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18 September 2018
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Graham Shirley the NFSA's Curator of Documents and Artefacts speaks to Dan Edwards.

On March 16, the National Film and Sound Archive's new Senior Curator of Documents and Artefacts, Graham Shirley, will present The Outback on Screen: Physical Space/State of Mind, a compilation of Australian feature film and documentary footage accompanied by live narration. The presentation will examine how Australian filmmakers have depicted the Australian Outback over a century of moving images.

Graham was appointed to the newly created Documents and Artefacts curatorial position in November 2005, and took up the post in mid-January. In a career spanning three decades, he has worked as a filmmaker, scriptwriter, researcher and historian. He is co-author of Australian Cinema: The First 80 Years and the writer/director of numerous documentaries including Road to Tokyo (2005), White Bay Power Station (2003) and Prisoners of Propaganda (1987).

The AFC's Dan Edwards spoke to Graham about The Outback on Screen and his new position at the NFSA.

Dan Edwards: Are the issues of cinematic representation that you're dealing with in The Outback on Screen something you have a particular interest in as a filmmaker and scholar?

Graham Shirley: Yes, what I'm seeking to do with this presentation is look at the place of the Outback in people's minds - it's a physical space as well as a mental construct. What is the Outback for people? What does it represent? I've actually worked on a couple of projects which have looked at the Outback on screen. One of them was a documentary for the ABC in 1976 called Sunshine and Shadows, and then there was a documentary I researched for Dr George Miller as part of the Century of Australian Cinema series in 1995. His episode was called White Fella's Dreaming - we had a segment on the Outback in that. I've also worked on a lot of other compilation films over the years, mostly as an archival footage researcher. So I've had many chances to reflect on the way the Outback has been presented in some very early, quite primitive films like The Breaking of the Drought (1920) and Raymond Longford's On Our Selection (1920), as well as more sophisticated multi-layered views during the renaissance years in films like Walkabout (1971) and Wake in Fright (1971), which started to look at the Outback through a darker lens.

I think there's been a more equivocal approach to the Outback on screen in recent years. I was quite fascinated recently to view Wolf Creek, and see that the filmmaker seemed to be quite aware of, and building upon, traditions about the Outback in film - the very notion of the Outback having a spirit or a soul, which had an influence on what was going on among human beings. That film was full of fascinating allegories, and I could see it as a logical extension of the themes which had been worked up over the years from the very early, comparatively primitive days of Australian cinema through to more sophisticated times in the 70s and beyond.

Is the kind of creative employment of archival material evident in The Outback on Screen presentation something the NFSA is actively seeking to encourage?
We're certainly seeking to encourage a curatorial approach which looks at the ramifications of images and recorded sound. In other words, the curatorial approach invites a contextualisation as well as a questioning of an item, which takes us away from the straight up and down archival approach that simply seeks to preserve something to the best standards. The curatorial approach takes it one step further. And that is now being encouraged among the curatorial staff with the whole range of materials the Archive holds.

In November last year you were appointed as the Archive's Senior Curator, Documents and Artefacts. Can you tell me a bit about this position and how it fits into the NFSA's new curatorial framework?
The position embraces a wide brief: stills, posters, film scripts, costumes, cinema technology, oral history, as well as the NFSA Library and the Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research (CSAR). In fact it's probably the broadest brief of any of the curators. But the documentation and artefacts collections have always suffered a little bit in comparison with the moving image and recorded sound sections, in that they haven't been as completely catalogued as those other areas. So to me the exciting part of the job is discovering what's in the collection.

For instance, we recently had our first ever CSAR intern, a woman called Ellie Bennett, who went through the collection of a now-deceased filmmaker called Mel Nichols. Mel had been quite active in Australian documentary production in the 1930s and 40s, and made some fascinating films both in Australia and South East Asia. Some years ago his family had donated a suitcase of memorabilia to the Archive, and we were able to have this intern go through the suitcase as part of her study at ANU. We found quite a few fascinating images of Mel and his activities in the 1930s on both dramas and documentaries, which has helped provide us with a further insight into this man who has otherwise been largely represented to us through the films he left behind.

I recently travelled to Sydney to negotiate with Yoram Gross-EM TV about donating to the NFSA quite a large collection of Yoram Gross' animation equipment, and animation cells and backgrounds. We had quite a few of Yoram's films, but we have now acquired a lot of the documentation which helps put those films into context. We also acquired a few more of his films.

I've also travelled to the Southern Highlands to the home of Tony Sattler and Noeline Brown, who were great friends of Graham Kennedy, and they have donated some real gems of memorabilia, especially one of his gold logies - apparently he gave away the others! There's also a superb photo album which GTV-9 gave Kennedy at the end of his time on In Melbourne Tonight, which includes hundreds of quite unique photos of day-to-day production and transmission activities, and Graham's work in commercials and other aspects of his life, including his farm and social life. They're gems which all help provide context.

There's another area I should mention that's within my curatorial position, and that's the NFSA Library. That has been a rather neglected place over the years. We've now got a full-time librarian in Jan Thurling and she's taking gigantic steps to bring that library up to date and make it more meaningful to members of the public and the staff.

You mentioned the new Centre for Scholarly and Archival Research. Can you tell me a bit about the Centre and the kind of support it will offer scholars?
It seeks to attract scholars, researchers and audiovisual practitioners who demonstrate that they're capable of higher-level research projects, the outcome of which will be scholarly, accessible publications, presentations, and even raw research that will help enhance our understanding of the collection. So that taps right into the curatorial approach. A key strategic principle of the Centre is the idea of in-kind support to researchers and scholars in the form of a residence at the NFSA [in a heritage building beside the NFSA dating from 1930 called The Residence] and access to the collections at no cost. The program's just started. The Centre had its first intern [Ellie Bennett] about a fortnight after I started - late January or early February.

How do scholars approach the NFSA - is there an application process?
They can contact Marilyn Higgins, who's the coordinator for the Centre, and specify their area of interest. Several people have approached us through the Centre with what have basically been commercial requests, which we've considered and decided they really fall under the commercial services area of the Archive's Collection Access section. We're interested in attracting people who want to investigate, respond to, and express aspects of the audiovisual collections, be it in published or raw research form, or even contextualising form. Right at the moment we're putting together proper documents which we're going to put on the AFC and NFSA websites, saying what the Centre is and outlining how to apply. We're still at the draft stage, but we've been quite surprised about the number of people who have already heard about the Centre and contacted us with proposals.

Finally, as a historian and Australian filmmaker with a long history in the industry, will you be bringing any personal documents and artefacts to the NFSA?
Yes, I already have actually! One of the first things I brought in was the novel that the American director Norman Dawn used when he was directing For the Term of His Natural Life in Australia during 1926-27. He took the novel in his coat pocket out on location, and constantly referred to it for ideas, inspiration, and some insight into what the characters were thinking.…it has his annotations scribbled all over it. Dawn posted it to me in the ordinary mail in the early 1970s - he provided a page attached to the novel explaining how he'd used it and what the provenance of it was.

Also, I was among the original intake at the Film School [now AFTRS] under the interim training scheme in 1973, and during that year I took photographs of a student barbecue, a student meeting at Help St Chatswood, and some of the films on location. So I'm donating those photographs to the Archive. I've also collected other Australian film-related novels over the years…I've just recently moved to Canberra, so these things are gradually emerging from boxes at home, and I'm gradually bringing them in and donating them to the Archive.

The Outback on Screen: Physical Space/State of Mind will be presented by Graham Shirley at 5.30pm on March 16, at the National Film and Sound Archive, Acton, Canberra. The presentation is free, but bookings are recommended on 6248 2000.

Other Site of Interest:

The Outback on Screen

Jenny Agutter and Lucien John in Walkabout (1971).