The making of a landmark documentary

BY PAT FISKE

Australia Daze director and co-producer Pat Fiske gives her personal account about the making of the historic documentary in 1988. Australia Daze is the latest film to undergo a digital restoration as part of the NFSA Restores program and screened around Australia on 26 January 2021. 

WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Saké and soul-searching

Sometime in 1987, a group of filmmakers – Dennis O’Rourke, Ruth Cullen, Tim Litchfield, myself and others – were having dinner in a Japanese restaurant in Sydney's Kings Cross. We were discussing the bicentenary and were all quite disturbed about the way it was being promoted – all razzamatazz and total celebration. There didn’t seem to be any soul-searching or reflection of where Australia was at, where Australia could be and what could be changed for the better. It felt like a lost opportunity!

We were angry about what happened to our colleague, Curtis Levy, who had won a script competition and funding for a film for the Bicentennial Authority – a satirical film about Australia’s relationship with the monarchy through the Royal Tours titled Tour de Force. The government of the day decided that there shouldn’t be any ‘introspection’ and the newly appointed Bicentennial Authority’s General Manager deemed the film to be critical and the grant was revoked. 

We consumed much beautiful food and saké. Debate raged and we all felt that something should be done. Dennis and I stayed on until 3am, mulling over all the ideas which had come up and nutting out the possibility of making a film about Australia at this time in history – a film which would ask some pertinent questions along the way.

Capturing the mood of a nation

We would involve filmmakers from all over Australia to film from midnight to midnight on Australia Day 1988. One team would follow wealthy people on a boat on Sydney Harbour and other teams would cover the Aboriginal March, stockmen working on the land, different migrant groups, mining families in Paraburdoo, a hospital birth, homeless people, and more.  

At some point in the day, all the filmmakers involved would ask a series of questions to elicit responses about national identity, Aboriginal people, multiculturalism and racism. Questions such as: What does it mean to be an Australian or be living in Australia? What do you think about the fact that not everyone will be celebrating – the Aboriginal people of Australia can only perceive this event with a sense of mourning? What is good about Australia? What is bad about Australia? What needs changing? Is our treatment of migrants fair? Is multiculturalism working? What deserves to be celebrated? Do we really care?

Dennis and I agreed to talk the next morning at 9am and commit either to making a film or letting the idea go. Despite our hungover state, we still thought it was a great idea. The ABC and Channel 4 soon came on board with presales. With Graeme Isaac joining as producer, we worked to raise the rest of the budget. 

I was like a dog with a bone and many people said, 'Do yourself a favour and drop it – it’s too hard!' We had to lower the budget by cutting costs and having fewer filmmaker teams, and we went to state governments for funding for their resident filmmakers. We were able to raise just enough to go forward.

The orchestration was mammoth – we had around 28 crews and directors shooting 16mm footage on 26 January 1988 all around the country, and others shooting Super 8 film and video, and sending it to us. Many independent filmmakers contributed in whatever way they could.

Finding the gold

We had help – Anna Grieve was our amazing production manager and Ruth Cullen helped us with production as well as shooting segments in Kings Cross and Sydney's western suburbs. I had this idea to ask radio stations all over the country for one hour of talkback on 26 January 1988. We had many responses and Ruth culled through hours and hours of talkback radio and found all the ‘gold’.  

The ABC had three crews shooting particular bicentennial stories in small towns in Australia and they offered that footage to us too. In fact, all the news stations shared with each other and us a combined feed of the footage that they shot on the harbour and elsewhere that day. We could use whatever footage we wanted. That added a mountain of material for us, of course, but it was so great to have permission to use it.

All the footage was shot in 24 hours which was a boon and an amazing opportunity. It took us seven days from 9am to 8pm to view the rushes. The experience was exhausting and very depressing, but the underlying humanity and humour heartened us. 

'I Give it 5 out of 5'

Then came the edit which took nearly nine months with two editors – Denise Haslem and Tim Litchfield. We divided the Australia Day footage into three time segments. Tim edited the footage from midnight to 10am and from 6pm to 12am, and Denise from 10am to 6pm. When we had it pared down to a manageable length, we put it together and Denise continued to complete the edit. 

It was intense, hard work; excruciating, but a lot of fun as there were so many surprises in the footage and the radio talkback, not to mention the juxtapositions to play around with.

Dennis was travelling overseas with his films and making Cannibal Tours (Dennis O'Rourke, 1988, Australia), so was away much of the time but came back to film his segment in Alice Springs and watch rushes. He was also there for some of the early editing before having to bow out.

Australia Daze screened in cinemas and then on the ABC around Australia Day 1989 and was received well:

  • ‘5 out of 5’, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, The Movie Show (see full review below)
  • 'This movie is a triumph', Bill Collins 
  • 'This 80-minute comedy – well it is funny most of the time – is an entertaining and at times embarrassing account of how the nation behaved on the great day', Neil Jillett, The Age
  • 'Don’t let this be seen outside Australia, it makes us look like a lot of yobbos', ABC viewer comment 
  • 'Australia Daze is a thoughtful gem of a film which will be around long after the fireworks have lost their sparkle', Peter Crayford, Financial Review.

It also screened in the UK with much aplomb and to much laughter.

Here is the 5-star review by Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton on the SBS Movie Show:

Importance of Digital Preservation

Films like this one, shot in many formats but mostly on 16mm, with 16mm final prints, don’t last forever. They have a time limit – the colours fade, the soundtracks disintegrate. For the past five years, the NFSA Restores program has come to the rescue. I am so thankful to the work they do in restoration!

They restored my film Rocking the Foundations (1985) a few years ago and did a magnificent job and now, Australia Daze. These restored films will last and will be copied in the future with whatever technology is available.

Our film archive is our history and extremely important to preserve. If only there was enough money available so that the NFSA could restore all of the 16mm and 35mm films that they have in their vaults so we do not ever lose them!

Pat Fiske, Australia Daze Director (Overall) and Co-Producer, Segment Director – 'Italians' and 'the Aboriginal March'