Sydney Cinephiles?: Sydney as an UNSECO City of Film and its implications on identity development

klara city of film

by Klara Bruveris

e:   t: @KlaraZelma

Klara Bruveris is an early career researcher at UNSW Australia. Her PhD thesis examines the impact of globalisation on contemporary Latvian cinema. Her current research interest is how different contemporary media forms are used in identity formation in diasporic groups.

[This is the text version of a paper presented on the day. It is a summary of a work in progress and in no way a finished product. Comments and feedback on the ideas in this paper are most welcome and encouraged. Please ‘leave a reply’ in the box at the bottom of this page.]

Sydney Cinephiles?: Sydney as an UNSECO City of Film and its implications on identity development

I would just like to begin with a disclaimer. I have only recently submitted by PhD and am just embarking on my next research project, which I hope will have something to do with the UNESCO Creative Cities Network (UCCN), specifically in regards to the UCCN cities of film. This seminar was an opportunity for me to test the feasibility of my ideas and pick the brains of my colleagues. For those of you who were not able to make it, I would love it if you got in touch with any further comments or suggestions via email!

About UNESCO Creative Cities:

The UNESCO creative cities network was established in 2004. Its aim is to ‘promote cooperation between and among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development’ (UNESCO). So far 69 cities have become members of this network, in seven creative areas: Film, Music, Literature, Folk arts and craft, Media arts, design and gastronomy. In joining the network members of are expected to:

  • strengthen international cooperation between cities that have recognized creativity as a strategic factor of their sustainable development;
  • stimulate and enhance initiatives led by member cities to make creativity an essential component of urban development, notably through partnerships involving the public and private sectors and civil society.
  • strengthen the creation, production, distribution and dissemination of cultural activities, goods and services;
  • develop hubs of creativity and innovation and broaden opportunities for creators and professionals in the cultural sector;
  • improve access to and participation in cultural life, in particular for marginalized or vulnerable groups and individuals;
  • fully integrate culture and creativity into sustainable development plans. (UNESCO)

We will return to this later when we begin to examine Sydney as a UNESCO City of Film.

Sydney as a City of Film and its network:

In the creative field of film there are 5 networked cities. The first city to be allocated the title of ‘City of Film’ was Bradford, England in 2009. Bradford was awarded this title for three main reasons its ‘rich film heritage’, ‘inspirational movie locations’ and its numerous annual film festivals (UNESCO).

Sydney was the next city awarded with the ‘City of Film’ title in 2010. Followed in 2014 by: Busan, South Korea, which was recognised primarily for the Busan International Film Festival, Asia’s premier film festival; Sofia, which is acknowledged as the centre of Bulgaria’s film industry not only in production and exhibition but also film education, with the national film school located there; and Galway, which has recently begun to develop as a centre of film production particularly in animation and televisual projects in Ireland.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 3.05.12 pm

On the UNESCO website the reasons given for Sydney’s award of the ‘City of Film’ title can be placed into four categories:

  1. Production – it is argued to be the film production hub of Australia, with 60% of Australia’s production and post-production businesses based in NSW.
  2. People and Places – Sydney and NSW has produced some of Australia’s most well-known and successful talents such as Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman and George Miller. Furthermore, it boasts of ‘a kaleidoscope of filiming locations’ both urban and rural.
  3. Fox Studios and International Blockbusters – Fox studios has the largest sound stage in the Southern Hemisphere and many of the world’s biggest blockbusters have been filmed there, including the Matrix and Wolverine.
  4. Exhibition – Diverse screen culture, appreciated by an enthusiastic audience who regularly go to the cinema and attend Sydney’s many film festivals including the Sydney Film Festival, Antenna Film Festival, etc. etc.

Kristina Keneally, then NSW Premier and Minister for the Arts emphatically stated that it should be considered as a ‘city of film’ because of its “overall sense of buzz” and because “Film is- and always has been – a core part of what it means to be a Sydneysider” (UNESCO: Sydney, City of Film, p. 5).

So, who here would agree with ex-premier Keneally’s statement that ““Film is- and always has been – a core part of what it means to be a Sydneysider”? For those of you who do not consider themselves Sydneysiders would you associate a ‘buzzing’ film culture with Sydney?

