VCA Digital Archive: Melbourne, you’re a star!

Still from Night Fare (2009) by William Head.
Still from Night Fare (2009) by William Head.

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 Victoria Perin

Don’t let Melbourne ruin your student film. She will, if you let her. Mid-2018 I watched dozens of student films, most of them filmed in Melbourne. Created by graduating Film and Television students at the Victorian College of the Arts (or its earlier incarnation at Swinburne University) one of the key unifying factors across 50 years of short filmmaking was location.

I watched Melbourne change in the background of student films that stayed eerily consistent: Fitzroy and Footscray may have been gentrified, but awkward dialogue is eternal. The upcoming fully accessible VCA Film and Television Archive will host every student film made since 1966 – that’s more than 1,000 works. It will showcase the true breadth of film studies. In the Archive you will find five-star directors right next to the filmmaker who had the right idea but ran out of time.

Passion and ambition characterises this Archive, but it manifests with variable results. It is this exact variability that characterises student filmmaking, and it is this variability that will make the Archive a powerful research and teaching tool.

After watching so many of these films, I could give you a list of the things that weak films do badly (poor team-work seemed the most damaging), but I would prefer instead to highlight something the good films do well: the way some students use our city, Melbourne, almost like a character in their film.

Beatrice, Her Beast and the Man from the City. Jordan Prosser. 2009. Fantasy.

I had to watch so many films that I can guarantee that the most memorable attribute is a sense of place in a student’s work. I don’t just mean composing a memorable location shot, like Jordan Prosser’s opening of Beatrice, Her Beast and the Man from the City (2009), which has the viewer sitting by an underpass in a filthy watercourse, although this was an obvious plus. Instead, the unforgettable films opened me up to a place I was already familiar with, in a new and intimate way.

Night Fare. William Head. 2009. Documentary

Although not entirely successful as a short, I was nevertheless mesmerised by William Head’s Night Fare (2009), with its depiction of Karamuir Singh Baidwan’s dinner break, a taxi driver during a night shift. We begin driving around on the streets of the CBD, before Baidwan clocks off and eats a meal in extremely companionable company. I still wonder where that Indian restaurant is.

Last Beautiful Friend. Mischa Baka. 2009. Drama.

Another from the same year, the outstanding drama Last Beautiful Friend (2009) by Mischa Baka, is set entirely in the same room; the camera is fixed in position, only zooming slightly to alter each scene. We’re in the loungeroom of Land, a divorced art teacher who can’t stop himself from inviting Lani, one of his teen students, over to his house. Land’s place is scrappy and haphazardly filled with second-hand furniture. A big brown gas heater looms over the couch; a record player is set up on a coffee-table in the corner.

I know houses like this; I think I have lived in houses like this. It might serve any viewer as a generically sad, immaturely decorated pad, but for young viewers from Melbourne it will carry an extra pang of recognition. The architecture that defines a city is not just the facades seen from the street, but the inner-city terrace houses we live in, the insides of suburban homes that begin to show their age in eerily similar ways. Baka shows us that he is alive to such feelings, and that he knew where to find his location that was integral to the mood of his film.

Short Story. Ettore Siracusa. 1970. Comedy.

Go back to the earliest films in the Archive and you will find similar sensitivities to locations in Melbourne. In fact, for one class in particular, the urbanity of Melbourne was the focus of several filmmakers.

The best projects in 1970-1971, such as Ettore Siracusa’s Short Story (1970), Peter Dodds’ documentary Fitzroy: Coming Up For Air (1970), and Gillian Armstrong’s The Roof Needs Mowing (1971) are infused with memorable images of Melbourne. The city and suburbs come across as cold and heartless, warm and absurd, or fraught with political consequence, depending on the vision of the filmmaker.

Fitzroy: Coming Up For Air. Peter Dodds. 1970. Documentary.

The Roof Needs Mowing. Gillian Armstrong. 1971. Experimental.

Location in each case is presented as a condition of the characters: the mad father rowing in his above-ground pool, the dissatisfied worker expressing himself on the train, the citizens of Fitzroy debating the push to convert public housing into apartment blocks. Even the documentary I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1970), although ostensibly a talking-head documentary on childhood memories, is saturated with mental images of Melbourne:

I remember one time Peter and I came home from state school and it had been pouring rain. It was one of those days where all the gutters had filled with water – flowing all over the road. And we kept our rain coats in our bag, ‘cause it was really mighty just walking in the rain. And we got home and Dad and Mum … [laughs] Dad and Mum were at the back door, ready to wallop us as we ran in.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Gordon Aldis. 1970. Documentary.

We judge students on their ability to express genre, on their choice of cast, and the way they plot narrative. But out of all the criteria you can judge a student film on, one of the most equitable is how they breathe life into their location.

We cannot all be lucky enough to cast the young Marco Chiappi in our screwball comedy (like Christian Bernardi did in his hilarious film Risk from 1993), but we all have access to the same city, the same settings, the same landscape. When Kate Begley needed to a location for her coming-of-age musical The Great Pretender (1999), it was essential to find a daggy council hall to film the climatic dance scene.

Risk. Christian Bernardi. 1993. Comedy.

Settings have their own personality. The best student films I saw activated a spirit already latent in their chosen location: a sad loungeroom, a melancholic backyard, an eerie underpass. Melbourne, these films proved, is a city of feelings.

The Great Pretender. Kate Begley. 1999. Comedy.

I sat through all my allotted films – with all their tedium, awkwardness and rare beauty. With some, I felt like I was the first person watching them since they were made, and this really is a tragedy. I’m an art historian – the people who really need to see these films are film students themselves. Nothing makes you understand the issues that face film students more than by watching dozens of them from beginning-to-end.

Any struggle that a student from Melbourne in 2018 faces, was faced by another student from Melbourne, maybe in 2008 or maybe in 1978. Grounding your film in an emotive location may seem like a secondary luxury, but of course location is central to narrative. We need to know where we are in order to know how to feel. If Melbourne is your chosen setting, use her more than just as a backdrop. If using Melbourne poorly can ruin a good student project, using her thoughtfully will make your film shine.

Victoria Perin is a PhD student at the University of Melbourne, and regular contributor to Memo Review. Her research concerns printmaking in Melbourne during the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

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.