To wrap up the Sydney Film Festival, I thought today we could look at the origins of cinema in Sydney.
In 1896, in the early days of moving pictures, the innovative Lumière brothers in France decided to send trained people around the world to film everyday scenes, or ‘Actualités’, and to promote their invention, the Cinematographe. These snippets of life around the world were shown to local audiences and sent back to France, where they made up a catalogue of films that the Lumieres could distribute.
A selection of short films that Sestier had brought with him were shown every half hour in the Salon Lumiere on Pitt Street in September and October 1896, with scenes of life in France and England, and were incredibly popular.
In late November, after a sojourn in Melbourne, Sestier & Barnett returned to Sydney with a new selection in which all but two of the films were Australian. As well as numerous scenes filmed at the 1896 Melbourne Cup, these included two showing the Horse Artillery at drill at Victoria Barracks and passengers alighting from a ferry at Manly.
For a long time it was believed that some of the scenes of the Melbourne Cup were the only surviving portions of these first Australian moving images, but then in the 1990s another item in the Catalogue Lumière was listed as being Australian. For a long time it was identified as having been shot in Melbourne, but when the National Film and Sound Archive put it online in 2010 and asked for the public for possible information, a volunteer from the City of Sydney Archives identified the location as Prince Alfred Park in Sydney.
That film is Patineur Grotesque, “Exercices excentriques d’un patineur muni de patins à roulettes.” (1896) aka The Humourous Rollerskater.
it features the routine of an (as yet) unidentified burlesque rollerskater, performing for the camera and a group of spectators. You can see the film on the Australian Screen Online website here. If you don’t have Flash, you can also see the whole sequence on the Lumiere Catalogue here.
The entertainer is performing in front of the Exhibition Building, in Prince Alfred Park, looking back towards Cleveland Street where a couple of the terraces still stand. The exhibition building was built by Sydney City Council for an intercolonial exhibition in 1870 and was an entertainment space for hire well into the 20th century. It was demolished in the 1950s to make way for Prince Alfred Park Pool and Ice Rink in the 1950s.
It is thought to be Australia’s earliest surviving film.
What is also amazing is that although this film was screened in Lyon and other locations around the world in 1897, it wasn’t seen in Australia until 2010. You can read more about this in National Film & Sound Archive curator Sally Jackson’s essay here in Screening the Past.
Read the Dictionary’s entry on the history of film in Australia here and as always, follow the links for more!
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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