Film co-ops were born out of necessity – both economic and political. During the 1960s and 1970s, avant-garde and experimental cinema, “expanded cinema” and varying strands of independent filmmaking sought to grow audiences for work unwelcome in public broadcasting and commercial distribution. Co-operatives were established across Europe, the US, Canada, Japan, Australia and elsewhere. Mostly they were distribution and exhibition operations rather than production collectives, although these kinds of experiments, where they did occur, were often aligned with co-ops. London’s Cinema-Action Collective established in 1968, for example, was an activist media group with close ties to the London Filmmaker’s Co-op. Also established in 1968, the Austrian Filmmakers’ Co-op in Vienna (with some hiatus in the 1970s) continues today, as does Canyon Films in San Francisco. Co-operative structures matched the ethos of their period, insofar as they proposed alternatives to private enterprise by creating institutions envisaged with a commitment to “authenticity”, creativity and co-operation – in contrast with the dominant, “straight” culture’s repressive authoritarianism, alienation and avarice. Needless to say, actuality was a little more complex and compromised than such a dichotomy might suggest, as Australia’s examples illustrate.

A comprehensive history of the co-ops is long overdue, and recognisable as a concern of the present. Filmmakers and moving image artists today find themselves building a counter public sphere, as mainstream media forms – including public broadcasting – vacate screen culture practice such as the short film, the low-budget feature and the documentary tradition, embracing conservative aesthetic forms and a drive for ratings. The co-ops provide a unique perspective on the social movements in Australia across the decades of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s; indeed, a unique audio-visual record, an invisible archive that is both complex and layered.

Equally importantly, the co-ops’ histories offer a new perspective on twentieth century Australian film. A study of these collectivist institutions unsettle received narratives that tend to focus on feature films and prominent individuals. More granulated cultural memory can have a strategic impact. As we reformulate the past through presentation of forgotten and buried objects and re-examine the material culture – the films, technologies and political practices of an activist underground – these newly discovered pasts vie for a place in history. Today, sufficient time has passed for an informed assessment of the co-ops, but there is also urgency – as each year passes key figures pass on, usually without adequately documenting their experience and insights.

Everything Could Be Different

From the mid-60s through to the mid-1980s filmmakers’ co-operatives in various forms throughout Australia distributed and exhibited independent cinema made locally and elsewhere on behalf of their filmmaker memberships, at first mainly as 16mm film. The Australian co-ops were successful in getting a wide variety of film and video into non-theatrical distribution as print sales and rentals, and returning revenue to filmmakers, including people overseas like Emile de Antonio, Jonas Mekas, John Jost and Yoko Ono. In 1960s and ’70s Australia, emergent media and newly imagined public spaces were constituted by cultural forms, with theatre, visual arts and particularly independent film culture front and centre. The youth counter-cultural Weltanschauung – that ubiquitous, immersive “culture of feeling” that everything could be different, or the conviction (as Jenny Diski says) that it already was different – is evident in the rich strata of the co-ops’ politics, and the works they nurtured and distributed.

Arguably, the filmmakers’ co-ops and the films they represented were the “capital” of Australia’s ’60s and ’70s moment. They were integral to a network of collective enterprise alongside, for example, Redback Graphics in Wollongong and Sydney, La Mama and the Pram factory theatres in Melbourne, and the dynamic movement constituted by activist groups around political activism for peace and various liberation movements. Sexual politics and feminism, the emergence of gay and lesbian movements, and Indigenous activism had enormous transformative impact during this period, particularly among young people. These social upheavals and ideological ruptures also played out in the interpersonal politics of the co-ops, and the lives of the people involved.

In a recent collection of essays marking the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Denis Altman’s classic 1971 book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, Garry Wotherspoon’s essay opens by recalling that it was the novelist L.P. Hartley who coined the phrase “the past is a foreign country.” But as Wotherspoon writes, “it’s more like an alien world if seen from the perspective of today.”1 A number of the contributors to After Homosexual grapple with the difficulty of framing both the stifling conformity of Australian social experience during the late-Menzies period, and the complexity and contradictions at play in the counter-cultural overturning that constituted the 1960s–70s moment.

For many Australians it was a time of enormous privilege, because university education was free, jobs were not a problem, shared housing was cheap, and sex, drugs and rock and roll abundant. Commodity culture was widely derided and countered with op-shop fashion, and revolution was in the air. At the same time, for women, Aboriginal people, newly arrived immigrants, gays and lesbians – in fact for all sorts of people distanced from middle class, middle age conformity – it was also a time of savage cruelty and discrimination. Gay sex was criminal, as was abortion. Censorship of literature and film was commonplace. The American war in Vietnam, and the CIA’s serial coups in Latin America and elsewhere, were obligingly endorsed and supported by Australia’s politicians and military. And the left was thoroughly watched and spoiled – until Gough Whitlam led the Australian Labor Party to electoral victory in December 1972, and things momentarily became a little more complicated.

You might say the 1960s deregulated social mores and private life, liberating diverse identity politics and sexuality, while the 1980s deregulated the economy and liberated finance capital. The English writer Jenny Diski, in her book on the 1960s, is spot on when she says the period was “unwittingly sweeping the path for the eighties.”2 One of the dialectical flips for Australian independent film across this period was a rocky transition from avant-garde performance, materialist cinema, and alternative narrative forms, to an ideologically oriented cultural commodity. Critical social movements oriented around identity politics enabled the co-ops, as distribution and marketing enterprises, to create new products for newly created markets, and this in turn transformed the institutions themselves, and their cultural practice. The filmmakers’ co-operatives were hubs; they articulated “the movement” in their cultural form and practice, at the same time that they distributed and exhibited the moving image production that performed the zeitgeist.


Filmmakers Co-ops were established in both Melbourne and Sydney in 1970–71, with parallel but differing origins in the mid-1960s. Brisbane, Fremantle, Adelaide and Hobart co-ops followed, and at one point in the mid-1970s there was a filmmakers co-operative in the Northern Rivers, New South Wales. Each developed in their own way, with shifting and highly creative constituencies.