This is the question that I would like to explore. Is film an integral element of how Sydney and its inhabitants form a sense of self? And is this something that has been heightened since the UNESCO ‘City of Film’ title was awarded to Sydney?

A preliminary literature review reveals that these questions would help to meet a gap in the literature on Sydney as a ‘City of Film’ and more broadly on the impact, maybe even effectiveness of the UCCN.

At the 9th annual meeting of the UCCN in Kanazawa Japan this year, one of the concluding remarks of the conference was that:

“Member cities will continue to measure the impact of the UNESCO Creative City designation at the local level, including through academic research and data collection, and to foster exchanges on cross-cutting issues of mutual interest, in particular in the framework of the forthcoming Annual Meetings” (UCCN).

This arguably suggests not only a desire for research into the network, but also highlights this network as under-researched. This is further highlighted through an examination of research on the ‘creative city’.

The concept of the ‘creative city’ emerged in scholarship and government policy in the late 1970s when cities were entering a post-industrial era. The economy of a city could no longer depend on large industries, instead economic stability was sought through the ‘ideas industry’. Innovation and creativity become key terms for the future development of urban infrastructure. More and more emphasis was placed on the experience of living in a city and the importance of creativity for a healthy urban population. Many cities have either taken on the name of ‘creative city’ or become part of networks such as the UCCN or the European Culture of Capital. This has led scholars to debate what is meant by the term ‘creative city’ and how best to employ this paradigm in urban policies and planning.

Research on the ‘creative city’ mostly focuses on infrastructure and the effectiveness of basing a city’s economy and society on creativity and culture. The most well-known authority on the ‘creative city’ is Charles Landry. Landry is not a scholar but as his website states ‘an international authority on the use of imagination and creativity in urban change’ (Charles Landry). He is employed by both the public and private sectors around the world as a consultant in infrastructure projects. He has published numerous books on this topic, which, at least as far as I have seen, are often used as the beginning point for the research and work of other urban scholars.

This perhaps explains why the scholarship on creative cities is so very pragmatic, as the foundations come from an urban consultant interested in creating change rather than formulating theories about the ‘creative city’ and its impact on residents. The most conceptual work that I have found so far was a paper called “Tracing festival imaginaries: Between affective urban idioms and administrative assemblages” by Kristie Jamieson (2013), which examined what she called was the ‘administrative imaginary’, arguing that the creative city not only promotes its cultural capital, but also its administration, as it is the city’s administration which urges the development of creativity in the urban environment.

The UCCN is included in this research trend. The creation of the network was in effect a reaction to this popular term, but rarely is it examined on its own. It appears for example in an edited collection of creative cities in South Eastern Europe ‘Cultural Transitions in South Eastern Europe: The Creative City: Crossing Visions and New Realities in the Region’ (švob-đokić, 2007), but is mentioned as a broader trend of creative cities networks, such as Eurocities and the European Capital of Culture, as an example of how global institutions assist in the formation of creative cities and encourage the development of infrastructure around creativity and imagination. And in a 2006 literature review of culture and regeneration in urban environments, entitled ‘Culture and Regeneration’ (2006), Graeme Evans & Phyllida Shaw mention the UCCN as part of establishing the context for creative cities research but do not highlight any specific research on the network itself. Although arguably then the network was relatively new. However, in further research the UCCN continues to exist merely as a passing reference rather than the key item of study. Hence justifying the action item at the 9th annual UCCN meeting for further research into the network.

In regards to research on Sydney, film and identity little has also been done. So far I have found two publications that engage with this trinity of concepts; Sydney, film, identity. The monograph Tourism and the branded city film and identity on the Pacific Rim by Stephanie Hemelryk Donald and John G. Gammack partly examines how film has led to the development of a ‘brand’ for the city. And the recently published edited collection entitled, World Film Locations: Sydney, which explores how iconic locations in Sydney have been represented onscreen and how in turn this has influenced the way in which we think of those spaces and the people that live there.

Nothing so far has been written about Sydney as a UNESCO ‘City of Film’.

