NATIONAL FILM AND SOUND ARCHIVE OF AUSTRALIA
This institution—a vital repository of Australia’s moving image and recorded sound history—began as the National Historical Film and Speaking Record Library, established by Cabinet in 1935 under the joint aegis of the Commonwealth National Library (forerunner of the National Library of Australia) and the Cinema Branch of the Department of Commerce, the government film production unit. Probably only the second formal entity in the world established to preserve both films and sound recordings, it lapsed during World War II.
The search and rescue of early films was revived in the mid-1950s by the National Library’s Film Division, as an activity secondary to its main distribution library operation. Surviving prints of classics like The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and On Our Selection (1920), as well as the film record of the Federation ceremonies on 1 January 1901, were tracked down. (Australia was the first country to be born in front of a movie camera.)
A moribund production industry, only gradually stimulated by the arrival of television in 1956, and general disregard for the cultural, artistic and historical value of film, created an unpromising climate for archiving. This changed in the 1970s, with the revival of the film industry and the advent of new institutions like the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australian Film and Television School.
In 1972, the National Film Archive became a separate staff unit within the National Library, which also established a parallel archive for sound recordings soon afterwards. In both, collections and user demand grew rapidly. In the 1980s, initiatives like The Last Film Search heightened public awareness of Australia’s vanishing film heritage, and also affirmed a long-felt need for an autonomous institution to take charge of the nation’s audio-visual heritage. Although opposed by the National Library, the government detached its film and sound archives, and reconstituted them as a new agency, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA), in 1984. Headquartered in Canberra, in the landmark building that had formerly housed the Institute of Anatomy, the NFSA also promptly opened offices in Melbourne and Sydney. It remains a multilocational operation. In 1985, its first Advisory Committee produced the globally influential report Time in Our Hands, a grand vision for the institution that has (finally) been fulfilled.
Enabling legislation failed to arrive as expected in 1986, and the NFSA remained an outrider of a succession of government departments, with its independence gradually eroding. Its situation was complicated by an unpopular name change to ScreenSound Australia in 1999, marking the opening of its building extension; the name change was reversed in 2004. Meanwhile in 2003, for reasons never made clear, the Howard Coalition government merged the NFSA with the Australian Film Commission, a funding and promotional body. It proved a disastrous marriage of incompatible partners, with the Commission attempting to dismantle the institution while advocacy groups fought to save it. The groups won: in 2008, the new Rudd Labor government passed the National Film and Sound Archive Act, which provides the Archive’s present mandate and its security. It has a staff of around 240 and an annual government subvention of about $23 million.
Throughout its history, the NFSA and its predecessors have survived and grown through grass-roots activism, which has counteracted institutional indifference and unwise government policy decisions. Prior to 1984, the film and sound archives had essentially been anachronisms inside a book-oriented research library. A low priority, they grew slowly. After 1984, the NFSA expanded rapidly but, lacking a legislative base and independent governance, was vulnerable to bureaucratic and political whim. In the 1970s, the Association for a National Film and Television Archive campaigned for its independence, assisted in the 1980s by the Australian branch of the International Association of Sound Archives (IASA). In the 1990s and beyond, this drive was led by the Friends of the National Film and Sound Archive, the Archive Forum (a self-appointed group of prominent individuals knowledgeable about the NFSA), the Australian Society of Archivists and the Australian Historical Association.
The NFSA was instrumental in establishing the South East Asia Pacific Audio Visual Archive Association in 1996. The NFSA remains the largest, best equipped and best developed audio-visual archive in the region, and serves as a mentor and teacher: a postgraduate distance learning course in the profession is run in conjunction with Charles Sturt University. Both the institution and several of its staff have international reputations, and some of its collection icons have been inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World registers. Every year, its Sounds of Australia register brings 10 new audio items of significance to the forefront of the national memory. The NFSA’s website offers a taste of what is now a vast collection of images and sounds.
To the traditional challenges of preserving deteriorating film, audiotape and videotape are now added the tasks of digital preservation and access. The Friends of the NFSA has transformed itself into a more traditional support society, and the group now operates a website with its own window into the NFSA and its constituency. Visitors to the NFSA’s Canberra headquarters will find exhibitions, a library, shop, cafe, and the sophisticated Arc—the nation’s only fully equipped archival cinema.
REF: R. Edmondson, ‘National Film and Sound Archive: The Quest for Identity’ (PhD thesis, 2011).