Fifty years of ANU film culture

ANU Film Group members, from left, Brett Yeats, secretary Andrew Wellington and President Adrian Ma, in the Coombs Theatre. Photo: Elesa Kurtz Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s film “A Clockwork Orange”, the second-most screened film by ANU Film Group. Photo: Supplied

The ANU Film Group’s most programmed film is “Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964) starring Peter Sellers. Photo: Supplied

ANU Film Group members Brett Yeats and president Adrian Ma, in the projection room. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

The ANU Film Group’s 50th anniversary.

Membership is $40 a semester or $70 for a full year online or at the Coombs Lecture Theatre, ANU, before a screening. anufg.org419论坛.

In 1966, being a dedicated film buff wasn’t easy. With no internet, DVDS or VCRs and few television channels, if you wanted to see a movie, you were pretty much limited to whatever was playing in your local cinema.

But for those who were enterprising and well located, there was another possibility: the film group. Canberra film identity Andrew Pike – former operator of Electric Shadows, founder of Ronin Films, film historian and advocate – was one of a small group of Australian National University Film students who formed the ANU Film Group in 1966.

Although it’s changed a lot over the years, the group is still going strong today, shows dozens of films each year and is open for public membership – in fact, unlike the old days, nowdays non-student members far outnumber students.

It will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a birthday party screening on Sunday, February 28, in its long-time home in the Coombs Theatre, at the corner of Fellows and Garran Roads, Acton (in ANU).

The group screened 37 films in its first year. The first – on Monday, February 28, 1966 – was the 1962 Peter Sellers comedy Only Two Can Play, but to mark the 50th anniversary the group will have the 16th screening of its most popular film, the second film screened in 1966. It’s another comedy starring Sellers: Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964).

In 1966, Pike was studying history and English literature.”There was no film studies then; that was as close as I could get to the things I liked,” he says. With a few other dedicated souls, he started setting up screenings with 16mm projectors borrowed from the university visual aids unit and lugged around the campus, often on foot –”Not all of us had cars.” – as they taught themselves how to operate it.

The original home base was the Physics Lecture Theatre; in 1969, the group moved to the Coombs Lecture Theatre, where it has remained.

In the early days, he says, the society was seen as a place to be exposed to cinema beyond what was on offer on the commercial screens.

“If we got films from commercial sources it was to look at them in a different way. Psycho was one worth screening again – it’s a fantastic film.”

He remembers that at the screening of that Hitchcock classic, “the projectionist was so rapt in the film he didn’t realise there was a reel change coming up and suddenly at a certain point in the film the screen went dark and we heard the end of the reel flapping up … we heard, ‘Oh shit!’ “.

The projectionist had to hurry back and change the reel so the film could continue.

Such a popular film would help to fill the coffers if money was running low – things were run pretty informally in the early days, Pike says – but on the whole the founding members sought alternatives to the mainstream fare being presented in cinemas.

“We got films from various sources, including commercial sources, but our most interesting source of supply was the embassies. We dealt a lot with the Canadian High Commission in Sydney; we sourced a lot of films from them, mainly documentaries. There were some very exciting things being done in non-feature films: animation, experimental films, documentary.”

The French embassy, too, was an excellent source: “There were hundreds of titles, old and new, and the person in charge of non-commercial screenings was a wonderful woman named Helene Anderson who became our godmother supplier.”

Local films weren’t neglected, either.

“We ran a lot of Australian films when we could get [them] – in the 1960s, before the birth of government subsidies, the typical Australian film was ‘underground’ – self-funded and distributed.”

The group showed films such as the experimental Marinetti (1969) by Albie Thoms and ran and repeated them frequently. And these stimulated action.

“We all started making films under the inspiration of the underground films,” Pike says. “It was a very all-consuming culture.”

The ANU had a creative fellowship that in 1969 brought husband and wife filmmakers Arthur and Corinne Cantrill to the university.

“They were here for three or four years,” Pike says. “We would show their work at ANU Film Group.”

They ran workshops and experimental film events and contributed, Pike says, to an “extraordinary” film culture at the university.

“The ANU Film Group was at the centre of it all.”

Although his links with the group loosened for many years after he left university in the early 1970s to work at the Center Cinema – the start of a distinguished career in the Australian film industry – he remembers his time there fondly and has a life membership with the group.