So this is where at least right now I envisage my research, and its place in the existing scholarship. As so little has been written on both the UCCN and cities of film as well as Sydney, film and identity there would be a myriad of research directions which to pursue. But I’ve always been interested in identity and so I’m directing my research of Sydney’s status as a UCC through this concept.

There are two levels of identity that I am interested in exploring; on the individual level, or the so called ‘sydneysider’, and on the level of the city. At this preliminary stage it would be impossible to make any judgements on whether or not film is integral to a sense of self for Sydney residents. This would require, I imagine, lengthy surveys and ethics approvals, so today I’m going to offer up a personal example of how film has impacted on my identity. However, to avoid this becoming an autobiographical confession, or something along those lines, I will be combining some prior research on film festivals for a theoretical framework.

Some of you might be aware of the number of film festivals held in Sydney. As Greg Dolgopolov highlights in the Conversation, there is literally a film festival on every week of the year in our harbour side city. To put this into hard figures 58 film festivals are listed on the Film Festivals Australia website, which include festivals as large as the Sydney Film Festival, the Queer Screen Film Festival, and smaller ones such as the Sydney Surf Film Festival, the Shire International Short Film Festival and the Football film festival.

In 2014 another festival joined this list, the Baltic Film Festival (BFF). Some of you will know that I consider myself an Australian-Latvian, and that throughout my life I have struggled to understand where I belong and who I am. To prove that I was Latvian I joined the folk dance group, sang in Latvian choirs and performed in numerous Latvian theatre productions, here in Sydney. Whilst this allowed me a connection with my homeland these activities were aimed at the diasporic community itself and did not allow me to share my culture with non-Latvian Australian friends. As part of my existential crises and my need to share my culture with a broader Australian society I embarked on a PhD, which began as an examination of Latvian identity onscreen. I aimed to both understand my identity better and educate people about Latvia more broadly. While I relished in the opportunities to assault undergraduatess with my passion for all things Latvian in numerous guest lectures I was still not reaching the audience size that I wanted.

The idea of the BFF had been brewing for a while. Back in 2011 when I started my PhD. Then finally, in what was supposed to be my final year of my studies, I decided to realise these plans. I got together an amazing group of both Baltic and non-Baltic Australians and together we produced a nice little festival. We screened eight films, plus some shorts from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and it was a hit! The reason why I’m telling you this is because I’ve often wondered if I lived in a different city, would I have chosen the film festival format to disseminate Latvian and Baltic culture to a general public?

According to Greg Dolgopolov, the answer would arguably be yes. In his chapter, ‘Ethnic, Diasporic, Multicultural? The Film Festival as Policy and Practice’ (2013), Dolgopolov states that the sizeable amount of ethnic film festivals in Sydney reflects a growing trend where every community group feels the need to assert their identity through a film festival, and that this format publicly demonstrates their identity in a self-celebratory manner and helps to legitimise the groups belonging in the Australian community (p. 71). It is something that he argues is unique and specific to Australia, and more specifically Sydney. My identity, or at least my expression of identity, was influenced by screen culture in Sydney. Seeing the French film festival or the Russian Resurrection Film Festival encouraged me to develop the idea of a Baltic film festival. Therefore, in this specific context I would say that yes film is integral to identity development and an understanding of self at least for ethnic communities in Sydney.

Now I would like to move on to the second level of identity that I am interested in exploring, that of the city itself. This raised further methodological questions such as how one measures whether or not film is central to the identity of a city. Is this something that needs to be asked of those outside of Sydney? Through the representation of Sydney in foreign press? Or perhaps an examination of government websites and PR campaigns to determine how Sydney shapes its identity?

A brief survey of such resources provide disappointing results. Sydney has been a UNESCO ‘City of Film’ for five years, and very little people in Sydney know about this status.

For example, if I asked you whether or not you knew about Sydney’s ‘City of Film’ title before coming to this seminar, what would you say?

Film seems not to be central to Sydney’s autobiographical narrative.

