May 26, 2024

The First Melbourne International Film Festival

The first Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) was a weekend event held in Olinda, on the outskirts of Melbourne, in 1952. Or, was it?

A Cinematographe
A Cinematographe

Films have been screened in Melbourne almost as long as there have been films.

Moving pictures were invented in 1895. The Lumiere brothers, a pair of French photographic technicians, developed a  camera and projection system they called the 'Cinematographe'. This device could show short films, and is where 'cinema' derives its name.

The first demonstration in Melbourne occurred just one year later, in 1896.

American magician Carl Hertz, appearing in Melbourne and Sydney, brought a projector and a few film reels as part of his act. Cinema was not originally considered a standalone entertainment. It was usually presented as part of another act, by magicians, or included in a vaudeville show.

Hertz's movie screenings caused a sensation. The new medium was wildly received, and so popular that by the end of the year, three dedicated cinemas had opened in Melbourne (you can read more about these first screenings here).

Poster for Hertz and his 'Cinematographe'
Poster for Hertz and his 'Cinematographe'

One check on the advance of movies was the availability of films.

Film production equipment was originally scarce, meaning an equal scarcity of movies to screen. As production caught up with demand, other issues specific to Australia developed.

Australia is a relatively small film market, this meant it came to be dominated by a handful of distributors. These companies  controlled the local industry, and decided what films would be brought into the country.

Australia also had strict censorship laws.

Censorship was originally a state responsibility. Until 1970, a government appointed 'Censor' had sole responsibility to determine which films were allowed to be shown in public. They were often conservative, and banned a high number of films, including acclaimed movies like 'All Quiet on the Western Front', and 'La Dolce Vita'.

This combination of factors greatly reduced the number, and variety, of films that were shown in Australia.

Logo for the Federation of Victorian Film Societies

The restrictions on films lead to the formation of 'Film Societies'.

These were private clubs run by passionate movie buffs, eager to expand their filmic horizons. Film societies collected dues from their members, or fundraised, which they used to source films from overseas that were otherwise unavailable.

Meeting in town halls and large private houses, the societies then ran their own private screenings.

So many Film Societies sprang up that in 1950 they grouped together under an umbrella organisation, the Australian Council of Film Societies (ACOFS). This was a national body, designed to allow the different state film groups to coordinate their activities.

At the second meeting of ACOFS, in 1951, the Victorian delegation proposed holding a public film festival. This suggestion was enthusiastically endorsed by the other members.

The original idea was that it would be a national festival, and would rotate annually, among the states.

Scene of the first MIFF: Olinda
Picturesque Olinda, present day

The first film festival sponsored by ACOFS was to be held in Olinda, on the outskirts of Melbourne, on the Australia Day long weekend in 1952.

Olinda was a popular weekend getaway spot for people in Melbourne. The festival organisers, unsure how popular a film festival would be, thought that choosing a long weekend, and an established tourist destination, would add to the appeal.

Nevertheless, expectations were modest. They estimated that perhaps 100 people would make their way to Olinda, and planned accordingly.

First Melbourne International Film Festival, 1952
Cover of the festival program, 1952

The goals of the festival were laid out in the programme:

To bring together Australian film enthusiasts so that they may see films which would not otherwise be available, and to encourage these film enthusiasts to talk films, think films, and to exchange films to their mutual advantage.


-  Olinda Film Festival Program, 1952

To get their hands on films that would 'not otherwise be available', the organisers utilised some unorthodox sources.

They dealt with universities, libraries, government departments, and private film collectors, looking for obscure movies. They also contacted film production companies in Europe, to acquire non-English language titles.

The outcome was a diverse program of 8 feature length films, and 79 shorts.

Still image from Cocteau's film version of 'Beauty and the Beast'
Cocteau's 'Beauty and the Beast'.

Highlights of the program included Jean Cocteau's version of 'Beauty and the Beast', and seminal Russian classic 'Earth', both previously unseen in Australia.

ACOFS would hold their annual meeting while the festival was in progress, and the Commonwealth Film Awards would be held on the final day, presented by the Minister of the Interior. The Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, declined his invitation.

And then, something unexpected happened: the festival was a runaway success.

Promotional image for the first MIFF
Promotional image for the Olinda Film Festival

Instead of the expected 100 visitors, more than 600 film fans descended on Olinda.

Mild chaos ensued.

Accommodation in the small town quickly sold out, and volunteers scrambled to organise a camping area to handle the overflow. Locals ended up offering spare rooms to accommodate festival goers, even the town church had to be pressed into action as a temporary dorm.

The local phone exchange was overwhelmed with calls, the army reserve enlisted to set up a makeshift exchange.

Erecting an outdoor screen at the first MIFF
Erecting an outdoor screen at the first MIFF

The country halls that had been converted into temporary cinemas ended up being too small for the large crowds; 200 people had to be turned away from opening night.  The difficulty of cramped venues was further exacerbated by poor ventilation in the old buildings.

An outdoor cinema was hastily convened to try and accommodate larger audiences, but bad weather throughout the weekend meant it was not utilised fully.

Finally, some of the screenings had to be moved to another venue in the neighbouring village of Sassafras. Frank Nicholls, president of ACOFS, rushed film reels between the two towns in his car, to allow for multiple sessions.

Festival attendees try and squeeze into the first MIFF
Festival attendees try and squeeze into an Olinda screening

Despite all the difficulties, the festival was a great success.

Nicholls stated to the press that it was the 'most comprehensive' film event held in Australia to that time, and the response from the public had shown the appetite for a wider variety of films. A number of future film makers, chief among them Tim Burstall, had attended and drawn inspiration.

ACOFS began planning a second festival to be held in Canberra, on the following Australia Day long weekend.

Poster for the First Melbourne International Film Festival
Poster for the 1953 Melbourne Film Festival

But the Victorian delegation had cooled on the idea of a national festival.

The Olinda weekend had been so popular, they felt a better approach would be for individual states to organise their own events. Demand was such that film fans in each state would not be satisfied with hosting once every few years.

Breaking with ACOFS, the Federation of Victorian Film Societies would hold their first film festival over the Labour Day long weekend, 6 to 9 March, 1953.

The new event would be called the 'Melbourne Film Festival', the introduction to the program guide captures the excitement of the launch:

'The organizing committee has received so many heart-warming expressions of faith and offers of help, and it has had so much assistance that it is encouraged to believe its efforts are really worth while.


The Melbourne Film Festival is breaking new ground and none can tell just where the future will lead. We feel safe in predicting, however, that there will be a demand for more and bigger Festivals.'


-  Melbourne Film Festival Guide, 1953

To accommodate the hoped-for sizable crowds, the festival would base itself in the city's grandest venue: the Royal Exhibition Building.

The Royal Exhibition Building, venue for the first MIFF
The Royal Exhibition Building

While this was larger, and more elaborate, than what had been available in Olinda, the Royal Exhibition Building came with its own challenges.

The vast, high ceilinged space was not naturally suited to use as a cinema, and there were issues with both sound and visual quality.

'Special lenses had to be flown out form England, to handle the long throw.


And vast quantities of hessian drapes were purchased, fire-proofed and hung, to dampen the echoes.


CSIRO engineers worked on a time lapse system for the speakers, to keep the sound in synchronisation. But all in vain. Nothing worked properly.'


- Alfred Heintz, Melbourne Film Festival Committee member, 1953

In spite of these issues, the first Melbourne Film Festival was an even bigger success than its predecessor.

The program was larger; 9 features and 88 shorts sourced from Australia, Europe and America. 2 000 people attended across the four days.

The film festival was installed thereafter as an annual event.

Poster for MIFF 1984
1984: poster for the first MIFF

In 1984, to reflect the diverse nature of its programming, 'International' was added to the festival's title.

So, depending on your perspective, the first Melbourne International Film Festival was either held in 1952, 1953, or 1984 (the official festival archive lists 1952).

In 2022, the Melbourne International Film Festival marks 70 years, making it one of the world's longest running film festivals.


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