In Brisbane the Filmmakers Co-op (1975–77) was preceded in the 1960s by the famous politicised multimedia venue, FOCO, where underground movies and expanded cinema “happenings” shared exhibition space (and time) with raw anti-Vietnam War films like Kit Guyaat’s three-minute short Vietnam Report (1966) and Bruce Petty’s Hearts and Minds (1968), and bands like Mick Hadley and the Coloured Balls, Max Merritt and the Meteors, and The Wild Cherries. FOCO, like the co-ops of the 60s and early 70s, confronted the conformist and authoritarian regimes of state and federal governments with the politics of the New Left, resistance to the American war in Vietnam and challenges to censorship – and these groups were regularly embattled with repressive bureaucracies as a result.3 Later, as we shall see, the problem became “repressive tolerance”4 and neo-liberal managerialism.

Sydney’s was the most sustained of the Australian co-ops, and survived until the mid-1980s. It was initiated by an anarchist, libertarian avant-garde aligned with the Sydney Push.5 Ubu News (1968–70) became Sydney Filmmakers’ Newsletter (1970–75), and then Filmnews (1976–95), an important free monthly newspaper of reviews, news and debate that sustained itself beyond the Co-op and was edited for almost the entire period by Tina Kaufman (with varying editorial collectives). Most of Australia’s important writers on film wrote for these publications.6 Beyond Filmnews and the newsletters of the various co-ops (which were often simply roneo’ed foolscap pages), there’s a literature of memoir and commentary about this period, but as yet no comprehensive history of the co-op movement.7 John Cumming’s recent book on Australian independent screen production develops a grassroots analysis that includes original research on this period and opens up the territory for further work.8

A schematic overview of the Sydney Co-op from 1970 to 1985 would delineate three unruly phases. There was the original underground movies grouping who established the Co-op out of Ubu Films, aligned with an entrepreneurial, creatively ambitious, feature drama contingent. Speaking for this first generation, the well-known Australian director Phillip Noyce says feminists taking power of the Co-op in the late ’70s “was the beginning of the end of the Cooperative that we’d known.”9 The feminist advocates of women’s cinema (the Women’s Film Group and the Feminist Film Workers) were allied with an activist-oriented documentary movement known as Cine Action. The Sydney Co-op’s demise coincided with the 80s postmodern turn and art school-trained moving image artists excited by theory, for whom the early co-op – replete with beards, long hair and materialist cinema – and the latter co-op – with its feminist and political militancy – was anathema.


Australian filmmakers

Phillip Noyce at a Sydney Co-op meeting in 1973. Photo: Matt Butler.

Similarly, Adrian Martin recalls Phillip Brophy bravely stalking inner city Carlton in the late 1970s in search of Melbourne’s Filmmakers Co-op, but by the time Brophy arrived it was closed, “Not just for the day, but closed for good.”10 Martin rightly recognises in this moment a transition from one generation of independent filmmaking to another, with the emergence in Melbourne of the Clifton Hill Music Group and the Super 8 Film Group. Both generations also sustained a critical tradition, making and sharing exploratory moving image works addressing formal and conceptual issues of the moment. They also had in common a film experience that informed a transition to video, and the beginnings of a pivot toward the gallery and “new media”.

For most of the co-op period, these groups functioned in parallel and contention with the developing market-oriented, highly subsidised feature film industry that had arisen from the lobbying work of producers, activists and intellectuals committed to Australian content on local screens and in world markets. Independent filmmakers aligned with the co-ops constituted a sector of this industry and a milieu that accommodated a broad spectrum of creative ambition and political orientations. The common goal was getting the work out to audiences, and as time went on and technologies changed, this became more professionalised and market-oriented.

As Soon As We Surface, the Restrictions Begin

Melbourne, August 1972. When three guys with short back and sides put their three dollars down at the entrance desk of the Filmmakers’ Co-operatives’ Babylon Cinema in Spring Street, manager John Matthews assumed they were cops. He quickly checked his copy of the Films Act and announced to the audience that the screening of Kit Guyatt’s drama The Phallic Forrest (1971) was free. Noting that someone had left money at the desk, Matthews announced they could collect it, or treat it as a donation.11

Peter Tammer thought the cops that evening were a bit drunk, but they were friendly and one of them said he’d enjoyed Good Afternoon (1971), Phillip Noyce’s two-screen projection on the Aquarius Festival. The next night the cops were back, waiting for Matthews when he arrived to open the cinema. They had read the Act by this time, and wanted to see the Co-op’s registration as an exhibitor. There wasn’t one. Matthews set out the dilemma in a leaflet to members:

The growth of the Co-op is dependent on the exhibition of the films to create demand and audience for the distribution function. The theatre at Spring Street has become important … It may be the only place filmmakers can show their work to a larger audience … if the Co-ops are prepared to remain ‘underground’ relying on word of mouth advertising and mailing lists, they would appear to be not a significant size to bust. But as soon as we ‘surface’ we must grow, and the restrictions begin.12

Charges against Matthews for “running an unregistered cinema business” and “exhibiting an unregistered film” were resolved with a six months good behaviour bond.13

By the time of Matthews’ bust, the Co-op had, in fact, been convening regular screenings for years. They were immediately preceded by Arthur and Corrine Cantrills’ expanded cinema events, installations and “happenings” around Melbourne, and in the mid-60s by Peter Tammer’s selection of Melbourne independent films under the title, A Breath of Fresh Air, at Dendy Brighton (and later Sydney University). The first Melbourne Co-op screenings were in a church hall on the corner of Nicholson and Victoria Streets in inner-city Carlton (1969–70), and shortly after at Pinocoteca Gallery in Richmond.14

In 1970–71 the Melbourne Co-op founders included Pinocoteca’s owner Bruce Pollard and filmmakers Fred Harden, Peter Tammer, Bert Deling and Jim Wilson. Visual artists pivotal to Pinacoteca’s screenings and the Co-op’s early life included people like James Clayton, Jonas Balsaitis and Michael Lee. Sasha Trikojus returned from the UK and with Deling introduced early video work such as half-inch video recordings featuring Baba Ram Das (Richard Alpert). These later became incorporated into the opening sequences of Deling’s Dalmas (1972).

The group realised they needed a fitted out, dedicated screening space, and this was provided at 161 Spring Street on the edge of the CBD (where the European Café is today), by artist Don Laycock, who had been using the location as a studio. Together they built a bio-box and fitted out The Babylon Cinema as their first exhibition space. It was supported by the manager of Balwyn’s art house cinema, who provided old cinema seating left over from a refit of his premises.

