Section 27A of the Queensland Mental Health act allowed hospital authorities to hold an inmate until they decide he can be released.

When Bill Donald (Robert McDarra), a middle aged metho drinker, is given six weeks in prison for a minor offence, he decides to volunteer for psychiatric help to treat his alcoholism.

But when he clashes with a sadistic male nurse (Bill Hunter as Cornish), the authorities decide to hold him because of his unco-operative attitude.

Donald tries to escape a number of times, to drink and visit his dying wife, but it's only when he's helped by a journalist that his case attracts public attention and he's finally released ...

Production Details

Production company: Smart Street Films

Budget: According to producer Haydn Keenan, A$40,000, raised from a syndicate of businessmen, with $13,000 coming from the Arts Council (the film's end credits turn this into the Interim council for the Australian film and TV school).

According to Keenan, the 27A syndicate put in $1,000 per person, with the investment to be written off as a tax loss (Some sources put the budget at $36,000, with some $23,000 coming from the business syndicate). The AFDC turned down an application for $15,000 on the basis that the film wasn't commercial. (The AFDC's attitude delayed our raising the money, and prevented us from raising as much as we could have otherwise - Keenan)

Locations: key set at Christian Brothers' psychiatric hospital at Kurrajong, near Sydney

Filmed: March 1973

Australian distributor: self-distributed, until picked up by Sharmill Films in Melbourne and given a release at the Playbox Cinema, Melbourne as the opening film for the new Australian Film Institute administered theatre.

Theatrical release: 25th July 1974, Sydney Film Festival screening 4th June 1974 - the festival was at the State Theatre that year.

Rating: M

16mm       colour

Running time: 86 mins (Oxford Australian Film)

VHS copy: 1'19"28

Box office: minimal. The film was given only a limited release and didn't travel internationally.

Opinion

Awards

1973 Australian Film Institute Awards:

Gold Award in Fiction category

Winner, Best Film award (Hayden Keenan) - shared with Libido: The Child  segment (Tim Burstall) - Australian Film Development Corporation Prize ($5,000 prize)

Winner, Best Actor in a Lead Role, Hoyts prize (Robert McDarra)

Screened Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and other film festivals

Availability

The film was released on VHS and copies circulate amongst collectors derived from that source.

However the film is now available on DVD direct from the production company Smart Street Films (at time of writing), with the catalogue page here. The Vimeo trailer indicates that the picture quality is better than VHS quality - the film was one of a number restored by the Atlab/Kodak initiative - and is presented in 1.85, though perhaps some might prefer to have the original open matte 16mm image.

The price is A$30, with another $5 for postage and handling, for Australian buyers, but there is also pricing in US dollars. (No extras are listed)

If your idea of watching a feature film is to watch a few clips, the ASO carries three clips here.

1. Source:

Writer-director Esben Storm explained the genesis of the work in an interview with Cinema Papers in January 1974:

I read an article about Bob Somerville being kept in a mental home. There was also a sixteen-year-old boy who was virtually put in jail under the act. I kept the article as a potential idea for a film then showed it to Haydn, Michael Edols (our cameraman) and to Richard Brennan. They all felt it had potential. I contacted Somerville, stayed with him in a cheap hotel in Queensland for a couple of days and tape recorded a long account of his life and what had happened to him. He'd stopped drinking then. The case gave him a reason to exist - but when it blew over he started drinking again. I wrote a treatment, and then later that year I wrote a script while Haydn tried to raise the money to make the film. This was in 1972 - the article appeared in February, and scripting and money raising began about July. I lived in a house in Queensland and spent a couple of months writing the script. But it had been in my head for five months before that. I came back with a long script which Haydn, Cecil Holmes and I ran off and cut down.

Storm and his partner Keenan had both gone to the University High School in Melbourne together. Storm went to Swinburne Technical College, and met Malcolm Williams. According to Storm, they were kicked out of Swinburne, and went on to make a series of shorts together, such as Doors (1969), One Man Bike (1970, with Keenan directing), His Prime in 1971, and Stephanie in 1972.

Thanks to Gil Brealey, both Storm and Keenan became production assistants at the Commonwealth Film Unit.

Storm was given the gig of directing 27A, with Keenan taking a role in the film. Keenan's turn at a feature film would come with Going Down in 1983. 

