, and, having firmly established themselves nationally, switch to the Sydney and Melbourne festivals to take up positions in the much larger, better paid and wider film and TV community there. This is a problem the Sydney and Melbourne festivals do not have. Their long- term directors, David Stratton and Erwin Rado, had nowhere else to go: expect perhaps overseas. Moving on for them meant leaving the country: something few Australians - the Clive James and Germaine Greers notwithstanding - are prepared to do for any length of time.
The Festival of Perth Film Festival in the 1970s and 1980s When David Blenkinsop took over the directorship of the Festival of Perth in 1977 quite a change came over it. This came about by the efforts of Birman who persuaded the Government to provide special funding for the establishment of a full-time directorship and staff for the Festival of Perth. The Court Government agreed to this arrangement especially in view of the indication by the UWA Senate that it intended to cease operating the Festival of Perth on Birman's retirement. The UWA could not see how Birman's successor, as Head of University Extension Services, could run both the Festival of Perth and the University's Adult Education program at the same time.
Blenkinsop, unlike Birman, had full-time staff working all year round on just the Festival. He also had a big enough budget to be able to afford to send Sherry Hopkins to the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals - something Birman could not afford to do very often with his own film assistant and Festival Publicity Officer, Pixie Angel. Blenkinsop is generally credited with transforming the Festival of Perth into the corporately-sponsored International Arts Festival that it is today. Birman, who had run the Festival almost single-handedly since its inception, provided a significant platform from which the Festival could be expanded.
When Sherry Hopkins went over from Birman's staff to the new Festival organisation, Blenkinsop utilised her knowledge of films and gave her special responsibility for that area. As Festival Publicity Officer, she is the only member of the Festival Film Committee who works for the Festival. The other members of the Committee - lan Cearns, Diana Warnock and John McCrackan - provide their services free.
Of all the committees in the Festival, the film committee does the most work. This is because it now tries to see as many films as possible in order to make up the best possible program. A couple of different reasons for previewing have been advanced. John McCrackan feels that it was a necessary step to take because the British and American reviews of films had proved over the years to be a somewhat unreliable guide to film selection. As he put it to me:
Quite often a film really did not live up to expectation. We found that the British critics would go overboard about something - but the film was not really all that good. Somehow something happens to films when they come to Australia. They tend to change a little bit.
Support for this view comes from Sherry Hopkins. The Festival was offered the Academy Award winning Russian film Moscow Doesn't Believe in Tears about three years ago. The committee previewed the film and knocked it back. Hopkins says 'it just was not good enough for the Festival'. In the days when films were selected on a film review basis. this film would have been an automatic selection. McCrackan also claims that extensive previewing was made possible by the presence of Sherry Hopkins. someone within the Festival organisation. She is knowledgeable about film and committed to it. Diana and Bill Warnock, for their part, believe that previewing was also brought about by Blenkinsop who wanted to ensure the most successful possible film festivals. As Bill Warnock put it to me:
Blenkinsop recognised that the profits made from the festival could support other festival events. So he then began to send Sherry Hopkins to the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals to look at all the films screened there.
Previewing immediately started to stabilise audience attendance figures. Up to 1977 it had been the program audiences attended - after then it was simply the fact of the film program being on. Sherry Hopkins attributes this turnaround to from 1983 Festival of Perth film programme the audience's confidence in the quality of the program that previewing has provided. From the 1977 audience of 21,000 to the 1984 of 52,000, and 1985 of 65,000, there has been a steady increase in audience attendance.
Hopkins, as a result, sees more films than any other member of the committee. At these festivals she picks out the best, the most popular and the most talked about films for the rest of the committee to choose from. Whilst there, she talks to the distributors who brought the films to the festival and has them fly their films into Perth and out again for previewing. The committee saw 68 films from which they chose 20.
At first the committee previewed at the UWA's New Octagon Theatre, PIFT (FTI), occasionally at The Village Cinema, and even in Barry Barkla's garage. The inconvenience of these locations for previewing has resulted in 35mm and 16mm previewing facilities being installed within the Festival office.
