Susanne Chauvel Carlsson on preserving Charles Chauvel’s legacy

Moviegoers from 1950s Australia may recall the moment when an azure sky and red arkoses in the wild Northern Territory appeared on screen for the first time in colour. Australian producer/director Charles Chauvel’s 1955 film Jedda was not only the first colour feature in Australia, but the first to cast Indigenous Australians in leading roles.

Five decades later, Chauvel's only daughter, Susanne Chauvel Carlsson, revisited the locations where his films were made as part of a project to preserve her father’s legacy.

“He wanted to show Australia to the world,” Carlsson says. “He loved the country and the whole background. At that time the audiences in cinema enjoyed seeing something different and the Australian landscape provided a seemingly exotic background. My father believed that the only way to attract the overseas audiences was to make it Australian.”

“He was also one of the few at that time who realised the difficulty to compete with Hollywood which had more sophisticated systems, facilities, trained actors and lots of people working in this field. But the industry here in Australia was still struggling in those days.”

During the past 20 years, Carlsson has devoted herself to preserving Chauvel’s works and recording her family history.

“My mother has done quite a lot of work before she died in 1983,” Carlsson says. “She organised his works and presented some of them to the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA). When she died, I officially took over the job and continued looking after some of the requests from time to time, regarding the use of my father’s films, footage and photographs. More recently I have been involved in works in the NSFA in Canberra, helping them identify some of the photographs in their collections. I also write the captions for them in case that they are not sure who was in the photographs and which films they might belong to."

Carlsson started collecting photographs relating to her parents in 1983. Six years later, she published Charles and Elsa Chauvel – Movie Pioneers, an illustrated volume of the life of the legendary couple. She is now finishing the biography The Life and Cinema of Charles Chauvel.

Carlsson established the Chauvel Cinema website in 2011, keeping a journal of her journeys to the locations where the Chauvel films were made. She also adds some excerpts from the biography she is working on to accompany each entry. “I felt that people might be interested to know some of the places where my father’s films were made. It might also be interesting for those living in these areas.”

On November 27 the NFSA will present its annual Ken G Hall Film Preservation Award to Carlsson for her contribution to the preservation of Chauvel’s legacy.

“Susanne is a very active researcher, scholar and supporter in terms of finding original film material related to her father’s films,” NFSA senior film curator Meg Labrum says. “She has been passionately committed to maintaining the reputation of her father as well as her mother Elsa Chauvel who was very active in the early Chauvel films. She works really hard to ensure that their heritage is still celebrated today.”

Based in Canberra, the NFSA collects, preserves and shares Australia's national audiovisual heritage. The NFSA Ken G Hall Film Preservation Award began in 1995 and have been presented to individuals, groups or corporations, for their contribution to the art of moving image and its preservation.

Labrum says the challenge lies in bringing all the jigsaw pieces together.

“Just think about the years during which Chauvel worked – 1920s to 1950s – when film tended to be regarded as one of the transient forms of entertainment. Quite often the negatives were not stored properly and disappeared. Thus for us the challenge continues to be tracking down as much as the original materials as possible.

“Sometimes information can be lost through the years along the way, as people die and technicians that were involved left. Preserving them thus becomes significant, since films and sounds are both part of the Australian history.”