When the St. Kilda Film Festival kicked off in 1984 with Mary-Lou Jelbart as Director, the lineup of shorts and documentaries was remarkably strong. These were films of a technical competence and sophisticated vision that would stand up in international company, yet were having trouble getting a local screening. Prior to then, the two major venues had been the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals, but both being international in scope, they tended to be very selective when it came to local product. So St. Kilda, from the start, quickly emerged as the place where Australian films, other than features, would be screened to enthusiastic audiences.
Some documentaries from that first festival came from Paul Cox (Mirka), Ivan Gaal (Tandberg On Page One), and David Bradbury (Wilfred Burchett – Public Enemy Number One). There were beautiful animations by Denis Tupicoff, Bruce Petty (Leisure), Steve French and Noel Richards.
Standouts among the shorts were Peter Jordan’s strange fable Iwana Station, Kathy Mueller’s hard hitting Vietnam drama Every Day Every Night, Joe Bogdanov’s witty Private and Confidential and the immensely popular Tennis Elbow by John Thomson. Does anyone remember Carole Sklan’s delightful Farewell to Charms? Then there was Richard Lowenstein’s Evictions which launched his career and Rivkah Hartman’s A Most Attractive Man. The pleasure of all these films lingers to this day.
The venue was the National Theatre in Barkly Street, where it remained for many years. There was a certain grandeur in the entrance foyer – the marble staircase, plush carpets and chandeliers – which gave the festival a fine sense of occasion. The projection facilities were however somewhat less than wonderful. The National couldn’t afford a decent 16mm projector, so one had to be hired each year, carted up to the bio box and installed. This added an unwelcome element of risk to proceedings. There is nothing more crushing to a filmmaker than having their masterpiece appear out of focus or the sound distorted.
On the other hand there is nothing more exhilarating than good projection with an enthusiastic audience. This was mostly the case.
My idea of the appropriate size for this festival would be an opening night in a large theatre, then the rest of it in a small venue, say 200 seats, allowing for repeat screenings over a few days. A small venue like this, I think of the State Film Theatre (now the Treasury), has unfortunately never existed in the St. Kilda area. There are only giant barns or poky broom cupboards.
Embarking on a five year stint as festival director in 1985 I recall that the annual budget was about $15,000 all up and our idealism extended to paying a rental to every film entered. How times have changed! The one big lesson from those years was that a good administrator needs a huge capacity for paperwork. Letters should be going out in shoals – inviting, rejecting, praising, begging, confirming, re-assuring and generally keeping everyone informed as the caravan trundles on. Unless you are putting out 20 to 30 letters, faxes, phone calls or e-mails a day, you are falling short of what’s required! Mostly I did, fall short that is. They say that during the London blitz they had to pump 20 thousand shells into the sky to bring down one German bomber. A festival director needs to be pumping night and day.
As for the selection process, in those days it was a bit autocratic, though when a selection committee did come together their choices invariably coincided. We managed to avoid any deep discord over selections though the potential for disagreement is always there. One time, I announced at a committee meeting in the town hall that there was a wonderful new documentary available from England called Prostitute. There was a sudden silence around the table that spoke volumes. They must have guessed I was just kidding. Or was I?
It goes without saying that the selection should never be solely from films submitted. There has to be legwork around other festivals, student screenings and the like to see what is on offer. Then, an effort to lure in likely prospects. Some films just shine with brilliance, like Jane Campion’s early shorts. Three fabulous films from 1998 which come to mind were Merilee Bennett’s Song of Air, Laurie McInnes’s Pallisade, and Maggie Fooke’s Pleasure Domes. The latter was a sublime evocation of St. Kilda as an Edwardian era holiday resort: all palm trees, pavilions and dance bands by moonlight. An architectural dreamscape. The St. Kilda councillors in the audience that night were ecstatic. This really is the place to be. They certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed sitting through Prostitute.
Maybe it’s legitimate to conclude these fond memories by quoting the programme notes from many years ago and wishing this year’s festival all possible success.
It is said that idealism is a nation of warriors, reality a worn out sock. There are just so many reasons for not making films. It’s such a sweat. Almost every move you make is costly in ways beyond money and the eventual returns are meager. And yet, the satisfactions from making a good film and having it seen and appreciated are something beyond words. We are here to encourage the process, to find out what is being made, round it up and put it on the screen for the enjoyment of all. So film makers, disregard reality. Keep those cameras turning (1).