Occasionally, the Film Festival committee has films imported especially for the Festival. But for the most part it relies upon selecting films that are already in Australia - whether they are in Australia for the festivals or are in commercial release in art cinemas like the Valhalla and the Dendy in Sydney and Melbourne. As McCrackan points out, bringing films into the country can be risky and fraught with anxiety:
Normally if distributors don't have a print for us to look at by late August or early September then we don't consider it. If the prints are not in the country by then there's a good chance that they won't arrive by January. We have taken chances on a film's coming into the country before but have had to either rely upon the good will of the censors to have it pushed through by them; or to have the film come in under a customs bond and then go out again.
But relying upon what is in Australia by August does have its disadvantages. To a certain extent this means that the Festival is stuck with what is commercially available. Quite often the Festival gets fairly old prints that have been screened around the country by the time that February comes along. As McCrackan puts it:
A film can arrive in Australia in March, be available for preview in April or May and be still doing the rounds till February of the following year. It can mean a less than perfect print.
If the Festival is not in a position to influence what is brought into Australia, it can influence what remains in Australia from the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals. It should be borne in mind that a lot of the films that are shown at these festivals are not subsequently taken by Australian film distributors. When a distributor finds that the Festival of Perth is interested in taking a picture, s/he is more likely to feel confident about buying its Australian distribution rights. This leads Bill Warnock to suggest that the Festival actually 'increases the number of high quality pictures to which distributors in Sydney and Melbourne can commit themselves.' For distributors of so-called art-films, a Festival of Perth sale can mean a lot of money. In some cases a distributor gets the whole of his or her Australian distribution costs back from a Festival of Perth screening.
One thing that has changed for the Festival though, is the greater competition from commercial exhibitors for 'Festival films'. With the American film industry producing titles such as Birdy and Paris, Texas, and with competition from art-films in theatres such as The Windsor and The Village, the festival can miss out on titles to both mainstream and art cinema exhibitors. It is partly for this reason that the Festival continues to insist upon not showing films that have had a release of any sort in Perth. Whereas first release had once simply meant just getting films to Perth that had not been shown, it now means having a degree of exclusivity over the films that are shown. The Festival committee has lost, to commercial exhibitors, a number of badly wanted titles over the last few years, though they believed them to be potential Festival hits rather than straight commercial hits. These films include Birdy for 1986, Paris, Texas for 1985, Carmen for 1984 and The Tin Drum. When these films were taken up by mainstream exhibitors like Hoyts, Ace or Cinema City they did badly. Bill Warnock would even caution distributors:
If I was a distributor in this country and I had the opportunity of showing a film at the Festival of Perth for one week or giving it to the commercial houses, I'd generally make more money going to the festival for a week. Take The Tin Drum. The festival wanted it. The commercial distributors thought it might go so they took it - and they changed their minds about it. It was released in the Capri and only seen by around 55 people. If the festival had shown it, some 7,000 would have seen it. The producer is being disadvantaged by the commercial distributors half-baked attitude to good quality films which really belong to the festival audience.
The basis of Warnock' s contention is the guaranteed audience of one week that the Festival provides. People have been going to the Festival now for years and so have their children. It has become ensconced as part of their summer routine. Its success is undoubtedly aided by the heat-wave conditions that often occur in Perth over February: it is just simply too hot to remain indoors. And every year the Festival gathers the same university-educated audience and with that it gains a certain sort of reputation in the public mind. As Diana Warnock puts it, 'Everyone says oh! the festival's on, and down they go.'
This reputation places added pressure upon the committee. Because audiences trust their judgement, the committee feels obligated to maintain that trust. Diana Warnock suggests that there are some older people who do not go to the movies except at the Festival. John McCrackan feels that the Festival audience is mostly made up of people who are interested in movies per se. Yet it certainly is the case that the Festival does have its own audience. And 1985 saw its biggest audience - despite the in-roads that video has made upon movie receipts in the commercial cinema.
