Sydney Connections Breakfast: David Stratton

21 June 2013

David Stratton
Celebrated film critic David Stratton (DLitt '06) shares his career story with University of Sydney alumni at the Sydney Connections Breakfast.

"On occasions like this I feel a complete fraud, because I am the least educated person in this room." So David Stratton (DLitt '06), arguably one of Australia's most influential film critics, began his humble address to the Sydney Connections Breakfast audience at The Ivy on June 19.

Just one week after the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences wrapped up their inaugural cultural partnership with the Sydney Film Festival, the former Festival director delivered an account of his impressive career in a speech titled 'A life with the movies'.

Before 80 University of Sydney alumni and friends, Stratton charted his so-called "slightly boring life story", which soon proved to be anything but.

He described an upbringing in which he was groomed to take over the family grocery business in Wiltshire. Though lacking a formal education, Stratton tirelessly pursued his passion for film, first instilled as a young child by his grandmother, who took him to five movies a week during the Second World War.

"She left me a legacy of loving movies, starting from as young as I can remember," he reflected. "I still have the most amazing memories of films that were totally unsuitable for a small child. The more unsuitable probably the better."

At the age of 19, an enterprising Stratton started the first film society in his hometown, selecting the films, writing the program notes and even operating the 16mm projectors. Turning away from the family business, Stratton departed for Australia in 1963 and took up a job as a packer in a Botany warehouse upon his arrival. Remarkably, this was the last time in his life he applied for a job.

After writing a letter to the Sydney Film Festival board protesting the censorship of the films shown in 1964, Stratton was invited to stand as a member of the board. Two years later, he became the Festival's Director and used this position over the following 18 years to initiate important motions fighting film censorship.

"Going to the movies as an ordinary cinema goer at that time, it was quite clear that almost every film was being cut in some form or another," he explained. "And some films that I loved were banned in Australia at the time. It was really an extraordinary time... It seemed to me that films should be shown in their integral versions."

For more than 50 years, Stratton has captivated generations of moviegoers with his insightful film commentary. Perhaps best known to younger audiences for his work as co-presenter on ABC TV's At The Movies program with Margaret Pomeranz, before this he co-hosted The Movie Show, as well as Movie of the Week and Cinema Classics on SBS Television for more than 23 years. He is a former critic for Variety magazine, and currently writes as film critic for The Australian.

Remaining self-effacing while recounting his career history, Stratton brightened at the chance to display his encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema during the Breakfast's Q&A section, covering everything from Orson Wells to the recent winner of the Sydney Film Festival's official competition, Only God Forgives.

Emcee of event, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Professor Duncan Ivison, said Stratton's life story is an important reminder to follow your passions.

"I reject his assertion that he doesn't belong at an event hosted by the University of Sydney, in fact it's quite the opposite," he said. "[David] reminded me of how important it is that when we think of our greatest cultural treasures, there are things that have to be fought for and cultivated."

David Stratton was admitted to the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) from the University of Sydney in June 2006 for his distinguished career in the arts community and his ongoing contributions to Australian cultural life. Since 1990, he has also guest lectured on the history of world cinema for the University's Centre for Continuing Education, a job he said he "enjoys more than anything".

The Sydney Connections Breakfast is designed to help University of Sydney alumni reconnect in the heart of the city over breakfast and an inspiring speech by notable former students.

The next event is on Wednesday 11 September, and will feature Agricultural Scientist and former judge on ABC TV's The New Inventors, Chris Russell, speaking on 'Turning road blocks into speed bumps - The importance of innovation to our future'.

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