From Heady Times
to Hard Times

by David King

A filmmaker’s journey from the 1970s to the present


Looking back from the present to 1974 when I made my first Super 8 and 16mm films is a strange and melancholy experience.


Australia today (2018 as I write) has little in common with that idealistic era when Gough Whitlam was in power and whose policies enabled a renaissance of Australian culture.


Prime Minister Gough Whitlam with singer Little Pattie in 1972.

There are pundits who say the groundwork for the cultural renaissance was laid by the Menzies Government before Whitlam and that may well be true, but it was under the leadership of Whitlam that it flourished.


Perhaps ‘renaissance’ – although commonly used – is the wrong word. For up until th 1970s, culture was very much something Australians looked overseas for.   


Growing up in the 1960s, I recall no national pride in the nasal Aussie twang, its vernacular or the lived experiences of its people. We were constantly kow–towing to the US and tugging the forelock to England.


To be an announcer at the ABC required putting on a plummy English accent. Movies were something we imported from the USA, even though – ironically – we had to stand up for God Save Our Queen before any movie was allowed to play ...


There were Australian artists but the best career most could manage from their passion was a job teaching art at secondary school or better still, university.


If a teenager like me said he wanted to be a filmmaker, he’d get a mockingly indulgent look from his elders who were clearly thinking, “he’ll soon grow out of that!”


Most girls, in those days, didn’t expect to be anything other than housewives with a husband to support them after short ‘careers’ as nurses, teachers, librarians, or secretaries.


Women members of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op in the '70s.


Acting was something one did in their spare time with the local drama society, faithfully and amateurishly trotting out old English stalwarts like A Conversation Piece.


If the '50s and '60s were a cultural dead zone, the '70s were like an explosion of pent–up cultural rage. Suddenly (or so it seemed), we were encouraged to be artists, filmmakers, writers, actors, designers, dancers, choreographers.


Funding became available to those with ideas and we were encouraged to find our own unique voices, to tell our own stories, not merely copy what we had seen from England or America.


University education became free and opened the minds and horizons of people who would previously have been unable to even think of attending university.


It wasn’t so much what we learnt in lectures and tutorials as the vibrant culture created by very active student unions which exposed us to avant garde cinema from Europe and the USA, underground literature and transgressive theatre, experimental music and television, and new forms of dance. Rarely did a lunchtime go by without some eye–popping, mind–blowing art happening on campus in one form or another – even in Geelong where I remember a heady mix of Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band and films by Godard and Pasolini.


Small independent publishing companies sprang up in Melbourne and Sydney and bookshops like Readings appeared where self–published local poetry sat on shelves alongside the latest best–sellers from overseas. Cantrills Filmnotes was running and Cinema Papers came out every month. The Nation Review was a weekly must read for anyone with aspirations to cool.


Corinne and Arthur Cantrill assembling Cantrills Filmnotes, 1970s.


It was an exciting time to be alive. Anything and everything seemed suddenly possible.


The Melbourne and Sydney Filmmakers’ Co–ops were part of this explosion. Both had their own small cinemas complete with 16mm and Super 8 projectors (I believe Sydney also had a 35mm projector). Both offered cheap editing and negative matching facilities for hire, and had message boards which promoted small production companies and individuals with gear for hire or sale, or services to offer – the latter often free of charge.


In Melbourne, the Filmmakers’ Co–Op was in a former funeral parlour (which legend has it, once held the body of Squizzy Taylor) in Lygon Street across the road from the Tamani bistro which still exists today, although the atmosphere has changed. Here Co–op members would often gather over cheap wine and pasta to talk ideas. Joining them could be actors from the La Mama theatre in Faraday Street, or stage technicians from The Pram Factory theatre (where the likes of David Williamson and Jack Hibberd honed their craft) around the corner in Drummond Street.


Further down toward the city, also in Drummond Street, was the Video Access Centre with its black–and–white reel–to–reel Sony portapaks for hire.


But more than just equipment or facilities for hire, these were places where creative individuals gathered, became friends, discussed ideas, formed alliances, hatched plans, recruited casts and crews, fell in and out of love, raged against injustices, sought signatures to petitions, organised marches ... and any other thing one can imagine creative, politically–charged young and not–so–young people doing.


To a naive young man from the sleepy industrial bayside town of Geelong, it was like entering a kind of wonderland. Sometimes, I would drive up the highway from Geelong to the Co–op on a Saturday afternoon just to sit in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and breathe in the atmosphere and marvel at the fact that I was a member of this organisation.


I was too young and naive to be much of a filmmaker in those heady days. I was too bereft of anything much to say to be the real thing. I was still learning to make films by reading books, watching films, and through trial and error with as many errors as trials.


My major claim to fame from this period was being the first and only person from the Geelong and District region to receive a grant from the Experimental Film and Television Fund for a 16mm project called The Student. I was also believed to be the only profoundly hearing–impaired filmmaker in all of Australia to have received such a grant.


I saw what it was like for others who were real, experienced independent filmmakers.  I was there when Yacketty Yak was screened. I watched Don McLennan checking answer prints for Point of Departure. I saw Michael Lee’s The Mystical Rose and Paul Winkler’s Brick Wall. And a whole lot more.


