Some folks define their education by the silver spoon in the mouth of their school, the ivy strangled cloisters of their university, the concussion record of their rugby team, or the slave trader who funded their Oxbridge scholarship. My friends and I received the education we value most by sitting in the dark. I’m talking film festivals. I don’t mean celebrity bun fights like Cannes or Sundance, notorious for red carpets and gownless evening straps. I’m talking about getting down and gritty at the People’s Sydney Film Festival.
When we first became subscribers in the 1960s, the SFF had a “dubious reputation”. Owning a ticket was like thumbing your nose at the establishment, who were busy banning Lolita and Lady Chatterly and the merest hint of a nipple. European cinema was notorious for its depictions of nudity and encouragements to disobey the seventh commandment. That pommy blow-in David Stratton took on directing the festival and campaigned to allow movies to be screened uncensored. He was denounced from pulpits all over the city. For a while, subscribers were depicted in newspaper cartoons as scruffy perverts in dirty raincoats, and probably Communists as well. An opinion reinforced by the revelation that Ian Klava (1962-65) and David Stratton (1966-83) had ASIO files. In Klava’s case he was trying to persuade the Czechoslovakian Embassy to send us Czech new wave movies; in Stratton’s case, negotiating a retrospective of Sergi Eisenstein.
Getting to see all the movies on a programme running simultaneously in 3-4 cinemas was a logistics puzzle that would stump even modern-day vaccinators. Today there would be an app to guide you through the labyrinth; in those pre-computer days you had to figure it out with a pencil and paper. You would often find yourself rushing out of a movie in the Union Theatre during the end credits to run a mile to The Hub in Newtown, hoping the pre-screening ads would last long enough for you to catch the beginning of the next film, after which you might bag a wooden chair in the penumbra of the Teachers’College Assembly Hall for the second screening of a movie you had only seen the end of the day before.
And you were often hungry. There was no Subway or MacDonalds or even take-out coffee. Refuelling involved scoffing tongue-scalding meat pies, stale egg sandwiches and thermoses of tea (and rum), while sheltering from the rain in a smelly bus shelter in Parramatta Road.
You had to be tough to be a SFF subscriber.
But the movies! That was what it was all about. The chance to experience cultures we were cut off from by the censors and wowsers, by our suffocatingly Anglo-American monolingual culture, and by the tyranny of distance. Movies meant either Hollywood or Ealing; the film festivals opened our eyes and minds to the genius (and often subversive) visions of the great auteurs: Bergman, Ray, Fellini, Kurosawa, Dassin, Buñuel, Saura, Antonioni, as well as the iconoclasts of the French New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Varda, Chabrol, Rivette… Let’s not turn this into a catalogue of my heroes.
At the end of the 1960s the SFF moved out of its home at Sydney University and spent an uncomfortable and inconvenient five years at the Wintergarden in Rose Bay where, very poorly served by public transport, it nearly withered and died. The Festival was reborn in 1974 in a venue worthy of its cultural importance: the 1920s Baroque splendour of the State Theatre in Market Street, with its magnificent Wurlitzer Organ. It has been there ever since.
The wowsers couldn’t shut the festival down in the 1960s, neither could the landlords nor Transport NSW in the 1970s, but microscopic virus succeeded in 2020 and the Festival was cancelled by COVID-19. Tickets are again on sale for the 2021 season—an expression of possibly reckless optimism. But SFF patrons are both reckless and optimistic as well as tough and hungry for our movie fix. If we have to endure 50 movies, sardined into the stalls and mezzanine with 2,000 potential super-spreaders… we will make the sacrifice.
Long live the SFF.