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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 accolades.

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 the title.

"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

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