Bob Ellis: Keynote Speech at the 19th SFS Festival

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On 12th December, esteemed Australian writer and filmmaker, Bob Ellis gave the keynote address to a packed Chauvel Cinema in Paddington to kick off the final session of the 19th Sydney Film School Festival. Here are his words of inspiration.

“When I began first making films in Sydney – a drama called Who Travels Alone about an Australian soldier dying in a nameless Asian war and in a steamy, muddy jungle remembering home, in April, 1960 – it was with a borrowed Arriflex and short ends stolen from Cinesound by my cameramen Mick Molloy, later to shoot Barry Lyndon, and Peter Hannam, later to shoot 2001 – -A Space Odyssey, and it was a kind of weekend outing, with no thought of funding, or even release.

Films were made then for love, by young men like Bruce Beresford, who at fourteen persuaded the Australian army to lend him two tanks for his anti-war film, and Chris McGill, who at twenty made After Proust in two weekends with borrowed carriages and parasols in Centennial Park, and belonged, as a rule, to Communist-connected Russian film appreciation societies and screened Ivan The Terrible Part One and The Cranes Are Flying a lot, and The Overcoat, and the Sydney University Film Society which favoured the Marx Brothers, Bob and Bing, and the earlier Pommy comedies of Peter Sellers.

All of us, of course, awaited eagerly the new subtitled films at the Gala and the Lido and their refreshing nude sequences. One Summer of Happiness comes to mind, Black Orpheus and The Virgin Spring. You can never appreciate how, in those days, in Les Murray’s words, ‘Film was our spare religion’. We awaited each new Bergman offering with the same elated suspense as our ancestors awaited each new Papal Bull. What is the answer, Ingmar? What is the answer this time?

Bergman, and Antonioni, Renais, Alf Sjoberg, Renoir and Marcel Camus seemed to comprise all wisdom, and Fellini to be an embracing Shakespearian universe that we preferred to our own memories of childhood, wartime, circuses and acrobats and clowns.

We were ‘opened up’ by cinema in those times as a previous generation had ben by Marxist activism, and a later one by drugs. If the Seventh Seal had meaning, then 2001 had, wow, total meaning, and the films of 1968, In The Heat Of The Night, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, 2001, and the dreary, Oscar winning Oliver! seemed a tumult of possibility, a gateway to a new world.

And, in Australia, it was.

Bazza McKenzie, Libido, The Cars That Ate Paris, Sunday Too Far Away, Caddie, Newsfront, Don’s Party, Alvin Purple – I had credits on only three of those films – opened us up and internationalised us as never before, Newsfront was made for four hundred thousand dollars, and the great breakthrough war film Breaker Morant, dizzyingly, for eight hundred thousand dollars, and in each if the above a PROFIT achieved by the film adoring students of the Russian classics who were, then, the entire film industry.

Then 10BA occurred, and the lawyers and accountants got in. The Treasurer, John Howard, decreed that you could write off 150 per cent of your profits and 50 per cent of your losses, but each film must be done by June 30, which meant all films were begun, at the latest, the previous October, and everyone was bidding for the same ten cinematographers whose prices quadrupled. Soon four and five million were being spent by tax-avoiding dentists on a two-page script, and shysters demanding actors improvise, or fight to the death a savage koala, and from this absurd inflation of cost, dumbing down of standards, and the unique and typical two-faced creation of John Howard, we’ve never truly recovered.

State film funding bodies sprang up, and, under Keating, a film bank, run by Kim Williams, called the Australian Film Finance Corporation. But never fully addressed the big budgets – Oscar and Lucinda with Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes, cost eighteen million and lost the lot – and the rapid migration overseas of our better directors, actors, editors, designers and cinematographers, to work on sometimes demeaning projects in Hollywood. Simon Wincer made The Lighthorsemen here, and Free Willy there, Fred Schepisi made Jimmy Blacksmith here, and Mr Baseball there, and IQ, a wacky romantic comedy about Albert Einstein administrating the difficulties of two young lovers. I proposed at one time what I called a Judas Clause for all Australian directors who trained here and did well overseas, that they send one half of their income over a million dollars each year, home to Australia, which made them, and got nothing back from them.

This migration, however, did less harm than one might think. The film schools disgorged each year considerable talent, and the ever-cheapening new technologies empowered almost anyone with half a dozen friends to make a ten or twenty-minute film that was adored at Tropfest or Dungog or the Sydney and Melbourne festivals. Each year in the 1990s with relentless predictability brought out one or two excellent features, and three or four good ones, and five or six … acceptable ones. Ten years ago there were, by my count, five hundred good young directors viewable in the archives of Tropfest, and shows like Frontline, and The Games, and, lately, A Moody Christmas, displaying a level of international excellence that left me in no doubt that the ‘industry’ was in no trouble, though everybody in it was pretty often starving.

It is absurd, for instance, that the director of Australia’s best … or second best movie, Beneath Hill Sixty, is broke and in need of a feed most times I ring him, and actors as good as Brandon Burke, Simon Burke and Bill Charlton and Drew Forsythe and Amanda Bishop and Heather Mitchell and Laurel McGowan had interims of struggle in the last ten years.

But the answer, probably, is in this room. A vow of poverty, a group of friends, an eight hundred dollar camera, an editing computer, some NIDA actors or WAAPA actors more keen to work for nothing, than wait for the phone to ring, and a co-operative sprit like we had in 1960, a desire to make good things, now. Now, and not waiting for a committee to dally over a third or fourth draft of a script while your enthusiasm drains down into your boots, is, I’m sure, a fair description of many here tonight, awaiting the announcement of the first or second prize, and commiserating afterwards with a gang of fellow travellers, fellow pilgrims, to the Shrine of Godard and Truffaut or Tarantino or, God help us, Baz Luhrmann, and the glories that await the pure of heart and the rich of soul, on Oscar night, or BAFTA night, or … the Logies, or the Dungog wreath of honour, or something less. It is a journey worth taking, in the first or second flush of youth, to the foothills of the Matterhorn that beckons us up to amazement and bliss and immortality, or not.

It is the answer, and the only answer, and it is in this room.”

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From Left to Right: Mark Allen (Chairman of the Sydney Film School Board), Ben Ferris (SFS Artistic Director), Bob Ellis and Hannah Klassek (MC at the awards ceremony)

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