VCA Digital Archive: Ding! Ding! Melbourne trams

Still from Hell is Other People. Jess Hutchison.
Still from Hell is Other People. Jess Hutchison.

The VCA Digital Archive is a living audiovisual record of student films that date back to 1966. The articles in this series respond thematically to the depth and breadth of the collection, which will be available for research from mid-2019. Enjoy!

By Cassandra Gorton

Sydney has the internationally recognised firework and traffic receptacle the Harbour Bridge. Adelaide’s skyline is slashed with steeples and spires. Perth’s sunsets colour the Indian Ocean.

In Melbourne, we have the humble tram: that electric trolley that travels only slightly faster than walking speed; that infamous touring sardine can on tracks that performs weekdays from 7.00–9.00am (with encores from 4.00–6.00pm); that al fresco cable car with the driver that looks you dead in the eye before closing the doors on you – I know you saw me, Gary!

What better way to track historical Melbourne than through its trams? (Get it? “Track”?)

Trams have been in continuous operation in Melbourne since the late 19th century. And, although the VCA Film and Television Digital Archive only goes back to the 1960s, it’s brimming with films shot on location in Melbourne. Where else are cash-strapped students going to make their magnum opus? Their own backyard, of course. From the Archive’s digitised films we can witness changes in tram culture and etiquette over the past 50 years.

Younger readers, or people who didn’t grow up in Melbourne, may not be aware that, up until 1998, trams used to have conductors. These “connies”, as they were affectionately known, checked and sold tickets, helped passengers board the tram, and gave directions to tourists. They were kind of like the current ticket inspectors, but didn’t have the power to bankrupt you with fines.

And so … Our first stop is Justin Brickle’s 1987 short film, Connies.

Connies. Justin Brickle. 1987. Drama.

We follow Roy, a recent migrant to Australia, on his first day as a connie. Bolstered by the wisdom of the classic Australian proverb, “Nah, you’ll be right,” from his colleague, Roy encounters hordes of sniggering school children, passengers who refuse to clear the doorway, and people listening to music through headphones on full volume. All Roy needs is someone having a loud, yet deeply personal, conversation on their iPhone for it to be a modern-day scenario.

On our second stop, Lucy Maclaren and Paul Goldman’s 1981 student short film Dragon portrays Melbourne’s trams as an otherworldly obstacle course. After losing their toy dragon on a tram, two young girls decide to infiltrate the depot at night to retrieve it.

Dodging mechanics, night-shift workers, and certain death from decapitation, the sisters are ultimately successful, locating their toy under a seat, but at what cost? Imagine the build up of hardened chewing gum under those seats!

Dragon. Lucy Maclaren. 1981. Drama

The next stop on our route is Hell is Other People, directed by Jessica Hutchison in 2015. This documentary is all too familiar for today’s tram passenger – the packed carriages, the authoritarian inspectors, and the whiff of body odour from someone’s armpit directly in your face as you struggle to hold on to something.

Hell is Other People interviews a former connie, a human rights lawyer, an action group, and members of the general public. It’s a good watch if your commute home didn’t enrage you enough.

Hell is other People. Jess Hutchison. 2015. Documentary.

My apologies, passengers. This service will now terminate due to a protest over long articles ahead. Please change here for another service. Thank you for riding with us today.

Cassandra Gorton is an archivist who has worked on the VCA Digital Archive Project since 2015. Having watched hundreds of digitised films for the project, she has now almost perfect recall of the graduating work of every former student. Please do not be alarmed if she approaches you and recites your film’s metadata in detail.

The VCA Digital Archive series of articles was commissioned as part of a grant from the University of Melbourne, Student Services Amenities Fee. University of Melbourne staff and students and some industry people dipped into the FTV archive and watched films based on themes. The idea was to use the archive as stimulus to curate and create. Some responses are completely creative, others are reviews, others are word art pieces.

The full collection is available for research.