Australia’s oldest film school is celebrating its golden anniversary.
The school started life at the Swinburne Institute of Technology in 1966, moving in 1992 to its current home at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music.
To mark the occasion, 50 never-before-seen student films from the past half-century – several of which are embedded in this article – are now available.
Below, six authors contextualise each decade of the school’s history, with reference to the student films of those eras.
The 1960s. How a 19-year-old student’s film played into Melbourne’s creatively ambitious film culture. By John Hughes, Honorary Fellow at the Victorian College of the Arts
If you watch film, chances are you’ll be familiar – even unwittingly – with the work of Melbourne’s Ian Baker. As one of Australia’s most highly-regarded and talented cinematographers, and a long-term collaborator with the director Fred Schepisi, he has shot a great many feature films and television series all over the world. But chances are even higher you’ve never seen the film Baker shot while a film student at Swinburne in the 1960s.
Cool All at Onceness was made in 1968, when Baker was 19. At that time, industry lobby groups were agitating for Commonwealth support for a local film industry. The production sector was grounded in industrial, public relations, training and commercials production, underpinned by regulations in 1960 mandating 100% television and cinema commercials screened in Australia were to be made by Australian companies and crews.
And yet, contrary to received wisdom, the “fallow” 1960s nurtured a creatively ambitious and internationally-informed film culture in Melbourne. Read more.
The 1970s. Artists were in search of stories that documented the overlooked individuality and creativity being expressed in the suburbs. By Arnold Zable, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne
Artists in the 1970s were in search of stories that documented the overlooked individuality and creativity being expressed in the suburbs. After all, that’s where most Australians lived.
The artist’s eye was also drawn to those who struggled at the margins, the outsiders, the alienated, especially among the youth sub cultures – as storytellers we were in search of unique characters, and unsung lives.
Award-winning director Gillian Armstrong’s student short, The Roof Needs Mowing (1971), has something of the romance, energy and youthful optimism of the 60s: Armstrong was drawn towards recording, as one critic put it, “the magic in everyday life”.
But there is also a darker subterranean current in her work, one that hints at suburban boredom, disorientation and regret, albeit expressed with whimsy and a light touch. Read more.
The 1980s. We made steps forwards in the complicated evolution of animated film. By Robert Stephenson, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne
In the era of Pixar and Aardman it would be easy to take animated films for granted. But it wasn’t always around, and its evolution in Australia has been complex.
In 1976 Bruce Petty’s animated film Leisure picked up an Academy Award, and in 1977 the Yoram Gross feature film Dot and the Kangaroo had a local cinema release. But there was little else out there in terms of original Australian animation visible to the broader public
In 1981 Australian filmmakers Alex Stitt and Phillip Adams created the ambitious, animated feature Grendel Grendel Grendel. It didn’t look or sound like any Disney movie and the design was reminiscent of Alex Stitt’s television commercials, such as Life Be In It.
In the 80s, making animation on video, Super-8 or 16mm film was an expensive endeavour but tertiary institutions had equipment, instructors and technical support that no 18-year-old could normally get their hands on. Read more.
The 1990s. The version of lipstick liberation offered at the turn of the millennium seems frivolous and flippant now. By Dr Meagan Tyler, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at RMIT University, PhD in Philosophy from the University of Melbourne, 2009
There are different and competing narratives about women, femininity, sexuality, and feminism in 90s cinema. The late 1980s saw the beginning of the backlash against second-wave feminism.
Despite this, a feminism that recognises the suffocation of patriarchal control and the promise of female rebellion continued to be articulated in films such as Thelma and Louise (1991) and, in somewhat less bleak terms, Muriel’s Wedding (1994).
Three short films – Virgin, Whore, Saint (1990); Sexy Girls, Sexy Appliances(1997); and Titsiana Booberini (1996) – were produced within this context at what is now Australia’s longest-running film school.
Looking back, the version of lipstick liberation offered on screen at the turn of the millennium – one that is occasionally still evident now – seems frivolous and flippant in contrast to the darker critiques of patriarchy and rebellion offered earlier in the 1990s. Read more.
The 2000s. Why can’t politics and religion and those refugees keep out of our backyards? By Alice Pung, writer, lawyer and teacher. University of Melbourne graduate in Law and Arts, 2004.
You’re no film critic but you know that The BBQ (2007), by Shpend Mula, is supposed to be about good old-fashioned Australian values. An old woman and a younger man must have their cook-off, even as suspicious coppers drag their cowering neighbour from his home.
You think: How dare the forces of the government interrupt the Australian way of life, your inalienable right to roast lamb, your lawn-sets planted on neat green squares? This is your turf, you’ve gotta defend it! Why can’t politics and religion and those refugees keep out of our backyards? Farrrk. What a farce.
At the start of the 2000s, you had green and gold stars in your eyes, the Olympics were on your turf; but then a year later the Twin Towers fell and suddenly there was an Axis of Evil. So you pointed that finger to keep evil out of your country, only to have those ethnic Others come to you. Read more.
The 2010s. Clever and creative manipulation of the audience is more important than ever. By Nicolette Freeman, Head of Film and Television, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne
I recently attended a virtual reality/augmented reality presentation at one of the city’s private animation and digital design schools. Sharp young code writers and computer programmers told of their difficulty in leading and influencing their viewers’ attention in a story world that has infinite horizons.
These new program-makers are crawling towards a mastery of storytelling and audience manipulation, at a snail’s pace compared to the dexterity and capability of their coding sophistication.
In this world, clever and creative manipulation of the audience’s engagement with the action and story is more important than ever.
The audience/player now has unprecedented agency, acting as the protagonist, and is able to influence the story’s direction with their choices and reactions. Read more.
Banner image: Still from Bino (2011) by Billy Pleffer.
The articles featured here form part of a series to mark the Golden Anniversary of Film and Television at the Victorian College of the Arts. See Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six and Part Seven. Visit the Film and Television 50th Anniversary website and Digital Archive website for more information.