Examining festival programs over the years of its operation. it is surprising how persistent certain categories of films have remained on its line-up. This suggests that its audience can be subdivided into a number of different audiences which are then catered to in the overall festival program. Diana Warnock speaks of there being an audience for Italian and French films especially. Over the years she has noted that a French movie will be popular, even when it is not particularly good. She also reckons there is a smaller audience for Spanish, German and Jewish films on the one hand, and for ballet, opera and comedy films on the other. Because of their long experience in programming for the festival, the committee see themselves as good judges of the sort of thing that is likely to be popular. Diana Warnock says that members of the committee often take bets with each other as to which movie will be the most popular. But both John McCrackan and Diana Warnock insist that questions of popularity are not the only consideration in film selection. There are some films in each program that the committee feels ought to be there. As with any festival committee, the program has to be thrashed out against the backdrop of their conflicting opinions about the films previewed. The committee members I spoke to each expressed their regrets that some of their individual choices had not made it through the rest of the committee. To counteract this, as well as to accommodate the fact that in some years there is a surfeit of good films and in others a dearth, it is becoming more common for the Festival to ask distributors to hold a film off to the following year for consideration.
The film festival in the Festival of Perth is a unique event for Australia. It is the only arts festival that has a successful film festival attached to it. Once David Blenkinsop looked for corporate sponsorship of the film festival, he did not have a lot of trouble finding it: the film festival had long been one of the most popular events. Undoubtedly attendance's at the film festival have been helped along by the extended coverage of the Festival of Perth that The West Australian now gives. Bill Warnock recalls a time when he was in charge of publicity for the Festival when he could not get The West to provide much coverage. He credits Blenkinsop with turning the paper's attitude around. By popularising the overall Festival of Perth he was able to sell the idea of both extended press coverage, and government and corporate support. If The West did not always give a lot of coverage of other Festival events, it has given the festival films a priority review. Jill Crommelin and Katharine Brisbane were the principal festival film reviewers for many years. Birman recalls how commercial exhibitors resented this. This coverage can work in an adverse fashion sometimes. Both Diana Warnock and John McCrackan insist that a bad review in The West can mean awful box office receipts for a festival film. Each felt that there were some films which were misunderstood by newspaper film reviewers.
Before finishing this survey of film societies and festivals, some mention should be made of the Bentley Film Club. It has operated out of the Hollis Theatre at the Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT) since 1975. This club is important because it has run the Festival of Science Fiction and Fantasy Cinema since 1980. This festival initially began in conjunction with the WA Science Fiction Association who were hosting the 19th Australian Science Fiction Convention in Perth that year. Held in July, it piggy-backed on the publicity and interest generated by the Convention.
The film club had successfully staged a Festival of Australian Cinema over October 1979 and were looking around for another Festival idea. The sci- fi film festival idea received impetus from the evidence of science fiction films produced by successful Saturday afternoon sci-fi screenings at PIFT. These were organised by the WA Sci-Fi- Association in November and December of 1979. Indeed these origins are revealed in the fact that the festival began by just calling itself a Science Fiction Cinema Festival.
The addition of Fantasy to the title came in 1982 as the festival was growing in size and finding a wider and seemingly inexhaustible summer- time audience. A measure of this expansion is the increasing number of films screened: in 1980 - 30; 1981 - 50; 1982 - 70; 1984 - 100; 1985 - 150. Beginning as a ten-day event, the festival is now held over 32 days from late January to late February. The club estimated its 1985 festival audience to be in excess of 15,000 and has, since 1984, claimed the festival to be a landmark in its own right 'as the largest specialist film festival in Australiasia.'
The festival is programmed for the most part around once only screenings. There are, however, a handful of films, anticipated to be in heavy demand, which are screened more than once. Around 80% of its titles are new to the festival, whilst the other 20% is made up of successful titles from previous years. The ratio of old to new seems to be changing: in 1985 the ratio had become 60% new: 40% old, due to the increased size of the festival and the exhaustion of the pool of suitable titles. This recycling of popular titles enabled audiences to either see the titles they missed out on the previous year(s), or wanted to see again. In this way, the festival has got around some of the problems that 'proper' festivals have of not being able to take advantage of word of mouth on successful films. The festival program is a mixture of some old - but mostly recent - science fiction and fantasy films. Most of the films are in English and made in the USA; a lot have at some time or other been screened in Perth. There is, however, a growing proportion of films which are being screened for the first time in Perth and, in a handful of cases, some films are having their Australian premiere at the festival. The popularity of the festival has given its programmers ample opportunity to experiment. In 1981 for example, a 1950s retrospective of science fiction films was programmed and each program since has had a handful of 'classics'. 1985 saw the incorporation of a number of episodes from 1960s TV series such as Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Night Gallery and Star Trek.
The organisers of the festival see it as something of an underground event that is 'shunned by the media establishment' and 'ignored by the cultural purists.' It is, they say, a festival for the 'everyday person - not cultural elitists.'
The festival was made possible by the experience in and knowledge of the cinema obtained by its organisers through setting up regular film screenings for WAIT students. The Bentley Film Club began as the Biology Film Club. Ken Gibbons and a handful of other students approached the Student Guild for money to launch regular film screenings for students. The Guild offered them a loan of around $2,000 which it expected to be paid back. The club thus charged admission - unlike other student film screenings. This enabled them to repay the loan with interest. Using free WAIT facilities such as the Hollis Theatre and the office facilities that any other student club is entitled to, they were able to progressively increase their number of film screenings from one afternoon a week to four days a week with two sessions on Saturday. They were also able to increase the weeks that they screened films from during teaching to the present situation of 50 weeks a year and over 600 different films being screened (including the festival films). They presently charge $2.50 for a double feature. The club has also acquired its own equipment from the reserve it has built up. It owns its own 35 mm projector and PA system and has trained a number of projectionists. The club has also upgraded the Hollis Theatre into a better venue for screening and viewing films.
This WAIT association has not been without its difficulties, however. During the early 1980s the WAIT Guild, realising how profitable film screenings had become for the club, tried to gain control over them. They wanted to channel some of the funds generated by these screenings into other student activities. This attempt was unsuccessful. The club has, however, responded to criticisms made of it by subsidising the screenings for courses on campus, funding student projects and providing screening facilities for on- and off-campus groups.
As the club's 1985 program puts their WAIT association:
With WAIT being an institute of technology and scientific research bordering on tomorrow, but containing many humanities courses: what could be a more appropriate blending of culture and science than science fiction and fantasy cinema?
Like David Roe at UWA, Ken Gibbons was given a base in a tertiary institution from which experience within and knowledge of the industry was built up through programming film screenings for fellow students. Roe is now a producer in Sydney and Gibbons has a theatre in Geraldton, which he goes up to each weekend to screen movies, while retaining a prominent influence in the Bentley Film Club.
The festival Gibbons runs cuts across commercial and art cinema categories both in terms of how it programs and what it programs. In many ways the festival is little more than a concentration of the repertory program the club operates throughout the year - only this time it runs every day. Undoubtedly this connection with its other screenings has helped the festival to maintain a continuity of audiences from past and present WAIT students. It has also enabled the Hollis Theatre to become something of a community picture theatre around the Bentley area. What is most fascinating about the festival is the sheer fascination with the special effects of sci-fi and horror that it exhibits: the metaphor is no longer one of an international film culture imaged by various national cinemas - but rather of an international currency of images transcending national boundaries (mostly provided by Hollywood) about the future and about horror.
Since completing this essay, John Birman has drawn my attention to the work done by Michael Brock, as an ABC film reviewer in the 1960s, in popularising the Festival of Perth films. Birman also feels that some mention should be made of the attempt by a commercial exhibitor - David Pye of Ace Theatres - to introduce to Perth audiences the quality films made by the American Film Theatre in the early 1970s. Although the first season at a cinema in Hay Street was a success, the second was not. This venture relied on subscriptions rather than ticket sales at the door.
Birman, John (1953-1976) 'The Festival of Perth', Studies in Continuing Education, No.5, Dec. 1980, pp.10-32.
Dawson, Jan (ed.) (August 1975) Alexander Kluge and the Occasional Work of a Female Slave, Perth: Perth Film Festival.
Festival of Science Fiction and Fantasy Cinemas Programs (I 980-1 985).
Harris, Mike (13/8/1976) 'Programming on a Razor's Edge', The Australian.
Indian Ocean Film Festival Program (1980)
Little, Roy (29/4/l966) ~Film Societies in Western Australia', The Critic, pp.1-2.
Perth International Film Festival Programs (1972-1976).
Press Release by David Roe, 28/4/1977.
'On the West Coast', (Oct.1973) Lumiere, pp.31-32.
And selected articles from The West Australian, The Australian, Variety and Showbusiness.
This article would not have been possible if a number of people had not been prepared to give up their valuable time to be interviewed. Special thanks are due to Barrie King, Diana and Bill Warnock, Irma Whitford, John McCrackan, Mark Naglazas, Sherry Hopkins and Grant Stone.