Given this background, the pair had a good idea of how they'd go about the planning and production of a low budget feature, as Esben Storm revealed in an interview:

The main influence on the style of the film was that we knew we wouldn't be able to raise a lot of money... If we wanted to make a feature film, we'd have to make it cheap. There was a style at that time, sort of pseudo-documentary, with a lot of hand-held camera work - Cullodden, Cathy Come Home and Poor Cow, that English, Ken Loach, Peter Watkins realism. I was drawn to the subject in the newspapers and then went off to investigate and research it. I felt that it would suit that style... A basic theme... is that of someone trying to break out, someone feeling trapped within themselves, trapped within the system. That probably drew me to it. Then when I went to research it, I found a broader tapestry. (here at Peter Malone's informative website)

Keenan and Storm were amongst the earliest to experience the difficulties of dealing with film bureaucrats, ironic in that the film is about the way bureaucrats ran the mental health system in Queensland:

Keenan: APA, who produce The Evil Touch, told us, "Don't do it. You'll never make it for $40,000. It'll end up on the shelf."

Storm: These people's opinions are respected. Commercial to them means sex, horror, a can of beer and a surfboard. The AFDC turned down our application for $15,000 because the film wasn't "commercial".

Keenan: We were sent out to get "letters of interest". Channel 9 gave us one: they participated in the farce. The AFDC's attitude delayed our raising the money, and prevented us from raising as much as we could have otherwise.

Storm: The assessments done on the script for 27A for the AFDC said "This is a film that must be made." The AFDC said "You can't make it for $40,000. It's not a worthwhile film. You can't shoot it in three weeks."

Keenan: And we did all those things. And now they're telling our investors to cut their losses and run. It might not make money here, but it's going to make money in America. They've told us our next scenario, about an aboriginal boxer (the only black in the cast), would only be successful in South Amercia, Harlem and Africa!

Storm: A guy on the North Shore wanted me to film a story he had about a hermit in a valley who has sexual adventures with some Catholic schoolgirls. He's been given $5,000 to work up a script.

Keenan: Their concept of commercial is six years out of date. Commercial doesn't necessarily mean Mary Poppins.

Storm: The AFDC was set up to finance films that will make money. The more films they finance that are puerile, the more they're going to reiterate and reaffirm a puerile taste.

Keenan: For every five surf movies - without trying to sound pretentious - they could make a 27A. That might start to move community taste. (Cinema Papers, as above)

It would become a familiar refrain, a constant source of tension and conflict over the next forty years of goverment funding of film development and production, the divid between a commercial and an aesthetic approach, though in reality it is a false distinction.

In this case, Keenan and Storm emerged critically and artistically justified with awards and good reviews, less so financially.

2. Production:

As a result of the Robert Somerville case, the Mental Health Act had already been altered to prevent another case of this kind occurring, before the film 27A was made, but the film-makers proceeded as if it was still in operation, and they were in the present, rather than in the late nineteen sixties.

Director Storm contended that he did not intend his film to be an expose of the Queensland government, or its already altered act, so much as to look at the way the system responded to its patients:

"the asylum in the film is not a reflection of the people in it, but more a reflection of the people who built it."

Along with producer Keenan, who played a young public servant who freaks out, regular Storm/Keenan collaborator Richard Moir also appears in the film.

The film was shot in three weeks, with a total cast of 45, large relative to size of budget. The creative team arranged for an 'alternative' production process and told the actors:

"We're going to be living in a mental asylum for three weeks in 15 tents". When they get there they can't tell the crew from the actors. It's just a whole group of people living up there. You break down the psychological partition between the crew and the cast. Everyone's enthusiastic about the job they're doing, they're paid and fed. You get 70 people all going towards a goal, and that's a really exciting feeling. (Keenan)

The original location at Concord was cancelled a week before shooting began, and the team turned to the Kurrajong location:

Keenan: Four people went up to Kurrajong, and when we got there everything was set up - wood chopped, the power on. Actors and crew were mixed up in the same tent. The Brothers at the hospital bent over backwards to help us. They're humanists in the real sense of the word.

Cinema Papers: Were any changes made in the script after changing location?

Storm: In some scenes - for instance, the chase scene was going to be done in the swamp at Concord, but it was filmed instead around the river. It worked out all right.

Keenan: Before we started shooting, Cecil Holmes told us the cheapest part of a film is the planning, and it's the most important part. That was where we spent most time. Everything was planned so that almost any eventuality was catered for. Weather and things didn't bother us at all. There were minor mishaps, but nothing that interrupted the flow of the film.

Storm: You just accept that you've got to make a film within the financial limits set. We worked out a film that was very gritty, had to move along, was shot quickly, was very natural and was not grandiose in any way. A lot of it is hand-held - it's straight to the point. Making the film was free, like Mad Dogs and Englishmen - there were dogs, girlfriends, and their friends.

Keenan: They all knew they could do what they wanted, bring anyone along they wanted, as long as it didn't interfere with the work. Which a crew really likes - you treating them as people.

