Visions of Melbourne: MIFF presents a cinematic time capsule of the city

From post-prison road trips to a wild re-do of The Wizard of Oz, there’s something for everyone in this filmic celebration of the Victorian capital.

After the last couple of years of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) only unspooling online, programmers Kate Fitzpatrick and Kate Jinx knew they had to celebrate the return to cinemas in a big way for the 70th anniversary outing. Their curation of the incredible Melbourne on Film program is a chance to make the most of it, as is accompanying book Melbourne on Film – Cinema That Defines Our City.

‘It just felt the right thing to do, to celebrate the city, but also the people in that city and the stories that they have to tell,’ Fitzpatrick said.

And the grand sweep of the strand doesn’t stop at 70 years, either, including the 17-minute remnant of the world’s first feature movie The Story of the Kelly Gang. Charles Tait shot the silent film in 1906, and it went on to pack the city’s cinemas full of folks wanting to see the near-mythological story of the bush ranger hanged at the Melbourne Gaol.

The Story of the Kelly Gang. Image: Alice Lewinsky (Common State)

‘It’s a pretty amazing fact that the world’s first feature was made in Melbourne, and I think it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge that and really celebrate it,’ Fitzpatrick said of showcasing the fragment, which screens with Nigel Buesst’s 1969 doco The Rise and Fall of Squizzy Taylor.

Fitzpatrick is equally pumped that so much of the program is projected from film, rather than digital versions. That includes a 16mm print of David Minter’s 1969 sharehouse short anthology comedy Hey Al, Baby. A glorious highlight of the Carlton Ripple school of new wave filmmaking that emanated from the inner-northern suburb – screening with Bert Deling’s infamously provocative Pure Shit – it’s been loaned from the personal collection of the director’s wife, Gloria Minter.

‘That kind of thing is quite special, because MIFF hasn’t seen celluloid in the building for a number of years, even before the pandemic,’ Fitzpatrick said.

Read: The Lost City of Melbourne documents demolished ‘ghost cinemas’

Fitzpatrick was blown away by her first watch of another little-seen New Wave treat, Esben Storm’s In Search of Anna (1978). It stars Richard Moir (who also appears in the new short Not Dark Yet, directed by his daughter Bonnie) as a crim fresh out of Pentridge Prison who wants to reconnect with a former flame. ‘I didn’t know about it and was talking to a filmmaker who mentioned it and sent me a copy of it,’ Fitzpatrick said. ‘It’s a really terrific road movie.’

Tracing the transformation of Melbourne on screen across the decades has been joyous, Fitzpatrick says. She adores Brian McKenzie’s short film Winter’s Harvest (1980), screening before Vince Colosimo-led classic Moving Out (1983). It depicts Calabrian immigrants preparing a whole pig to offer up a plentiful bounty. ‘It’s terrific because it’s filmed out in Dandenong, and I grew up in Springvale,’ she said. ‘And Dandenong in 1980 is like rural Victoria. It doesn’t look anything like Dandenong today.’

The program opens with one of her personal favourites, Emma-Kate Croghan’s Love and Other Catastrophes (1996). ‘It’s going to look amazing,’ she said. ‘I love the film enough to just deal with the DVD quality that I’ve seen it on in the past. But the prospect of seeing it on 35mm is really exciting.’

Somewhere over the rainbow

Everyone’s heard of The Wiz, the African American-led 1978 Motown Productions re-do of MGM’s 1939 classic adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s adored novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But did you know there’s an Aussie version too, with a soundtrack by Daddy Cool and Mondo Rock singer Ross Wilson?

Oz: A Rock’n’Roll Road Movie. Image: Alice Lewinsky (Common State)

Jinxadores director Chris Löfvén’s wild child musical Oz – A Rock’n’Roll Road Movie (1976). ‘I can’t even remember how this film came into my universe, but I’ve had the soundtrack for a very long time,’ she said. ‘Robin Ramsay plays Glynn the good fairy, a gay man who runs a clothing store in the suburbs/the desert. The ruby slippers are platform shoes, and it’s just such a fun, odd film that ends with this crazy holographic musical spectacular.’

Barbara Creed’s pioneering super-8-shot doco Homosexuality: A Film for Discussion is another overlooked gem Jinx cannot wait to share with MIFF audiences. Originally screened at the 1975 Melbourne Filmmaker’s Co-Op, it combines heartfelt insights from Melbourne’s LGBTIQA+ communities, as well as capturing the opinions of passers-by who do not present as queer.