Following the Matthews’ bust in mid-1972, and the resignation of Board Directors and their replacement with a new group, screenings continued, although everything was rebranded.15 The Babylon Cinema became Mind’s Eye, with new cinema seats and a new coffee shop.

The first season for 1973 included films of Jim Wilson (K-tape1) and Peter Tammer’s On the Ball, Pisces Dying and Our Luke, together with his documentary feature The Curse of Laradjongran. In addition, Peter’s film on Myra Roper, A Woman of Our Time (1972), was described as “a great film for women’s libbers – what we all could be aiming at!”16

By April 1973, the Melbourne Co-op had over 100 paid up members, 35 of whom had films in distribution. Exhibition in Spring Street was attracting good audiences, until a visit from the Health Department shut the cinema down. Despite the Co-op’s determination to remedy the building, both the Department of Health and the Fire Brigade issued impossible demands. They would not allow the Co-op to function even as “club rooms”.

Meanwhile, a kerfuffle emerged on the Board, with some members seeking to expel others over the question of filmmaker participation. A crisis meeting on 11 April 1973 elected a new Board with Bert Deling as Chair. Arrangements regarding the Vincent Library’s distribution of Co-op members’ films was another contentious matter, with strained relations between the Co-op manager John Matthews and the Australian Film Institute (AFI).

Meanwhile, in Sydney the Co-op’s energies during the first half of 1973 were dedicated to fitting out and launching their own new Filmmakers’ Cinema. There were 133 members in Sydney at this point, and over 70 had films in distribution. Here internal arguments concerned salaried management in dispute with the Board. Bitter disputes arose when some filmmakers (such as Aggie Read) felt that Co-op management was using money that should have been going to filmmakers to keep the Co-op afloat, while others (Phillip Noyce and Martha Ansara) were irritated by what they saw as a failure of trust. The manager, Tony Horler, finally resigned, although Noyce argued he should not be allowed to resign, and should instead be sacked!17

The Sydney Co-op settled on a great location, St Peter’s Lane in inner-city Darlinghurst, which previously had housed the legendary New Theatre, now moved out to the suburb of Newtown. The space was registered as a public hall, which they assumed would overcome the problems of legality that had plagued earlier exhibition venues, such as the rooms above Bob Gould’s Third World Bookshop in Goulburn Street, where many people first encountered the Co-op. Negotiations on the lease for St Peters Lane and discussions with city and state authorities dragged on for months – the NSW Chief Secretary’s Office continued to refuse permission for the venue as a cinema, so the Co-op formed a “Preview Club” and opened under this guise in May 1973.

It was veteran film producer Jan Chapman who made the cinema’s curtains. She had been close to the Filmmakers Co-op from its beginning and was a Board member for years:

When the co-op started the distribution was run from the house that Phillip (Noyce) and I lived in in Annandale, which was pretty crazy; there were screenings above Bob Gould’s bookshop in the beginning.18

When screenings at Gould’s bookshop were closed down by City Council authorities, they continued at the Yellow House artists collective in Potts Point, and also at Martin Fabinyi’s café in Balmain.19 Prior to this screenings were held at University of Sydney and other venues.20

The opening season at Sydney’s Filmmakers’ Cinema was Bert Deling’s remarkable first feature Dalmas (1972).21 In the first month the Co-op also screened Come Out Fighting (Nigel Buesst, 1973), Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens (Jim Sharman, 1971) and Thoms’ Sunshine City (1973).

Back in Melbourne, the closure of the Mind’s Eye cinema was crippling. An AGM in September 1973 proposed disbanding the Co-op altogether. New energies arrived with Annette Blonski, Martin Bartfeld, Pat Longmore and others who found new premises in Lygon Street, Carlton, in the historic Holsworthy Building, next door to where the Cinema Nova operates today. Under the Chairpersonship of Pat Longmore, and with AU$19,000 from the Australia Council’s Film and TV Board, and voluntary work from members, the shop front (previously a funeral parlour) was fitted out with a 70-seat cinema. A six-plate editing bench was also ordered from Italy and two 35mm projectors provided by Co-op members installed. Mark Laidlaw and Denys Finney were appointed managers, with John Matthews continuing as distribution manager. It was also around this time that the Melbourne Women’s Film Group was formed. Their meetings were held at the Co-op, as were meetings of the feminist Lip Collective.22

During the Co-op’s first summer in Lygon street, screenings were held in the Edinburgh and Fitzroy Gardens23 and in June the cinema was launched with a program of Phillip Noyce films. These were Caster and Pollux (1973), That’s Show Biz (1972), Caravan Park (1973) and Renegades (1972). Noyce’s works were supported by Ross Hamilton’s Cosmic Clown (1974), “a rock documentary of Count Copernicus.” A newsletter in March 1974 announced 29 new films for distribution, and advanced bookings for film rentals since the beginning of the year clocking AU$400, and AU$562 by the end of April. This was good business in 1974.

The cinema was well attended, and often full. Programs included, along with new local films, seasons of British Free Cinema, radical political independent documentary from the US, and Emile de Antonio’s films such as The Year of the Pig (1968). The 1975 Australian season “3 films about Homosexuality,” comprising Point of Departure (Don McLennan, 1975), Homosexuality: A Film for Discussion (Barbara Creed, 1975) and Turkish Baths (Maya Frankel), was extremely successful, both critically and financially. Creed’s film – still strikingly out there even today – circulated widely in secondary schools following its Co-op season.24 Carolyn Strachan recalls of this period:

When we were showing films at the Sydney Filmmaker’s Co-op in our little cinema we’d have lines down the block. I mean there was a certain moment when documentary was cool and fashionable and very successful. Ningla A-Na (Alessandro Cavadini, 1972) was one of the first to kind of give it a political edge; it was no longer ‘National Geographic’. 25

Another of the historical strands discernible through the co-op catalogues and screening programs of the 1960s and ’70s is the solidarity between non-Indigenous filmmakers and Indigenous activism, the negotiation of collaboration and the emergence of Indigenous authorship. This is not exclusive to the co-ops of course – the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and Film Australia were also producing important work on this front. But only at the co-ops was there a position allocated to a “Black Film Worker” at this time.

