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Gillian Armstrong – nothing changes without a fight

ScreenHub

Gillian Armstrong gave a rousing and insightful speech on Monday at the Sydney launch of the Make it Australian campaign. Here it is.
Gillian Armstrong – nothing changes without a fight

Image: Gillian Armstrong with designer Catherine Martin. They worked together on Women He's Undressed, which was photographed by Anna Howard who took this picture.

Gillian Armstrong embodies the renaissance of Australian feature filmmaking. A Melbourne graduate of Swinburne, among the path-breaking twelve filmmakers in the very first AFTRS intake, a pioneering woman director whose wonderful female characters drove her stories, she has been a fine auteur both here and on the international stage.

What's more, her documentaries dance  with the 'ordinary' experience of our lives and culture in a way that no other Australian feature storyteller has ever done. 

She has a really good story to tell about the way in which our creative sector is built on government regulation, on a bedrock of Australians hungry for Australian content. 

Her speech starts quietly and comes together to find a fresh take on the current crisis by linking it to the long history of film production in Australia, stretching back to the dawn of sound film and the first great collapse. 

It's a pleasure to share this. 

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Dear fellow Australian story makers,

How great to see us all together as one.

I am here to tell a story or two from the past.. and the future. Some of you may have heard them before. 

My theme: NOTHING CHANGES WITHOUT A FIGHT (OR WHINGE). 

Story one: 

1968. A young Australian goes to an art house cinema in Carlton and is horrified to hear Australian voices on the big screen. Sounds so odd, weird. This is not a real movie, movies have American voices. 

That person was me. I had never seen an Australian film.  

Why?

We. Weren’t. Making. Them. That was not so long ago.

US distributors had killed off our 1930s flourishing cinema industry at a time of change/technical innovation.

That little innovation was called sound.  It was also about outlets, about distribution.  US majors installed those speakers and managed to take over the cinemas..

Leading director Raymond Longford ends up a ferry ticket seller at Circular Quay. Paulette McDonough, our first female director/ producer, becomes a writer for the North Shore Times. The empty studios sell carpets.  

Australian Cinema was dead and gone. 

OUR STORY MORAL? Pretty obvious. 

It’s delicate. It’s precarious. We are a small, very over talented, very underfunded country.

Story Two:

The same young Australian, ten years later, after the success of first feature…. (backed amongst others, by Screen NSW, Greater Union Cinemas and a commercial broadcaster.)

…sits down in Burbank to discuss possible US projects.

All bond over chopped salads and shared childhoods of Flipper, Beaver, Lassie, and the Mickey Mouse Club.

Great surprise that this “Austria” kangaroo/red desert director knew so much of their culture… Go Rinny !!.. Sidewalks and peanut and jelly sandwiches…  Even though they truly believe there is only One Culture… that is… 

Their own.

So why? Why no seminal childhood moment with an Aussie story?

Because there weren’t any on our TVs.  As a child of the 60s that’s all there was to watch! We had none of our own except on the ABC, some drama and Mr Squiggle.

No regulations at all. 

A pathetic ONE PERCENT local content!

Australian commercial TV was running wild as the dumping ground of cheap US programs and even cheaper stars.

HOW DID IT CHANGE?

The Make it Australia Campaign led by Hector Crawford and his passionate crews and casts of cops and crims.

And the successful lobbying  (by Barry Jones and Phillip Adams) of the Gorton and Whitlam Governments to set up an Australian Film Industry led to the Australian Film Commission, a National Film School…. which..

…led to money!  Development, support.. production!

What lucky timing for this young Art student. I would not be standing here today. And most of you wouldn’t be sitting there!

 I didn’t even know that as an Australian you could make movies. Three years later, graduating in Film, there were still only four options for employment.

Sweeping floors on Hector Crawford’s Cop shows, ABC Children’s TV or Drama if you could type. I couldn’t. Or Film Australia Govt docos. (Where Peter Weir started.) And of course TV Commercials!

They were completely protected and that’s where I finally ended up, as an assistant editor. And where so many of our great crews were trained…The Russell Boyds, McAlpines, Nick Beaumans and Jill Bilcocks.

BACK TO NOTHING CHANGES WITHOUT/ A FIGHT/ or US!

 The Make TV Australian Team marched and begged and succeeded.  

Aussies wanted more Aussies. They won. 

But the important key was that the new support was underpinned by the first Australian content Regulations.

Bare bones, but regulations that forced our commercial broadcasters to finally have a basic percentage of Australian first run content. ……..

The irony is, most overseas Governments legislate the amount of FOREIGN content that is allowed to INTRUDE on their LOCAL programming!

Today, forty years later, there are endless Media and Film and Drama schools training the next Janes, Krivs ,Warwicks and Cates and hundreds of Production Companies.