Storm: It carries over into produciton. You don't enforce the normal roles of director, cameraman, assistant director to a great extent. Anyone on the set can make suggestions. (Cinema Papers, January 1974)

The shoot was wrapped on March 17 1973, edited for about 12 weeks, mixed in a week, and with the print ready by mid-July.

Robert McDarra, who played the lead role, had been a professional actor on radio for the Australian Broadcasting Commission for many years, and also appeared on stage and in film (he appeared in Wake in Fright as the truckie who carts the ungrateful hero back to the Yabba). 

He was also an alcoholic and so brought an awareness of the condition to his role in the film. McDarra died in December 1975.

Bill Hunter, who played opposite him as the tough nurse, was a notorious alcoholic who in future films made life difficult for assistant directors and producers when he went off the wagon.

3. Release:

Despite winning several prestigious awards at the AFI, the film-makers experienced difficulties getting any kind of commercial release. Village Roadshow and B.E.F. expressed interest, then shied away. The reality was that a film with an alcoholic as the lead would require specialised handling, and nobody could be bothered, given the likely commercial returns.

Storm hoped that it could be quietly successful, but it was only when the Playbox in Melbourne came to the rescue that the film received a short commercial run in 1974, followed by another commercial run in the Union Theatre at the University of Sydney in April 1975.

Esben Storm died in 2011 and there is an obituary at the Sydney Morning Herald under the header Director and actor championed the underdog, Esben Storm, 1950-2011.

The obituary covers Storm's formative years leading to 27A, and then to work in television, this way:

Esben Storm, who died of a heart attack, was born on May 26, 1950, in Denmark. He came to Australia with his parents, Laurits and Ane, in 1958 after a legal battle lost the family farm to unscrupulous lawyers.

The family settled in Melbourne, where Laurits worked as a builder's labourer and built his son a darkroom, where young Esben learnt the fundamentals of photography, composition and light.

At 18, Storm started making films with his high-school friend and collaborator Haydn Keenan. They had met as students at University High and their irreverent sense of humour and passion for stage and screen sparked a creative partnership that would last for many years.

In His Prime, a documentary directed by Storm, and Stephany, a drama directed by Keenan, both won awards at the 1972 Sydney Film Festival. The party at the office of their new film production company, Smart Street Films, went late into the night. Storm loved to celebrate.

It wasn't long before he and Keenan were back in production, collaborating on their first feature film, 27A. The film was a classic underdog tale based on a true story and this theme of the ''little man fighting the system'' would recur throughout Storm's work, no doubt an echo of his father's plight as a displaced farmer.

The film was a milestone in the Australian film industry. It went on to win the 1974 AFI award for best film. Storm, the director, was 24 and Keenan, the producer, was 23.

In 1978, Storm won the AFI award for best screenplay for his next feature, the widely acclaimed In Search of Anna. It told the story of a young man, released from prison, who embarks on a journey to find his former girlfriend. He never does.

When asked what the film was about, Storm would say, ''It's about letting go of the past and moving into the future with a positive attitude.'' Considering the difficulties he encountered in his professional life, it was a maxim that stood him in good stead.

After returning from Cannes screenings, he fell in love with and married the film's assistant editor, Pamela Barnetta.

In 1982, Storm made With Prejudice, about the trial of the men accused of the Sydney Hilton bombing. It was widely believed that this film helped to secure the release of the three Ananda Marga members jailed for the crime. Battling injustice was revisited in Deadly (1991), again showing underdogs fighting the system. This time, the victims were young black men who die in police custody.

In 1983, Storm appeared in Keenan's Going Down, playing Michael, the codeine-addicted loner-writer - and playing him magnificently. It was Storm's best performance out of 26 roles in film and television.

Along the way, Storm's first marriage broke down. Later, he married the costume designer Lisa Meagher, whom he met on the set of Round the Twist.

Storm worked for the Australian Children's Television Foundation for 15 years. He was the heart and soul of Round the Twist - acting (the haughty Mr Snapper), writing (with Paul Jennings) and directing. The series was hugely successful because Storm loved creating its magic and madness.

A portrait of Storm by Jiawei Shen was a finalist in the 2012 Archibald Prize, more details at the Art Gallery of NSW. (Storm made a documentary about Shen called Goodbye Revolution which aired on SBS in 2008).

In 2011 Haydn Keenan made a four part documentary series for SBS about files accumulated by ASIO about him and other people, with details about the project available at the Sydney Morning Herald under the header Dupes and subversives: the banal dross in ASIO files.

4. Date:

the Oxford Australian Film and other databases date the film to 1974, but the film carries a copyright notice of 1973 (albeit in incorrect Roman numerals), and where data is available, this site dates films to the year of completed and copyrighted production, not the year of first release.