The cinema that I grew up with, and I loved more than anything – but it doesn’t exist anymore – was called Electric Shadows. I grew up in a really small city called Canberra… it was real white-bread suburbia. It’s where the seat of government is in Australia so it’s a very bureaucratic place. There was one multiplex in Canberra, in a shopping mall. Electric Shadows was surrounded by office blocks; it was small and intimate and had a bookstore outside it.
My older sister used to take me there from when I was 12 or 13 and the first kind of films I saw there were Andy Warhol films, Eric Rohmer films and David Lynch films. I remember seeing Rohmer’s third feature La Collectionneuse  – and realising that nuance and emotion were as important as narrative. The films they showed opened me up to the whole idea that there was another way of seeing the world. Electric Shadows was kind of a cool place, where older people could go and teenagers went, but I think what drew people there was trying to escape a certain way of seeing the world, and wanting to see the world through different eyes.
I’ve got really fond memories of it, because that was the first time I saw feminist films, queer films, foreign-language films, so it had a massive influence on me. The cinema was one of the reasons I wanted to be a filmmaker, seeing how different it was to the public schools I was at, and the claustrophobia of suburbia, with its one way of seeing the world. It ran as an independent cinema for 27 years but was taken over [in 2006] by Palace, an arthouse chain.
Later I moved to Sydney to go to university and through my screen studies course I saw Cuban cinema and African cinema and Third World cinema, and a lot of films directed by women. I was a regular at a cinema called the Valhalla, in Glebe, and then a few years later at the Dendy in Newtown, where they had retrospectives of lots of filmmakers. I remember going to see all of Scorsese’s films. When I had kids I started having to sneak movies in, so instead of seeing everything I could, it became really luxurious to see films, and my life’s still a little bit like that.
I’m worried about cinemas [after Covid lockdowns] but also about all small independent businesses. We don’t know what’s going to happen; I think that’s the challenge for us because we’re control freaks, and this is beyond any of our wildest dreams, really. We thought that this kind of thing was something that happened in the past, and it shows us how vulnerable we are.
Watching a film in the cinema is all about a shared experience, but also it’s just about sinking into the darkness and totally entering a new world and the luxury of that when the world outside is chaotic; you just go into another person’s mind and way of seeing the world. It’s beautiful, and you carry it away with you.
Cate Shortland was talking to Isabel Stevens.
Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more
News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.