Thursday, June 2, 2011

It's Time

The Australian Film Institute announced that it is moving to establish an Australian Academy for the purpose of expanding and improving what are now known as the AFI Awards. The announcement is a tacit admission that the AFI’s only remaining real purpose has devolved down into managing and presenting its annual awards. Its claim to be Australia’s foremost screen culture organisation no longer has any validity and the announcement regarding the establishment of an Academy simply recognises this fact. For most of the last couple of decades the AFI has been slowly gutted and shredded of any of the duties undertaken by other national film institutes. Government funding for these activities has over time been callously, ruthlessly and in some cases ridiculously withdrawn. But it is now where it is.

The AFI was at one time an organisation which provided research facilities for scholars, managed a library of independent Australian and foreign films, exhibited cutting edge other stuff in its own cinemas, published material on film culture, history and production, managed a national cinematheque and ran the AFI Awards. Drip by drip the activities dried up and now only the awards remain though a check of its website indicates some other small and probably inconsequential activities are undertaken. Even the status of the Awards is under challenge with the emergence of the IF Awards as a rival for public funding and attention.

At present AFI members and film industry professionals vote for the AFI Awards in a complicated system that does not require those voting to see all the entries. Whether this produces the best result rarely matters. It usually produces the only result ever likely. Our good films are so few that egregious mistakes rarely occur. So…where are we now.

1. The AFI has lost its authority and its prestige. It is fighting for attention and relevance and has only its Awards with which to fight. It will get no extra help from the Federal Government funding body. (That body is now operating at such a level of philistinism as to produce despair. If this needs examples you need look only as far as the withdrawal of funding from Real Time and from the world’s greatest internet film site, Senses of Cinema).

2. We need a prestigious and valued Awards system to recognise and promote excellence

3. The models are those of the American and British Academies as well as those national arrangements that hand out the Cesars, the Davids and the Goyas.

4. The people who make up the industry have to become intimately involved and in particular those who are the high achievers have to put body and soul into the transformative effort.

If the AFI is to get this done it will no doubt be over a few bodies who nostalgically long for the return of days when the AFI did all he things mentioned above. It may also be over the bodies of the general members who no doubt still enjoy attending the AFI Award screenings. But an Academy made up of the industry’s long time best and brightest, if that’s what’s envisaged, does not have a place for them.

In creating an Academy, which I would expect would need to be followed by a name change to reflect this sole task, the AFI and those nostalgic for what once was should feel no guilt. Times have changed and the work the AFI once did and the things it once sold memberships for is being done by such institutions as the AFTRS and university film and media departments, continuing education, ACMI, GOMA, the NFSA, the Media Resources Centre of SA, the National Cinematheque (notwithstanding its total absence from the biggest city in Australia), the myriad of festivals, the expansion of film circulation via DVD, cable, online downloads and the coming national broadband network. When you think back to even thirty years ago most of those didn’t even exist.

The AFI played a major role in bringing many of them into existence but that role is over and if it is to achieve anything in the future it will be by massively expanding the profile and prestige of a national awards system whose voting is respected by the public and whose activity (sole) is the source of national interest. Good luck Al Finney. ….and maybe under this regime the now late Cecil Holmes might even gain the recognition that has long been denied him by the current system!