Information in the mainstream media about the title has been slim to none. One of the only examples I could find was an article in the Australian, which basically just stated that Sydney had been a UNESCO city for 5 years, but that very little evidence existed of this changing anything for Sydney and Sydney’s residents. From the government information about Sydney ‘City of Film’, as far as I can tell, the Screen NSW website only recently created a section about Sydney’s membership in the UCCN within the last few months. At big ticket events such as the Sydney Film Festival, the logo has been missing from any promotional material. Knowledge of the programme and UCCN title is almost completely absent.

This might be because, in fact, film has become less integral to the city of Sydney since becoming a UCCN member, arguably it was never as central as the UCCN pitch for the title of ‘City of Film’ suggests. This becomes evident through a comparison between one of the other UCCN cities of film, Bradford. (A comparison with the other cities at this point is futile as they have only been members for a year)

Bradford has published various reports and information booklets on the activities and programmes that they have implemented and are running since being awarded the status of ‘City of Film’. These act as wonderful resources, which demonstrate the stark contrast between Bradford and Sydney.

First and foremost Bradford has established a long-term plan for the year 2020. This plan aims to position film at the centre of life in Bradford. Film will be at the heart of Bradford’s development, identity and day-to-day life. They plan to meet this goal through four action areas:

  • Enjoy
  • Learn
  • Make
  • Visit

And they’ve been very busy in pursuing these action areas.

And I’ll let David Wilson the director of Bradford’s City of Film programme to explain what they’ve achieved since being awarded the title.


So you can see that Bradford is embracing the definition of the term ‘creative city’ it is not only about having film events or encouraging film production in the city to boost the local economy, but also about using film as a method to achieve social well-being such as their Memory Bank project. I also think it is great that they are looking into visual literacy and making film central to children’s experiences of learning. This hopefully will develop a more enthusiastic cinema audience in the future, and a broader appreciation for the art outside of big Hollywood blockbusters.

In contrast the information that I have been able to find about Sydney’s approach to the Sydney City of Film title paints a very different picture.

Sydney does not have a separate Sydney of film office or board. It is part of, or managed by ScreenNSW. And there is no material available that offers any information on what Sydney has achieved or implemented, changed or developed since joining the network. The Screen NSW website states that Sydney sought the title for three main reasons:

  • to support Sydney filmmakers in the production and distribution of their films;
  • to encourage more international film production in Sydney for the economic benefit of Sydney’s film industry (production, post-production, facilities and creative talent) and its broader economy;
  • to promote the enjoyment of screen culture by Sydneysiders and tourists for cultural and economic benefit.

I would argue that as such the only goal that Sydney City of Film have met is encouraging large runaway blockbusters to be filmed in Sydney. Numerous big buck movies have been filmed here including ‘The Lego Movie’, ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘Australia’, ‘Wolverine’, ‘X-men origins: Wolverine’, ‘Superman Returns’, ‘The Matrix Trilogy’ and ‘Mission Impossible: 2’. And of course some of you may have recently heard about Ridley Scott potentially filming ‘Prometheus 2’ in Sydney at Fox Studios. In the sense of large big budget runaways, then yes, Sydney is arguably a city of film. The tax incentives and FOX sound stage, plus our dramatic landscapes and cosmopolitan city have led many directors to film in Sydney. BUT, many of these productions have not been negotiated by ‘Sydney City of Film’. In some news reports it has been mentioned that Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, for example, has been key to the negotiations for Ridley Scott’s newest production.

There is no doubt that such big productions do inject money into the local economy. BUT apart from local businesses benefiting, in what other areas is the City of Sydney encouraging film culture in the city?

In regards to the first goal, to support Sydney filmmakers in the production and distribution of their films, this remains to be pursued. The money invested into the local economy by the big budget international productions is not used to help local film production. In fact local filmmakers work with much smaller budgets and therefore cannot access the world-class facilities at FOX studios. Due to poor exhibition and distribution trends Aussie films must mostly look to government institutions such as ScreenNSW for production funding. To be fair, however, ScreenNSW, as part of Sydney City of Film, has launched a new funding programme for emerging filmmakers in NSW. The Emerging Filmmakers Fund offers $30,000 to three successful applicants to help develop their films. The programme, however, along with Metro Screen are closing down as funding has run out. This is a huge loss to film development and training in NSW. It was a central hub where emerging filmmakers could practice their craft and develop their careers. Currently, it is unclear how this institution will be replaced, if at all. Sydney in this context is actually at risk of losing its place as a centre for the training and development for future filmmakers.

