A behind-the-scenes look back at, and recent restoration of by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA), landmark 1988 documentary Australia Daze (1988) – by James Cunningham
Rarely did Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton both give a 5-star review to the same film. Even rarer still was when Margaret and David both gave a 5-star review to the same Australian film. But in their thirty-two years together on television, it did happen. Those films include Fred Schepisi’s Evil Angels (1988, cinematography by Ian Baker ACS), Ray Argall’s Return Home (1990, cinematography by Mandy Walker ACS ASC) and Ray Lawrence’s Lantana (2001, cinematography also by Mandy Walker ACS ASC). The only other Australian film to receive this honour was Pat Fiske’s 1988 documentary Australia Daze, which has just been restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA).
Australia Day in 1988 was also Australia’s Bicentenary, the day we marked two-hundred years since the arrival of the First Fleet of British convict ships at Sydney in 1788. That day, in 1988, twenty-eight film crews spread out across the country to ask people for their reflections on the Bicentenary, contemporary Australia and our history. Those film crews captured what would become Australia Daze.
Australia Daze conscientiously involves people of all ages across the spectrum of socio-economic life in Australia; from Sydney’s harbourside-dwelling ‘elites’ to miners working in rural Queensland, homeless people and those living below the poverty line, the broad swathe of suburban and inner-city middle class, retirees, migrants and their children, prominent Aboriginal Australians, media personalities and politicians. Each of these film crews captured something different, and in their own unique way.
The questions Australian’s were asked included: What does the bicentenary mean and is it worth celebrating? Can you understand why Aboriginal Australians and others might feel differently about this day? What is good or bad about Australia and what, if anything, needs to change? What we witness in response is an array of patriotism, protest and indifference, as well as sheer relief it’s a public holiday.
The logistics involved in shooting the film were impressive. There were twenty-eight film crews scattered across Australia under the supervision of overall director Pat Fiske. They shot on 16mm, with additional footage supplied by the ABC and commercial news footage. Other filmmakers contributed super 8mm and video material, and the filmmakers also collected hours of radio talkback. It took twelve-hours a day for a whole week simply to view the unedited material and nine months for two editors to cut the film.
“The experience was exhausting and very depressing, but the underlying humanity and humour heartened us,” says Fiske.
One of those twenty-eight film crews was headed up by cinematographer and segment director Dick Marks OAM, who is himself a former editor of this magazine. Marks reflects on his experience on Australia Daze, “When I received the call asking if I’d like to shoot and direct a segment for Australia Daze, I accepted immediately.” says Marks. “I was only ever going to go in one direction… West. Well, to be more precise, North West, to Mt Isa.”
Marks figured other contributors would film in or around the fringes of the big cities and that there would be much fun in the sun, booze and frivolity. So, to offer a counterpoint to that, he felt the opinions of a few ‘bushies’ would provide welcome balance to the documentary. “Boy, did I get that in the form of Pic Willetts and his mate,” says Marks. “Willetts was a legendary drover who pushed at least 100,000 cattle over dusty outback trails between 1952 and 1995.”
When Marks knocked on the open door of Willetts humble fibro house, he could just make out the figure of a small man sitting in a big arm chair, watching daytime television. He approached the door barefoot, put on his big ten gallon hat and emerged into the harsh Mt Isa sunlight,” remembers Marks. “He was lean, fit and very reserved. He said very little; just listened, all the time scanning me for clues of a con. After three cups of strong black tea, he agreed to be shadowed for twenty-four hours on Australia Day, 1988.”
“I wanted to give a voice to the bush,” says Marks, who was then just a crew of two, himself and Roly McManus, my old mate and sound recordist. “Willetts and his mate couldn’t give a rats arse that it was Australia’s biggest birthday celebration and he did what he did almost every other day of his life… muster. Willetts offered us the wisdom of the bush, forged from thousands of hours spent alone in the saddle, cocooned in an envelope of bellowing and dust.”
Also far from fierce protests and raucous celebrations reverberating across the country, Australia Daze sent cinematographer Jane Castle ACS and her trusty Arri SR2 into the deeply intimate space of a maternity ward with director Jeni Thornley and sound recordist Sue Kerr.
