A small town’s rich stories to light up the screen

Published in the July 2016 issue

Bonalbo-Hall-cropped low resIn the heart of the Upper Clarence, west of the Richmond Range, lies the town of Bonalbo, population 500. On the face of it, Bonalbo’s quiet streets belies its rich history: a former booming gold town in the 1850s and home of the first cattle dog trials in Australia in 1950.

And for award-winning media artist and Southern Cross University Associate Professor Grayson Cooke, it was the townsfolk’s long love affair with films, screened regularly in the Bonalbo District Memorial Hall, which captured his imagination. Professor Cooke had been commissioned by Arts Northern Rivers as part of their ‘If These Halls Could Talk’ project to work with the Bonalbo community to create a work inspired by their local hall.

“One of the main things these country halls have been used for is, of course, cinema, particularly during the 20th century’s ‘golden age’ of film, where they screened Westerns, musicals, adventure films and melodramas,” said Professor Cooke, who has a strong interest in cinematic history.

Associate Professor Grayson Cooke inspects the cable-cam rig.

Associate Professor Grayson Cooke inspects the cable-cam rig.

“These days, in many ways, digital technologies have changed all that. But I’d like to bring some of that magic back. Telling the story of Bonalbo hall would in some way also be telling the story of cinema.

“From that starting point I began to develop a script that imagines the halls as film studios – and so naturally, turning the script into a film actually requires that we really do turn Bonalbo hall into a film studio.”

Professor Cooke and a SCU film crew – including School of Arts and Social Sciences media technician Ian Slade and Bachelor of Media student Steve Kwan, as well as a number of other media students – have started the shoot, using state-of-the-art motion control equipment and a cable-cam rig.

“We’ve invited community members to take part in a bunch of crazy film shoots and they’ve enthusiastically joined in. Bonnywood, here we come!”

Professor Cooke is working fellow media artist and Bonalbo resident Marion Conrow. Ms Conrow was employed as the Bonalbo Hall community liaison coordinator for the project and is working as first assistant director.

“Bonalbo District Memorial Hall is a huge, fantastic hall,” said Ms Conrow.

“The filming has brought the community together. It’s been great to have a creative project that will have a broader outreach and show that our rural areas have something to say. City folk watch out!”

The completed film will be screened as a ‘live cinema’ performance in the Bonalbo hall in December, with live narration by Ewingar resident Alan Highfield and live music by post-rock band Amphibian, which includes SCU music lecturers Matt and Barry Hill.

Professor Cooke has been involved in live cinema and live audio-visual performance for many years through his research and creative practice.

“This final presentation of the project again references the history of cinema where, in the early 20th century, cinema was both a screening event and a ‘live’ event, with live music and often with live narration and interpretation,” he said.

Marion Conrow

Marion Conrow

“That magic of the cinematic event is something we run the risk of losing today, as mobile technologies and online distribution fragment cinema audiences. So this project is really about conjuring up that magic again, while simultaneously celebrating the histories of the communities ‘West of the Range’”.

Arts Northern Rivers ‘If These Halls Could Talk’ initiative is a multi-arts project celebrating village halls across the Northern Rivers and the role they play in communities. It is funded by the Arts NSW Regional Partnerships program. Bonalbo is one of seven halls selected, each of which have their own artist or artist group attached.

Visit the ‘If these halls could talk’ website for more details about the project.

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  1. As a kid in the 1950s, I used to go around the town, putting up the posters for the next film.My father and another fellow ( probably others, but at a young age don’t take on board), think RSL men, would show the films each Saturday night. They also had glass slides, for the ads.
    The night “Dad and Dave” (can’t remember name of film) was shown, think every man (and his dog) came to see. The hall bulged. Stools were put up, almost to the stage, and around the side walls.
    We used to all spill out, at half-time, and go down to ‘Askew’s’ cafe, for our treats.
    Before the films started, the Plymoth Brethrans, would do their preaching, in a big circle, in the middle of the street, opposite Askews.
    Was great growing up and being young children, be able to walk to and from the pictures in the night safely.