Finally, ScreenNSW state that as part of the Sydney City of Film they want to promote the enjoyment of screen culture by Sydneysiders and tourists for cultural and economic benefit. Again Metro Screen has played a key role in supporting film festivals in Sydney and NSW through their Film Festivals Australia programme. They offered assistance with PR and marketing, and acted as a central meeting place where film festival directors could workshop ideas and support each other. This was a key agency that helped with the development of the Baltic Film Festival. Sydney of City council do offer grants for festivals, but these often go to larger and more competitive ones such as the Sydney Film Festival. But again, metro screen is closing down, so the future of that organisation is unclear. It is unlikely that it will impact much on film festivals in Sydney, BUT, it is further evidence that Sydney City of Film is not actively pursuing the goals set after receiving the title. In fact much that is happening in Sydney regarding the promotion of screen culture is being done by ‘rogue agents’: Scholar Greg Dolgopolov has founded FilmFest, which looks to possible replace Film Festivals Australia; writer and PhD student Lauren Caroll-Harris organizes screenings of under-distributed films in unconventional locations such as backyards and carparks; and other filmmakers are looking for ways to screen films and get people involved outside of the corporate cinema chain structure.

As a destination for cinema Sydney lacks tourism infrastructure in that area. When it was first announced that Sydney became a UNESCO ‘City of Film’, various public film figures came together and tried to establish a project to build a cinematheque in Sydney, similar to ACMI in Melbourne. The city council agreed to a feasibility study and from what I can tell they are still trying to get that off the ground. Again highlighting that the title UNESCO City of Film has not impacted on Sydney and its inhabitants much, if at all. If film was as integral to a Sydney identity, whether that be on an individual level or on the level of the city, this is not evident from the actions of the governing screen institutions in Sydney and NSW. And the City of Film title has arguably in no way impacted on how Sydneysiders see themselves. Well at least that is my initial hypothesis on the work that I have done so far.

Currently, I want to keep exploring this relationship between film, Sydney and identity. There is much more that I need to tease out especially regarding methodology. However, in the long run I would like to examine the City of Film network, analyzing each cities’ approaches, examining how identity is formed in each through film and examining the impact of the UCCN.


‘Bradford City of Film’,, accessed: 26/10/15.

‘Charles Landry’,, accessed: 26/10/15.

Dolgopolov, G, ‘Do we need a film festival to fly the Union Jack?’, The Conversation, 30/11/2013, available at:, accessed: 26/10/15.

Dolgopolov, G, ‘Ethnic, Diasporic, Multicultural? The Film Festival as Policy and Practice’, in ‘For those who’ve come across the seas…’: Australian Multicultural Theory, Policy and Practice, Jakubowicz, A, Ho, C (eds.), Australian Scholarly: Melbourne, pp. 68-82.

Donald, H. S, Gammack, G. J, Tourism and the Branded City: New Directions in Tourism Analysis, Ashgate: Aldershot, Burlington, 2007.

Evans, G, Shaw, P, ‘Literature Review: Culture and Regeneration’, Arts Research Digest, iss. 37, 2006, pp. 1-11.

‘Film Festivals Australia’,, accessed: 26/10/15.

Jamieson, K, ‘Tracing festival imaginaries: Between affective urban idioms and administrative assemblages’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 17:3, pp. 293-303.

Kenneally, K in, Screen NSW, ‘UNESCO: Sydney, City of Film’, available at:, accessed: 26/10/15

Mitchell, N (ed.), World Film Locations: Sydney, Intellect Books: Bristol, Chicago, 2015.

ScreenNSW, ‘About Sydney City of Film’,, accessed: 26/10/15.

švob-đokić, N (ed.), Cultural Transitions in South Eastern Europe: The Creative City: Crossing Visions and New Realities in the Region, Institute for International Relations: Zagreb, 2007.

UCCN, ‘Conclusions of the IX annual meeting of the UCCN’, available at:, accessed: 26/10/15.

UNESCO Creative Cities Network,, accessed: 26/10/15.

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