Lisa French and Mark Poole,
Shining a Light: 50 Years of the Australian Film Institute.
The Moving Image, no.9, ATOM 2009
Dr George Miller, doyen of the Australian film industry and director of key films from Mad Max (Australia 1997) to Happy Feet (Australia/USA 2006), declares on the cover of this book that the AFI is where you can “identify the Australian film industry – it is the locus of it – as well as the site of vital discourse”.
The authors set out to demonstrate the truth of this statement. The first part of the book is a sustained argument about the importance of film culture to the health of a film production industry. The second part provides a roughly chronological description of the personnel and activities of the AFI over the 50 years of its history to 2008. The third part concerns the relationship between the AFI and its stakeholders – the production sector of the industry, former staff and board members, the government and its various film agencies, and the AFI membership.
Currently, the AFI Awards are the central activity of the organisation, and the book concludes with an overview of how the Awards came into being and how they have changed over the years. The last third of the book is devoted to a full listing of the nominees and winners in all categories from the earliest awards to 2008. This comprehensive information that includes all nominees is not available on the web.
The authors have clearly read extensively in the AFI archives, and consulted widely. A list of patrons, staff and board members is provided, with the acknowledgement that some may have been omitted, and a request for readers to notify the writers if they know of others who should have been on these lists.
Before I go further, I should declare my interest in the subject of this book. I have been a member of the Australian Film Institute for more than thirty years, and have just published in this journal a memoir of my short three years on the AFI Board. This makes me a partisan reviewer, but – as the book documents – any reviewer who knew much about the AFI is likely to be partisan, one way or another. The authors themselves are clearly partisan, too- always supportive of the AFI, through all its faults and failings.
For it is one of the strengths of the book that the authors are not afraid to rattle the skeletons in the closet. They describe how intercity rivalry exacerbated conflicts such as that between the Melbourne-based AFI and the Sydney Film-makers Co-op or the Sydney-based National Film Theatre of Australia. On the other hand, they do not set out to re-ignite controversy. The main polemic presented is the claim that film culture is the necessary ground on which a healthy film production industry rests, and they urge co-operation among film culture organisations towards this end.
So the heroes of this book are the many staff and board members who pursued the aims of the AFI determinedly, in the face of opposition or the withdrawal of funds. In fact, if there is any villain in the story it is the Australian Film Commission, which repeatedly curtailed funding, forcing the AFI to withdraw from some of its key activities.
In a multi-media culture that is increasingly turning away from print, the look and feel of any printed publication is important. This book is attractive and inviting, printed on glossy paper and generously illustrated – though I am sure I won’t be the only reader who has difficulty reading the grey print of the captions.
However, these sorts of issues are minor compared with the major argument of the book, which I fully support – it is time that the AFI was recognised for its vital contribution to Australian film culture, and through that to the Australian film industry, which does not (and cannot) exist in a cultural vacuum.
Created on: Sunday, 18 April 2010