Our actors, writers, DPs, and directors are sought after worldwide - and yet…

…. so many STAY, work here and make great Aussie programs for HALF the budgets, and a third of the fees and they still rate through the roof. Aussies like their own stories.

We have proved we can create great work, we have enormously committed talent in all areas and yet we are PRODUCING LESS.

It’s the money.

Government funding has been cut back year after year, sadly often as some sort of political payback. Our incentives also haven’t kept pace with the rest of the world.  And now the new players have NO obligations to create or assist original local programs.

MORAL?

It is once again a time of innovation and change.  Once again, new distribution outlets with no controls.

Production will be LOST AGAIN. 

A journalist in Canberra asked me. What makes your industry more important than the car industry?

Story three:

End titles run, house lights come back up… We are in Pasadena previewing a little Brit/US WW2 film, Charlotte Grey, with Cate to a test audience.

The Warners marketing guy approaches red faced, clutching a pile of audience test cards. He confesses there has been an enormous lack of comprehension of our story because of an little embarrassing gap… Our supposedly college educated audience didn’t know Britain was involved in World War Two……AT ALL!

 Yes they truly thought that Saving Private Ryan, i.e. Tom Hanks had led US troops to France where the war was and killed off all the Germans!

 (…. However, since Nolan’s Dunkirk they at least know some Brits in boats and planes got as far as the beach! )

This may be an example of poor US education programs, but it is also about the COLONIZATION of CULTURE and HISTORY.

MORAL:

What is so important about a national culture?

It’s our IDENTITY as AUSTRALIANS.  It is what makes us unique:

Our language,  - ‘you’re a awful Muriel, lookatmeKimmy, that’s a knife..…goodonyamum… You’ve got to be dreaming……you’re dropped….’

Our idioms. Our character, our diversity, our rather special humour, and outlook on life…

Having a go. A FAIR GO!  Lets keep reminding everyone of this.

 Our Sounds, Memories, the chills that only we feel at the romantic summer cacophony of cicadas, blowflies and the voice of John Clarke.

 Footy that’s not padded out with helmets. Sausage sizzles and kebabs, not pancakes with maple syrup. Not the High School Prom or Thanksgiving.

And our own history, heroes and underdogs (yes we love them) and disasters.. Who else cares about our wars or our dreams?

These things are not fixed but are CHALLENGED and examined by our cultural expression. They are mirrored and reflected by the stories we tell and the images that we see: TV, commercials and films and documentaries.

It is so easy to take for granted.

If not made, our kids will have less opportunity to see, like me, OUR OWN point of view, in whatever new form.

But it’s not the form.

ITS CONTENT.

Without CONTROLS, commercial broadcasters and new media players like Netflix and Amazon will be back to cheap buy ins and reruns.

A journalist commented about Channel 10’s possible CBS take over… they won’t just play endless NCIS as we have content regulations to protect Australian content. 

 FOXTEL’s cable channel, Writers Guild hard won ten percent content rule has turned into their key point of difference and their success.

Yes Australian programs rate well but they cost money to make.

 It is PRECARIOUS if left uncontrolled.

 This fine industry will disappear AGAIN. Your jobs, your hard won skills. If we don’t do something NOW.

Will Australians only ever see History through US eyes, so only US troops fought in WW2 and Vietnam?

Will there be no Gallipoli, Puberty Blues, OffSpring, Clever man, Molly, Gina, Schapelle,Paper Giants, Women He’s Undressed, A Place to Call Home, Redfern Now and Meet the Habibs ?  And no second generation Melbourne types who slap other people’s kids or shoot each other in Lygon Street? 

A career in Australia’s creative industries will once again be a hopeless dream - at the very time that our programs are succeeding and selling globally.

Please Like Me, Wentworth, Rake, Miss Fisher and yes all those years of Neighbours and Home and Away. Homegrown with all Australian casts, writers, directors and producers.

Our Creative Industries are GLOBAL and growing, they ARE The FUTURE.

The European Parliament has set 30 per cent LOCAL CONTENT Quotas for streaming services and even fees to go back into local industries.

Without a healthy industry, we will return to a time when OUR VOICES won’t be heard, when our BEST CREATIVE talent, Actors, Directors, Designers and Writers, left for the UK and the US.

TOGETHER we must WIN this one for Hector (Crawford.) For Longford and the McDonough sisters.

Otherwise our STORIES won’t be told. 

 Our amazing TALENT won’t be heard.

Our Production Companies will be selling carpets…

And our country won’t be seen.

NOTHING CHANGES WITHOUT US ALL.

AND

NOTHING CHANGES WITHOUT A FIGHT!

About the author

ScreenHub​ is the online home for emerging and experienced Australian screen professionals.

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