Bruce McGuiness’ Black Fire (1972), made with Melbourne Co-op member Martin Bartfeld, is generally acknowledged as the first Australian film made under Indigenous creative control (and a film seldom seen). This was followed by Alessandro Cavadini’s Ningla A-­Na (1972), Protected (1975), and later Two Laws (Alessandro Cavadini, Carolyn Strachan and Borroloola Aboriginal Community, 1981). All these titles were exhibited and distributed widely through the co-ops. Phillip Noyce and Gary Foley’s Backroads (1977), and My Survival as an Aboriginal (Essie Coffey with Martha Ansara, 1978) were also prominent in this chronicle of collaboration, along with Graeme Isaacs’ and Ned Lander’s Wrong Side of the Road (1981), made with the Aboriginal bands Us Mob and No Fixed Address. These works represent a kind of “pre-history” of Australian Indigenous cinema.

Artists and activists also became engaged with video from the early 1970s. Community based media activism inspired by Saul Alinski, Paulo Friere and the Canadian National Film Board’s “Challenge for Change” program developed in uneasy parallel with the co-ops. These practices generated their own self-managing collectives, some of them (almost) continuing into the present, such as Brisbane’s Qpix, Perth’s FTI, Adelaide’s Media Resource Centre, Open Channel Melbourne, Turtle Video Altona, and Sydney’s Metro Screen. The remaining “entry level screen network associations”, as they are known today, have uncertain futures following Screen Australia’s announced intention in September 2014 to “defund” these organisations.26

Throughout their histories, the community based cooperative movements clashed with governments pursuing policy informed increasingly by neo-liberal ideologies after 1975. Under the Whitlam Labor Government (1972–75), agencies established to support Australian filmmaking sought to take charge of the initiatives of independent filmmakers and media activists. The Australia Council’s Film and Television Board (shortly to expand as the Film, Radio and Television Board) envisaged a network of cinemas for independent Australian film, video access centres, and a national distribution agency run by the AFI. Each of these projects, however, were already actually existing practices built by independent filmmakers.27 The Sydney Filmmakers Newsletter editorialised:

There seems to be a push by the Film and TV Board to directly administer everything that doesn’t immediately make money – part of this is their politicking with Senator McClelland 28 … The government bureaucracies are trying to entrench themselves at the expense of independent film and video groups. They are empire builders, voting available funds to their closed-door power group, the AFI, while broad based community groups go begging.29

Bureaucracy Closes In

As it happened, it was 4 July 1977 when the Australian Film Commission (AFC) advised the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-op of the complete withdrawal of its subsidy, thereby forcing the Co-op into bankruptcy. Two days later Film Victoria withdrew its offer of interim funding as a result of the AFC’s decision. At that time there were 11 staff, all working for AU$80 a week. The Co-op’s response was to “work in”; that is, exhibition continued, existing distribution bookings were met and a “fighting fund” was established, publishing and seeking other modes of continuance through the “Media Resistance Alliance”, comprising the Co-op and other media organisations that had been subject to cuts and closures. The voluntary work and donated film screenings went on for three months. Afterwards, in 1978, “Just Another Film Society” held co-op style screenings, drawing audiences of over 100 on occasion, at the Backyard Workshop in Northcote.


Australian filmmakers

At the Melbourne Co-op in July 1977, from left are Christine Johnston, Trevor Bergroth and the author, John Hughes. Photo: Ivan Gaal.

Over the previous three years, here had been almost as much turbulence in the federal government’s film agencies as there had been in the independent film and video sector. The Whitlam Government fell in the “constitutional coup” of November 1975, and budget cuts across the board ensued, largely as a result of the oil crisis of 1973–4, rationalised through reconfigured policy that at the time, personified by the new conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser and the “Razor Gang”, appeared strikingly reactionary. The Australia Council’s Film, Radio and Television Board was dissolved, with functions incorporated into the Australian Film Commission’s Creative Development Branch.

The Australian Film Commission (AFC) was created in 1976 to “bring together within the Commission the functions of providing government assistance to both the film-as-a-business and the film-as-an-art sections of the film industry in Australia.”30 The Chair of the dissolving Film, Radio and Television Board, Tom Jeffrey, saw it differently. He said that anything that had been achieved by the Board in recent years “would wither away”.31

The AFC’s argument in driving the Melbourne Co-op into bankruptcy was that the group was “duplicating” the work of other subsidised agencies – specifically the AFI’s Vincent Library and the Sydney Filmmaker’s Co-op, belying the fact that the three organisations were doing different things with differing constituencies. In fact the Melbourne Co-op’s distribution had doubled in the first three months of 1977 over the same period the previous year. Internal AFC documents suggest it was more the unruly administration and turnover of people through the organisation that drove the AFC’s decision.32 A singular, centralised, “efficient” delivery of standardised functions makes much more sense to a centralised bureaucracy. It is as though the institutional culture nurtures an imperative to project its corporate identity onto its dependents. In their book on the AFI, Lisa French and Mark Poole draw attention to frequent problems of a similar kind in the AFC’s relations with the organisation.33

Filmnews had always been a vehicle for robust critique of the policy and practice of government screen agencies, and after the creation of the Creative Development Branch, the independent production sector organised around the Sydney Co-op maintained a crucial critical commentary. In the early 1980s, a series of closely argued commentaries challenged the Creative Development Branch in particular. Helen Grace recalled:

Our argument was that the so-called Creative Development Fund was really creatively under-developing by virtue of forcing or using mainstream cinema as the model of the pathway that filmmakers should take, and a lot of people were pointing out that in fact a lot of these short films … were actually in the longer term more profitable than these features that they were losing money on … basically it seemed that the Creative Development Fund itself needed to be challenged.34

As the 1960s gave way to the ’80s, the Co-ops were increasingly required to mimic the managerial compliance rituals common to the bureaucracy itself, while at the same time being denied the resources to do so.35 Contradictions inherent in the professionalisation of alternative organisational forms sharpened. Splits emerged between filmmaker members and co-op staff, as some staff developed specialised managerial and marketing functions and began to see career paths in arts administration. A number of people trained in the co-ops, in the distribution and marketing area in particular, moved on to become managers and staffers with federal agencies.


