A Cinematic Life

It’s a story about film that turns the tables on one of our most respected and highly lauded critics. In a surprising twist, passionate film goer, critic and supporter of Australian filmmaking, David Stratton, is now the subject of a movie himself.

Called David Stratton: A Cinematic Life, the documentary is a moving portrayal of how the cinephile came to our shores from England and worked in the Australian film industry for the past 55 years.

New Zealand director, Sally Aitken, lays bare Stratton’s life while taking the audience on a remarkable journey among the many classic home-grown movies that have made Australian cinema what it is today.

As Stratton says in the movie: “When I started championing Australian cinema, I didn’t realise it would be the turning point of my life… I feel a deep affection for Australian films. They are, in a way, the movies that made me.”

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Stratton can't imagine a life without film

Growing up in England during World War II, Stratton’s father was away at war during his early years. Stratton spent a lot of time with his grandmother and she took him to the cinema regularly.

He saw his first movie with her when he was seven and when he came home he wrote a review about it.

He still has this review filed, along with reviews of the 25,000 other movies he’s seen.

No wonder the man was the director of the Sydney Film Festival for 18 years and went on to become Australia’s best-known film critic.

The stars of Australian cinema come out in force to salute Stratton in the film, with Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Judy Davis, Eric Bana, Sam Neill and Bryan Brown providing comments, along with other industry figures, such as George Miller and Gillian Armstrong adding their anecdotes. Director Sally Aitken pulls the material together so it all flows seamlessly.

There are also some excellent scenes where Stratton chats with his long-time TV co-host, Margaret Pomeranz. They were hosts for The Movie Show on SBS and then At the Movies on the ABC, for almost 30 years in total.

We asked Stratton how it felt when he found himself looking at the big screen, watching this story about his life and his role in the glory days of Australian film.

How did you feel when you first saw the movie?
Stratton: “I guess it was a combination of things. On the one hand I found looking at myself on the big screen slightly off putting but I thought that Sally Aitken, the director, had done such a good job combining the different elements of the film.

“There are the elements of my life and links to Australian films that I like – and then combining the 45 different interviewee’s reactions to not only their films, but other people’s films. I thought Sally did all this so beautifully that it was a pleasure to watch, really.”

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Geoffrey Rush is among a list of movie greats that open up about Stratton and the films that most affected them

The film is homage to all of those years in Australian film as well, isn’t it?
Stratton: “Yes, indeed and being a Kiwi, not an Australian, Sally hadn’t actually seen so many of these Australian films beforehand. In fact I think she’d seen relatively few when we started the project.”

Who had the original idea for the film?
Stratton: “The original idea was from Claude Gonzalez who was our producer for At the Movies. He wanted to do something else with me so he and I pitched it to the ABC and they liked it and accepted it. Then various things happened and Claude couldn’t go ahead with it sadly, and so the ABC gave it to an outside production company to handle and they brought in Sally. So that’s how it happened.”


Watch the trailer here

You spent nearly 30 years on TV reviewing movies with Margaret Pomeranz. Could you ever go back to reviewing movies on TV?
Stratton: “I don’t think so. I couldn’t sit there and watch another one of those superhero movies that come out continually. But I am doing film festival cruises with Margaret. We’ve done a cruise in New Zealand and we have another one planned for August of this year, cruising through the seas of Britain and Ireland, visiting Scotland and Belgium.”

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Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz hosted the long-running SBS TV program
The Movie Show for almost 18 years

You’re still writing reviews for The Australian and you also teach a course called A History of World Cinema at the Sydney University Centre for Continuing Education. Do you ever want to stop working completely?
Stratton: “I’m going to try and do less, because I really would like to not have to do quite so much. But I have a passion for world cinema and to be able to share that with people is very special. That’s probably what I enjoy doing the most.”

You seem to be fighting fit and yet you are 77. You’re already semi-retired but is there anything you do to stay on top of your game?
Stratton: “No, I’m afraid I’m not a good example of that. I think you have to be lucky. I have contemporaries who’ve exercised all their lives and now, are not well at all. But I’ve never exercised at all. Maybe two or three glasses or red wine at night is a good thing. I honestly don’t know. I don’t do anything special.”

The ABC will also screen a three-part television series later this year, called David Stratton’s Stories of Australian Cinema.

What is your favourite Australian film?

Photography: (feature image and portrait) Mark Rogers; (in-text) Peter Tarasiuk.

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