Friday, July 26, 2013

The Origins of MIFF

The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) started this week, so it seemed like an ideal time to take a look back of the origins of this popular cultural event.

The contemporary festival encompasses 17 days, 300 films, half a dozen venues, opening and closing night galas and an international profile. Meaning it is light years removed from the first event, held in a hall in the country town of Olinda in 1952.

Olinda, a small town in the Dandenongs, site of the first local film festival.

While films had been screened in Australia right from the early days of the medium - the first local screening had been in Melbourne, in 1896 - the type of films on offer were limited. Hollywood films dominated the market and opportunities to see other types of movies in a public forum were rare.

But the popularity of films in Australia had lead to a proliferation of film societies; one estimate indicated that there were as many as fifty in Victoria alone. These groups were run by passionate film buffs, eager to expand their filmic horizons. Meeting in town halls and private houses, film societies organised screenings of documentaries, 16mm films and archival prints, as an alternative to the latest studio films from America.

In 1950, the Australian Council of Film Societies (ACOFS) was formed, a national organisation designed to allow these groups to coordinate. In 1951, the Victorian delegation to the second meeting of ACOFS proposed to host a film festival the following year.

This proposal was enthusiastically adopted and the festival was set for the Australia Day long weekend, 1952.

Olinda was selected as the venue as the organisers thought the rural setting might make for an appealing weekend getaway. Expectations were modest; an attendance of fewer than 100 people was predicted, mainly drawn from Melbourne film society members.

The goals of the festival were laid out in the festival programme:


Point 3 was the key element. 

To provide a wider range of films the festival organisers would source films from scientific, educational and religious institutions. And to beat the stringent censorship laws of the 1950's, that made importing foreign films difficult, ACOFS would lobby the censorship board for a temporary exemption from classification (a practice that continues to this day).

This effort lead to a diverse program, showcasing 8 feature length, and 79 short films, to screen over four days.

Among the festival highlights were Jean Cocteau's take on the classic fairy tale La Belle et la Bete (Beauty and the Beast) and Alexander Dovzhenko's seminal Russian classic Earth, both previously unseen in Australia.

The festival was to climax with the presentation of the Commonwealth Jubilee Film Awards, on the final night.

Featured films from the 1952 festival.

And the Olinda film festival was to prove a grand success.

More than 600 people flocked to the town to take in the program, a number so far above the estimated audience that some temporary accommodation had to be organised. Tents were erected, and the army had to arrange a makeshift phone system when the local exchange was swamped. 

The Argus of January 29 summarises the weekend:

But the popularity of the festival also had some unfortunate consequences.

The country halls that were converted into temporary cinemas ended up being far too small for the large crowds; 200 people had to be turned away from opening night. and members of the Victorian Amateur Film Association were unable to get into a screening of a film that they had provided.

The difficulty of cramped venues was further exacerbated by poor ventilation in the old buildings. An outdoor cinema had been hastily convened to try and counter this problem, but bad weather throughout the weekend meant it was barely used.

So despite the popularity of the Olinda festival, and the immediate clamour for a follow up event in 1953, ACOFS was reluctant to sponsor another festival in Victoria. The Council favoured an annual, national, festival that would be held in a different state each year.

Preliminary plans were made to hold a second event in Canberra on the the following Australia Day long weekend.

The Victorian Federation of Film Societies then decided to organise their own festival, independent of the national body. To cater for the now expected demand for tickets, the festival was moved to the city, and renamed the Melbourne Film Festival.

In 1953 it was held over the Labour Day long weekend - 6 to 9 March - and based at the Royal Exhibition Building, in Carlton.

The first MIFF program, 1953.

The local press coverage reflected the growth of the festival, in terms of scope and expectations, and gave a hint of what was to be on offer:

Photos and caption above taken from 'The Argus' newspaper, 20 February 1953.

There were considerable challenges, and costs, attached to converting the enormous space of the Exhibition Building to a cinema. Organising committee member Alfred Heintz recalled:

Source: 'Films for the Intelligent Layman: The Origin of the Sydney and
Melbourne Film Festivals, by C.Hope and A. Dickinson

Despite the problems, more than 2 000 people attended the inaugural city based festival and it was held again the following year (now shifted to Melbourne University). 

The festival has continued, through countless further variations of venue and organisation, every year since.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The View From Flagstaff Hill

Flagstaff Gardens is one of the few green spaces left in the Melbourne CBD. At the edge of the city's legal precinct, and bounded on all sides by major roads, it forms a small natural oasis and provides a pleasant lunching spot for hordes of office workers each day.