In 1985 the Sydney Co-op had 325 titles in their catalogue and about 90 titles in active distribution.36 These were mostly 16mm film prints, with some U-matic videos, and almost all Australian (exceptions included films by Emile De Antonio, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, John Jost, Yoko Ono, and Menelik Shabazz). Five years earlier there had been a cull of the collection with a further 318 less active titles deposited with the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and the National Library’s film studies lending collection. This is a period where video as a distribution medium (Betamax and VHS) began to substantially challenge film print rentals and sales. Andrew Pike’s Canberra-based Ronin Films also extended its activities into non-theatrical distribution. This new, unsubsidised distributor, with savvy marketing skills, began to pick up exclusive distribution rights to the more profitable titles.

Since 1974, the Sydney Co-op had received subsidy from federal agencies, with modest grants that, as SFC Manager Frank Maloney remarked, bore “no relation to the co-ops annual grant applications.”37 In 1981 the AFC had withdrawn funds earmarked for exhibition, and the Filmmakers Cinema screenings ended. While the Co-op continued to work at getting member’s films into cinemas through the small number of remaining independent exhibition outlets around the country, closing the St Peter’s Lane cinema was the final straw for many of the Co-op’s original members.


Australian filmmakers

Poster for a season of anti-nuclear films staged by the Sydney Co-op in 1983.

By this time the language of the market was inescapably hegemonic. A condition of AFC support in 1984–5 was that the Co-op move from St Peter’s Lane in “sub-standard Darlinghurst” to more “spacious premises in Harris Street Pyrmont” – but this move was not funded.38 The costs of the move (AU$60,000) crippled the organisation.

When the much loved and very effective manager of recent years, Dave Sargent, died unexpectedly in January 1985, his passing was profoundly destabilising, with enormous psychological impact on the community. By March that year the Co-op needed a cash flow loan of AU$30,000, and while the Creative Development Branch was sympathetic, they had already spent their 1984–5 budget. Oblivious to the irony of this, they offered to guarantee a bank overdraft to the Co-op. There were seven conditions, including AFC approval of a new administrator to replace Dave Sargent, and further tightening of financial planning and reporting. In an internal memo at this time, the Creative Development Branch’s Murray Brown noted:

The distribution and exhibition activities of both the Co-op and the AFI are currently under investigation by an AFC consultant. Recommendations for rationalisation and improvements in policy and activities in both organisations is due by mid-May … the AFC will then be in a position to discuss further changes.39

On the same day, Brown wrote to the Sydney Film Co-op’s acting administrator Liz Dods, advising that the AFC would not issue their last instalment for the agreed 1984–5 annual subsidy until she had signed an agreement to provide detailed monthly cost reports.40 Dods agreed to the conditions, but declined the bank overdraft, saying the Co-op did not need more debt and interest payments.

By the end of the year the Co-op was due to issue payments to filmmaker members on the sales and rentals of their films, but following the move to Pyrmont didn’t have the funds. Unless the filmmakers agreed to defer (yet again) money owing to them (totalling around AU$68,000), the Co-op would be insolvent. An Extraordinary General Meeting was convened for 18 December 1985, at which an overwhelming number of those present voted against deferring payments to filmmakers, and then voted to place the Co-op into voluntary receivership.41 It is probable that some of those who voted did not realise how irrevocable this move would prove. Helen Grace recalls:

It was brinkmanship, we decided that the filmmakers had the right to receive the money and that they shouldn’t be deferred … That decision effectively put us into liquidation … The AFC could have resolved the situation by a bailout, but it didn’t happen. We weren’t ‘too big to fail’.42

On Christmas Eve the Supreme Court of NSW appointed a liquidator and five staff members were sacked. In January 1986, the AFC agreed to provide liquidators with funds to employ transitional staff and to fund redundancy payments to the staff sacked. Late that month, in response to television stories and press coverage of the crisis of subsidised distribution engendered by the liquidation of the Co-op, AFC CEO Kim Williams advised the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper that the AFC “certainly intends to work with the film community in ensuring a positive outcome.”43

“Bedevilled”: The End of the Sydney Co-op

A Sydney Filmmakers Co-op Action Group was formed “to carry on the work of the Co-op,” with the objectives of keeping the organisation’s collection together, maintaining the publication of Filmnews and to engage with the AFC in the design of new arrangements for the distribution of independent film.44 Murray Brown, the Cultural Activities Coordinator of the AFC’s Creative Development Branch, had the unpleasant task of managing a sham consultative process required to deliver the Co-op collection to the AFI, which had been the clear intention of the AFC from at least the time of their Cultural Activities Review in 1984.

In December 1985, Filmnews reported that the AFI’s highly regarded Director, Annette Blonski – who had turned the organisation around in her brief period as CEO – had resigned.45 She was replaced in January 1986 by Vicky Molloy, formerly Director of Film Development at the AFC.

A working party was established by the AFC that included representatives from the AFI, Ronin Distribution, Melbourne filmmakers, the Sydney Co-op Action Group and others. The first meeting of the working party on 24 January 1986 was informed by a briefing paper prepared by Film Development and marked “Confidential”. It was confidential because it included an analysis derived from a study the AFC had commissioned as part of its Cultural Activities Review. Les Rabinowicz’s figures compared the performance, according to AFC criteria, of the AFI with the Sydney Co-op. The study found that while the AFI had more staff, resources and films, the Sydney Co-op had more bookings and returned more revenue to filmmakers. This was not surprising, as the Co-op handled more than double the bookings of Australian independent films compared to the AFI. Months later, after heated arguments about the status of this briefing paper, it was re-classified “not for publication”.46 Under the sub-heading “Strategies for the Future” the Briefing Paper chastised both the AFI and the Co-op:

The AFC has been dissatisfied for some years with the performance of both the AFI and the Co-op’s distribution. While comparisons do point to a generally greater volume of sales and income generated by the Co-op, it is clear that they have both suffered from high staff turnover and a lack of managerial, financial and marketing expertise.

The Co-op was the worst offender, however, as it was “bedevilled by a singularly inappropriate and inefficient staffing structure based on collective work practices,” according to the paper.

At an early meeting of the Working Group, Liz Jacka pointed out that if the AFI was to become the singular distribution organisation, it would have “a monopoly on film culture.”

