Friday Flashback is a new, semi-regular feature that will draw on recent news stories to delve into the archives, looking back on oft-neglected corners of Australian film history.
Earlier this week, the 2nd annual AACTA Awards were doled out across three ceremonies in Los Angeles and Sydney, celebrating the great and good of Australian screen culture circa 2012 (but mostly wonderful indigenous musical comedy The Sapphires). To celebrate, this first installment of our Friday Flashback series looks back at one of the earliest winners of the AFA/AFI/AACTA award for Best Film, 3 To Go: Michael.
Produced by the Commonwealth Film Unit, 3 To Go (1969) was a portmanteau series of shorts focusing on tales of contemporary Australian youth at a decisive moment in their lives, initially created as discussion-starters for students and education groups. It was also designed to allow a promising trio of film unit newcomers the opportunity to write and direct their first narrative film with professional actors. Although conceived as a set, the three segments typically reached audiences individually, either as supporting programmes in commercial cinemas (distributed by British Empire Films) or during a three-part transmission on Channel 7 in early 1971. Of the trio, Michael emerged victorious at the 1970 Australian Film Awards – a precursor to the long running AFI Awards, which in turn gave way to the AACTAs in 2011 – winning the Grand Prix for Best Film, a category which, up to 1975, included documentaries and short-form subjects as well as narrative fiction features.
Michael is notable not only for having won Best Film in 1970, but because it was written and directed by a man who would come to have an important, lasting impact on Australian cinema in the decade that followed. Having made a number of amateur 16mm shorts whilst working as a studio assistant at Channel 7, a young fellow by the name of Peter Weir was enlisted by the channel to direct filmed sequences for The Mavis Bramston Show, before leaving to join the Commonwealth Film Unit in 1969. For Michael, he adapted a script originally submitted to (and rejected by) ABC TV’s current affairs programme Four Corners, changing the story from a tale of political kidnapping to that of a young, middle-class man forced to choose between the comfortable suburban existence of his family or the political extremism of his new circle of friends.
Filmed on 16mm in late 1969, Michael opens with a confronting premonition of a revolutionary street battle near Sydney’s Circular Quay, eventually revealing itself as a film-within-a-film attended by the title character and his girlfriend. Drawing on the tension between the respectable, uptight, money-orientated atmosphere of his current life, mounting disillusionment leads Michael to befriend one of the film’s stars, and tentatively join his gang of radical revolutionaries. The film cross-cuts between scenes from Michael’s life and a televised current affairs panel show entitled Youthquake. Owing a clear debt to post-Nouvelle Vague films of Jean-Luc Godard and his ilk, Michael is punctuated by bursts of rapid-fire pop imagery and a rock soundtrack which combines to echo the confusion of Michael’s late adolescence.
After Michael, Weir stayed at the Commonwealth Film Unit to make a number of documentaries before securing money from the recently established Experimental Film and Television Fund to make a 52-minute black comedy, Homesdale, produced by Grahame Bond, who had played the radical friend in Michael. Despite repeating the feat of his earlier film by winning Best Film at the 1971 Australian Film Awards, Weir later noted that Homesdale heralded ‘the end of a way of making films for me – low budget, working with friends, little discipline’. He soon moved on to his first full feature, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), followed by his stellar contribution to the Australian film renaissance, Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).
After the specifically Australian narratives of The Last Wave (1977) and Gallipoli (the third Weir outing to win a Best Film award in 1981, for which he also won Best Director), Weir moved more fully into the international sphere, directing the Indonesia-set political thriller The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), before establishing a long, distinguished career in Hollywood, where he has made a string of much loved films including Witness (1985), Dead Poet’s Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) and, most recently, The Way Back (2010).
Andrew Pike & Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production [revised edition], Oxford University Press (South Melbourne, 1998).
Graham Shirley & Brian Adams, Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years [revised edition], Currency Press (Sydney, 1989).
David Stratton, The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival, Angus & Robertson (London, 1980).