Cinema’s Golden Summer

The Birth of the Feature Film, in Australia and the World, 1910-1913

23 February-9 March 2013

1913 is recognised as an international milestone in modern cinema. Big-budget ‘feature’ dramas of more than 40 minutes in length had begun to find success with audiences in Europe from 1910 onwards. 1913 is often considered the year in which these ‘features’ became confident in their storytelling powers, superseding the older short comedies and melodramas that had dominated cinema’s first 15 years.

The trend culminated internationally with Hollywood’s first megahit, DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915. However Hollywood and American audiences arrived belatedly to feature film production – even if by 1918 they would dominate it globally. Until 1913, feature films were a speciality of only a few national cinemas: France (then the world’s biggest film industry); Italy (where the feature film epic was invented); Scandinavia (where there had always been a close connection between cinema and dramatic theatre); and here in Australia.

For a moment between the late 1900s and 1913, Australia was one of the few nations in the world to have an active and prolific feature film industry. Popular colonial, convict and society melodramas – previously only seen on the live stages of the capital cities – were quickly recreated on film for the first Australian picture palaces. They reached suburban, regional and bush audiences of tens of thousands that seemed ravenous for great movie yarns that defined the then new nation. In one year alone, 1911, it is estimated that local filmmakers produced more than 40 features.

The boom lasted briefly, until January 1913. Then this first generation of major Australian film industry companies were amalgamated into one firm, Australasian Films. It was the making of our first film industry ‘major’. Yet it was also a controversial business decision; and for that reason, 2013 marks a centennial in Australian cinema history about which film historians have mixed feelings. This ‘combination’ of the Australian movie-making business (as it came to be called, sometimes disparagingly) preferred to mostly import films from Europe and the US. It turned this first flood of local feature film production into a trickle – as it would largely remain for the next 60 years.

Cinema’s Golden Summer celebrates the centennial of this first great age of cinema, in Australia and the rest of the world. Although many of the great feature films of this age have been lost, the series will select some of the greatest and most representative titles which have survived from these four pioneering national cinemas: Italian cinema’s classical, historical and biblical epics, such as Quo Vadis and Inferno; French cinema’s adaptations of great 19th century literature, and its invention of crime thrillers and film noir in films like the Zigomar and Fantomas series; Swedish and Danish cinema’s love of compelling social dramas like Ingeborg Holm or The Great Circus Catastrophe; and Australian cinema’s love of nationalistic stories of convict heroes (and heroines), begining with the world’s first dramatic feature film, 1906’s The True Story of the Kelly Gang.

Cinema’s Golden Summer will draw on the collections of the NFSA’s fellow film archives in Europe and the US. Alongside their early feature films will screen some of the few surviving fragments of the Australian movies from the era, preserved in the NFSA collection. Lectures and conversations with film historians will also discuss what’s left (in stills, posters and contemporary accounts) of the dozens more local features made before 1913, but sadly now lost to us. Finally, looking back to an era that also saw the beginnings of Australian documentary making, Cinema’s Golden Summer will sample some of the ‘actualities’ through which Australians saw their own, newly national society in the early 1910s.

Many titles will be screened in their original 35mm film format and with live silent accompaniment, with the NFSA’s Arc cinema continuing its role as Australia’s unique venue for the silent film experience.

Thanks to: Carmen Accaputo (Cineteca di Bologna); Lorena Lori (Fondazione Cineteca Italiana); Thomas Christiansen (Det Danske Filminstitut Filmarkivet); Agnès Bertola (Gaumont-Pathé Archive); Jon Wengström (Svenska Filminstitutet Filmarkivet); British Film Institute (Fleur Buckley); Lobster Films; Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema; Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage; Martyn Jolly, Gino Moliterno (Australian National University); Andrew Pike; Graham Shirley; Ina Bertrand; Chris Long; the late Eric Reade.

The musical accompanists:

  • Italian-born, Sydney-based Mauro Colombis is an internationally acclaimed specialist in silent cinema musical accompaniment. He has been a regular performer at European film festivals and film archives, including Italy’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

  • Gary France is Associate Professor, Reader of Music and Coordinator of the percussion program at the Australian National University School of Music. He is an internationally-renowned symphonic and improvisational percussionist, educator and writer. For his performance, Gary is joined by well-known composer and trumpeter Miroslav Bukovsky and guitarist-improviser Carl Dewhurst.

  • Irish-born, now Canberra-based Elaine Loebenstein works professionally as a collaborative pianist in Ireland, the UK, Europe, the US and Australia. She specialises in creating music for live accompaniment for film and visual material, and has also recorded a number of soundtracks for silent film DVD releases.

  • Joshua McHugh is a Canberra-based pianist, composer, librettist, singer, teacher and live performance accompanist. His compositions include the opera Grimm and the Blue Crown Owl. He is currently studying screen music at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

  • Luke Sweeting is a Canberra and Sydney-based improvising pianist and composer, who regularly performs with his own sextet. He is a past winner of the Sprogis Woods Composition Competition.

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