Like any other nationality, Australia’s people take great pride in their achievements, be they large or small, and things are no different with our film industry. Although today it is the envy of the world, for a significant amount of time our industry was underdeveloped and unappreciated. It took the impassioned work of an immigrant for Australians to realise how special their motion pictures could be, and in turn we came to embrace him as one of our own.
That immigrant is David Stratton, who hosts and produces this very series. A lover of movies since childhood, Stratton first came to Australia in the 1960s as a “Ten Pound Pom” – a colloquial term applied to Britons who arrived under the government’s £10 migration scheme. Soon after arriving, he was made director of the Sydney International Film Festival, which was far from the prestigious event it is today, and became a fierce advocate for the local film industry. Upon ceasing his role as the Festival’s director, Stratton worked briefly as a journalist at Variety magazine in the United States before returning home to co-host The Movie Show, and later At the Movies, with Margaret Pomeranz.
His vast knowledge of and experience in the Australian film industry makes David the perfect host of this three-part documentary programme. The first episode of the series, “Game Changers”, focuses on the films which received overwhelming critical success either here or overseas, including Crocodile Dundee, Strictly Ballroom, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mad Max and Shine. Episode Two is titled “Outsiders”, focusing on movies regarding marginalised Australians such as immigrants (They’re a Weird Mob), Indigenous Australians (Walkabout), religious minorities (Evil Angels), homosexuals (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), oddballs (Muriel’s Wedding) or simply those in a foreign environment (Wake in Fright).
Third and final is “Family”, the weakest of the three, which looks at a hodge-podge of films that discuss themes of belonging and identity. Some of the movies discussed include The Devil’s Playground, Chopper, Lantana, Animal Kingdom, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Newsfront. It is also the most personal episode of the series, with David going into great detail about his past and the connection the films have to his own life – for example, he likens The Devil’s Playground to his own time at boarding school. He also takes the opportunity to revisit his one-and-a-half-star review of The Castle by acknowledging:
“what I originally saw as patronising I now see as affectionate bonds between a tight-knit family.”
Though much of the documentary speaks glowingly about Australia’s movie industry, David doesn’t shy away from criticism. When discussing censorship in the very first episode, he singles out Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey Shoot as an example of how relaxed classification laws can have a detrimental side-effect, disparaging it as “sadistic and pointlessly violent”. In the third episode, he talks about Romper Stomper and the controversy it stirred at the time of release, calling it out for failing to challenge or criticise the views of the characters. Still, it’s all very interesting to hear David’s insights.
One of the bigger disappointments of Stories of Australian Cinema is its brevity. Each episode is only an hour in length, and one is left longing for David to go into greater detail about a film or figure. The muddled third episode suggests that there wasn’t enough material for an extended series, but the litany of extra material that accompanies the series on ABC iView suggests otherwise. Additionally, there are many iconic films that the host neglects to discuss such as Don’s Party, The Wog Boy, The Dish, Harvie Krumpet and Balibo.
Nevertheless, Stories of Australian Cinema is a very engaging series, providing great insights as to why the films discussed have become so adored by many. David speaks with genuine enthusiasm about the medium, and unlike At the Movies, he delivers pieces-to-camera in a very natural manner rather than in monotone. His passion for movies is evident throughout, as is his occasional disgust – seeing him recoil at the ostentatious gore on display in Turkey Shoot is rather funny, but also believable. And, there are some great interviews with the many people who helped to develop the film industry into the powerhouse it is today.
The final episode of Stories of Australian Cinema screened last week on the ABC and the entire documentary, as well as the extras mentioned earlier, are now available to watch on iView.* Even for those with only a passing interest in Australian films, the series is essential viewing that is made enjoyable by its warm and much-loved host, who demonstrates why our often-undervalued industry is so special.
*Update, July 11th: This content is no longer available to stream.