A group of players at the end of the 1909 VFL Grand Final

Historic footy at Federation Square

 Simon Smith

September in Melbourne is Aussie Rules footy finals time! The city is abuzz and the NFSA is screening footage of one of its most important sporting films in the heart of Melbourne at Federation Square, on the big screen, from  8 to 25 September.

The near-complete surviving silent film of the 1909 Grand Final runs to a little over ten minutes and offers a remarkable insight into long-forgotten aspects of the game: place kicks, ‘slap’ passes, numberless jerseys, players chaired from the field post-match by excited spectators – relics of the past thankfully captured by film exhibitor Charles Cozens Spencer’s camera.


Players enter the field during the 1909 final between Carlton and South Melbourne

It’s also thrilling to see some aspects of the game have remained unchanged: long bouncing runs from the backline, big grabs at full forward and a flag-waving goal umpire attending the four goal posts. Over a century later, with the code having expanded nationally to 16 teams, the film is a treasured reminder of the enduring passion and support that Australians have maintained for their winter game.

The AFL (Australian Football League) began in 1897 as the eight team VFL (Victorian Football League), consisting of seven inner-Melbourne clubs plus the regional city of Geelong’s representative team. As early as August 1898, moving image cameras were filming VFL football matches, capturing footage of Essendon and Geelong’s late season clash at the East Melbourne Cricket Ground.

However, it was not until Saturday 2 October 1909 at the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground that we get our earliest surviving glimpse of the way the game was played. In a low-scoring contest, and despite not kicking a goal in the last quarter, South Melbourne held off a desperate Carlton to win its first premiership flag by a slender two points in front of over 37,000 fans. This was South Melbourne’s first flag, one of only four in 113 years of the competition as South Melbourne/the Sydney Swans.

In 2009, to celebrate the centenary of this important sporting film, the NFSA created a new digital master from the film’s best surviving film component. From this, the NFSA has produced a three-minute highlights package of this historic film for viewing on the big screen at Melbourne’s Federation Square. This will be seen up to 12 times a day from 8 to 25 September and is the first time that this upgraded version will be seen on the big screen. For those of you passing through Melbourne, Federation Square is located literally a drop punt from Flinders Street station and a brisk walk from the MCG, ground zero for any self-respecting Aussie Rules fan.

I hope you can catch this rare opportunity to see this priceless fragment of Australian sporting film history on a big screen! If you can’t get down to Melbourne during September, you can always view the entire film on a much smaller screen via the digitised version available on the NFSA YouTube channel.