This year the Sydney Film Festival is in its 60th year, quite an achievement for any festival or event in this ever changing city.
The festival grew from the ideas of film enthusiasts meeting in Newport in 1950 on the Northern Beaches hoping to take advantage of the support of the newly formed Film Users Association and the influx of documentary films from a recovering, post-war Europe, as well as being encouraged by the European festivals in Venice, Cannes and Edinburgh. While Melbourne aired a festival in 1952 at Olinda, Sydney followed soon after in 1954.
In 1954 Sydney and Australia were very different places to today. Conservative ideas were the mainstream; the White Australia Policy was in force restricting immigration to Australia, Aboriginal people were not counted in the census nor could they vote, only 29% of women aged 15-64 were in the workforce and if they got married they could no longer work for the public service.
The first festival was a massive hit in a film starved city. 1200 tickets were sold for the four day event held at Sydney University with Professor of Philosophy and President of the NSW Film Council Alan Stout and the first festival director David Donaldson steering the event.
The festival was dominated by documentaries, including the Australia classic Back of Beyond, which had won the coveted Gran Prix Assoluto at the Venice Festival. This doco followed the mail run in the Australian outback. It also kicked off ongoing controversy about film and censorship at the festival. While not censored itself, the Menzies Government were not happy with the film’s portrayal of Australia, thinking it would scare off potential immigrants.
Of course since then there have been more controversial films then that one. The festival has struggled with Government censorship from the start. For many years all films had to be passed by the censor before airing (as is still the case for commercial release films), which lead to a number being cut or pulled before airing. Often directors wold themselves withdraw their films when they found they had been cut. Most often the censors would go after films which contained sex or nudity over those that were violent. For European film directors in particular, this was a strange and prudish attitude for a festival aimed at adults.
David Stratton, director from 1966 until 1983, first lead the push back against censorship in 1965 over the Japanese film, Women in the Dunes. Up until then the festivals had quietly accepted the censors work as part of the business. Films were seen by Government as powerful tools and mind changers. However Stratton and others were of the opinion that adults were usually responsible and smart enough to be able to make up their own minds. The festival was about pushing boundaries and debating ideas through the medium. It was not until 1983 that the Federal Government lifted many of the restrictions on the festival, although some films remain controversial and attract protest-Hail Mary in 1986 drew 1000 protesters and demonstrators to the State theatre.
The festival, which has moved twice (Sydney University 1954-67; Wintergarden Rose Bay 1968-73; State Theatre 1974-), has in its 60 years shown over 8000 films, many not shown anywhere else in Australia. It has introduced many film goers to their first world cinema experience, deepened the cultural experience of our city and encouraged the diversification of films shown in the more mainstream cinemas generally.
To celebrate their 60 year, the SFF have published an ebook with heaps of information on the festival, all the programs from 1954, essays and more. Check it out.