The legacy of the Experimental Film and Television Fund, 1970–78

The following paper was given by Dr Alex Gerbaz at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 13 October 2009.

The research I’ve been doing at the National Archives involves looking at files relating to the Experimental Film and Television Fund (EFTF), which operated from 1970–78. These files, which contain applications for funding, correspondence, scripts, budgets, and so on, were recently cleared for public access under the 30-year rule. Together they allow us to gain insight into how the EFTF was administered, which filmmakers received funding and why, and what sorts of projects were imagined and completed.

But why should a relatively obscure-sounding fund from three decades ago interest us today? For those interested in the history of cinema, and of the Australian film industry in particular, the 1970s is certainly a fascinating decade. Internationally, it saw the development of a post-Production-Code new Hollywood cinema, the New German Cinema, as well as avant-garde movements such as structuralism in Europe and North America. In Australia, it marked the revival of an industry that had laid dormant for decades. As this chart shows, during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, we produced an average of two feature-length films per year. This grew in the 1970s to more than 15 films per year – a figure that doubled in the 1980s. The increase in feature film production in the 1970s was due to government funding programmes. Features were financed through a General Production Fund, while the EFTF focused primarily on innovative short filmmaking.

Apart from a concern with the past for its own sake, the EFTF is of interest because it sheds light on today’s film industry. Screen Australia, the recently formed federal development and film funding organisation, seems to have lost some of the spirit of experimentation that drove the industry in the 1970s. Federal support for experimental – and short – filmmaking has been phased out almost entirely, with attention now focused on animation and feature films. Screen Australia has also indicated that it will give the green light exclusively to projects developed by what it calls ‘established producers’. But if short filmmaking is to be ignored, and if only established producers can get their films made, where does this leave talented and innovative filmmakers with something new to say? In the 1970s, many such filmmakers got their start with the EFTF, and would have a significant influence on the burgeoning feature-film industry.

To begin with, I’d like to provide some context for the establishment of the EFTF, and to outline the history of its operations. The EFTF played a key role in Australia’s film industry revival. In the 1940s and 50s, and in fact since the end of World War I, the production of feature films had declined considerably. Despite a handful of features made during World War I, and one-offs like Jedda in 1955, there was little to speak of in terms of an industry. From the early 1950s, a few European immigrants, such as Dusan Marek in Adelaide, and Giorgio Mangiamele in Melbourne, began to make independent and experimental short films. Film festivals were established in Melbourne, in 1952, and in Sydney in 1953, with Adelaide following suit in 1959 and Brisbane in 1966. During the 1960s, the appeal and reputation of these festivals were growing among Australian filmgoers. And in 1967, the National Film Theatre of Australia was formed, as Barrett Hodsdon recalls, ‘on the crest of a rising wave of enthusiasm for film history and film appreciation’. By the end of the decade, ‘the agitation for government support for new Australian filmmaking was gathering apace’.

The emergence of the Ubu Film Group, in Sydney in 1965, was another important factor in the industry revival. Led by Albie Thoms, David Perry and Aggy Read, Ubu was the face of Australian underground film in the late 1960s, and had demonstrated that there was an audience for locally made product. Some of their films were handmade, by making scratches directly onto the film’s surface, like Bluto. This was not only innovative in Australian cinema, but it was also an international first. While filmmakers had already experimented with scratching techniques, it had always been done to create recognisable images. Albie Thoms’s film was the first abstract scratch film. Bruce Beresford had directed a theatre production with Thoms that precipitated the formation of Ubu, and when the group evolved into the Sydney Film Co-op, it was managed by Phillip Noyce. These two filmmakers, of course, would soon play a significant role in the feature industry.

In 1969, responding to the new buzz around the potential for a local industry, the Australian Council for the Arts made three recommendations to the John Gorton Liberal government: The formation of a film and television school; a film development corporation; and an experimental film fund. The government accepted each recommendation, including the provision of $100 000 to establish the EFTF, and a further $100 000 to be spent on promoting and distributing the completed films. However, by the time the fund started allocating money to projects in 1970, 'the plan to spend $100 000 on promotion and distribution ... had been dropped'. Instead, the Australian Film Institute (AFI), which the Council entrusted to administer the EFTF, was given a grant to set up the Vincent Library, which would store and loan out copies of the films.