But like all wonderful things, it came to an end.


I don’t know if it was fading interest from members or just lack of funding from increasingly conservative governments following the ousting of Whitlam in ‘75, or a mixture of both. But the Pram Factory, the Video Access Centres and the Filmmakers’ Co–ops all faded and shut down in a few short years.


I say ‘faded’ because it seemed as if they were becoming less and less  relevant to the interests of the day. Maybe just to my own interests, which – having left university – were all about trying to earn a crust.


I dimly remember – toward the end of my association with the Melbourne Filmmaker’s Co–op around 1976 – the–then manager trying to introduce more commercial practices and programming, ostensibly in a last–ditch effort to keep the place going.


Members of the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-op in 1977.


The revolution was over ... and nothing had changed.


So just over 40 years later, I find myself a ‘real’ filmmaker but without any of the support enjoyed independent filmmakers back in the '70s when I started.


Unlike the USA, Europe or England, Australia (currently) has no cinemas screening independent avant garde or experimental work. We have no experimental film festivals or groups as they do in those countries (perhaps one – the Artist Film Workshop which is largely about preserving the culture of cellulloid). Our so–called ‘underground’ film festivals are genre and entertainment–driven.


Decades of neo–conservative economic rationalist policy have rendered Australia a place where the ideas of creativity for creativity’s sake and learning for learning’s sake are treated with scorn. Everything is about making money. A tradesman who earns more than a university lecturer is held in higher esteem by most people than the university lecturer who is derided as one of the so–called ‘elite’, as if having knowledge and aspiring to more is something to be ashamed of.


There is no longer any real funding in Australia for experimental or avant garde filmmaking.  The Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI) recently teamed with Artbank to offer funding to just ONE artist or filmmaker per year for the next three years. Not even a drop in the ocean.


Even those seeking to make short dramatic films are on their own. Screen Australia has increasingly become a source of funding only for established, professional filmmakers with strong industry profiles. The State funding bodies have never had any interest in the ‘one–man band’ type of filmmaking. Their brief is to foster employment. The rationale is simple: the Government wants a return for its buck – or at least industry practitioners paying taxes. Art for art’s sake? What kind of rubbish talk is that?  We have an economy to run!


Cinemas formerly open to screening the work of independent filmmakers have raised their hire fees to the point where only those with serious money can now afford to screen work in them. That means none of us.


The hotbeds of creativity and political agitation where people could meet and exchange ideas have vanished with the rise of the online world.


But while the Internet puts me in touch with critics and filmmakers in any country of the world, it isn’t the same as going into the kitchen of the Melbourne or Sydney Filmmakers’ Co–ops and talking ideas or discussing problems face–to–face with other members.


Online, people say: “We must work together!” They’re still saying it two years later.

What is the point of agreeing to work together if one or both of you can’t afford to travel or spend a few months in the other’s country?


It’s locally at the grass–roots level that we need to make and sustain contact.


All this inevitably leads to envying those who live in countries where art for art’s sake still finds some financial support, either through private philanthropy as in the USA, or funding from various local councils as in the United Kingdom and Ireland, or direct government funding as in many European countries. Maybe that funding is limited, but it exists.


Australia, it seems, has turned its back on homegrown grass–roots culture, or decided that if it isn’t financially successful by now, then it doesn’t deserve to exist.


But I don’t believe it was ever intended to be financially successful. It was funded during an era when it was understood and accepted that there were other arbiters for success besides money.


I, for example, have made little money from independent filmmaking. But my work has screened at over 40 international festivals, two museums, a couple of art galleries, on cable TV in Australia, New Zealand, France, and the USA, and has garnered three international awards as well as numerous laudatory critical reviews.


When I tell the average person this, their immediate question is: “Do you make any money out of it?”, as if all those other very difficult achievements are worthless.


Most other independent filmmakers in Australia can echo this story with one of their own. Some have even given up because of it. Receiving no respect from society and no prospect of funding for their efforts, they found the struggle to make films not worth it and dropped off the ‘active’ list.


Nobody stops to consider that, by doing such work, we are effectively ambassadors for Australian culture and at the very least, should be recognised and appreciated as such.


Again, it is the decades of neo–conservative economic rationalist policy that can be blamed for the tragic shift in attitude.  From a widespread appreciation of culture in the '70s to a myopic focus on economic outcomes by the early '00s to the present.


The government has pulled the plug on funding art for art’s sake and we’ve failed to develop any kind of significant philanthropic infrastructure to replace it.


Hardly surprising considering that all most Australians seem interested in is property, the footy, and backyard barbies. It’s like we’re returning to the '50s and '60s where culture was something we were happy to import from somewhere else.


After living through that wonderful cultural and creative storm of the 1970s it’s sad to see the nation take such a blinkered and ultimately self–destructive path.


The result is a culture in which everything has a price but nothing has a value.


David King is an international award–winning experimental filmmaker and video artist who lives with his partner and daughter on the coast of the Bellarine Peninsula in Victoria, Australia.

Published March 27, 2018. © David King, March 2018