Video-essay: The Mythory of the Kelly Gang

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) is in many historian’s estimations the world’s first feature length film. Today, only 17 minutes of the original footage is known to survive. For the Critics’ Choice program at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2019, silent film historian Dr Peter Walsh and Australian film critic Tara Judah teamed up to re-present the 43 minutes of absence. In so doing, they created an hour-long video essay where myth and story meet and mingle.

“Though we come from different walks of life, our most common ground is that we were both raised on a history according to moving images. And, in England as in Australia, Ned Kelly and his gang were at the centre of those stories. For Tara, it was so pervasive it had become everyday – even local sketch comedy shows wanted a piece of his/tory. For Pete, it was inherent in the history of the medium itself – The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) is, in the estimations of many, the world’s first feature length film. More significantly, though, it was, for both of us, ever present and yet achingly incomplete.

Despite its status as a feature length film, only 17 minutes of the original footage from The Story of the Kelly Gang is known to survive. Advertised as running anywhere between forty-five and seventy minutes long – its actual run time depending on the whim of the projectionist who would hand crank the film – Australian scholars have deduced a probable speed of projection at around 18 frames per second and come up with 60 minutes as its length. The details, it seems, for both the film and the gang are always estimable.

Thinking, then, about the many ways in which Ned and his gang had inserted themselves into our visual lives, Peter and I set about re-presenting the story in its entirety, including those 43 minutes of absence. The result is an hour-long video essay that is a timeline of the moving image and its attempts to reconstruct myth, as well as an exercise in understanding the necessary limitations of such a deeply problematic history. Outlaw, legend, criminal and hero alike, Ned Kelly is an icon and an embodiment of the unknowable nature of both the trajectory of narrative cinema and the warring history of a postcolonial country.”