Lament for the doomed lending collection

19 May, 2014 by Barrie Pattison*

Australia is already the most parochial film environment in the developed world. No surprise there. Look at the horror stories that litter the national cinema time line.

Think burning Amalgamated's library and the holdings of the ethnic distributors, freighting the lending collection to Melbourne and back at they say a million a time, cancelling the Lillian Gish tour, flogging Cinema Papers to a team unable to get past three shonky issues, the aborted Sydney Quay Cinematheque.

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The dismantling of the National Film Theater must be most alarming. It's no accident that that organization's establishment coincided with the development of an Australian feature production industry acknowledged world wide and it's disappearance marked the end of consistently plausible product – and that is just a side issue.

The money spent on ill informed production alone could have made this country a world leader in cinema savvy. We're only on the third paragraph and were already looking at lost hundreds of millions.

The fact is that film (of which theatrical features are the high water mark) is the major form of expression of the Twentieth Century and on into our own time and that Australians have never had the access to it that people in other places take for granted. This shows up in areas central to life here – education, entertainment & comment – as well as production.

The National Film Lending Collection was the one point at which government threw a bone to that sleeping dog. (Pretty good for a mixed metaphor!) While they are poor relations to their real world counterparts, ACMI, the Arc, The Chauvel and the Brisbane Cinematheque, along with the volunteer film societies, which drew on on this, were the few attempts to deal with the problem, plaster on the cracks.

Programs, publications and screenings have been systematically whittled away from a very modest peak. This area was always seen as something to asset strip in the name of local production and, in parallel, it's preservation.

This is not just short sighted but stunningly naive. The Paris Film Museum's Henri Langlois, who faced similar pressure, understood this problem six decades back. He knew that it was not just sufficient to hold productions that could be entered into his data base and make his operation look imposing. "We cannot turn our Cinematheques into cemeteries" – it sounds better in French.

It was and is essential to spread awareness of the existence of historic materials and their part in a wider picture – their value. With all the short comings of his Cinémathèque Française, Langlois had it figured. The work had to be shown – under ideal conditions. Enthusiasts would watch it and ripple effect it outwards from those showings. It was because Langlois admired and repeatedly screened the then unknown NOSFERATU in his small screening room that it became a draw card there, in film museums round the globe and eighty years later you can buy it for a few dollars at your corner DVD store or stream it into your home computer. That story multiplied by thousands is the story of Cinematheques.

Not every one shared his point of view. The British Film Institute once hired in someone to tell them which of their Maurice Elvey films they could safely burn! It's not sufficient to have the work. You must deploy it or some bean counter will want the shelf space it occupies.

Which brings us to current situation where we learn that, as part of archive policy, the National Lending collection is about to close its doors. Rough luck media courses, volunteer groups or anyone who wants to use what are often the only copies in the country. Feel confident that your tax payer dollars are being used instead to digitize local product into formats which are likely to be obsolete before the process is finished.

The mistake of putting archiving and screening under the same roof has been evident for some time.

This situation repeats the need for the action that has never materialized. Movie enthusiasts in Australia have a dreadful record as lobbyists and it's caught up with them – an echo of the Maurice Ogden poem ""And where are the others that might have stood side by your side in the common good?" "Dead," I whispered; and amiably "Murdered," the Hangman corrected me; "First the alien, then the Jew… I did no more than you let me do."

* Barrie Pattison is a filmmaker, writer, long-time movie enthusiast and one of the founders and first programmer of the Australian National Film Theater.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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