I’ve decided to write about what’s happening to the NFSA. Not because we screen a lot of prints from their archive – actually we don’t – but because what’s happening right now, behind closed doors, excluding the public from the conversation, is how we continually lose what’s culturally important in our society. There are already so few places still showing, preserving, protecting and fighting for film. Reducing it further is just one more step towards the obliteration of screen culture in this country.
On April 11th, this brief article, by Sally Pryor, appeared in the online Canberra Times, ‘NFSA sheds 28 staff, cuts Canberra film screenings’. First, it made me angry. Then I got worried. It was this line especially that left me incredulous; “Mr Loebenstein admitted that the arrival on the market of Palace Cinemas in the New Acton precinct had made it harder to justify spending taxpayer funds on importing international films and securing quality prints to screen to the public.”
As someone who has only been to Canberra once many years ago and (sadly) has never visited the Arc Cinema at the NFSA, but is aware of their programming, I have to say that this is a most bat-shit crazy conclusion to draw. Just because The Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) are showing at the local multiplex doesn’t mean that rare, original film prints and brand new restorations, imported from all over the world, marking significant moments and movements in film history, such as the upcoming Ingmar Bergman and Yasujiro Ozu retrospectives, are redundant. How does the new option to go see Grace of Monaco (2014) replace the demand for a screening of the 35mm film print of Fantastic Voyage (1966)?
It is moronic for anyone who has any interest, knowledge or even vague awareness of film history and its significance to suggest that the two are comparable or that one could replace the other. It’s like suggesting that you no longer need a sushi bar in a food court because now there’s a McDonalds.
But, as with any corporate decision that refuses to take into consideration the opinions and expertise of the people working in the industry or their public when making large scale decisions that irrevocably alter the landscape of screen culture in Australia, perhaps the most concerning aspect of this whole fiasco is how the decision makers have responded to the appeal from NFSA staff who – despite being treated so poorly – are still trying to fight for the archive, hoping to retain some truth to the organisation’s slogan: “Australia’s living archive”.
A letter, co-signed by some 140 people, seeking to restrain the current management of the NFSA from carrying out their proposed course of action, failed to have the effect they hoped for. They asked for a public release of the Loebenstein NFSA Business Review and asked for a publicly open forum to discuss the matters and propose changes, with opportunity for the Board to publicly defend and explain their proposal. What has happened is this: some possibility of input into the proposed structure for the future of the organisation. Head here to read more and to comment via email if you cannot attend the few and brief public presentations they are holding.
The sacking of 28 members of staff from the NFSA is going ahead. Back in 2011 I had the great pleasure of working with one of Australia’s greatest cinema curators, Cynthia Piromalli, when we ran a John Waters retrospective – something that simply wouldn’t have been possible without her. Not everyone is aware, but often in Australia, due to geographic and financial constraints, cinemas/galleries/festivals often share freight costs and are able to negotiate better clearances if the films are screening across a number of venues/locations. The John Waters screenings were not just the product of hard work from us here at the Astor Theatre, but were made possible through our collaborative hard work with the Arc Cinema and the Adelaide Film Festival. This collaboration is no longer possible.
Finally, there’s been very little discussion concerning the archive’s collection. As I mentioned at the outset, it’s not a resource that we regularly draw upon – as a commercial entity we don’t have the archival status that is required for many archival prints and we have, as a small business without public or state funding, a smaller budget than archival screenings often incur – but that doesn’t mean that we don’t care about what happens to the collection. Having a vested interest in something isn’t only about exercising an option to use it. We are passionate about screen culture in Australia, we are dedicated to the protection and exhibition of film and the preservation of the cinema going experience. This means that we get angry when it is attacked and we get worried when its future is placed in jeopardy. Personally, I’ve had enough of funding cuts and corporate types telling those of us who know a thing or two about screen culture how to manage our industry. Archives need experts. Films need auditoriums. And audiences need options.
Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.