Screening the Past: A Memoir

Once upon a time, an Australian academic life consisted of three elements: a contribution to the subject which the academic taught and researched, a contribution to the administration of the institution, and a contribution to the wider academic and social culture. The first got you the job, the second grew in importance as you progressed up the institutional ladder, and the third (though largely unspoken) was considered to be just as important as the other two. In all three spheres, but particularly the last of these, academics operated within what sociologists call a ‘gift culture’. No-one expected academic ‘credit’ for all those time-consuming tasks like editing or refereeing for a journal, organising conferences or presenting papers at such gatherings, supervising or examining theses, preparing funding proposals or evaluating the proposals of others… No-one measured the value of these activities individually, nor did they expect an exact quid pro quo for any such effort. It was a case of ‘what goes around, comes around’: A might examine a thesis for B, who might plan a panel at a conference organised by C, who might agree to referee papers for a seminar organised by D… Within the gift culture, everyone was assumed to be equally committed to the intellectual process, though of course everyone also knew who were generous with their time and skills and who were the free-loaders…

It is difficult to pin-point when the change occurred, but my own awareness of it began with the ‘reforms’ introduced by the then Federal Education Minister, John Dawkins, who introduced a ‘single unified system’ of tertiary education and began the process of budget cutting and managerialism so familiar in many western education systems. Since then we have seen a complete change: Australian universities now operate within a corporate culture, in which academics throughput clients and often raise funds for their own salaries. In this culture, activities which produce income are officially approved, but those which only enhance reputations (of individuals, departments, or institutions) are considered worthless. When we look back at the beginning of Screening the Past, only ten years ago, we are looking to a period when this seismic culture shift within universities was still in progress.

We are also looking back to a less sophisticated age technologically. My father taught me to drive a car in my teens, but my children taught me, in my forties, to operate a computer. I had only the most elementary idea of what went on under the car bonnet or inside the computer’s box. What I did understand was that computers (like cars in an earlier age) were going to change the world, and I wanted to be part of that change rather than watching from the sidelines.

For me, the most fascinating consequence of silicon chip technology was the internet, making possible simultaneous communication with large numbers of people all around the world, in real time. And the ‘gift culture’ that was under threat within universities seemed to be still alive in cyberspace: for, despite those like Bill Gates, aiming at commercialising every new development, there were always other geeks developing freeware.

In the mid-1990s, though establishing a new print journal seemed clearly financially impossible, developing an e-journal seemed to be both a technological possibility and an ideological statement, for in my naivety I thought it could be done without funding! Surely all it would cost would be the time and energy of the production team? Clearly I had not yet been sufficiently indoctrinated in the corporate culture to measure time in dollars. And once the site was established, there would be no limitations of space like those that so constrained printed publications. It could also be distributed free, ensuring a wide readership, and making the success of the journal no longer dependent on annual subscriptions. I was certainly aware that this was a huge challenge. Though I found the idea of the internet mind-blowing, I also sensed that if I did not throw myself into it and try to take advantage of it, it would surround and overwhelm me. So, I was both determined to try to keep up with that intimidating technology and at the same time enchanted with its possibilities. Fortunately, there were others with similar interests – and far more technological know-how!

When I put the idea of an e-journal to Peter Hughes, he jumped at it. He was already far more internet-savvy than me, and was anxious to build on these skills. He also had keen students (notably Sam Hinton and Caroline Kruger), delighted to be part of the cutting-edge. For that was where Screening the Past was. At that time e-journals were in their infancy: others were also developing similar projects, but none of us had models to follow. So there was nothing to limit us but our imaginations.

It is hard to remember that ten years ago even sending email attachments was problematic, hiccupping across differences in word processing programmes and internet platforms. However, every time I put an idea to Peter and asked if it was technically feasible, he would take up the challenge and come back with a solution. For instance, we had vigorous discussions about the use of footnotes/endnotes, and came up eventually with the ‘sidenote’ solution which caused endless headaches to the tech team. I resisted pop-up notes, as I found them so distracting, but that has proved to be the more popular solution in e-journals, and perhaps it is time to reconsider these.

Over about a year, the team of staff and students met irregularly to develop the original vague concept into a workable site. For instance, we discussed the division into sections, and came up with the conceit of naming the sections after aspects of film exhibition. Some of these have worked better than others. ‘First release’ still holds good, but the real-time-chat that I envisaged for ‘foyer ’ never eventuated, and that section simply disappeared. Perhaps that idea might have more legs now that internet users are so much more familiar with chat rooms than they were ten years ago.

