An idyllic vision of the 1960s

BY MIGUEL GONZALEZ

The NFSA is now making available episodes of the Life in Australia series of short films in 4K HD, starting with Sydney and Brisbane (included in this article, below) and Melbourne. The series was produced by the Commonwealth Film Unit (later known as Film Australia) between 1964 and 1966 and shows a remarkable glimpse into our cities in the 1960s.

Selling Australia to the World

The Life in Australia films were made for the Department of Immigration, to entice immigrants from Europe. There’s no denying that these films were a marketing tool; Australia was the product, and as such, it was presented as an idyllic destination where everyone led prosperous, happy lives. Scripts for each film are almost identical, covering employment and industry, education, sport, health care, shopping, religion, nightlife and art. Australia had everything anyone could wish for!

The films show a ‘typical’ day in 12 locations around Australia. All the capital cities were included, except Darwin and Canberra. These two, however, had been the focus of other recent Film Australia productions.

The series also includes other destinations that the government considered to be areas of potential growth; places that might offer great opportunities for those who chose to settle in regional centres rather than stay in the big cities. These were Mount Gambier (SA), Cairns (QLD), Launceston (Tas), Wagga Wagga (NSW), Geelong (Vic) and Geraldton (WA).

But perhaps Life in Australia is a misleading name. After all, how can a 10 or 20-minute film capture the diversity of any city, let alone an entire country?

A time of great change

Despite the nostalgia generated by these images of a recent past – the ‘good old days’ – it is important to understand the context in which the films were made. It was the last years of the ‘White Australia’ policy, and the government wanted to attract (mostly British) migrants. Inclusiveness was not the goal, and anything that didn’t fit into the perfect postcard image was left out of these films. It’s the TV sitcom version of a complex country going through a transformative period.

The 1960s was a time of change around the world, and Australia was no exception. The Vietnam War sparked social unrest and protests challenging Australia’s participation in the conflict. There are no Indigenous people in any of these films, at the time when Charles Perkins embarked on the Freedom Ride, and only a couple of years before the landmark 1967 referendum. Women’s rights movements were also transforming Australian society, yet in these films women only play traditional roles: employed in ‘women’s jobs’ until they ‘graduated’ from working life through marriage, to become devoted housewives.

These films are fascinating examples of the 1950s-60s government filmmaking style, and capture different aspects of the Australian experience 50 years ago. They may not represent 100% of what life in Australia was, but they do capture the spirit of a nation aspiring to fulfil its potential.

See more of Life in Australia

View all the films in the Life in Australia series in the Life in Australia curated collection.

Facts about Life in Australia

  • Wagga Wagga was the only episode directed by a woman, Rhonda Small.
  • Geelong is the only episode made by a director with a non-Anglo background, Antonio Colacino.
  • Some of the films don’t have a narrator; these were probably used as parts of presentations overseas, where an Immigration officer provided the live commentary.

With information supplied by NFSA Production Coordinator Richard Carter.