The AFI would have to become like the Co-op and became involved with black, women’s and ethnic films etc … It would be difficult to see the AFI being involved with this ‘political thrust’ … Can (the AFI) maintain (its) respectable face and have a ‘political collection’?47

Another contributor to these meetings was Aboriginal activist Gary Foley, at this time Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board. The Co-op in particular had been very active in promoting the black Australian films in its collection and had appointed a “Black Film Worker” – Madeline McGrady – for this purpose. Foley registered his concern about “meaningful Aboriginal involvement in any new distribution organisation.” He also registered his scepticism, saying he was “unconvinced” about the singular organisation proposal, “owing to the denial of access to relevant information.”48 The AFC process was a stage-managed exercise by an organisation determined to implement its preferred model for subsidised distribution of independent film through the AFI – this was clearly a fait accompli at this point.

Then, by some astonishing fluke, the Filmmakers’ Co-op Action Group’s Gillian Leahy, Joy Toma and Frank Maloney managed to organise a meeting with the Hawke Labor government’s Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment, Barry Cohen. This meeting with Cohen in early March 1986 brought together Leahy, Toma and documentary maker David Bradbury with the AFC’s CEO Kim Williams, General Manager of Film Development Malcolm Smith, and Cultural Activities Coordinator Murray Brown. The Action Group’s representation to Minister Cohen in preparation for the meeting was robust. In a written presentation they complained about the Working Party’s “procedural bias toward the AFC’s preferred option which is absorption of all distribution subsidies and practices by the AFI.”

Our complaint focuses on the means by which the Working Party is being exploited … Members cannot put motions to the meetings. Votes cannot be taken. Information vital to the Party is withheld. This procedure has been used to censor the Working Party and to ensure that the only option to be developed and costed by the Commission is its preferred course of action.49

In the course of this engagement with the Minister, the Co-op Action Group illustrated the kinds of problems it had with the AFC, by pointing out the circumstances the AFI itself had recently encountered. They explained how in the previous 12 months the AFC had demanded a balanced budget from the AFI (which had a deficit of AU$44,000), and specified that the mechanisms to achieve this would include cutting further funding immediately, appointing a financial consultant without discussion with the AFI Board or staff, cutting staff from 47 to 20, and selling the AFI’s Longford Cinema (marking the end of subsidised exhibition in Melbourne).

The Action Group persuaded Minister Cohen to advise the AFC that they must fund the costing of an Action Group alternative proposal to the AFC’s plans, a suggestion that had been refused at the previous Working Party meeting. The Action Group agreed in exchange for this undertaking that only one subsidised distribution agency could be funded. They were effectively snookered.

Proposals were prepared and submitted. On 27 June the Chairman of the AFC, Phillip Adams, announced the winner. There were no surprises. The AFI would be funded to establish a new national distribution service. The Action Group’s proposal was rejected because of “significant weaknesses in the structure, administration, provision for financial management and revenue projections.” The press release said the AFC approval was conditional upon the AFI developing the “opportunity for filmmaker involvement in management” and the AFI “establishing a separate company to handle the distribution operation.”50 “Thus the Co-op, which had founded Filmnews, ceased to exist, and the AFI Distribution (AFID) was born.”51 Later, in 1999, the AFC also closed AFI Distribution, along with the George Lugg Library (now the AFI Research Collection, housed with RMIT University in Melbourne).

An Invisible Archive

The sensibilities and ambitions of identity politics and the New Left in all its fragmented complexity during the period of the co-ops generated a body of work that constitutes the most remarkable archive of radical political cinema in Australia: a diverse alternative canon (if I may borrow from Thomas Waugh) that runs “from miserable-ism to defiance.”52 Think of such striking and important films as Margot Nash and Robyn Laurie’s Anarcho-Surrealist Insurrectionary Feminist agit-prop film, We Aim to Please (1976), or Helen Grace’s cool and critical Serious Undertakings (1983). Passionate debates raged around Gillian Leahy’s theoretically informed, contemplative essay film My Life Without Steve (1986), Jeni Thornley’s first-person diary film Maidens (1978), and Pat Fiske’s wonderful documentation of contested geography and place in an inner-city Sydney being subjected to the criminal greed of corrupt development in Woolloomooloo (1978). Tom Zubrycki’s Waterloo (1981) also takes up these issues in dialogue with working class communities. Then there’s the features, animations, short dramas, and video activism.

Australian filmmakers

Poster for Gillian Leahy’s contemplative essay film My Life Without Steve (1986).

The co-ops were organised bodies of resistance within a social formation that repressed certain voices and aspirations. This resistance was articulated not only in the works distributed, but in the organisational forms in which this work was carried out. Speaking about the fall of the Sydney Co-op years later, Gillian Leahy wrote:

The lobby to save the Co-op failed because basically the AFC couldn’t stomach filmmaker control. They always believed experts who said they could do it better … they don’t like “undisciplined” – as they see it – energy … they did not believe in collectives. They failed to realise how much more voluntary energy is released when an organisation is run by democratic control by those who work in it and those it serves.53

During the Action Group’s campaign to reconstitute a co-op, Mandy King and James Kestevan made a video, Neat on Paper (1985), that includes a grab from Margot Nash:

One of the things that the co-op did many years ago was prove that there was a market for short films, for documentary films, at a time when they were seen to be absolutely non-marketable.

Interpretation of this body of work potentially aggregated in this substantial “invisible archive” has to figure with the radically transformed conditions of production and reception delivered to the present through digital culture. This is an analogue archive – in 4:3 screen ratio, often in black and white, shot with the Aaton, the Arri, the Balieau, the wind-up Bolex, or the video porta-pak. How is it best approached without reducing this heritage to mere “stock footage” or bits and bytes in the ubiquitous, undifferentiated, internet archive? A comprehensive response to the potential that resides here is needed – an account of the works, of the archaeology of the medium, of the people and institutions that enabled this sector of Australian independent film to function as it did.