Read: Homosexuality: A Film for Discussion still gives me hope

‘It’s so incredible,’ Jinx said of the must-see highlight. ‘I came across it many years ago while I was doing research for my unfinished PhD and was pulling every single title at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra that mentioned anything vaguely queer. It blew me away and I became completely and utterly obsessed with this film. Barbara Creed will be there, and we’ll be speaking to her after the film.’

It’s paired with landmark feminist shorts We Aim to Please and the menstruation-focused Seeing Red and Feeling Blue. Jinx also recommends catching an extremely rare screening of the Nick Cave-starring Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988), a viscerally unnerving dystopia dismantling the incarceration system. ‘It hasn’t screened in Australian cinemas for decades, and I can’t wait to see the 35mm print.’

And keep your eyes peeled for a young Denise Scott Scott in An Ordinary Woman, the short that screens with Tim Burstall’s landmark 2000 Weeks (1969), a forgotten hit of the vanishingly rare Australian cinema scene of the ’60s. ‘I wasn’t aware of it, and I thought it was really, really beautiful.’

Look out, too, Jinx said, for the Melbourne Home Movie Collection, a collaboration with ACMI that splices together two hours’ worth of ordinary Australians’ family videos. Taken between the ‘40s and ‘60s, each offers an invaluable insight into another era. ‘You get to see a pool that doesn’t exist anymore in the middle of Melbourne, beauty talent shows and a Greek ship arriving in the harbour. It’s really beautiful to see everyone gathered at the dock to greet them, waving flags, and everyone’s joyful about the whole thing.’

Barking up the wrong tree

When Dogs in Space (1986) filmmaker Richard Lowenstein looked around at the films representing Australia in the ‘80s, he didn’t see his life in Melbourne on screen. ‘I remember being part of this youth subculture, and Australian films did not reflect anything that we experienced in everyday life,’ he recalled. ‘It was insane. The film industry was so out of touch with who was actually going to see the films.’

The grand dystopian epic of George Miller’s partly Melbourne-set Mad Max (1979) was one of the few films that excited him from that era, and he wanted to capture a little of that big screen mayhem for himself. ‘Why do these urban stories have to look like social-realist 16mm films? Why can’t they look like Mad Max?’

Read: Mad Max – tracking climate change through Australian films

Dogs in Space. Image: Alice Lewinsky (CommonState)

Drawing deep on his hectic years living in a run-down share house just off Richmond’s Bridge Road stretch alongside Sam Sejavka (of fabled art-punk band The Ears), Lowenstein’s semi-autobiographical Dogs in Space sought to correct that cinematic gap. ‘I wanted to make it as authentic as what I saw, but also with a sense of cinematic gloss and exaggeration.’

Casting INXS frontman Michael Hutchence was a masterstroke. ‘I do owe him a lot, because I don’t think the film, which is both a legacy and a millstone around my neck, would have gotten made without his involvement,’ Lowenstein said of his late friend. ‘It was my second feature film, but to get a script like that funded to the level we did, not as grungy 16mm film, but as a big cinemascope, 35mm thing, I needed Michael’s involvement.’

It was a big ask. INXS were already making waves in Australia, but hadn’t quite broken through internationally. But Hutchence dove right on in. ‘He was thrilled,” Lowenstein said. ‘A conventional popstar would have died. You know, you’re going to be a heroin addict rolling around the floor. It’s not going to be a flattering role.’

Hutchence, like Lowenstein, wanted to reach for something more. ‘This was the era of pop stars like David Bowie who saw themselves as Renaissance men, and Michael was very open about Bowie being a huge influence on him.’

Lowenstein’s honoured to see Dogs in Space included in the program. ‘The average “cinema of Australia” book focuses on the great classics, the Picnics, even the Crocodile Dundees,’ he said. ‘Dogs in Space barely gets a mention, so to find that MIFF are acknowledging it as an important part of Australian film history is great. When you’ve made something and you can pull it out 30-40 years later and it still holds up, and not as an anachronistic time capsule, it’s really flattering.’

The Melbourne International Film Festival takes place 4–22 August, 2022. You can read more about the Melbourne on Film program here

MIFF Play, the festival’s streaming platform, is available from 11–28 August. MIFF’s regional program runs in Bairnsdale, Bendigo, Bright, Castlemaine, Echuca, Geelong, Mildura, Sorrento and Warrnambool from 12–21 August. Find full details on the MIFF website.