There was some opposition to these decisions. The AFI had an exclusive membership, and many independent filmmakers felt they were not adequately represented. It also owned the distribution rights to the EFTF’s completed projects, which meant that filmmakers had to borrow their own films from the Vincent Library in order to screen them. This situation differed from the Sydney and Melbourne Film Co-operatives, where members were in control of production, distribution, rentals, and exhibition.

The AFI administered the EFTF from 1970–76. The model for the EFTF was the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Production Board, which had grown out of the BFI’s own Experimental Film Fund. Established in 1952, the BFI’s Experimental Fund operated on a tiny budget, with only about £30 000 available throughout its fourteen-year existence. As Michele Pierson argues, ‘there was never any question of the Experimental Film Fund producing a body of films that, either then or now, would be recognized as avant-garde ... The brief that the new committee received from the BFI governors was that it should feel "free to interpret the word experimental in a reasonably liberal sense and that films which are experimental in either a technical or an artistic sense should be eligible for consideration"'. The BFI’s fund is fondly remembered today for having supported early work by filmmakers such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, Ken Russell, and Ridley Scott.

In 1966 the fund was revived as the BFI Production Board, and Bruce Beresford was named its first production officer. The Production Board continued to support ‘new and uncommercial filmmakers’, launching the careers of Terence Davies, Peter Greenaway, Stephen Frears, and Tony Scott. It provided a precedent for the AFI’s administration of the EFTF, but outlasted that fund, reaching a golden age in the 1980s and continuing to operate until 1999.

After being administered by the AFI until 1976, the EFTF was taken over by the newly established Australian Film Commission. Under these agencies, the fund was variously handled by the Australian Council for the Arts, the Interim Council of the Film and Television School, the Australia Council, the Film Radio and Television Board, and the Creative Development Branch. In 1976 it briefly became known as the Basic Production Fund, before resuming its original name by the end of the year.

As with the BFI’s Production Board, money from the AFI’s EFTF was allocated to projects rather than filmmakers. This system meant that individuals received no living subsidy while working on films, which therefore had to be completed on a part-time basis or on weekends. Towards the end of 1978 the Creative Development Branch amalgamated the EFTF, the Film Production Fund (for more experienced filmmakers), and its Script Development Fund, into a single Creative Development Fund. From this point, grants were payable directly to the filmmakers. However, even though experimental projects were still eligible for support, the Creative Development Fund also indicated that ‘assessors would be looking for films which will be enjoyed by the widest possible audience’. The Creative Development Fund focused to a greater degree on narrative drama and documentaries, longer films with higher budgets and more potential for commercial distribution.

The EFTF can be seen as part of an increase in national funding for the independent film sector in the 1970s – and particularly in the years of the Whitlam government, with the establishment of community video access centres, and more funding for the film co-ops. But according to Nick Herd, who ran the Sydney Co-op in the late 70s, support for the production of independent films outweighed support for their distribution and exhibition. The problem here was that while more low-budget short films were being made, there appeared to be no proportional commitment to having them screened to local audiences.

The situation hadn’t changed much since 1973, when Richard Brennan was asked to give evidence to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts about problems faced by filmmakers in gaining distribution for their films. He wrote to filmmakers who had received support from the EFTF, asking for their ‘assistance in protesting the indifference of television and film distribution to Australian material. If I get a completely united front’, he wrote, ‘it will do a lot to spotlight the fact that an enormous amount of government money has been set aside to support projects which remain largely unseen’.

On the other hand, a 1977 survey reported that funded films were ‘being seen more widely and used more often than has been previously acknowledged’. Thirty per cent had been screened at Australian film festivals and 10% at foreign festivals; 75% were exhibited by co-ops, and 20% were shown in part or in full on Australian television. Albie Thoms, who was the EFTF’s Film Consultant at the time, explained that these activities were ‘a direct result of the [AFI’s] decision to support marketing initiatives from filmmakers and filmmakers’ organisations’, admitting however that ‘much more’ could be done.