Helen Grace has articulated a take on the recognisability of the co-op ethos in the internet age:

The logic of the co-op has now become, not exactly mainstream, this is still outside of the mainstream in a certain way, though it is on the edges of it, and the mainstream is furiously trying to monetise it all the time, but nonetheless this principle of sharing, of producing and sharing and enjoying the benefits of that in a kind of collective, a collaborative way, this key logic of the filmmakers co-op movement, that logic still exists. We were amateurs at that process; that has now become so much better organised by young people today than we did.54

A historiography matched to this particular moving image archive demands responsibility to a certain curatorial practice, involving a respect for the works as artefacts, as films, and decisively refusing the depoliticising discourse of nostalgia. It is not enough to recover the work as “content” – there is another imperative for interpretation that is alert to a materialist reading of the technological and cultural contexts in which the phenomena of the co-ops arose and transformed themselves. This could ground such an archive in sufficient historicity to establish the real heritage of difference the works and the phenomena of the co-ops articulate. 

Thanks to Cathie Gillian and Alex Gionfriddo of the AFI Research Collection at RMIT, and the RMIT AFI Research Collection Fellowship that facilitated work on this project during 2014. Thanks also to Dan Edwards for his comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.

Contact jheworks@websurf.net.au; www.earlyworks.com.au


Films made within, or distributed by, the Australian Cop-ops referred to in this article

Backroads (Phillip Noyce, 1977, 16mm, colour, 57 mins) 

Caravan Park (Phillip Noyce, 1973, 16mm, B&W, 14 mins)

Caster and Pollux (Phillip Noyce, 1973, 16mm, B&W, 45 mins)

Come Out Fighting (Nigel Buesst, 1973, 16mm colour),

Cosmic Clown (Ross Hamilton, 1974, 16mm, colour, 28 mins)

Dalmas (Bert Deling, 1972, 16mm, colour, 103 mins)

Good Afternoon (Phillip Noyce, 1971, 2x16mm, colour, 50 mins)

Homosexuality: A Film for Discussion (Barbara Creed, 1975, 16mm, B&W, 46 mins)

Maidens (Jeni Thornley, 1978, 16mm, colour, 33 mins)

My Life Without Steve (Gillian Leahy, 1986, 35mm, colour, 53 mins)

My Survival as an Aboriginal (Essie Coffey with Martha Ansara, 1978, 50 min)

Neat on Paper (Mandy King and James Kestevan, 1985, video 20 mins)

Ningla A-Na (Alessandro Cavadini, 1972, 16mm, B&W, 75 mins)

Phallic Forrest, The (Kit Guyatt, 1971, 16mm, B&W, 40 mins)

Point of Departure (Don McLennan, 1975, B&W, 30 mins)

Protected (1975, 16mm, B&W, 56 mins)

Renegades (Phillip Noyce, 1972, 16mm, B&W, 16 mins)

Serious Undertakings (Helen Grace and Erica Addis, 1983, 16mm, colour, 28 mins)

Shirley Thompson vs. the Aliens (Jim Sharman, 1971, 16mm, 100 mins)

Sunshine City (Albie Thoms, 1973, 16mm, colour 117 mins)

That’s Show Biz (Phillip Noyce, 1972, 16mm, B&W, 22 mins)

Turkish Baths (Maya Frankel, 15 mins)

Two Laws (Alessandro Cavadini, Carolyn Strachan, and Borroloola Aboriginal Community, 1981, 16mm, colour, 130 mins)

Waterloo (Tom Zubrycki, 1981, 16mm, B&W, 50 mins)

We Aim to Please (Margot Nash and Robyn Laurie, 1976, 16mm, colour, 13 mins)

Woman of Our Time, A (Peter Tammer, 1972, 16mm, B&W and colour, 26 mins)

Woolloomooloo (Pat Fiske, 1978, 16mm B&W, 75 mins)

Wrong Side of the Road (Graeme Isaac and Ned Lander, 1981, 16mm, colour, 79 mins)


About the Author

John Hughes is pursuing a cross-platform project documenting the filmmakers’ co-operatives around Australia. An early member of the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-op, and a filmmaker with work in distribution with the Sydney Co-op and the AFI, he was a participant in the Working Group convened by the AFC to advise on distribution of Australian independent films following the demise of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op in 1985–86. In 2011, in collaboration with Tom Zubrycki and with development support from Film Victoria and Screen NSW, shooting began on a series of interviews toward a documentary film iteration of the project. This work is continuing.



