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Cinema Heritage: Eveleigh Rail Film Festival

Tina Kaufman anticipates a day of secret joys at a festival which will choof its way through a primal connection - steam and cinema. The life and career of JP McGowan, Australia`s first Hollywood success story, depended on the Everleigh Rail Yards, as the NFSA will be quick to explain. Tina Kaufman writing for Screen Hub on 22 February, 2012

If you’re someone who, like me, loves that almost mystical connection between cinema and trains (and if you live in Sydney or can get here easily), you’ll probably want to hotfoot it down to the Australian Technology Park, in Redfern, where the first Eveleigh Rail Film Festival will be part of the Park’s Open Day on Saturday 25 February. 

With the Eveleigh Railway Yard as its centrepiece, the Australian Technology Park was once the location of Australia’s largest industrial complex, and while it now houses a diverse community of science, communications and IT companies, it retains much of that cultural heritage, and its railway connections are still strong.

Think of all the great train movies (Night Train to Munich, Strangers on A Train, The Lady Vanishes, The General, just for starters), think of the part trains play in many other films, the documentaries about great train journeys, and how can you resist? 

There will be old and new documentaries on trains and railways, on technology and social issues, all taking place in three venues at the park, including two theatres (who knew there were two theatres there? Able to be used as cinemas? In a city starved of such venues?).

The railway film festival is planned to be the first step in the establishment of an annual film event which will not only screen a wide selection of railway-related films, but also encourage and assist local filmmakers to develop projects that use rail in some way, or that appeal to the huge network of train enthusiasts out there. At this first festival there will be a session on the potential for making railway-related films in Australia and overseas, and there’ll also be a session on the establishment of an Australian Railway Film Catalogue and on the search for lost railway films, in association with the National Sound and Film Archive, which will include footage from some lost railway films.

A highlight of next Saturday’s event will be the first session of the day, a tribute to JP McGowan, “The Railroad Man”. JP McGowan was the son of an Eveleigh Railway steam locomotive driver who went on to make a large number of railway-related films in Hollywood from the early 1900s. In a career spanning forty years, McGowan became famous for making thrilling, silent-era serials involving trains; he ultimately worked on over 600 films, including sound films, with the likes of John Wayne, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Rita Hayworth, Spencer Tracey, Randolph Scott and many more. He was the only Australian to have been made a Life Member of the US Screen Directors Guild, now DGA. Indications are that he learnt his railway film stunt techniques through his father’s employment at Eveleigh.

While research into both JP McGowan and into his father’s association with Eveleigh is still in progress, what is already known was used to make the recent documentary Stunt Love, a tribute film by Matt Bate, commissioned by Adelaide Film Festival and ABC Arts last year, a lively interpretation of the contribution of Helen Holmes and JP McGowan in the US film industry from 1914. Stunt Love will be screened before a compilation from McGowan’s feature films, prepared by David Donaldson (first director of the Sydney Film Festival, a member of the McGowan Society, and a man of passionate interests). The compilation includes footage from the The Lost Express (1926, silent) with Helen Holmes, some films from 1914-15 (including The Hazards of Helen) and from 1932 (The Hurricane Express).

The screening will be followed by a discussion on how people can help researchers find more about the McGowan family connection with Eveleigh and with the local community of the early 1900s, with John J McGowan, author of J.P.McGowan - Biography of a Hollywood Pioneer (2005), and with several local historians. 

Other sessions during the festival will look at films with some relevance to the modernisation of Australia’s rail system and the introduction of the high speed train, including films on Japan’s Bullet Train, and on light rail for city transport, as well as Bombay Railways, a film on the social impact of rail on the city of Bombay (Mumbai), made by the BBC. And there’ll be a screening of The Ballad of Betty and Joe, Martha Ansara’s award-winning short, a light-hearted look at life in Sydney’s Devonshire St Railway Tunnel. There will also be films on the Eveleigh Railway Workshops and on Sydney’s Heritage Light Railway System, as well as a blast from my past, Island Shunters(1977), Tim Woolmer’s film on a day in the life of a shunting gang at Darling Harbour railway yards. An AFI award winner of the best documentary in 1979, it was made with the support of the National Office of the Rail Tram and Bus Union, and was a very popular film in the Sydney Filmmakers Co-op.

There is already much interest in railways as a film topic, and those involved in this inaugural festival believe interest is expanding in Australia and overseas. The idea for the festival and particularly its connection to filmmakers was inspired by the railway film festival developed by the International Union of Railways, which will be holding their 20th International Railway Film Festival in Paris later this year. 

The Cinerail festival has an annual film competition, and works with filmmakers on possible films and also on getting related work, perhaps joining international film crews on projects, such as one on the Trans Siberian Railway. For its 20th birthday, The Cinerail Festival plans to “give homage to all films, short and feature, very famous on the cinema history, starring: trains and worldwide railways.” 

The festival screens in two prestigious theatres in Paris, for one week, with this year offering “20 programs including the 20 films of the railway cinema representing numerous countries with the 20 best short films of the history of Cinerail.” (Their translation!)

So come on down to the inaugural Eveleigh Rail Film Festival next Saturday and get your fill of train films – I’ll be there!

Source: Tina Kaufman Screen Hub Wednesday 22 February, 2012