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Storry Walton

Platform Paper 5

Australian Film and the Brain Drain

Storry Walton

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 Australia’s expatriate filmmakers are an investment waiting to be realised, writes Storry Walton in a wide-ranging examination of the Australian feature film industry. They leave because they need to. Here is ‘not an environment conducive to making a decent living. It is easy to conclude that the Australian cinema is borne along by faith and oily rags’. Now these expatriates could change all that. ‘Are we incapable of an angry cinema, an ecstatic cinema, a cinema of revelation, of political and social outrage, of the heroic and the epic?’ He argues cogently for a government-funded expatriate-return strategy to benefit both the filmmaker and the home industry. A way to ‘turn the notion of the homeland upside down, no longer a place of the past but a place of renewal. With this extra strength, he says, we could do some brave things. Walton praises government’s three-tier funding structure for film development and sees a dynamic future in the Film Finance Corporation’s radical new policy of quality evaluation. Modestly-funded movies with character and depth. And filmmakers endorse him. ‘From the outside, with clear vision, I could see how many good things there were—good writers, good actors, top crews, tremendous government support,’ says Gillian Armstrong. Phillip Noyce believes that Australia is the best place in the world to secure script development support. ‘I never had so much joy as I had with Rabbit-Proof Fence.’


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About the Author

 Storry Walton, script writer and filmmaker, was an early producer of arts programs for ABC-TV, made BBC-TV documentaries and was director of the precursor to the Australian Film, TV and Radio School. He is now a visiting teacher at Charles Sturt University.

We have always felt ambivalent about the idea of ships and planes bearing away our talent. It has always betokened a fear of the loss of native imagination, or worse, of national intelligence. It has signified regret and guilt - regret at losing our brightest, and guilt at not having been able to keep them. It has meant pride in their achievements, and disdain, should they return without accolades-'They weren't really good enough, you know.' 


Anthony Buckley on our schools' insularity

Storry Walton presents an interesting perspective on the current problems of our Australian industry in Shooting Through: Australian Film and the Brain Drain

(Platform Papers No. 5). But I don't think the brain drain has anything to do with the present navel-gazing crisis of Australian cinema. A respected writer friend recently had the gruelling task of assessing over sixty Australian scripts. The writer noted that the scripts were for drugs slash movies (boys) or destructive sex slash abusive parents (girls). And that's it. These writers have only two stories to tell until they're 45! And they have invented an entirely new genre called 'I don't read or watch television'. I would add, 'or go to the cinema either'.

You can bring back all our peers and I will tell you it won't make a scrap of difference. In fact I would go so far as to say it would be a great waste of money. The problem lies in the teaching at our insular and cocooned film schools-all of them! Bruce Beresford, Tim Burstall, Peter Weir, Donald Crombie, Ken Hannam et al didn't go to film schools. They learned their skills and craft where it matters-at the coalface, just like those marvellous television directors and writers who went overseas in the 1950s and 60s.

I find Storry's comments on training, under 'Thespian Germs' (p.43), very relevant. Discipline is sadly missing in today's learning equation. One learns more about anything if one has a 100-foot roll of film to learn with (and that's the only roll they're going to get) as opposed to the un-discipline of filming endless hours of tape. Help!

The brain drain from Europe and Britain to Hollywood from 1910 to 1940 didn't stop the growth and development of their film industries. World War II may have, though Britain produced some of their finest films in those dark days of the war. Let actors and artisans go over to Hollywood, the Americans have always recognised new blood. It is our job to create and foster our talent here. Bring back our expatriates if you want, but this is not the answer to our problem, it is the deep-rooted insularity of our film schools in not having supported vigorously attachments and apprenticeships to our coalface practitioners.

Robert Connolly on the dangers of Hollywood

Storry Walton's Platform Paper Shooting Through addresses many of the key issues facing the Australian film industry, particularly the impact of 'the global circular migration of talent' and subsequent brain drain. While there is much to be gained from the return to Australia of the talented directors that reinvigorated our industry in the 1970s, I wonder if the current impact of the lure of Hollywood also needs further scrutiny.

In last week's Sydney Morning Herald ('Aussie made movie Stealth panned in US', 31 July 2005) the international critical response to the Hollywood Studio action film Stealth was given particular attention. The film was shot in Sydney with the usual mix of Australian cast and crew in minor roles, and the article inferred that this failure was somehow tied to the crisis in our local industry. After months of unrelenting criticism of our local industry, the media savaging of Stealth was perhaps presented as evidence that our industry can't even maintain a reasonable level of quality in locally made studio product (I would have thought Mission Impossible 2 was already evidence of this). There is, of course, a considerable difference between having a film industry in Australia and the significant value of a strong Australian film industry.

Hollywood has in recent years developed an insatiable appetite for talent, regularly seeking out new directors for its remakes, franchise sequels and summer genre fodder. A damaging trend among emerging filmmakers in Australia, particularly evident among the makers of short films, is a more calculated ambition to pursue such a career, resulting in a diminished standard of work. It is therefore no surprise that the work of the Australian Film Commission's indigenous film unit, and the talented pool of filmmakers it is supporting, have become one of the industry's successes. These filmmakers have a story to tell and an uncompromising ambition to be bold, innovative, and original in the telling of it. To survive now, our industry will need to be driven by these filmmakers and others like them. The focus on a career path to Hollywood is in the short term a dangerous distraction from the main game.

I'm sure Weir, Beresford and Noyce would all agree that the Hollywood that now beckons is very different from the one that gave them the conditions to make their early films outside Australia; and that the ability to finance the cinema they want to make has deteriorated, as has the quality of work available. No doubt they would also agree that the future of our industry now depends on a new generation of filmmakers driven by the stories they have to tell, rather than by any ambition for success in the Hollywood studio system.