The gardens slope quite steeply to a hill in the northern third of the park, which has a few benches (always full in good weather), a stone memorial and a flag pole. The flagpole is significant, as it serves as a tangible link to an earlier time, when the gardens had a different name and served a quite different function in the life of the city.

When Melbourne was founded, the original township was a small cluster of wooden buildings, largely attached to the riverbank. One of the most urgent requirements for the new city was a cemetery. Melbourne's first was to be located on a quiet spot outside of the city itself, a short distance from the fledgling community. The site chosen was a small hill on vacant land to the north west, which was given the unimaginative name 'Burial Hill.' The first burial took place in the new cemetery in 1836:

But Melbourne's rapid expansion meant that Burial Hill was soon enveloped by new housing and commerical development, and the site was then thought to be inappropriately chosen. From 1837, a new burial site further east was used, where the Queen Victoria Markets now stands, which then gave way to the attractive Melbourne General Cemetery which is still in place in Carlton. 

The handful of pioneers that had been interred on Burial Hill were initially left where they were, with the plots surrounded by a wooden picket fence and marked by two wattle trees. But in 1871 it was decided to give them a more suitable home and the bodies were moved to Fawkner Cemetery. A stone monolith now marks the spot where these pioneering Melbournians had once been buried.

The Burial Hill memorial. The inscription reads: 'Erected in 1871,
to the memory of, some of the earliest of the pioneers of
this colony, whose remains were interred, near this spot.'

Now that the hill was no longer to be used as a cemetery, it wasn't long before the Government found another use for it.

As a small town in a largely undeveloped continent, Melbourne was very reliant on merchant shipping in its early years. Cargo ships bought goods, loved ones and news from the outside world and so were eagerly anticipated. It was decided therefore to set up a signal station, to alert the town as to the arrival of new ships as they sailed into the bay. As the highest point within easy distance of the city, Burial Hill was a logical choice to serve this function.

In 1840, the Government erected a large flagpole and signal station on the hilltop. There was a clear line of sight from the hill down into the bay at the time, and different signals were hoisted to indicate to the city who and what had arrived. In 1841 a cannon was added and a shot was then fired when new ships sailed into port. Due to the size of the flagpole - visible from anywhere in Melbourne - the hill was given a new name; Flagstaff Hill.

A sketch of the signal station on Flagstaff hill from the 1840's.

The view from Flagstaff Hill, circa 1850.

Flagstaff Hill was also a popular local nature spot. The park was well known not just for its views, but also for it lush carpet of grass. On weekends and sunny days, it was crowded with Melbournians taking a stroll, or stretched out on the lawns having a picnic, while regimental bands played on a rotunda. A large metal ball was dropped from the flagpole viewing platform each day at noon, to mark the time.

On 1 July 1851, Victoria was formally made an independent colony, separate from New South Wales. This was the culmination of a long lobbying campaign from Victoria's community leaders and was the cause for much celebration in Melbourne. The city's rejoicing found focus around Flagstaff Hill, where the Independence Proclamation was read in public for the first time, by the Lord Mayor. The celebration lasted several days.

The arrival of the telegraph in Australia ended the usefulness of Flagstaff Hill as a signal station, and its operations were curtailed in 1857. Although the signal flags had, by this time, become such a part of the city's life that funds were raised to keep the signal station operating privately. But by the time enough money had been secured, the Government had already removed the flagpole and decommissioned the site.

In the 1850's, part of Flagstaff Hill had been quarried, the gravel that was extracted being used on Melbourne's streets. With these diggings leaving a large crater in one section of the park, and the removal of the signal station ending the hill's primary function, Flagstaff Hill experienced a period of neglect. In 1862, residents of the surrounding suburbs complained about the park's shabby condition and petitioned the State Government for restoration works.This task was assigned to Clement Hodgkinson, Deputy Surveyor General, who would also oversee the design of the Treasury and Exhibition Gardens.

Hodgkinson had the quarry landfilled and then oversaw a systematic program of plantings, that restored the park to something akin to its former appearance.

The view from Flagstaff Hill, 1866. The building in the middle of
the picture still stands on the same spot today and is one of
Melbourne's oldest buildings.

The park was formally renamed Flagstaff Gardens and was preserved by an act of Parliament in 1873. A memorial plaque on the hilltop gives very concise history of the spot.

While Melbourne has grown up around Flagstaff Gardens, the park has remained essentially unchaged since this time. Although one thing has changed; you can no longer see the bay from the hilltop:

The view from Flagstaff Hill; today.