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.

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