Stephen Cummins Retrospective
Stephen Cummins Films Restored
The NFSA has digitised, restored and remastered the 9 short films made by Stephen Cummins. Guest writer Simon Hunt, a creative collaborator on Stephen's films, worked with the NFSA on the remastering and writes below about Stephen's life, his films and their impact on queer cinema.
The remastered works premiered at the Mardi Gras Film Festival during Sydney WorldPride on 21 February 2023 and also screened at Arc Cinema at the NFSA in Canberra on 26 March.
Gay bodies in public spaces
Stephen Cummins’ 9 short films – created between 1984 and 1995 – map the changing politics of representation of the human body during that decade.
While his initial Super 8 experiments used the body as landscape and canvas, an increasing political consciousness as a gay man saw him examine the gay body in public space, interrogating the limitations of freedom of movement and then experiencing the consequences of demanding that freedom.
While always concerned with the multiple meanings of film representation, he moved from a predominantly aesthetic viewpoint to a later perspective that saw (and experienced) all art as political.
le corps imagé
Born in Armidale, NSW in 1960, Stephen moved to Sydney in the early 80s and enrolled at Sydney College of the Arts.
His student films Breathbeat, Blue Movie (both 1984) and Deadpan (1985) reflected the sensibility of the Sculpture Department in which filmmaking practice was housed, hinting at a contained eroticism in the framing of the naked body as a sculptural element and already displaying his signature relationship with dance and gesture as forms of storytelling.
These elements all came together in Le Corps Imagé (1987). Examining the way that fine art and fashion photography draw from cultural representations – an act of both reading and writing – Stephen saw projecting those images back onto the moving bodies of the performers as one of reclamation, with the performers controlling the final image through movement.
Classical Greek male torsos merge into ambiguous gender zones as they are projected onto women’s bodies, a large cock emits from Michelangelo’s David, a crowd of 1950s film spectators wearing 3D glasses jostle as their body/screen rewrites the image. View an excerpt from Le Corps Imagé:
The film went on to win the Grand Prix award at the International Festival Of Young Cinema in Montreal, and the Medal of Honour at the Brussels Film Festival.
In 1986, Stephen began to receive funding to curate and tour collections of Australian short films internationally. We became friends in Berlin, where I was living, and thereafter I became his composer and frequent creative collaborator.
Where his earlier films both reflected and critiqued ‘traditional’ coded homoeroticism in cinema, 1989’s Elevation more directly examined the limitations placed on gay male sexuality in the public eye.
Two men meet and kiss passionately in an elevator, enduring the disdain of a disapproving public, and then imagine a utopia where their sexuality could be celebrated.
Elevation reflected Stephen’s shift towards a more overt narrative form. Watch an excerpt below:
While the appearance of AIDS created a climate of public fear in the 1980s, it also energised the LGBTQI+ community and LGBTQI+ artists to demand and promote visibility and recognition.
The decriminalisation of male homosexual sex gathered pace across Australia throughout the 1980s and in 1989 was at the parliamentary debate stage in Western Australia, one of the last holdouts.
Stephen was invited to join a group art project in which filmmakers made 30-second films to be screened on late-night Perth television, during commercial breaks. His short film Taste the Difference showed performers Chris Ryan and Herb Robertson passionately kissing in close-up, with the film’s title emblazoned across the image in the final seconds. Although it was approved by the federal advertising standards body, it was banned by the television station manager, who claimed that it was not banned because it was 2 men kissing, but because the kiss itself was too explicit.
With increased visibility came violence. After an evening spent sketching out ideas for a new film at my place, Stephen was severely bashed on his way home by a group of men screaming 'faggot' and other slurs at him. The initial film idea transformed into Resonance (1991), which begins with an act of violence, and then uses dance and performance to show a process of healing from this event:
We follow both victim and attacker from the initial scene, and see the effect of the violence on their lives and relationships:
After winning Best Short Film at the Sydney Film Festival, Resonance went on to appear at over 100 international festivals, including the Sundance, New York and Toronto Film Festivals and subsequently received a theatrical release in over 10 countries, accompanying a range of feature films. It was one of the most successful Australian short films of the 1990s.
Stephen continued his examination of an undercurrent of male violence in Body Corporate (1993). He worked with dancer and choreographer Mathew Bergan to create a dance work for SBS Television, set on the World Square building site in Sydney.
In the last year of his life, Stephen developed a treatment for a film called Status, which examined the experience of HIV and disclosure through documentary, dance and imagery. Shortly after completing this treatment, he developed HIV-related lymphoma and passed away at age 34 on 23 August 1994, surrounded by loving family and friends.
During his final months, he had been invited to join a group project called Big New Sites, in which filmmakers made one-minute films with 4 images to be screened during the slide-based advertising sequences at Sydney’s Event Cinemas, then known as Hoyts.
After Stephen’s death, I completed this smaller project using a fragment of Status, but it was banned by cinema advertising company Pearl + Dean.
Even though The HIV Game Show (1995) was never screened, the subsequent fight over the banning eventually led to the word 'homosexuality' being removed from the Adult Themes list in Australian censorship guidelines.
– Simon Hunt
Remastering the Stephen Cummins Collection
The NFSA holds the broadest collection of original film by Stephen Cummins, the Australian award-winning filmmaker and co-founder of Queer Screen. In partnership with Mardi Gras Film Festival and to celebrate Queer Screen’s 30th anniversary, the NFSA have worked closely with Stephen’s collaborator and estate executor, Simon Hunt, to bring these historically significant films to contemporary audiences.
The work has been extensive including the film preparation, digital scanning, cleaning and preliminary grading of all 9 short films in the retrospective program; the digitisation of audio masters, 90% of which were then fully restored by Simon Hunt; and a collaboration with Resonance cinematographer Brendan Young and Piccolo Films to grade 3 of the films. The NFSA will produce digital masters, individual Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs) and a screening-ready DCP package of the retrospective program – preserving the works, and Stephen’s legacy, for future audiences.
– Elena Guest, NFSA Curator
The Stephen Cummins Retrospective premiered at the Mardi Gras Film Festival during Sydney WorldPride on 21 February 2023 and also screened at Arc Cinema at the NFSA in Canberra on 26 March.
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Main image: Elevation (1989). Photographer: Ara Koopelian. Courtesy: Estate of Stephen Cummins. NFSA: 813846.