The Melbourne Film Festival (MIFF) is Australia's largest, and oldest, film fest. The modern iteration involves hundreds of movies, from all over the world, organised into a dozen different program streams, and screened in 35mm, in high def digital, in IMAX, and even at the planetarium. But the origins of this cultural institution are much humbler.
There have been films in Melbourne almost as long as there have been films.
Moving pictures were invented by the Lumiere brothers; French photographic technicians who developed a simple camera and projection system they called the 'Cinematographe', in 1895. The first local screening was held just one year later in 1896, when a travelling magician, Carl Hertz, brought a projector and a few short reels as part of his act. These early screenings caused something of a sensation, and were so popular that be the end of the same year, three full time cinemas had been established.
But while the local film industry expanded rapidly, the types of films that were available remained limited. Even as the international film marketplace began to mature, local offerings were largely restricted to the latest high profile titles from Hollywood and England.
The popularity of films in Australia had lead to a proliferation of film societies; clubs run by passionate film buffs, eager to expand their filmic horizons. Meeting in town halls and private houses, film societies organised screenings of documentaries, 16mm films and archival prints, as an alternative to the latest studio offerings.
In 1950, the Australian Council of Film Societies (ACOFS) was formed, a national organisation designed to allow these groups to coordinate. And at the second meeting of ACOFS, in 1951, the Victorian delegation proposed a film festival, to be held the following year.
Olinda was selected as the venue, with the festival set for the Australia Day long weekend. The organisers thought the rural setting might attract more attendees, making for an appealing weekend getaway. Expectations were modest; an attendance of fewer than 100 people was predicted, mainly drawn from Melbourne film society members.
The goals of the festival were laid out in the festival 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 festival organisers looked some unorthodox sources. As well as sourcing non-Enlgish language films from overseas, the festival would also acquire documentaries from universities, government departments and even private corporations. The outcome was a diverse program of 8 feature length movies, and 79 shorts.
Highlights of the program included Jean Cocteau's version of 'Beauty and the Beast', and seminal Russian classic 'Earth', both previously unseen in Australia. On the final day, the festival would climax with the Commonwealth Film Awards.
What no one had prepared for, was just how successful the festival would be.
Instead of the expected 100 visitors, more than 600 film buffs descended on Olinda.
Accommodation in the small town quickly sold out, and volunteers set up a makeshift tent city to handle the overflow. Likewise, the phone exchange was quickly overwhelmed, and the local army reserve had to be enlisted to set up a makeshift exchange.
The country halls that were converted into temporary cinemas ended up being far too small for the large crowds; 200 people had to be turned away from opening night. and members of the Victorian Amateur Film Association were unable to get into a screening of a film that they had provided.
The difficulty of cramped venues was further exacerbated by poor ventilation in the old buildings. An outdoor cinema had been hastily convened to try and counter this problem, but bad weather throughout the weekend meant it was barely used.
So despite the popularity of the Olinda festival, and the immediate clamour for a follow up event in 1953, ACOFS was reluctant to sponsor another event in Victoria. The Council favoured an annual, national, festival that would rotate between the states each year.
Preliminary plans were made to hold a second event in Canberra on the the following Australia Day long weekend.
The Victorian delegation then decided to go it alone, and organise their own festival. To mitigate the shortcomings identified in Olinda, capacity and facilities, the festival was to be moved to the city proper.
In 1953 it was held over the Labour Day long weekend; 6 to 9 March. And instead of pokey country halls and tents, the first Melbourne Film Festival would base itself in the city's grandest location; the Royal Exhibition Building.
But while the Royal Exhibition Building provided a handsome venue, the building came with its own challenges. The vast, high ceiling-ed space was not naturally suited to use as a cinema, and there were issues with both the audio and visual aspects of the screenings:
'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
Despite these problems, the 1953 festival was an even bigger success than its predecessor, with 2 000 attendees across the four days. It has been held every year since, and is now one of the world's longest continuously run film festivals.
(If you are in our neighbourhood, check it out here: www.miff.com.au)