Sydney Film Festival: David Donaldson Q&A

11 June 2013

David Donaldson
"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," says David Donaldson.

Alumnus David Donaldson (B.A. Honours 1951) was Sydney Film Festival's inaugural Festival Director. On the 60th anniversary of the festival, which began at the University of Sydney, he shares with us his passion for film, and recalls the founding days of one of the key cultural events in Sydney's calendar.

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 (1930-40-50s). I had seen very few films until, quite simply, 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, seen at Maccabean Hall in Darlinghurst, and Paul Rotha's post-war The World is Rich, seen at (hard to believe now) Sydney Town Hall. Seen by accident: Rita Hayworth in Raoul Walsh's The Strawberry Blonde (1941).

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, somehow I joined SUFG committee. Judith Gollan, Edgar Waters and especially Peter Hamilton were mentors to the newies. Wesley residents becoming interested in film then were Garth Everson and Ian Dunlop. 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 Prof. P.D.F. Murray whose Zoology Deptartment was just across Science Road. The Film Group's name implied an action orientation. 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". For 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. 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!

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) and brilliant new (The Back of Beyond, Kingdom on the Waters). Thanks in part to the network of Morgan's Bookshop, subscriptions gloriously sold out.

How has that shaped your film journey since?

I just love Sold Out. A film works better with a crowd (phff to home dvd!). Every film has an audience out there; every audience needs its film. If you undertake to offer a film to its public, you have to work until they flock to the show, meanwhile again work to shape their expectations so that they understand the film. Then they love it too. I have done that all my life in many places.

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 absolute favourite films?

Again, from so many. In shorts, Norman McLaren's Begone Dull Care and Robert Enrico's La Riviere du Hibou (Owl Creek Bridge). In long non-fiction (or is it?), 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, Judge Priest, They Were Expendable, The Sun Shines Bright. Special affection for Ride in the Whirlwind 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 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.

The 60th Sydney Film Festival runs until June 16. For further information about the University's involvement, visit our micro-site.

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