Despite these criticisms about exhibition and distribution, the EFTF did provide support for a range of projects and filmmakers. In its nine-year history, 521 films were completed, or just under 60 per year. The EFTF advertised that it would support applicants from ‘school-age to bald-age’, from anywhere around the country. In fact, a large proportion of applicants came from New South Wales and Victoria, with a small percentage living in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania.

Funding for projects initially came in the form of loans, which were to be repaid by filmmakers from income earned by the films. The funding rationale was ‘guided by an Interim Report recommendation that ... loans should be spread thinly among as many applicants as possible'. A figure of $1000, the report suggested, should ‘rarely be exceeded’. In 1971, loans were converted into grants, with filmmakers being required to requisition goods and services rather than receiving payment themselves. This was despite cartoon advertisements in magazines that depicted applicants receiving bags of money. By 1974, the upper limit for the EFTF had soared to $6000 for individual projects. Yet in private, administrators admitted that they were operating in ‘an environment of continuously inadequate monies’. By mid-1977, the upper limit had reached $7000.

To be eligible for funding, projects were required to meet criteria that were just as broad as the definition of ‘experimental’ in the British Film Institute model. They should conform to one of the following: be a new creative use of cinema or TV; a new technical use of cinema or TV; introduce a new technical device that may have technical use; or introduce a new technical device that may have creative use. They should either expose ‘new talent’, or give ‘proven talent’ the opportunity to do something of significance which otherwise would not be made. It was significant that the EFTF assessed both new and proven talent side-by-side. This created risk but also the possibility of surprise and true innovation, vital elements in any creative industry. In practice, interpreting the criteria for funding was sometimes problematic. For instance, an application by Aggy Read, one of the founding members of the Ubu group, could be rejected on the basis that he was neither ‘new’ nor ‘proven’ talent. Similarly, Dusan Marek, one of the country’s earliest animation experimenters, was seen to be offering nothing ‘new’, when in fact he was developing a mature surrealist style in a series of live-action films. On the other hand, Paul Winkler was described in 1972 as both ‘new’ and ‘proven’ talent.

The EFTF’s assessors therefore had plenty of room for interpretation and discrimination. Of 521 completed projects, only 122 were classified as ‘avant-garde’. The three other categories, formalised in the late 70s, were documentary, drama, and animation. Drama was the largest of these, with 247. There were 119 documentaries, including the EFTF’s first completed project, Or forever hold your peace, in 1970. Produced by Richard Brennan and directed by Kit Guyatt, it was an anti-Vietnam war film which received a loan of $2000. The applicant’s request for $5000 was deemed too high.

For some filmmakers, the EFTF was a stepping-stone on the way to mainstream features. One of the most prominent of these was a young Phillip Noyce. In 1970, the year the EFTF was established, 21-year-old Noyce hastily prepared an application for an ambitious project called Expanded Cinema. His aim for this project was to overcome problems relating to the separate presentation of films and stage performances. It would therefore fuse the two forms together: the stage becoming a screen and the screen becoming a stage, with actors frequently stepping from one to the other. Although Noyce subsequently withdrew the application, it demonstrates the early experimental impulses of a filmmaker who has become well-known, in Australia and Hollywood, as an A-list director of action and dramatic narrative films, including Newsfront (1978), Dead calm (1989), Patriot games (1992), and Rabbit-proof fence (2002).

In 1971 Noyce made Intersection, a short black-and-white film in which the camera, set up in the middle of peak-hour traffic, makes a number of continuous 360-degree revolutions. The soundtrack consists of a car horn blaring incessantly for several minutes. Noyce made Intersection without government funding for less than five dollars. At this time, Noyce was associated with the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op, and by 1972 the EFTF assessors were grumbling that he was currently involved in at least nine separate applications for funding. In theory, applicants were restricted to making one film at a time through the EFTF. In practice, groups of filmmakers from the Sydney and Melbourne Co-ops could get away with making submissions under different names. Noyce could then take on a number of roles, including producer, director, and editor.

