Editor’s Note: The appointment of Dutchman Jan Muller as the next CEO of the National Film & Sound Archive drew some muttering (though one friend whose opinions I respect was prepared to judge it as potentially ‘great’). Muller is the third CEO appointed from abroad after Paolo Cherchi Usai and Michael Loebenstein. The tenures of those two were marked by significant controversy. In the case of the latter’s term there was much concern over the major staff reductions and depletion of services that occurred as a result of alleged budgetary restrictions. During this time, the Board of the NFSA, none of whom have film-making experience, remained mute. Nobody associated with the NFSA spoke up publicly about the parlous state of the institution. The only public comment in recent times was expressed by the Acting CEO at a Senate Estimates Committee hearing which said the NFSA was “going pretty well”.
The continued failure to appoint an Australian with a knowledge of the industry, a sense of our unique film culture and a cinephiliac awareness of the history of Australian film has drawn comment. Chief among those who have expressed significant disappointment at the Board’s decision to appoint yet another foreigner is Anthony Buckley the veteran editor (of Wake in Fright, Age of Consent and countless others), producer (of Caddie, The Night the Prowler, The Killing of Angel Street, Bliss, Bedevil and Oyster Farmer, and the mini-series Poor Man’s Orange and Harp in the South) and passionate advocate for a new NFSA relocated to its purpose built building in Sydney.
When Muller’s appointment was announced Buckley wrote the note below hoping for publication in one of the major newspapers. Alas, no interest was shown so it falls to Film Alert to at least give a core cinephile community some thoughts about just what has been done.
Michael Loebenstein left the building in January. Jan Muller will arrive in September. Tony Buckley writes:
Cultural Cringe: NOUN: “The perception that one’s own culture is inferior to that of another group or country” . The term “Cultural Cringe” was coined in Australia after the second world war by the Melbourne critic and social commentator A.A.Phillips. Philips pointed out that the public widely assumed that anything produced by local dramatists, actors, musicians, artists and writers was necessarily deficient when compared against the works of their British and European counterparts. Sadly Cultural Alienation permeates throughout the statement made last week by the Chair of the NFSA, Gabrielle Trainor, waxing lyrical re the fact the NFSA had obtained the services of Jan Muller from a Dutch archive to be the new CEO for the Archive in Canberra. This is the third CEO from Europe in just over 12 years with “an international reputation” and one has to look at the mess the other two have left behind.
No one is questioning Mr Muller’s qualifications and expertise in the new age of digital restoration and preservation. But herein lies the problem. It is not Digitisation, Analogue, whatever that is the issue. It is a far bigger problem than the Chair and her Board are prepared to acknowledge, and this is the Archive itself. Let us explore and analyze the beginnings of this crisis. The year before last a small celebration was organized for the Archive’s 30th birthday in Canberra. Previous Board members including myself attended with many coming from interstate. The Minister did not attend nor the Chair or any of her board. The sense of contempt for the organization was palpable. It gets worse. The launch of the restored print of Shine was presented at the ARC cinema in the presence of David Helfgott who was also performing, and once again no one from the Chair and Board attended.
More recently the ABC TV series The Menzies Years was honoured with a parliamentary screening. Any filmmaker whose film is selected for this honour attends with his or her entourage. The preservation work achieved by the Archive’s staff on Menzies’ home movies was a triumph. Sadly no one from the Board attended.
I look in admiration at the National Gallery, the National Museum, and more recently the National Portrait Gallery now gracing the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, and their collective achievements. I am astounded at the audacious plans for the NSW Art Gallery and that grand old dame in College Street, the Australian Museum whose plans for expansion to make its collection available to the public is to be applauded. What do all these National and State Institutions have in common? Plans and Vision. What do we have at the NFSA? A gutted shell befitting a funeral parlour, once visited by hundreds of school groups and the public to see, hear and touch our iconic history in radio, film, television and sound.
Of course one can download a print of the Mona Lisa, but it is not the same as seeing the real thing. And from Mr Muller’s home town of Amsterdam one walks the galleries to finally reach Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and one’s jaw drops in awe at the sight of the masterpiece before you. You can’t download this experience. .
Neglect, inertia, lack of planning and absolutely no vision is the result of the present Chair and Board of the NFSA. Over 12 years of mediocre management and lack of direction to a dutiful staff has to be addressed by Government as a matter of urgency. Has the Prime Minister the courage to tackle his Minster for the Arts to seek a new Chair from the business side of the industry, a leader, male or female who knows the business and can set a plan for the future in place? Appoint a Board of business leaders from sound, radio, televison, exhibition and distribution, who know what’s needed rather than the clutch of political appointees.