Sydney Film Festival: David Donaldson Q&A

12 June 2013

David Donaldson was the director of the first Sydney Film Festival in 1954.
David Donaldson was the director of the first Sydney Film Festival in 1954.

As the Sydney Film Festival heads towards its closing days, the inaugural festival director, David Donaldson (BA Honours, 1951), shares his passion for film, and recalls the founding days of one of the key cultural events in the city.

The University campus was the festival's first home from 1954 to 1968. Back then the Wallace Theatre, the Holme Building, the Old Teacher's College and The Great Hall were used to screen mainly European films, and Mr Donaldson was the president of the Sydney University Film Group.

Where did your passion for film come from?

Unlike many film enthusiasts, I was not taken to matinee movies by an aunt or grandma. My own family was bookish, holding "the pictures" in disdain as was common then. I had seen very few films until I happened to see some offerings by Sydney University Film Group. Perhaps I dropped in to their shows after the library closed. I was a long-hours inhabitant of Fisher Library.

Formative experiences as a schoolboy would have been Eisenstein's imperial Alexander Nevsky (1938), seen at Maccabean Hall in Darlinghurst, and Paul Rotha's post-war The World is Rich (1947), seen at Sydney Town Hall. Seen by accident: Rita Hayworth in Raoul Walsh's The Strawberry Blonde (1941).

You were the inaugural Director of Sydney Film Festival. What was the festival like in its first year?

A speeding train but not a wreck. An audience, partly European in origin and yearning with post-war optimism for better things in art and enlightened information, was given a simple but powerful program of unseen old like The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and brilliant new like The Back of Beyond (1954), Kingdom on the Waters (1952). Thanks in part to the network of Morgan's Bookshop, subscriptions gloriously sold out.

How do you view Sydney Film Festival now? Or, what are some of the main changes from the early days that stand out for you?

Circumstances are different. It seems that the film societies and the festivals did indeed mould public taste so that nowadays the array of films on offer is amazing to those who remember the restricted 1950s. But festivals have a bit easily adopted outlooks and practices from the movie trade: there is an element of comprador now. Where are the new horizons? Some film societies remain loyal to the old flag.

What are some of your favourite films?

In shorts, Norman McLaren's Begone Dull Care (1949) and Robert Enrico's La Riviere du Hibou (Owl Creek Bridge, 1962). In long non-fiction Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, Robert Gardner's Dead Birds, John Heyer's The Back of Beyond.

In feature films, John Ford to me is the intuitive master of the medium: Stagecoach (1939), Judge Priest (1934), They Were Expendable (1945), The Sun Shines Bright (1953). Special affection for Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), which was written by its star - a still unknown Jack Nicholson - and directed by the 33-year-old Monte Hellman for the king of low budgets, Roger Corman. Rossellini, with Rome, Open City (1945), got to the heart and guts of cinema. Ken Hall did nicely with Dad and Dave Come to Town back in 1938. Some modern Russian films are just stunning.

When did you join the Sydney University Film Group, and what were some of the main functions of that group?

In 1951 I became a resident of Wesley College. Not needing to go home via a long walk to Redfern Station, I joined Sydney University Film Group committee. There was already SU Film Society, students mainly in engineering who showed fairly commercial films in the old Union Hall in return for a chance to muck about with the ancient projection gear. SUFG had the run of the Wallace Theatre, in which 16mm arc projectors had been installed thanks to Professor PDF Murray whose Zoology Department was just across Science Road. The aim was to show the university and the world that cinema is an art form ahead of a product in commerce and a medium of simple entertainment.

Do you have any special moments from that time you would like share?

Two from so many. I was standing at the back of the Wallace watching the opening documentary with the invited speaker, John Heyer. At one point, I heard him say quietly to himself, "Cut on Sound". Ever since, I have noticed when the editor cuts on the sound ahead of the picture element of the film.

The Group had sponsored the importation of Eisenstein's then-legendary epic Ivan the Terrible (1958). At that stunning shot where an endlessly distant procession is winding under (visually) the beard of the Tsar, which is seen very close up, a packed Union Hall gasped in unison. Take that!

The 60th Sydney Film Festival runs until 16 June. For further information about the University's involvement, visit the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences microsite.

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