One of his projects from 1972 was to examine the growing Australian cult of packing up one’s possessions to head north and live in a commune. This was seen to be too costly and not particularly experimental, so he was encouraged to apply for funding elsewhere. In the same year, he was accepted into the newly established Australian Film and Television School, along with 11 other students, including Gillian Armstrong, Chris Noonan, and Graham Shirley. The trajectory of Noyce’s career suggests that experimental filmmaking was a springboard to commercial cinema. Arthur Cantrill remembers him suddenly announcing, ‘I don’t want to make technical films, I want to make narrative film’, and says ‘he clearly saw experimental film as some kind of experiment in technique, which shows that he misunderstood the whole point of it!’ But we should not be critical of the fact that different filmmakers used the EFTF for different purposes. In 1970s Australia, for many up-and-coming directors, making films was itself an experimental process. So, for people like Philip Noyce, the EFTF allowed filmmakers to practice their technique and develop their skills along the way to becoming a professional director of mainstream narrative films.

Like the British model, the Australian government’s EFTF can lay claim to launching the careers of some of the country’s best talents, including Peter Weir, Jan Chapman, Richard Franklin, and Scott Hicks. Tim Burstall received funding to make Stork, said to be the first locally produced comedy in Australia since the 1930s, and the start of a string of ‘ocker’ films, such as The adventures of Barry McKenzie. The actor Bryan Brown applied to the EFTF, to make a film about a young married couple who react violently to a corporation’s attempt to take away their home – but this application was knocked back.

The aims of the EFTF were ‘to encourage creative development by professionals in the media, and to discover new creative talent’. It would support projects ‘which are original in approach, technique, or subject matter ... technical research projects and ... proposals by inexperienced, but promising, filmmakers’. One such filmmaker was 16-year-old Alex Proyas, who successfully applied to make Ditto in 1978. Still a high-school student, Proyas was given $350 to make this short animated film on the basis of a few completed school projects and a detailed storyboard. The EFTF’s assessors saw ‘a promising animation talent’ on their hands, and were concerned that he was ‘not definite about a career in animation’ because ‘it would help the industry’ if he was. With a working title of ‘Animated experiment’, it is clearly not avant-garde although his script does contain a surrealist sequence. But the prospect of supporting a new talent and simultaneously giving a shot in the arm to a fledgling animation industry was worth the risk.

In his storyboard sketches for Ditto, the eventual director of such science-fiction and fantasy films as The crow (1994), Dark city (1998), I robot (2004) and Knowing (2009) already demonstrates a remarkable visual sense. Proyas’s treatment, about the last man alive on a planet after nuclear war, suggests a Philip K Dick influence, while the importance of shadow in the film’s overall look reveals the beginning of his own characteristic noir style. Its cyclical narrative, in which the man journeys to another world in a spaceship, only to crash and be discovered by a second, nomadic survivor, who journeys to a third world, and so on, anticipates Knowing’s concern with the repetition and prediction of events.

Ditto was the only film Proyas made with assistance from the EFTF. By the time he completed it, the EFTF was to be incorporated into the new, bigger-budget Creative Development Fund. But the fact that it was made at all indicates that the EFTF was willing to give young, inexperienced filmmakers the opportunity to prove themselves, albeit on a very small budget. It’s unlikely that a 16-year-old student would have had any luck applying to the Creative Development Fund, or indeed to Screen Australia’s current Short Animation Production Program, with its emphasis on ‘successful track records’ and ‘experienced animation producers’. It is fair to say that someone in Alex Proyas’s position in 1978 would have difficulty attracting government finance for a short animation project in today’s environment.

Genuinely experimental filmmakers also applied to the EFTF, but the assessors were ambivalent towards their work and often reluctant to provide support. Aggy Read was well-known in film circles in the early 70s, having been a founding member of the Ubu group in the mid to late 60s. Within the first few months of the EFTF’s existence, Read submitted five simultaneous applications. He was critical of the application process from the outset, suggesting that the ‘forms are too restricted in their concept and that independent filmmakers have been given no opportunity to state their requirements’. In an audacious proposition, he requested ‘an overall grant of $8000 for one year’ to cover the cost of all five projects, his living costs, ‘expenses incurred in giving lectures, talks, tutorials ... assisting [other] filmmakers’, and the publication of Filmmakers newsletter. He also asked for a special account of $2000 to be administered by himself, and ‘to be used to promote & launch screenings of independent & experimental films around Australia’. Such screenings, he explained, would ‘fulfil the most important need – that films made by Australians be seen by audiences’.