“The 1960s were a very exciting time for world cinema.”

The ANU Film Group continued to develop over the following decades. In 1976, a decade after it began, it screened more than 150 feature films.

By the mid-1970s, it had acquired second-hand 35mm projectors – later replaced by new ones – and Super 8 equipment, and despite the advent of home video in the 1980s, falling membership and a decrease in funds, the group survived.

In 1990, with the help of the university, a new Dolby Stereo system was installed in the Coombs Theatre andaccounting and record-keeping practises were improved. The sound system was upgraded in 1996 to a new Dolby Digital six-track sound processor, the first in Australia, with new speakers and acoustic panelling, and in 1997 a bigger screen was installed and projectors were upgraded.

Digital projection was adopted in 2014 and, again with university assistance, a new digital projector and server were purchased at a cost of over $100,000 (the first digital screening was Frozen). The theatre doesn’t have 3D projection: the group would have to pay a licensing fee for each screening and the demand is not sufficient to make it worthwhile.

The group has a membership of about 1500 and the cinema can hold 371 people. Obviously all the members can’t come to every session, but if there’s sufficient demand, films may be rescreened.

The current 20 committee members – all volunteers, although the projectionists are paid professionals employed casually – include the president, Adrian Ma, who’s been on the committee for almost eight years, vice-president Tamara Cain, secretary Andrew Wellington and treasurer Xin Yi Tan.

Ma says, “A lot of people devote a lot of their time to it … there are people who have been on the committee for more than 20 years.”

He says the culture of movie-going has changed over time and the society has changed with it.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on home entertainment, phones, iPads, many ways of watching movies, but it’s important to keep the community sense of cinema alive, that thrill of watching movies on a screen with other people.”

While the committee now selects movies for each year’s program, it does poll members for their choices.

Many of the same movies come up repeatedly as requests – The Princess Bride, for example – but screenings of such older movies are not always well attended and, with a mix of mainstream and arthouse cinemas in Canberra showing “retro” programs as well as current movies, the group tries to look ahead to what will be available in the coming year and likely to be popular, as well as cater to requests for older and more unusual fare.

The group retains ties with local filmmakers, too: among its activities this year are Q&A screenings with Canberra directors (see events). And they are always on the lookout for ideas for theme nights and other ways to make screenings special.

“The more ideas we can get, the better. People who have special events in mind, people who are in touch with directors – we’re all ears.”

ANU Film Group Semester One 50th Anniversary Events.

1. 50th Anniversary Birthday Party: Sunday, February 28, at 6pm.

To mark the group’s first recorded screening 50 years ago, a screening of Dr Strangelove, the group’s most screened film and the second film screened in the 1966 program.

2. Oscars on the Big Screen: Monday, February 29, at 7.30pm.

Watch the 88th Academy Awards on the big screen to find out how many prizes Mad Max: Fury Road takes home and see whether Leonardo DiCaprio finally wins a best actor Oscar.

3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens Dress Up screening.

On March 10 at 7.30pm, get in the spirit of the Force by dressing up as your favourite Star Wars character.

4. Back to the Film Group Anniversary Screenings

One film from each decade that’s celebrating a special anniversary this year (to be continued in Semester Two).

March 17, at 7.30pm: Batman: The Movie (1966)

April 21, at 7.30pm: Rocky (1976)

May 26, at 7.30pm: Crocodile Dundee (1986)

5. Filmmaker Q&A screenings

April 16, at 7pm: Me and My Mates Vs. the Zombie Apocalypse. Followed by a Q&A with writer/director Declan Shrubb and guests.

May 21 at 7pm: Sherpa. Followed by a Q&A with director Jennifer Peedom.

ANU Film Group’s most screened films (as of 2015):

15 times – Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)  – 16 times on Sunday.

11 times – A Clockwork Orange (1971)

10 times – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

10 times – Casablanca (1942)

10 times – Citizen Kane (1941)

9 times – Some Like It Hot (1959)

8 times – Taxi Driver (1976)

8 times – If… (1968)

8 times – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

8 times – Metropolis (1927)

8 times – North By Northwest (1959)

7 times – Alien (1979)

7 times – Blade Runner (1982)

7 times – Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

7 times – Psycho (1960)

7 times – The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

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