April 12, 2019
Arts & Culture

Little town on the big screen

A three-year research project has uncovered a priceless archive of 1950s and ’60s films made by the people of a resilient post-war Riverland community.

An Eumig 8mm movie camera from the club’s heyday (photograph Italo Vardaro)

When Queen Elizabeth II visited the Riverland on her 1954 Australian tour, she was presented with a film titled Fruit Growing at Waikerie. Whether Her Majesty actually watched the film is anyone’s guess, but the gesture reflects the ingenuity and optimism that was bubbling away in the proud rural town.

The film was produced by dentist Ron Beck and citrus grower Frank Hart. With a curiosity for all things mechanical, and especially film equipment, Ron and Frank helped form the Waikerie Filmo Club; a collection of townspeople — fruit growers, teachers and shop owners — who came together in the early ’50s to make films and learn about photography. At a time when the average weekly wage was about £2, Ron bought a camera for £375 thanks to a trotter he backed successfully for 14 straight wins.

Filmo Club members were sociable and regularly held meetings and events, using film and photography to capture their town.

While other amateur film clubs were bobbing up in South Australia, The Waikerie Filmo Club holds a unique place in history. Over a 15-year period the club’s members generated an impressive body of images and films, turning their lenses to their town and documenting the vibrant, innovative and self-sufficient community.

They filmed family outings, town celebrations and street parades, milestones of construction, rodeos, winemaking and the Riverland’s 1956 flood; the worst on record. They captured the openings of new irrigation schemes, which laid the foundation for the citrus industry’s success. They also made their own comic movies.

While only a select few owned movie cameras, Filmo Club members contributed to films by writing scripts, offering feedback or acting. Almost all members were amateur photographers.

Over the past three years, artists Paul Gazzola and Nadia Cusimano have led a project to preserve the 8mm films made in Waikerie during the 1950s and ’60s. The project Collectors/Collections: Waikerie Films has seen more than 70 films gathered and digitised to DVD. The recently-restored work is a window into a significant era for the unique country town, illustrating its vibrant culture and citrus industry, which grew to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere.

Waikerie residents Michael and Meredith Arnold (above) and Jan Heppner (below) have fond memories of the club (photographs Connie Little).
Jan Heppner.

Paul and Nadia’s work was presented to the town during SA History Week, reconnecting those who had fond memories of their parents or friends being involved in the Filmo Club. Outdoor projections, a gala film night and an exhibition received an enthusiastic response from townspeople.

“In piecing the project together, our process has resembled a detective agency to gather this knowledge before it disappears,” Paul says. “Sadly none of the filmmakers are alive today, but their work lives on. The town went through some hard times and collectively they haven’t lost that camaraderie.”

One such hard time was the 1956 flood, documented in the Filmo Club’s movie Ravaging Waters. “There’s amazing footage of people placing sandbags, and even a shop that was completely under flood water,” Paul says. “The natural disaster brought this town together. There was a generosity that has never left, from a time when people really supported each other and helped each other out. They were amazingly prolific and proud of who they were — our town, we produced this.”

Life-long Waikerie resident Jan Heppner, 79, was in primary school when her father Frank Hart bought his first movie camera. “A fancy he had was to try out one of these new movie machines,” Jan says. “You look back now and it’s a record of your childhood which you wouldn’t have without the movies. They are special memories.”

“It was a special time and I’m pleased it was documented. It is such a unique thing to sit and watch your own films.”

The Filmo Club was a learning project for Frank, at a time when things were picking up for local industry and culture. “Waikerie was doing very well. All the fruit blocks were doing nicely, the oranges were being packed to go overseas and grapes to go into wine. I don’t suppose we were wildly rich, but we had everything we needed and a bit more.”

The club documented major events in the local community, including the devastating 1956 flood.

Another life-long resident, Meredith Arnold, also has fond memories of acting in Filmo Club movies. “My husband had a second-hand 35mm camera, and he wanted to learn a bit more about it, so he went along to the Filmo Club, and I came along to meetings,” Meredith says. “There were not many young people in the club, so we were prime targets for the camera.”

They first appeared in a 10-minute movie called Family Troubles, which was filmed in one take. “Someone had an idea of what the actors would do, but they didn’t tell anyone until the day.” Films were then screened at the Waikerie Institute, where “little Oscars” were awarded. It was a great form of entertainment for a community that was isolated from Adelaide and other districts.

“Back then, Waikerie was a four-hour trip from Adelaide, so you didn’t want to leave the town for weekends. We were a captive audience to anything happening in the town.” Each time the Filmo club produced a film there was a well-attended social outing to go along with it.

Before the main highways, a trip to Murray Bridge was via a dirt track, and to Adelaide was through the winding hills. Meredith attended university for a while, but it meant catching a ferry to Morgan and a train to Adelaide. “The ferry could be quite hairy, so I eventually stopped going.”

John Stevens, one of the founders of the Waikerie Filmo Club.

Meredith says it is difficult to put into words the extent of the 1956 flood. The club’s film stands as a priceless record of the event. “The ’56 flood was gigantic and destroyed everything in its path,” she says. “The water came up in May and it was still there the next January.”

“There are still a lot of people who have films tucked away. We might end up with quite a little library.”

The project has been supported by Waikerie District Historical Society, Open Space Contemporary Arts, Country Arts SA, The Regional Arts Fund, Arts South Australia, The Australia Council for the Arts, SA History Fund, FRRR, Riverland West Chamber of Commerce and the Loxton Waikerie Council. Copies of a 48-page book and DVD set are available for sale. For more information visit open-space.org.au

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of SALIFE.

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