by Graham Shirley

In the early-to-mid-1970s, Ray Edmondson did much to educate the Australian film and TV community about what a national film archive was and should be. Having joined the Film Section of the National Library of Australia (NLA) in 1968, he commenced leading its new Film Archive Unit in 1973 – also the year he embarked on a five-month study tour of overseas film archives.

The immediate result of the study tour, funded by the then Australian Film and Television School and NLA, was the Edmondson Report, submitted to AFTS in September 1974 and whose first recommendation for film archiving in Australia was:

  • “(a) that an autonomous and clearly identifiable national archival body be established to both perform and co-ordinate national film archive functions, comparable with the range and functions of FIAF [International Federation of Film Archives] archives overseas.
  • “(b) that such an archive body be founded on the existing operation at the National Library.
  • “(c) that the new body be set up as an independent statutory authority, or be administratively attached – as a self-determining entity – to an existing film authority.”

Ray’s advocacy for a realistically funded and publicly visible national film archive helped stimulate the formation in late 1974 of the Association for a National Film and Television Archive (ANFTA) “to encourage the federal government to set up a centrally located, autonomous and adequately funded archive, along the lines of film archives as they are understood and operate overseas”. Barrie King was the body’s president, while film producer, writer and director Joan Long was the group’s first chair, a position I inherited in June 1975 when Joan resigned to produce features.

Between 1974 and 1984, ANFTA publicly urged the upgrading of what became known as NLA’s National Film Archive. By 1976 we had allies at the Australian Film Commission, formed in 1975 with an act that empowered it, among other things “to encourage whether by the provision of financial assistance or otherwise, the keeping of films in archives in Australia”. From October 1976, the AFC’s Working Party on the National Film Archive challenged NLA to prove it could develop a sufficiently funded and well-resourced autonomous film archive. This was at a time when the AFC among other government bodies had started funding the re-growth of Australia’s feature film industry, whose output needed to be preserved to the best archival standards.

Between 1973 and 1983 there was mounting film industry advocacy for the upgrading and separation of both the NFA and NLA’s Sound Recording division from the library. Besides ANFTA, organisations supporting those goals included the NLA-appointed NFA Advisory Committee, the Australian Fim Institute, the Film and Television Production Association of Australia, the Film Industry Standing Committee, the Australian Council of Film Societies, and the Australian Screen Studies Association. In February 1983, federal Labor’s election commitment to the Arts included the support and development of “existing national institutions and in particular to direct increases to those areas such as the National Film Archive … which have been allowed to run down under Fraser government funding policies”.

nfsa_headquarters_acton_front_entrace-reducedIn February 1984, federal Arts minister, Barry Cohen wrote a Cabinet-in-Confidence document in which he advocated the formation of an institution called the National Film and Sound Archive, “to preserve the moving image and sound as part of Australia’s 20th century cultural heritage”. In March, federal Cabinet agreed with all of the points raised in Cohen’s document, and on 5 April Cohen announced in the House of Representatives that a new institution, the National Film and Sound Archive would be created as a stand-alone organisation. On 3 October, PM Bob Hawke officially opened the NFSA’s headquarters at the former Institute of Anatomy building in Acton, Canberra.

EDMONDSON-Ray-picture-L450

Regarded since the 1970s as the ‘moving spirit’ behind the creation of the NFSA, Ray Edmondson was the organisation’s Deputy Director from 1984 to 2001. Since his retirement, he’s been a close observer of the NFSA’s fluctuating fortunes, and he became president of the Canberra-based Friends of the National Film and Sound Archive, formed in 2000 “to further the aims of the Archive, the film and sound communities and the general community”. For the online magazine Senses of Cinema in October 2004, Ray wrote Parallel Lives: Britain’s Film and Television Archive and Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive Under Threat.[i] The two threats he identified facing NFSA were the June 1999 rebranding of the organisation as ‘ScreenSound Australia/The National Collection of Screen and Sound’, which, in Ray’s view “clouded the identity and mandate of the institution”, and the July 2003 transfer of the organisation to the custodianship of the Australian Film Commission, which in terms of NFSA autonomy and public profile was seen as an imperfect match. In December 2004 the original National Film and Sound Archive name was reinstated. After the election of a new Labor government in November 2007, the NFSA was created a stand-alone statutory authority. Having become law on 20 March 2008, the NFSA Act came into effect on 1 July that year.

NFSA-establishment-reduced

In December 2011 Ray completed his PhD thesis, National Film and Sound Archive: The Quest for Identity.[ii] Writing the thesis gave Ray ample opportunity to examine the history of the NFSA, starting with the creation of what was known as the National Historical Film and Speaking Record Library in 1935. The thesis also developed his perspective and analysis of the organisation’s re-branding to ScreenSound and its five years under the Australian Film Commission.

insidestoryThirteen years after NFSA became a statutory authority, Ray’s most recent article about the organisation has been Time for Another Visionary Moment at the NFSA, published by Inside Story on 23 July.[iii] Having covered the NFSA’s history, the article examines the main challenges currently confronting the organisation, none the least of which is NFSA’s static budget which each year is further eroded by the government’s so-called ‘efficiency dividend’. Since 2014, under-funding has resulted in a dramatic shedding of NFSA staff and corporate memory loss, and the abandoning of activities once crucial to its public participation and profile. Another consequence has been the NFSA no longer consulting as much as it previously did with the audiovisual community who had originally fought for its creation and periodically its survival. Through workshops, committees, surveys and similar activities across the decades, the community had been prepared to share their own curatorial knowledge and provide feedback on the NFSA’s policies, activities, and adequacy of service. On that topic, Ray concludes, “Nothing is more important to an audiovisual archive than the depth of the relationships and knowledge that sustain it”.

Graham Shirley – July 2021


[i] https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2004/australian-film-culture/archives_under_threat/

[ii] http://www.archivefriends.org.au/images/stories/2012/edmondsonthesis.pdf

[iii] https://insidestory.org.au/time-for-another-visionary-moment-at-the-nfsa/

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