The latter reveals John’s great life passion: the nation and spiritual thought of India. He was brought up in Christian Science, but in 1956 he expanded his spiritual horizons by staying at the Sri Aurobindo ashram at Pondicherry, India, for six months. He would study Sri Aurobindo all his life.
John wrote about his journey in Reflections from an Indian Diary (2003) and in a manuscript he only recently completed.
In 1969, John worked as associate producer on Tim Burstall’s Two Thousand Weeks, a pioneering attempt at making an Australian film inspired by the art cinema coming out of Europe in the 1960s.
Sadly, Two Thousand Weeks was not a financial success and made many doubt a local industry would ever be accepted by the public and thrive.
To find out, John teamed with Phillip Adams and Southern Cross Films (financed by tyre mogul Bob Jane) to make The Naked Bunyip (1970), a feature documentary about sexual attitudes in Australia. They showcased it themselves, packing out the Palais in St Kilda for weeks and extensively touring the countryside, sometimes with projectionist John Lamond, who became a successful producer-director.
Lamond said: “John was a pioneer; he dragged Australian audiences back into a theatre for the first time in years to look at an Australian film.”
John had also taken on the Australian film censors by superimposing a drawing of a bunyip over banned shots so audiences could sense what was missing.
Kim Williams, chief executive of the Australian Film Commission and later News Limited, said: “His remarkable work in self-distributing The Naked Bunyip around the country showed courage and persistence and was instrumental in starting the move for serious change in censorship.”
John was active in the industry as part of the Victorian chapter of The Producers & Directors Guild of Australia. He and Christopher Muir produced the portmanteau Libido (1973) and John directed one of the episodes (The Husband); David Baker, Tim Burstall and Fred Schepisi were the others.
Schepisi said: “John will be missed. He did a lot for a lot of us early on in the so-called ‘new wave’ when it was hardest. I am most grateful for his efforts and encouragement. He was always warm and friendly even when he was standing his ground on his opinions of our work and the world.”
After divorcing Gillian in 1972 but always remaining friends, John moved to Sydney as the inaugural executive director of the Film, Radio & Television Board of the Australian Council for the Arts, a precursor of the Australian Film Commission (now Screen Australia). Adams was its chairman.
John and Phillip teamed up again later at Adams Packer Film Productions on major Australian productions. One was a project John had been developing with director Paul Cox, Lonely Hearts (1982).
In post-production, John and Paul fell out and, despite winning best film at the AFI Awards, they did not work together again.
John was a man of unbending principle, who could treat any matter as a defining moment in human civilisation. After a disagreement with Phillip over the production of Igor Auzins’ We of the Never (1982), John left Adams Packer. He often spoke about his falling-out with Phillip, but I have never for a second doubted how much they respected and cared for each other. Phillip was a major figure in John’s life, as well as a kind influence on me and my sister Sue (a producer on such films as Ten Canoes and Mystify).
Adams said: “John was irascible, eccentric and impossible, but I loved him.”
John never recoiled from any challenge, most notably when the French distributor of my Devil in the Flesh (1986), which John had produced and I had directed, recut the film before its major launch in Paris. As the original version had already been selected for the Cannes Film Festival in critics’ week, I suggested John let the matter drop.
Instead, he flew to Paris, attained the support of the French Director’s, took the distributor to court and won. It was a first, even for the auteur-based French industry.
John would later lobby hard for moral rights legislation in Australia to protect the rights of artists, which was successfully passed in 2001.
In between film projects, John spent as much time as possible in his beloved India, first as a cultural attache to the Australian embassy in New Delhi in 1975 and later in quiet reflection in the village of Wellington in India’s Nilgiri Hills. It was there he met his second wife, Annie Mancha.
After marrying, they moved to Melbourne, where, in 1981, they had a daughter, Shahaan. Today, she is a human rights lawyer leading an elder-abuse initiative in Melbourne.
Annie died in December 2013.
John’s final film was The Plight of Tibet and the Dalai Lama (2000), a harrowing account of the nation’s battle for independence from China and the genocide of Tibetans.
Recently, John began the digital restoration of his films, including It’s Rice: Australian, Yoga and the Individual and Devil in the Flesh, which he kindly called his proudest collaboration. Not many children have the privilege of working with a parent on a feature film. I will always be grateful for this experience (which was repeated on the official short film for the Australian Centenary of Cinema).
John was intelligent, resourceful and unrelenting in his pursuit of what he believed to be right, while also being (increasingly) kind, charming and funny.
At 17, he had been told by doctors he would not live the three months until the birth of his first child. He outlived that prediction by 71 years.
Recently, he called his first wife, Gillian, who has been married to pianist David Helfgott for 35 years. They celebrated their joint and separate life stories.
John never missed a Melbourne performance by Helfgott, and died peacefully on June 1, 2020, after listening to his recording of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.
John is survived by Gillian and his three children.
Scott Murray – a filmmaker, author and writer on film at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald – is John Murray’s son.