‘War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1918’

If you have another sixty-three minutes to fill in (after seeing the School Days exhibition), there’s another interesting free feature on show until 26 July 2015 down at ACMI in Fed Square.   It’s called War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1910 and it aims to replicate the experience of cinema-goers during World War I.  Presented on a continuous loop, it is a chronological collection of snippets of advertisements, newsreels, shorts and both Australian and international films  that screened at the neighbourhood cinema in suburbs and small towns throughout Australia during WWI.  There are links to some of the film clips shown on the NFSA blog.

It’s very dark in the cinema, so you need to grope your way to the folding chairs- it’s a pity that they couldn’t source some authentic cinema chairs that have that distinct ‘cinema-y’ smell and solidity.  However, there’s a satisfying undercurrent of whispers and comments that helps provide a frisson of authenticity. The loop starts from 1914 with a notice to ladies to remove their hats (the early 20th century version of asking you to turn off your mobile, I suppose) and a rather embarrassed rendition of God Save the King (the same treatment as Advance Australia Fair today).

The majority of film clips come from 1915 and 1916 with a smattering of advertisements, many rough animations, for a “Warner’s Rustproof Corset”, “Hoadley’s Barrackville Cocoa”  and “Indasia Soap” (an interesting advertising concept given the White Australia Policy being promoted at the time).

There are several newsreels showing the Front, extracts from which we’ve seen many times.  There’s a power, however, in seeing them in a more extended form and learning that, for example, a frequently used series of images showed British soldiers, just half an hour before battle.  I wonder if people went, hoping to catch a glimpse of ‘their’ boy? Did the families of those men mown down less than an hour later see this film? Oh, the tragedy.  Again and again, there’s the silent gaze of the troops into the camera, men watching it, us watching them.  In what ended up being an unintentionally WWI-heavy day, we left the ACMI to head up to Cinema Nova to watch Testament of Youth, and there was that same steady gaze replicated for a twenty-first century movie.

The cinema was used by the government as a medium by which it could broadcast (literally) its own message, and so there are government-sponsored films and propaganda advertisements. Slides that divide the years depicted explain that cinema audiences responded with increasing cynicism and even hostility to the more heavy-handed government propaganda.  There’s a segment (silent of course) of Billy Hughes addressing an unseen crowd supporting the ‘Yes’ vote in the first referendum, with quotations from his speech interspersed between the visual clips of him speaking.

It’s on until 26th July 2015.

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