STRATTON, DAVID – I PEED ON FELLINI
… AND ON THE CENSOR
Peeing on Fellini was accidental, but it when he peed on Australia’s censorship
regime in the 1960s, it was entirely deliberate, David Stratton tells Andrew L.
Urban on the publication of his memoirs.
David Stratton might have accidentally pissed on the great Federico Fellini’s
shoes in a Venice toilet, but it was no accident that he pissed all over
Australia’s ignorant censorship laws and attitudes in the mid 60s. In his
memoirs, David pinpoints a defining moment that began to stoke the fires of his
indignation about film censorship, which eventually led to the sacking of a
Minister, the introduction of the R rating for adults to watch films uncut and
the exemption of film festivals from censorship.
As is often the case, the trigger that caused such a large explosion in
Australian society was small. A casual remark by a British born, Sydney based
writer and film lover – which made it worse. Joel Greenberg had written books on
Hollywood; he was esteemed. When David (as a member of the Sydney Film Festival
committee) met Greenberg, he was at first pleased; until he discovered that
Greenberg worked in an administrative position at the Censorship Office and that
he supported censorship of festival films.
"it was cause worth fighting for"
“He was also quick to tell me,” writes David, “that he had recently very much
enjoyed the new Robert Aldrich film, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte but that ‘of
course’ the censors had been obliged to cut it. I was quite staggered by this
admission and by what I saw as Greenberg’s double standards; it was all right
for him to see and enjoy Aldrich’s film, but no, it seemed, for anyone else.”
Even today as we talk about his book, David’s agitation reappears; that
patronising view infuriates him. Now, of course, he has recorded his memoirs of
how, in those censorship-riven days, he helped propel the fight against
censorship, not only of films shown at festivals, but in the wider community.
“I was astounded how complacent Australian were about censorship; even film
people. That’s what got me. Nobody gave a damn. It made me angry on a weekly
basis.” As he says, “I was younger then and I knew no fear. I felt it was cause
worth fighting for and I was passionate about it. I would say it’s one of my
achievements [propelling the anti censorship fight].”
David acknowledges that “without Don Chip and the distributors,” it would have
been a harder and longer fight. But it was his motion to the board of the Sydney
Film Festival in 1965 that started the ball rolling. The motion, comprising four
points, set the stage for the abolition of censorship for films showing at the
festival and lobby for an Adults Only (18+) classification.
David’s motion set in train the resignation of Festival director Ian Klava and
David’s succession to the role, which was to last 18 years.
It also heralded a fiery confrontation with the authorities over the banning of
I Love, You Love in the 1969 program, which caused such uproar that a few months
after the festival, John Gorton sacked Customs Minister Senator Malcolm Scott
(Lib, WA) – whose responsibilities included censorship – and appointed Don Chipp.
“What Chipp did,” says David, “was pretty bold, absolving films in film
festivals from censorship, and the introduction of the R certificate. That was a
milestone, for sure, and the Festival committee felt it was a victory not just
for the festivals but for all of us.”
"rich in detail"
The book is rich in detail, not only about those fiery days when David would
take on the establishment with passionate words, but about much else in his life
immersed in films. We learn about his earliest film experiences (including one
in which he is forced to pee on himself, long before his fateful peeing on
Fellini) and about the evolution of his career from film lover to festival
director to esteemed film critic for some of the most prestigious outlets in the
world. His respect for films and filmmakers is legendary – and goes well beyond
Australia. In 2001 David was presented with France’s highest arts honour,
Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters; and in 2007 he was the recipient of
the Chauvel Award at the Brisbane International Film Festival, among other
David’s memoirs came about largely driven by his desire “to tell the story of my
early days at the Sydney Film Festival especially to put on record the
censorship saga,” he says. “I was also anxious to put on the record the early,
glory days at SBS, the films we showed and how we insisted on the original
aspect ratio to be respected. And over the years at dinner with friends, I’d
often be urged to write a book, so one day after the Cannes film festival three
years ago, I started …”
David, accompanied by a small group of friends including Variety film critic
Derek Elley, would often retire to the hills above Cannes for rest and
recreation after the madding festival rush. It wasn’t until the following summer
that he had the time to finish the first draft. Inputs were sought from far and
wide, including his niece in England, and friend and author, Tom Keneally. The
latter gave him a few suggestions – but more importantly, introduced him to the
literary agent who would soon find a keen publisher in Random House.
When David rang Peter Weir to ask him to write a foreword for a book he’d
written, Weir immediately said ‘no!’ After a pause he asked what’s the book
about, and when David told him it was his memoirs, Weir asked to take a look. A
week later, having read a copy, he agreed to write the foreword. But he hates
"longer and more personal "
“I’m very glad I’ve done it,” says David. “Originally it was longer and more
personal – but on advice, I’ve stripped out the sex.”
Published: March 13, 2008
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I Peed On Fellini (Random House, Aust)
By David Stratton, Foreword by Peter Weir
Published March 3, 2008