  1. Garry Wotherspoon, “And now we want to get married?” in After Homosexual: The Legacies of Gay Liberation, Carolyn D’Cruz and Mark Pendleton, eds. (Crawley, Western Australia: UWA, 2013), p. 187.
  2. Jenny Diski, The Sixties (London: Profile Books, 2009), pp. 8–9.
  3. Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier, Radical Brisbane: An Unruly History (Brisbane: Vulgar Press, 2004), pp. 273–77.
  4. Hebert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (London: Abacus, 1968), pp. 60–5.
  5. The Push was an intellectual subculture rooted in libertarian politics during the 1950s and 60s, centred in Sydney on the Royal George Hotel in Sussex Street, and in Melbourne at Tatts Hotel in Russell Street. Well known figures associated with The Push include Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes and John Flaus.
  6. There is currently a project underway to digitise this crucial resource.
  7. The following general film histories all mention the co-ops: Annette Blonski, Barbara Creed and Freda Freiberg, eds., Don’t Shoot Darling! Women’s Independent Filmmaking in Australia (Richmond, Australia: Greenhouse Publications, 1987); Felicity Collins, Ties That Bind: the Psyche of Feminist Filmmaking, Sydney 1969–1989 (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Technology, Sydney, 1995); Peter Mudie, Ubu Films: Sydney Underground Movies 1965–1970 (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 1997); Albie Thoms, “10 Years of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative” in Polemics for a New Cinema (Sydney: Wild and Woolley, 1978), pp. 346–405.
  8. John Cumming, The Films of John Hughes: A History of Independent Screen Production in Australia (Melbourne: ATOM, 2015).
  9. John Hughes and Tom Zubrycki, interview with Phillip Noyce (Los Angeles, 2011).
  10. Adrian Martin, “Fat City” in Signs of Independence: Ten Years of the Creative Development Fund, Megan McMurchy and Jennifer Stott, eds, (Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1988), pp. 16 and 18.
  11. Matthews later wrote, “I would like to take this opportunity to thank the vice squad of the Victorian Police Force for their kind donation.” Melbourne Film Co-Op leaflet, August 1972.
  12. Ibid.
  13. “Matthews Gets Off,” Melbourne Co-op newsletter, December 1972.
  14. Fred Harden, Pat Longmore and Barbara Hall, “An oral history of the Melbourne Filmmakers Co-operative,” in Papers and Forums of Independent Film and Asian Cinema, Barbara Creed, Jim Davies, Freda Freiberg, David Hanan and Kim Montgomery, eds. (Melbourne: Australian Screen Studies Association, 1982), p. 141.
  15. Mike Lee and Corrine Cantrill withdrew from the Board; Ian Macrae, Ann Wookey and Mike Hudson returned. Mike was one of the founders, Ian’s background was advertising, and Ann was an academic.
  16. Melbourne Filmmakers’ Co-op Program, February 1973.
  17. Sydney Co-op minutes, 20 March 1973.
  18. John Hughes and Tina Kaufman, interview with Jan Chapman (Sydney, 2013).
  19. John Hughes, Tina Kaufman, and Tom Zubrycki interview with Martin Fabinyi (Sydney, 2013); and Gillian Leahy, “Alternative Cinema: The Sydney Filmmakers Co-op” in Community and Independent Television, Jeffrey Cook, ed. (Sydney: Metro, 1991), pp. 223–33.
  20. Albie Thoms, My Generation (Sydney: Media 21 Publishing, 2012).
  21. This article’s author was the camera operator on Dalmas, supporting lighting cinematographer Sasha Trikojus.
  22. Carolyn Howard, “Inside the Women’s Film Group,” Lip (1976); and Harden et al, “An oral history,” pp. 141–55.
  23. Harden el al.
  24. Barbara Creed, “Political Activism and Radical Change: Homosexuality: a film for discussion (1975)” in After Homosexual, pp. 75–83.
  25. John Hughes and Tom Zubrycki, interview with Carolyn Strachan and Alessandro Cavadini (New York, 2011)
  26. David Tiley, “Screen Australia Cuts: Rumbles from the Grass Roots,” Screenhub, 3 September 2014, http://screen.artshub.com.au/news-article/features/digital/david-tiley/screen-australia-cuts-rumbles-from-the-grass-roots-245638. In late 2015, Metro Screen announced its intention to close in December due to funding cuts.
  27. On the Film, Radio and TV Board and video activism in Melbourne, see John Hughes, “What to do with a Greek bearing gifts,” Learning Exchange 24 (December 1974): pp. 4–7.
  28. Senator Douglas McClelland oversaw the Ministry of the Media, whereas the Film and Television Board and the new National Film School (AFTRS) were part of the Arts Ministry, which was the Prime Minister’s responsibility. McClelland was (in)famous by mid-1973 for his “insensitive handling of the controversial visit to Australia of the president of the Motion Picture Export Association of America,” Jack Valenti, whose advice McClelland later sought for members of the AFC. See Ina Bertrand, ed., Cinema in Australia: A Documentary History (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 1989), pp. 272–4 and 280–2.
  29. Sydney Filmmakers’ leaflet, 5 November 1973, p.1.
  30. AFC Annual Report, 1975–76, p. 1.
  31. “Film Board Wraps Funds Bias,” The Age, 28 September 1976. See also “Film Man Hits at Transfer, The Age, 11 November 1976.
  32. MFC submission to Victorian Film Commission for emergency interim grant, 26 May 1977, p. 4.
  33. Lisa French and Mark Poole, Shining a Light: 50 Years of the Australian Film Institute (Melbourne: ATOM, 2009).
  34. John Hughes, interview with Helen Grace (Hong Kong, 2011). See also Helen Grace, “The Public Wants Features: The Creative Underdevelopment of Australian Independent Film Since the 1960s” and John Cruthers, “Cheques and Balances: The Present Operations of the CDB,” Filmnews 12 (December 1982): pp. 11–12.
  35. These demands are summarised well in the Sydney Film Co-op Action Group letter to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Environment, Barry Cohen, of 4 March 1986, included in Papers of the AFC Working Group on Subsidised Distribution, 1986.
  36. Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative: Independent Film and Video (catalogue) 1983.
  37. Frank Maloney, “Introduction,” Sydney Filmmakers Co-operative: Independent Film and Video, 1983, p. vi.
  38. Sydney Film Co-op Action Group letter to Cohen, p. 4. See also the account in Jennifer Stott, “Independent Feminist Filmmaking and the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op” in Don’t Shoot Darling, p. 125.
  39. Memo, 22 March 1985, Cultural Activities Coordinator to AFC Board of Management pp. 1–3.
  40. Murray Brown letter to Liz Dods, 22 March 1985.
  41. Minutes, SFC Extraordinary General Meeting, 18 December 1985.
  42. Hughes, interview with Grace.
  43. Kim Williams, CEO, AFC Press Release, 20 January 1986.
  44. Motions from a public meeting, 18 January 1986.
  45. “Hi Jinx at the AFI,” Filmnews 15:9 (December 1985): p. 1.
  46. In the case of Australian titles, the difference over the financial year prior to the study was AFI AU$76,729 (56 per cent) and the Co-op AU$118,982 (85 percent), despite AFI’s overall subsidy being greater. The Co-op had less films than the AFI, yet many more bookings: The Co-op held 322 titles, the AFI 734, yet Co-op bookings over the same period were 3,018, the AFI 2,429. This was especially true for Australian titles: Co-op Australian title bookings were 2,103 (70 per cent of their total bookings), while AFI Australian title bookings were 936, 40 per cent of their total.
  47. Working Party minutes, 7 February 1986, p. 4.
  48. Ibid., p. 8.
  49. Sydney Filmmakers Co-op Action Group to Cohen, p. 2.
  50. AFC press release, 27 June 1986.
  51. French and Poole, p. 66.
  52. Thomas Waugh, “Sufficient Virtue, Necessary Artistry: The Shifting Challenges of Revolutionary Documentary History (2006–2008)” in The Right to Play Oneself: Looking Back on Documentary Film (Minneapolis and London: Minnesota University Press, 2011), p. 192).
  53. Leahy, p. 232.
  54. Hughes, interview with Grace.

About The Author

John Hughes – a writer, director and producer of documentary and drama for film, television and online – has an ongoing fascination with the interventions of groundbreaking filmmakers in Australian documentary. Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia completes a film trilogy with Film-Work (1981) and The Archive Project (2006).

Related Posts