Similarly, the ‘trailers’ section has not continued as it was intended. Under the indefatigable Anne Bittner, it was a clearing house for information about forthcoming events, job opportunities, calls for papers from other journals – anything that might relate to the broader interests of readers. Perhaps there is too much of this kind of information now available; perhaps search engines such as Google do it all quicker and more thoroughly; or perhaps it is also due for re-consideration.

I have been particularly disappointed that the ‘classics and re-runs’ section did not take off as I had hoped. It seemed to me that there was a great deal of earlier writing that had been overlooked at the time or forgotten since, or had been published in out-of-the-way places or in journals that were now difficult of access. All these could enrich current discussions about film and history, and in Bill Routt, with his vast and idiosyncratic knowledge of early writings and his commitment to that earlier period of cinema, STP had the ideal editor for such material. However, since Bill has left, that section seems to have atrophied. Here is an opportunity for a younger person to find a niche.

One section that has simply grown, both in size and significance, is ‘reviews’. STP has been fortunate to have Anna Dzenis as editor of this section for most of the ten years, and Anna’s hard work has built up a list of reviewers that must be the envy of other film journals. This is one way in which the lack of space constraint pays off: where a print journal can accept only a handful of reviews every issue, STP can publish as many as Anna can winkle out of reviewers and the techs can up-load.

In the initial planning, most of the decisions were taken after constant negotiation among the team, and it would be difficult to attribute any particular decision to any one person. With one exception… the use of minimal capitalisation. Over a long academic career, I had become heartily fed up with the haphazard use of capital letters, particularly in reference lists and bibliographies. I laid down the law on that one, and take full responsibility for it, acknowledging that it has never become popular with either the technical team or the readers. Other technical problems seem to have been solved: it is now much simpler to receive contributions as attachments, send them out to referees, negotiate changes with authors, and up-load the final copy.

Editorial problems have not diminished so significantly. In film study, we were starting to emerge from the period when history was a poor relation to theory, considered irrelevant because a-theoretical. In Australia, the Film and History Conference and Screening the past both had a role to play in contributing to this change. The intention was that the journal would take up those issues of film study which related to or depended upon history: the history of film, the history that could be read from film, or the part film played in social history. Broadly speaking, STP has stuck to this brief. However, as history becomes more and more integrated within film study (much to my personal satisfaction), so it becomes harder to formulate the difference between this journal and others. That becomes part of the challenge for the current (and future) editors…

From the beginning, Screening the Past was intended to be international – in both coverage and readership. To this end, we spent a great deal of time getting an international editorial board, representing different geographical areas and intellectual approaches. This proved more difficult than we had anticipated, both to establish and to maintain. Some of our board have proved invaluable – generous with refereeing and reviewing, contributing proposals for themed issues, and editing these. Others agreed to have their name on the site, then proved impossible to contact and contributed nothing at all. This is one of the problems of the ‘gift culture’ – there is no mechanism for keeping people up to the mark.
At the same time as we wanted the journal to be international, we also wanted to locate Australia at the centre of debate, rather than at the periphery. We therefore chose screenwriter Cliff Green to officially launch it. Cliff is, himself, part of the history of the visual media in Australia: he has been writing for film and television since the early seventies, but he has also often taken history as a subject. His television series include Marian, Lawson’s MatesLucinda BrayfordThe Petrov Affair, and Power without Glory. His films include Picnic at Hanging Rock and Break of Day. He understands the pressures of historical research, and of adapting history for consumption by popular culture. He seemed the ideal choice to bring together two of our major constituencies – historians and media producers. The latter, however, have shown far less interest than we had hoped, contributing rarely.

The journal does seem to have maintained the international coverage that the initial team hoped for, but (as Bill Routt has described in this issue) its readership and reputation continues to be limited. Despite my initial optimism, money was a major factor in this. In the early years, we resisted paying editors or contributors, but when small amounts became available we channelled these towards the students who were doing the thankless technical work. It would be encouraging if the significance of the journal were to be recognised by its host institution, with some funding for the kind of publicity and promotion that would enlarge and energise the readership.

My own contribution was intense at the time, but relatively short-lived: after I resigned from La Trobe in 2000 I found it impossible to maintain the impetus without a physical base to operate from. So I abandoned the journal to Peter Hughes, and I thank him unreservedly for keeping the flag flying through thick and (often) thin. I also thank the current team, for their commitment and perseverence: I don’t envy them working within the current university climate!

It is hard to remember just how primitive the technology was ten years ago, and to realise how far it has progressed! It is even harder to imagine where it will be in another ten years… However, I hope that Screening the Past will still be there, with new people on board, taking up new technological and intellectual challenges.

Ina Bertrand
November 2007

Created on: Thursday, 13 December 2007

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →