how the Melbourne International Film Festival began 70 years ago

On Australia Day weekend in 1952, a group of die-hard movie buffs organized a film festival. They had chosen the green hills of Olinda in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges for the event. They were expecting 80 people – but over 600 showed up!

In the 1950s, very few Australian films were made. Those that were produced were largely documentaries, with extremely rare narrative features. Despite this, an avid film culture flourished through local film societies.

Australian moviegoers were hungry to see international films from Europe and Asia, but local cinemas were showing nothing but Hollywood fare. Australian authorities would, however, allow international films to enter the country to be exhibited at a film festival.

80 moviegoers were expected. More than 600 showed up.
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A festival in Melbourne was therefore enthusiastically planned.

This first event, as ambitious as it was popular, is celebrating its 70th anniversary today. It has grown into the internationally acclaimed Melbourne International Film Festival, which will commemorate its 70th anniversary in August this year, making it one of the oldest film festivals in the world.

Sleep in a parish hall

The Australian Council of Film Societies, which organized the festival, chose Olinda because it was a popular tourist destination with plenty of accommodation.

Due to the number of moviegoers who flocked there, the guest houses were sold out. Many residents opened their doors to accommodate the influx, but that was not enough.

My mother was one of the many people who accompanied him and had to lie down in a parish hall.

A crowd outside a country church.
Accommodation in town was so full that some had to sleep in the church.
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The appeal of the film festival was so great that some people commuted from Melbourne daily.

Attendees included many prominent Australian filmmakers, such as Tim Burstall, John Heyer and Stanley Hawes.

Interviewed in the Birth of a Film Festival documentary, Burstall recalls making the trip to Olinda with artist Arthur Boyd. They piled their families into Boyd’s 1929 Dodge and headed for the hills.

A man stands in front of a screen and speaks to a crowd
Many future Australian filmmakers attended the event.
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The large attendance forced the organizers to set up additional screening locations. They set up a makeshift screen under the stars, and borrow another room in a nearby town.

Frank Nicholls, who was chairman of the Australian Council of Film Societies, had to rush the reels from the hall in Olinda to another in Sassafras by car, causing a delay in the middle of the screening if he was late with the next reel .

The festival was so popular that additional screens had to be installed, including an open-air cinema.
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The organizers have invited national and international personalities, including Australian filmmaker Charles Chauvel. Although Chauvel did not attend, his telegram was included in the “program changes”:

My best wishes to all and my regrets for not being able to attend.

Prime Minister Robert Menzies was invited but in a letter to Nicholls (kept in a scrapbook by volunteer Mary Heintz) he delegated the invitation to Home Secretary MWS Kent Hughes.

Hughes presented the Juilee Awards for films made in Australia. He gave a speech outlining the government’s plans to support documentary and independent producers, and stayed to watch the opening night under a canopy of stars.

Read more: Australian cinema for Australia Day

The first program of the film festival

Jean Cocteau’s famous 1946 film Beauty and the Beast opened the festival to great acclaim. Other screenings included Louisiana Story (1948) by Robert J. Flaherty, as well as many Australian documentaries, excerpts from early Australian films and some historic French shorts by Georges Méliès.

A film stills exhibit was set up at the local school.
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One of the local highlights was a film made for the Department of Immigration titled Mike and Stefani (1952), directed by Ron Maslyn Williams. He won an award for his portrayal of two war-broken refugees who were granted visas to come to Australia.

The festival weekend also included lectures and a film photo exhibition at the local school.

The press picked up on the vigorous debate swirling around the festival this weekend. On January 31, Adelaide News reported that attendees had expressed dismay at censors banning films like Roberto Rossellini’s The Miracle (1948), deemed sacrilegious.

Read more: The great scenes of cinema: Rome, Open City – fascism, tragedy and the birth of Italian neorealism

Success – and distrust

The Olinda Film Festival was a huge success.

Nicholls described Olinda in The Sun of 29 January 1952 as the “most comprehensive” film festival ever held in Australia, showing “hundreds of Continental, English, Australian and Oriental films and even Russian propaganda production”.

But not everyone celebrated the success of the festival. Even with Menzies’ support, it was discovered after the event that while moviegoers were enjoying the event, ASIO was watching. Clearly, the Australian government viewed the film festival as a major asset for subversive figures keen to overthrow authority.

A man and a woman read a program
The festival screened hundreds of films from around the world.
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Yet Olinda’s success – far greater than anyone could have predicted – has earned the festival a permanent place in Australian and international film culture. It demonstrated that non-commercial films could appeal to large audiences, and Australian films could do the same.

Nicholls became the first president of the Melbourne Film Festival and later the Australian Film Institute. At the 50th celebration of the 1952 event, Nicholls said:

The festival was a festival goer, and it is still going strong. But there has never been one quite like Olinda.

Content for this article comes from interviews and research for Birth of a Film Festival (directed by Mark Poole and produced by Lisa French in 2003), about the first festival and its 50th anniversary celebrations.

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