Although the EFTF did not meet all of his demands, out of this application came Infinity girl and Far be it me from it. The latter film, a semi-autobiographical piece, includes excerpts from some of his earlier work, with commentary and analysis, as well as newer footage accompanied by psychedelic music by Pink Floyd. Having successfully completed two films with the EFTF, the assessors were sceptical about giving Read another chance. On receiving his application to make the experimental documentary Seven yellow months, in 1972, they rejected it because he no longer fit into any of the categories that would recommend funding. It must be said that one of the failures of the EFTF in this regard was that it could not find room to support someone of Aggy Read’s stature. Indeed, most of the genuine experimenters were allowed to make only one or two films before falling into a grey area of assessment – either they hadn’t ‘proved’ themselves, or their applications were considered thematically too similar to their previous work.

Aggy Read also became frustrated with the EFTF’s distribution of its films, through the Vincent Library. In 1971, renting a film from the Library cost 20c per minute, which he considered was ‘underselling [the country’s] independent films’. He was annoyed that he could not use the Library’s prints of his films to enter international festivals, given that he couldn’t afford to make his own prints. And he accused the Library of failing to ‘tread new ground in distribution’, eventually denying it permission to rent out his films altogether. Ironically, this made it even more difficult for ‘films made by Australians’, namely his own films, to be seen by audiences.

Another audacious applicant was James Clayden, who eventually went on to make the remarkable full-length experimental feature Corpse in 1982. In the mid-70s, he wrote to the EFTF, saying, ‘it is about this time "now" that you did something useful to the evolutionary process of universe & humanity and supported myself for six months i.e. living expenses ... and film-material expenses ... so that I may go on without hindrances in my work and processing’. He explained that due to his working methods it was impossible to properly budget his projects, one of which required 80 hours worth of cassettes to record sound. The EFTF supported him with a modest grant for one film, but rejected another because it was too ‘obscure’.

The assessment of projects sometimes favoured genuinely innovative ideas, but at other times it seemed hostile towards the avant-garde. Paul Winkler was regarded as ‘one of Australia’s foremost experimentalists’, and yet the assessors were concerned that he should not be supported for too long. As it happens, he did receive a small number of grants, but he was such a fast worker that he typically began and finished the projects in the time it took for his applications to be assessed.

Less fortunate was John Dunkley-Smith, a committed structuralist filmmaker whose work was generally misunderstood by the EFTF’s assessors. Describing his intentions, he wrote: ‘The “film” that interests me most in any consideration of "cinema" is not the strip of acetate that is eventually pulled through the gate of the projector in order to [be] shown on the screen, but rather, the “film” that is constructed by the viewer as he/she apprehends, orders, re-orders the constituent elements of the projection/presentation/performance situation ... The effort of the viewer to determine structures (to organise experience) actually serves to transform (or re-construct) the film’s structure’. Diagrams such as these were used to help explain the possible structure and presentation format of the films.

Some reactions to Dunkley-Smith’s applications were positive, but others were curiously antagonistic. One assessor wrote: ‘The applicant has deliberately chosen to work outside all the known guidelines of film’; ‘I want to read about people not technique’; ‘an orgy of navel-picking, or lotus eating ... divorced from any connection with society or the world we live in ... inward looking and, in its extreme form, decadent’. Although he felt humiliated by the experience, eventually Dunkley-Smith reapplied to the EFTF and was supported, on the basis that nobody else was likely to do so. But the fact that he was criticised for working outside the known guidelines of cinema, rather than encouraged to do so, is an indication that genuinely innovative filmmaking was not the main priority of some assessors on the board.

