Lament for the doomed lending collection

19 May, 2014 by Barrie Pattison*

Australia is already the most parochial film environment in the developed world. No surprise there. Look at the horror stories that litter the national cinema time line.

Think burning Amalgamated's library and the holdings of the ethnic distributors, freighting the lending collection to Melbourne and back at they say a million a time, cancelling the Lillian Gish tour, flogging Cinema Papers to a team unable to get past three shonky issues, the aborted Sydney Quay Cinematheque.


The dismantling of the National Film Theater must be most alarming. It's no accident that that organization's establishment coincided with the development of an Australian feature production industry acknowledged world wide and it's disappearance marked the end of consistently plausible product – and that is just a side issue.

The money spent on ill informed production alone could have made this country a world leader in cinema savvy. We're only on the third paragraph and were already looking at lost hundreds of millions.

The fact is that film (of which theatrical features are the high water mark) is the major form of expression of the Twentieth Century and on into our own time and that Australians have never had the access to it that people in other places take for granted. This shows up in areas central to life here – education, entertainment & comment – as well as production.

The National Film Lending Collection was the one point at which government threw a bone to that sleeping dog. (Pretty good for a mixed metaphor!) While they are poor relations to their real world counterparts, ACMI, the Arc, The Chauvel and the Brisbane Cinematheque, along with the volunteer film societies, which drew on on this, were the few attempts to deal with the problem, plaster on the cracks.

Programs, publications and screenings have been systematically whittled away from a very modest peak. This area was always seen as something to asset strip in the name of local production and, in parallel, it's preservation.

This is not just short sighted but stunningly naive. The Paris Film Museum's Henri Langlois, who faced similar pressure, understood this problem six decades back. He knew that it was not just sufficient to hold productions that could be entered into his data base and make his operation look imposing. "We cannot turn our Cinematheques into cemeteries" – it sounds better in French.

It was and is essential to spread awareness of the existence of historic materials and their part in a wider picture – their value. With all the short comings of his Cinémathèque Française, Langlois had it figured. The work had to be shown – under ideal conditions. Enthusiasts would watch it and ripple effect it outwards from those showings. It was because Langlois admired and repeatedly screened the then unknown NOSFERATU in his small screening room that it became a draw card there, in film museums round the globe and eighty years later you can buy it for a few dollars at your corner DVD store or stream it into your home computer. That story multiplied by thousands is the story of Cinematheques.

Not every one shared his point of view. The British Film Institute once hired in someone to tell them which of their Maurice Elvey films they could safely burn! It's not sufficient to have the work. You must deploy it or some bean counter will want the shelf space it occupies.

Which brings us to current situation where we learn that, as part of archive policy, the National Lending collection is about to close its doors. Rough luck media courses, volunteer groups or anyone who wants to use what are often the only copies in the country. Feel confident that your tax payer dollars are being used instead to digitize local product into formats which are likely to be obsolete before the process is finished.

The mistake of putting archiving and screening under the same roof has been evident for some time.

This situation repeats the need for the action that has never materialized. Movie enthusiasts in Australia have a dreadful record as lobbyists and it's caught up with them – an echo of the Maurice Ogden poem ""And where are the others that might have stood side by your side in the common good?" "Dead," I whispered; and amiably "Murdered," the Hangman corrected me; "First the alien, then the Jew… I did no more than you let me do."

* Barrie Pattison is a filmmaker, writer, long-time movie enthusiast and one of the founders and first programmer of the Australian National Film Theater.








  • Tony Buckley

    Barrie Pattison’s poignant and perturbing lament reminds one of the wholesale burning of the the entire Australasian Films library of silent Australian films from both their Bondi studio and White City vaults(Spencers Pictures collection ) for the fire raging through the convict ship scene in American Norman Dawn’s mediocre

    “For the Term of His Natural Life”.Possibly the world’s worst case of cinematic vandalism in the history of motion pictures.

    It has been downhill ever since for any serious attempt to preserve our film heritage.If it wasn’t for the “theft” of the 17 Cinesound features from their vaults in the 1960’s to the National Library there would be very few talkies to rediscover.The separating of the National Film and Sound Archive from the National Library was a step in the right direction but we have had to wait to the 21st century for the establishment of the Archive as a statutory body and then with insufficient funds to be able to do their job properly.Those 17 features are still awaiting restoration and preservation.Nitrate won’t wait and the digital age is already fast passing us by.

    Imagine what we would have if the largesse thrown at TWO AFTRS school establishments, by the Federal Governments,in 25 years had been spent on an NFSA?

    The Australian Film Insitute failed to be our Cinematheque and AACTA isn’t going to see the distance so now is the time to campaign vigorously for the Government to build a truly great National Film and Sound Archive and Cinematheque from the ground up.We have our National Galleries and Museums,we need a great National Film Archive not only for preservation and restoration of film,sound recordings,and television programs but also a place where the people can come and learn of our extraordinary Film,Televison and Radio Heritage and History.

    We all should hang our heads in abject shame for what we haven’t done to encourage and preserve this heritage in a manner fit and proper for our future generations. Yes Mr Pattison we do have a dreadful record as lobbyists and it has caught up with us.But it is not too late.Don’t condem the cut backs at the NFSA,let’s all get behind the new Director and his Board to bring about change and rectify the wrongs of years of poor funding and lobby the Minister for the Arts and the whole industry to bring about a properly funded NFSA in its own purpose built building which will be the envy of the world.

  • Robert Hart

    I am not surprised but I am still very angry that that a reactionary Christian philistine like “Torquemada” Tony Abbott should have such little regard for the cultural and artistic life of a community that does not conform to hos fundamentalist god bothering outlook. Adolf Hitler tried to destroy the rich diversity of the German cultural wealth but today it is richer than ever, and our cultural heritage will survive this bigoted bastard as well.

  • David Kilderry

    Well stated Barrie!

    Preservation is vitally important and valuable film materials continue to stream into the archive. The availability of these preserved elements via lending and the showcasing of them via cinematheque style screenings make an otherwise dead archive come alive.

    These are short sighted cuts made by fools who don’t value their past history or the art form of the twentieth century and beyond.

  • filmart_dd

    Complete re-thinking is needed. Current system derives from 1940s and had become chaotic.
    Media study has never been more popular, or more needed, but basic reference resources are woeful in organisation.
    Doubtful that Nat Film and Sound Archive has the analytical and responsive abilities to do the required thinking and re-devising.

  • nfsa