231 Australian Cinema 2008

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What is an Australian feature film?

The "feature" part of this question is easier to deal with. The standard definition requires a film to be at least 60 minutes long (tho one or two, like Backroads (Phillip Noyce, 1977) and Feeling Sexy (Davida Allen, 1999) scrape in although just about on this line) and to have been shown to a paying audience (the date of which screening also determines its "publication" date). Murray (1995) uses this method to date a film, and I have followed him; however, it is notable that Martin & Edwards use the date of registration for earlier NZ films. So they have A Maori Maid's Love (Raymond Longford) as 1916, tho they also record that it was screened in NZ in late 1915.

The question of what is meant by "Australian" or "New Zealand" is a bit harder. See below ...

It is NOT one of the objectives of MED231 to define or even discuss what is meant by "an Australian film". However, as the question crops up from time to time, here are some criteria relevant to a possible answer.

As far as I (Garry Gillard) am concerned, the most important consideration is whether the film throws some light on some aspect of Australian life, past or present, rather than, say, who financed the film. However, I do recognise that there are other things to consider. I like to think that there is something like a family resemblance among what we would want to call "Australian films", based on the presence of certain characteristics, including not only the representation of Australian people, society, locations and landscape but also the items that (an excerpt from) Scott Murray's introduction mentions below: the country where principal photography took place; the nationality of the production company; the nationality of the director; and where the copyright of a film is held. Because of the interest I've stated, I'm not particularly interested in debating whether or not Green Card or Lorenzo's Oil is an "Australian film": I'd prefer not to talk about them at all. On the other hand, I'm very keen to talk about Walkabout and Wake in Fright, whether they're "Australian" or not.

What follows is a two-page excerpt which might throw more light on this question, from: Scott Murray ed. 1995, Australian Film 1978-1994: A Survey of Theatrical Features, editorial assistants Raffaele Caputo, Alissa Tanskaya, 2nd edn, Oxford University Press in association with the Australian Film Commission and Cinema Papers, Melbourne; rev. & expanded edn of: Australian Film 1978-1992.

Excerpt from "The Book's Methodology", pp. 4-11. What follows is from pp. 4-5, a section which addresses, inter alia, the question: "Is it Australian?"

To aid readers in the use of this book, what follows is a description of the methodology used in the selection of entries and the reproduction of credits.


Features and tele-features are defined here, in accord with the world archivist standard, as dramas of more than 60 minutes which have been shot and/or projected on 16, 35 or 65/70mm film.

Super 8 works are not usually considered by archivists. However, two Super 8 features were theatrically released in 1993-94, and both are covered in Appendix B.

Video features are not covered in the main text as they are not film. They are, however, dealt with in Appendix C.

Drama content

By definition, a feature must have a considerable amount of 'acted' drama. The ABC of Love and Sex Australia Style is included because, although a documentary in some senses, it is almost entirely enacted by paid performers. Equally, The Good Woman of Bangkok is included because, while having the appearance of a documentary, much of it is actually staged, and the lead actress (Yagwalak Chonchanakun) plays a character other than herself (named Aoi).

On the other hand, Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent Van Gogh is not listed, as the dramatic element is very small and is in the traditional style of a documentary that dramatises odd moments.


Unlike some other reference works, this book includes animated features as they meet all archivist definitions of what constitutes a feature. However, because all the animated features listed in this book are by Yoram Gross and employ similar techniques, making individual reviews liable to restatement, an overall critical analysis of his work appears as Appendix A. The titles and credits of each film, however, are included in the year-by-year groupings.

Is it Australian?

This is the hardest determination to make. Production standards have changed since Pike and Cooper's Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production and traditional delineations have become blurred.

The country where principal photography took place has been often used as one test, while other archivists have argued for the origin of financing. The location standard falls down with what are obviously Australian films that are largely shot off-shore (Far East, for example). Then again, most films today have a mix of financing from various world territories and that latter criterion is also confusing.

Equally, there are problems with a determination based on the nationality of the production company. Film companies are sometimes set up to maximise tax benefits and the location may reflect neither where a film was shot nor who financed it. Even more troublesome, most films have more than one production company, and they may well be (and often are) spread wide across the globe.

Some critics prefer to determine a film's nationality from that of the director. But this is self-defeating as it would mean, for example, that many of the great American films of the 1930s couldn't be called American because their directors were European emigres. Likewise, Tim Burstall's and John Duigan's Australian work would have to be discounted because they were born in Britain, Paul Cox's because he was born in The Netherlands, and so on.

Despite its self-evident problems, this nationality-of-the-director syndrome is surprisingly strong among Australian writers, especially when it comes to American film-makers, and some disagreed loudly with the inclusion in the first edition of The Salute of the Jugger (as the editor forewarned) . Yet, it was shot entirely in Australia, with an almost exclusively Australian crew and cast. From any objective stand-point, it is, like Walkabout and Wake in Fright, more 'Australian' than Green Card (also included), which was made without any Australian cast and very few Australian crew entirely in New York.

In this second edition, the most controversial entry is probably Lorenzo's Oil. But Lorenzo's falls into exactly the same category as Green Card, which almost every local author seems happy to call Australian. Both were written by Australians in Australia, shot and financed in the US, and post-produced back in Australia. Some might argue Green Card has the added bonus of being an official co-production, but what has an essentially arbitrary bureaucratic ruling to do with the renegade world of cinema?

Finally, some writers opt for where the copyright of a film is held. This, too, has many problems, the most obvious being that copyright is usually not held by a single entity but by several, representing more than one different nationality.

Ultimately, there is no foolproof way of setting in stone what constitutes an Australian film. After all, a film like The Piano can rightly be claimed by New Zealanders as their own - or even by the French, who financed it! Common sense must be applied, with all its attendant flaws. If some feel the coverage of the book is too wide-ranging, then surely that is preferable to a selection that is too narrow.

Theatrical or non-theatrical

An equally difficult determination to make is whether a film is a feature or tele-feature. In past eras, this was easier as there was little confusion between the two: tele-features were made exclusively for television screening and, although usually shot on film, tended to be completed on video (particularly the titles).

But as production escalated in the 1980s, the demarcation lines shifted. Whereas in the 1970s almost every Australian feature received a theatrical release, by the end of the 1980s that was true of less than 50 per cent. Many films went straight to video, others to television, some to oblivion. A new determination was required.

In the first edition of this book, a two-category system was adopted. Films were divided into:

1. Features that were theatrically released in Australia (each of which was included with major credits and a critical appraisal); and

2. Feature-length films that were released on video or television, or not at all (each of which was listed with basic credits in an appendix: 'Non-theatrical Features 1978-92').

What is an Australian film?: according to www.ifawards.com [but the page has been taken down]

The Australian Film Commission Act 1975 defines an Australian film/program as one:

(a) That has been or will be made wholly or substantially in Australia and that, in the opinion of the Commission, has or will have significant Australian content; or

(b) That has been, or is to be, made in pursuance of an agreement or arrangement entered into between the Government of the Commonwealth or an authority of the Commonwealth and the Government of another country or an authority of the Government of another country.

In interpreting this definition, the AFC considers a number of factors. These include where a film or program is shot, its content, the nationality of cast and crew, the country of origin of the production company and the people who are the beneficial owners of the copyright, and sources of finance, including Australian federal government money.

Garry Gillard | New: 21 April, 2002 | Now: 27 April, 2022