Inconsistent assessment practices were coupled with bureaucracy (Albie Thoms, who became a consultant, described some aspects as being ‘Kafkaesque’). This was off-putting for a number of independent filmmakers, especially those who were unaccustomed to providing budgets or regular updates on their progress. For those who considered themselves artists, the experimental nature of their projects meant that the work could evolve in ways that weren’t tangible, or measurable. On the other hand, administrators often took a leap of faith when they funded this type of project. You can sense their frustration when projects that should have taken 12 months to complete dragged on for 5 or 6 years. There was mutual scepticism between the EFTF and Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, the country’s most prolific experimental filmmakers, who received funding to complete only one project, Skin of your eye. But if most of the Cantrills’ films have been made without government funding, and those of Paul Winkler, Dirk de Bruyn, and others, should the ‘underground’ simply have stayed underground, raising finance independently?

While it may be fair to say that some of the best experimental films have been made outside the system, it does not follow from this that the government should withdraw funding opportunities for innovative filmmaking. The EFTF, and independently made experimental films, have added significantly to Australia’s screen culture. As Ken Berryman has indicated, ‘many writers on the Australian film revival have been at pains to point out ... [that] it is these more modest productions which best illustrate what living in Australia in the 1970s was like’. It is interesting to note that words like ‘culture’ and ‘Australian content’, which have since become central to most of the funding policy documents of the Australian Film Commission and now Screen Australia, were not amongst the criteria of the EFTF. Nor do I think they should have been. Rather, each film was made by people living in Australia, had an Australian perspective, and thus contributed to the nation’s film culture regardless of its theme or style: whether they were films about people or films that privileged the medium or structure; whether they were about Australian history or Indigenous culture; pieces of abstract art, or satires of South African apartheid; or fragmentary landscape films or surreal animations; together they helped to produce a film culture where almost none had existed before.

Screen Australia now requires that films applying for a Producer Offset pass their ‘significant Australian content’ test. Part of the test is the stipulation that the ‘look and feel of the film’ must be ‘sufficiently Australian’. But while these terms are vague, I think they encourage a rather narrow interpretation of Australian film. The official discourse of Australian content risks confining our filmmakers to creating images that are already familiar to us, or which are supposed to reflect our national identity. Presumably, a film will fail to qualify for the Producer Offset if the ‘kangaroo quotient’ is too low. If it doesn’t ‘look’ or ‘feel’ Australian, then it can’t be Australian. Surely this puts unreasonable limits on the types of film we can make, and on our capacity to produce something that is stylistically or aesthetically innovative.

This applies to feature films, of course, and not short films, for which Screen Australia has reserved a small, token funding programme. In late 2008, the newly amalgamated Screen Australia released a draft copy of its funding guidelines (which ignored short filmmaking altogether) and asked for comments from members of the film industry. The most widely discussed submission was from Richard Lowenstein, producer of such films as Dogs in space and He died with a felafel in his hand. He argued that he would not be where he is today – that is, an experienced writer, director and producer – had he not received a $5000 grant in 1979 from the Australian Film Commission to make his first short film.

The film in question, called Evictions, was funded by the Creative Development Fund. It won the Erwin Rado Award for Best Australian Short Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and the Kodak Award for Best Cinematography in a Short Film. If the current funding criteria at Screen Australia had been in place, Lowenstein contended, he would not have been given the chance to make Evictions, or his subsequent feature films. The same principle applies to a number of Experimental Film and Television Fund recipients. For example, Chris Noonan, Jan Chapman, Peter Weir, and Scott Hicks were all establishing themselves when they received their grants, but they went on to make Babe, The piano, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Shine.

In 1977 only nine Australians had directed more than one 35mm feature, and all but one of these had backgrounds in low-budget filmmaking. As the feature industry grew in the 1980s, provoked by the government’s new 10BA tax incentive scheme, experimental filmmaking began to wane. Today, the gap between mainstream and alternative filmmaking in Australia may be wider than it has ever been, while the difference in funding opportunities available to established and establishing filmmakers is also becoming more pronounced. The moment may have passed when new and proven talent could be assessed side-by-side. And it seems unlikely that the federal government will re-introduce funding for experimental films in the near future. But the spirit of experimentation which led the Australian film revival is something our industry cannot afford to lose.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019