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Over the past century Melbourne has enjoyed a thriving film culture. The city boasts a large number of commercial and art cinema theatres, the Melbourne Cinematheque and the Australian Centre of the Moving Image (at Federation Square); it is also the home of the annual Melbourne International Film Festival (founded in 1952) and the St Kilda Film Festival (since 1984). Documentary and short film production have flourished, but feature film production has been discontinuous and fraught with problems. Aspiring movie producers from 1918 to 1970 encountered enormous obstacles: the dominance of Hollywood films in local distribution and exhibition; the lack of government support for the industry; and the exodus of local talent to better-endowed studios in Sydney. Today, despite State and federal government support for the industry, the prohibitive costs of movie production limit the number of projects that can be made locally. Talented local film-makers and performers have been lured to both Sydney and Hollywood. However, at certain periods, both before World War I and after 1970, Melbourne buzzed with creative spurts of movie-making.

The oldest film in the Australian National Film and Sound Archive was shot in Melbourne in 1896. French cinematographer and Lumière agent Marius Sestier, together with Australian cameraman Walter Barnett, attended the Spring Racing Carnival at Flemington racecourse, filming Newhaven winning both the Victoria Derby and the Melbourne Cup. The following year, the Limelight Department at the Salvation Army headquarters in Bourke Street, which produced visual aids to help spread the Gospel, acquired its first movie camera, a Cinematographe (which functioned also as a movie projector) and began production. This development was fostered by the technical prowess and pioneering vision of Joseph Perry, a Salvation Army captain brought from Ballarat to Melbourne to found the Limelight Brigade, and the arrival in 1896 of Commandant Herbert Booth (son of the Salvation Army founder and enthusiast for new technology). The War cry of 16 October 1897 reported, 'Our lantern [slide] expert, Adjutant Perry, has succeeded, after many exceedingly difficult experiments, in reproducing a Melbourne street scene from Cinematographe films developed by himself. This is very commendable indeed, and we may look for big things in the future from this wonderful and delicate instrument'.

Between 1897 and 1909, the Limelight Department, renamed the Biorama Co. in 1902, produced around 400 films. These included documentaries and staged melodramas, secular and religious films. With the first equipped film studio in Australia, it not only made promotional films for the Army's own purposes, but also received commissions from the governments of New South Wales, Victoria and New Zealand to film the Federation festivities, the opening of the first federal parliament and royal visit in 1901. The film segments of the religious epic Soldiers of the Cross (an ingenious mix of slides, films, oratory and music) were shot at the Murrumbeena Girls Home, the Richmond Baths and the Bourke Street studio, with performances by Army cadets and girls from the Home. Following its premiere at the Melbourne Town Hall on 13 September 1900, to the enthusiastic acclaim of an audience of 4000, this epic multimedia event toured Australia and New Zealand. In 1909, at its new film studio in Caulfield, the company produced a remake entitled Heroes of the Cross and another religious epic called The Scottish covenanters. Unfortunately, the newly arrived Army commissioner, deeming this activity frivolous and 'incompatible with true Salvationism', closed down the Limelight Department soon after.

Joseph Perry's sons Orrie and Reg worked as cameramen on the first feature-length fiction film made in Melbourne, The story of the Kelly gang (1906). Produced jointly by theatrical entrepreneurs the Tait brothers and two chemists, Millard Johnson and William Gibson, who were pioneer film exhibitors and processors, it re-enacted highlights from the bushranging career of the Kelly brothers in Heidelberg, Rosanna and Mitcham. The silent film was accompanied by live commentary, music and sound effects when exhibited in the theatre. It was extraordinarily successful, playing to packed houses at the Athenaeum for five weeks before moving to other Melbourne theatres, Sydney, Adelaide, Queensland, New Zealand and finally England, where it was touted as 'the longest film ever made'. But the partisan stance of the film and its glorification of outlawry disturbed Victorian State authorities. In 1907 screenings were banned in Kelly country, and in 1912 the ban was extended to the whole State.

The producers of the Kelly film formed Amalgamated Pictures in 1911 and built the first luxury movie theatre in Australia, the Majestic in Flinders Street, but channelled their energies into the exhibition of foreign films rather than local film production, which soon waned. The Tait brothers turned their attention to theatre, and assumed a dominant role in the firm J.C. Williamson, which though a theatrical firm, briefly engaged in film production. During World War I they produced two war melodramas and adapted some popular stage plays for the screen.

In the 1920s most Australian films were made in Sydney, but one notable exception was Jewelled nights (1925), an adaptation of a novel by Marie Bjelke-Petersen, relating the romantic adventures of a young socialite who flees from an unwanted marriage and, disguised as a boy, goes prospecting in rugged north-west Tasmania. Backed by E.J. Carroll and other Melbourne businessmen, it was a star vehicle for Louise Lovely, an Australian actress who had achieved success in Hollywood. The Glaciarium skating rink and the Wirth's Circus building, the Olympia, were converted into makeshift film studios for this production.

In 1930 a former variety performer and film exhibitor, Frank Thring, converted the fire-damaged premises of His (later Her) Majesty's Theatre into Australia's first talkie studio, equipping it with the most up-to-date cameras and sound-recording system. Between 1931 and 1934, Efftee Productions were prolific, turning out three shorts a month and four features a year. Unfortunately, Thring used the studio largely to film theatrical performances, and his features are marred by static camera work, excessive dialogue and undisciplined direction. Their commercial appeal relied on the use of such stage stars as Pat Hanna, George Wallace and Dorothy Brunton. However, the company also made some fine Australian travelogues and a series of nature shorts on Australian fauna, which were the brainchild of naturalist David Fleay, head of the Australian section at the Melbourne Zoo and later founder of the Healesville Sanctuary. The premature death of Frank Thring senior in 1936, combined with the erection of National Studios at Pagewood in Sydney, effectively put an end to feature production in Melbourne for the next 30 years and terminated the enthusiastic genesis of sound film in the southern capital. However, documentary and newsreel production continued. In addition to government-sponsored actuality film-making, Herschell's Films in Jolimont produced documentaries from the 1920s to the 1960s.

In 1959 Hollywood director Stanley Kramer shot On the beach in Melbourne. Based on Neville Shute's novel, it centred on American survivors of a nuclear holocaust finding themselves at the ends of the earth (Melbourne) and starred Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. As if in retaliation against dismissive comments about Melbourne attributed to Ava Gardner, the city was soon to witness a renaissance in theatre and film. In 1958 the newly founded Australian Film Institute staged its first annual Australian Film Awards; in 1966 a film school was established at Swinburne Technical College in Hawthorn; in 1967 the long-running film magazine Cinema papers began publication; in 1969 the Prime Minister, John Gorton, announced the establishment of the government-funded Experimental Film Fund (1970-77); in 1971 the Melbourne Film-makers Co-operative was formed to foster independent and experimental film-making. Throughout the 1960s, theatre collectives in Carlton experimented with rough theatre in distinctly Australian accents. In this climate, the so-called 'ocker cinema' was born.

After a shaky start, director Tim Burstall achieved commercial success with three racy and anarchic projects employing the talents of the ocker experimental theatre: Stork (1971), Alvin Purple (1973) and Petersen (1974). In the mid-1970s, Richard Frankland, Fred Schepisi and John Duigan made their directorial debuts with The true story of Eskimo Nell (1975), The devil's playground (1976) and The trespassers (1976) respectively. All three went on to distinguished national and international careers. In 1977 Bruce Beresford directed The getting of wisdom, an adaptation of the novel by Henry Handel Richardson, using Loreto Mandeville Hall and Methodist Ladies' College as school locations. Beresford returned to Melbourne to shoot the screen version of David Williamson's play The club in 1980, using Victoria Park, home of the Collingwood Football Club, as the chief location.

Postwar immigrants from Europe contributed to the growth, increasing sophistication and diversity of film production in Melbourne. Before the so-called 'film renaissance', Italian photographer Giorgio Mangiamele established his own film studio in Carlton, trained actors and made his own short art movies, including Cannes prize-winner Clay (1965). Dutch photographer Paul Cox began making feature-length art movies with middle-class Melbourne suburban settings in 1976; his steady output included Lonely hearts (1982), Man of flowers (1983) and My first wife (1984). Rosa Colosimo produced and Michael Pattinson directed two teen movies set in Melbourne's Italian community, both starring Rosa's son Vince: Moving out (1983) and Street hero (1984). Greek-Australian Nadia Tass, together with partner David Parker, made a delightful caper movie called Malcolm in 1986, making use of Melbourne's tram networks, and went on to make Ricky and Pete (1988) and The big steal (1990) using various Melbourne locations. Greek and Turkish immigrants figured strongly as characters in the crazy comedies Death in Brunswick (directed by John Ruane, 1991) and Nirvana Street murder (directed by Aleksi Vellis, 1991), while the central characters of The heartbreak kid (directed by Michael Jenkins, 1993) and Head on (directed by Ana Kokkinos, 1998) were Australians with Greek families.

Graduates of Swinburne Film School and, more recently, the Victorian College of the Arts have also contributed to Melbourne's film output. With limited equipment and funding, pioneer teachers at Swinburne Brian Robinson and Nigel Buesst made modest features in the early 1970s. Later graduates, blessed with State Government support, were able to undertake more ambitious projects. Richard Lowenstein (Strikebound, 1984; Dogs in space, 1987); Ann Turner (Celia, 1989; Dallas doll, 1995); Solrun Hoaas (Aya, 1991); Geoffrey Wright (Romper stomper, 1992); Lawrence Johnson (Life, 1996); Emma-Kate Croghan (Love and other catastrophes, 1996); and Ana Kokkinos all moved on to feature production after making impressive short films as students.

Television comedy has served as another training ground for Melbourne film-makers. In 1975 Crawford Productions made a movie out of their popular television series The box, and the university-educated team of comics who worked on The D-generation, The late show and Frontline produced the popular hit The castle (directed by Rob Sitch, 1997), a local variation on the 'ocker suburban grotesque' genre of films, in which the Aussie battler triumphs over big business and government bureaucracy.

Inspired by the success of the Fox Studios in Sydney and the Warner Studios on the Gold Coast in attracting offshore productions, the Victorian Government endorsed the construction of a large studio complex at Docklands, in preference to a more modest proposal. The Docklands studios have, unfortunately, not attracted overseas investment and are too expensive for local productions, so the decision to support this ambitious project has been widely criticised as having been detrimental to Melbourne film-makers.

Freda Freiberg

Moran, Albert, and Tom O'Regan (eds), The Australian screen, Penguin, Melbourne, 1989. Details
Pike, Andrew, and Ross Cooper, Australian film 1900-1977, Oxford University Press in association with the Australian Film Institute, Melbourne, 1980. Details