“The enormity of bearing witness to a new human being coming into the world overshadowed the tumult going on outside and set in stark relief the lives lost in the violent colonisation of this continent.” says Castle. “It was the first time I’d filmed a birth, and when things started to go wrong, the baby coming out with the cord wrapped tightly around her neck, I instinctively swung the camera away and missed a few seconds of the pivotal moment. Thanks to some masterful editing you can hardly tell I screwed up!”
“Seeing the restored, pristine print recently on the big screen was a real buzz,” says Castle. “It gave me fresh perspective on the contested idea of nationhood, the courage and resilience of this land’s First Nations people and the mind-boggling miracle of birth. As I watched the scene where the midwife reflects eloquently on the day as she washed the thankfully, healthy baby, I was heartened to see that my camera work was sensitive, gentle, in sync with the moment… and in focus.”
Australia Daze is one of the latest Australian films brought to life by the NFSA Restores program, which digitises, restores and preserves significant Australian films at the highest archival standards. It also ensures that they can be screened in today’s digital cinemas.
Shot in 1988, using various 16mm stock, the A and B rolls were lodged with the NFSA by the filmmakers. The original print negatives were then scanned in-house at the NFSA in Canberra, using the Scanity digital scanner, to international archival preservation standards. The scans were sent to Spectrum Films at Fox Studios in Sydney, where the vision was cleaned, automatically and then manually, and fully restored by their expert colourist Jamie Hediger.
The restoration process included ongoing consultation with key creatives wherever possible. Fiske was in the suite to provide advice on colour and contrast. During this process, there were additional insights on offer as memories and anecdotes were freely shared, bringing the filmmaking process back to life.
The NFSA follows a strict protocol in the digitising where they cannot ‘change the film’. The aim is to recreate the film as faithfully as possible so fix-ups can only be very small. Guest worked with Fiske and Spectrum Films for colour grading, which was quite protracted due to Covid-19 restrictions. The final DCP was quality checked by Fiske, producer Graeme Isaac and NFSA in May 2020.
Audio restoration was completed in-house by the NFSA and then digitally laid onto the final file by Spectrum Films. Once the final digitally restored file was quality controlled, a digital cinema package (DCP) and subsequent HD file were rendered and tested on a cinema screen. All materials resulting from this digital restoration are now part of the NFSA collection, where they will be preserved for future generations.
“One of our roles is to ensure that our collection is shared with audiences so that they may be empowered to interpret the past, form their own opinions about Australia’s history and culture, and make decisions regarding our present and future,” said NFSA chief curator Gayle Lake.
Australia Daze screened in multiple cinemas on 26 January this year, thirty-three years after the shoot. The national screening program was a major challenge for the NFSA, and with screenings in six venues across the country to around 600 people, with the reduced COVID-19 capacity of cinemas, it was a huge success. “It was the first time I had seen the film since its original release on ABC TV in 1989,” says one of the segment directors Erika Addis. “It was fantastic to see it on the big screen at the NFSA in Canberra, with a full house and very enthusiastic audience.”
“The younger audiences loved the film as much as the older viewers,” continues Addis. “In post-screening discussions, there was terrific feedback including how relevant the film was today and, as it was made before many of them were born, and the objectively presented spectacle of Sydney Harbour juxtaposed against some of the biggest Indigenous rights marches to date, it carried some serious weight in light of the recent Black Lives Matters movement.”
Australia Daze is a snapshot of one day in the millennia-long history of the country. The film is an opportunity for Australians to remember where they were, or to catch a glimpse of Australia’s past before they were born or arrived here. It is a chance to reflect on how much things have changed in thirty-four years and, also, how little has changed.
“Films like this one, shot in many formats but mostly on 16mm, with 16mm final prints, don’t last forever. They have a time limit; the colours fade, the soundtracks disintegrate. For the past five years, the NFSA Restores program has come to the rescue. I am so thankful to the work they do in restoration,” says Fiske.
“Our film archive is our history and extremely important to preserve,” Fiske concludes. “If only there was enough money available so that the NFSA could restore all of the 16mm and 35mm films that they have in their vaults so we do not ever lose them!”
Special thanks to Erika Addis, Jane Castle, Pat Fiske, Jaems Grant ACS, Elena Guest, Gayle Lake, Dick Marks OAM and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.
James Cunningham is editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.