Steven Ball
Marie Craven
Solrun Hoaas
Daryl Dellora

Melbourne independent filmmakers

Leo Berkeley
Giorgio Mangiamele
Michael Buckley
Moira Joseph

Tom Cowan
(Thomas Michael Cowan)
b. October 31, 1942,
Wangaratta, Victoria, Australia.

BIOGRAPHY:   Tom Cowan has a distinguished film career as a director and as a cinematographer. While a trainee at ABC-TV, he directed The Dancing Class. It won the AFI's Best Film of the Year. It also won a First Prize at the Commonwealth Awards in Edinburgh.

Tom was part of the 'Larrikins in London' in the '70s. With Germaine Greer, Robert Stigwood, Martin Sharp, Arthur Boyd, John Weiley, Richard Neville and many others, he worked on Philippe Mora's wacky musical feature film Trouble In Molopolis. Tom was Director of Photography. Tom included Germaine in his own London documentary Australia Felix about ex-patriots' rosy view from afar of their homeland.



Tom Cowan wrote, co-produced and directed four feature films at this time. His Journey Among Women won the AFI's Most Creative Feature Film Award in 1977. It was commercially highly successful as well as being a personal statement - running for 16 weeks in Sydney's George Street and selling in 17 countries. The other feature films as director are The Office Picnic, Promised Woman and Sweet Dreamers. Tom was also the support system to other directors in the '80s. For John Duigan he photographed four features including the seminal Mouth To Mouth and Winter of our Dreams with Judy Davis and Bryan Brown.

Wild Wind

Tom met the Indian director Pattabhi Rama Reddy and was Director of Photography on his Samskara which won India's Best Feature (President's Award) and many international prizes including the Silver Lion at Locarno. In India, Tom later co-wrote and directed the feature, Wild Wind (Chanda Maruta).

His first IMAX film as Director of Photography was Antarctica. It won the Prix du Jury at the Festival de la Geode - the major award for giant screen films. It is the most successful investment yet made by the Australian Film Finance Corporation and has taken over US$100 million at the box office.

He also shot Africa's Elephant Kingdom for Michael Caulfield in Imax. It stayed in Variety's Top 50 grossing list for over two years. It won Tom the Australian Cinematographer Society's Gold Award.

Tom's feature script On Fire was a screenplay award winner at the Telluride Festival in 1999.

In 2000, Tom directed the Yukatan section of Journey into Amazing Caves and sequences for China - The Panda Adventure.

His filming assignments extend the long, long way from Survivor 2 - Down Under to Taj - The Magic of India in Imax. He gained an Emmy nomination in 2001 for his work on Survivor.

In 2004, Tom shot Disney Corporation's The Young Black Stallion - their Christmas release.

His first Local Emotion Picture feature film entitled Orange Love Story was a hit at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2004.

Life Class

His next feature film project was Life Class (2016).


In 1920, Sadie, an adventurous farmer’s daughter dreamed of escaping her tight-knit country town.

Trouble came when a handsome war-shattered French artist arrived.

It outraged the small-town citizens when she dared to pose naked for Georges’ drawing class.

Despite being from such different worlds, the attraction between Sadie and the artist was intoxicating.

Her ‘reputation’ shattered, Sadie was confronted by her violent fiancée and had to decide between the security of marriage and an uncertain future.

The Office Picnic

CRITICAL OVERVIEW:   I love the impressionist painters - how they went out to places and tried to catch light and life in the open air and real places. Orange Love Story is also 'drawn from life'.  It's my impression of  the place called Orange, composed of the real stories of the people in the movie.  I love the people in the film and I hope the audience does too.

I look for actions of spontaneous courage and humour.  My main quest is recording people; what is inimitable about that person at the moment of filming.  In reality the actor cannot be divorced from their background. And in the most basic terms, the tension between the actor and their background is the story.  We see this story in every picture we view.  The tension between the foreground person and their background can be caught in the framing, montage, sound and juxtapositions of the film and that's how I try to explore that story. This naturally results in revealing the social conditions of the place where we are filming. The best movies tell that story.

This means setting up the production in just such a way as to be able to capture the real. I use stories that come from the people (actors) and film in locations they belong to. It results in a feeling of connectedness in the movie and a quality of the real.

The attempt to artfully capture reality is imaginable through photography. My search for the 'real' reaches a crisis at the moment of capturing the image. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great still photographer, refers to this moment as 'the moment of truth'. His quest to capture that moment and his description of that quest inspires me.


We need to be in tune with the ebb and flow of energy and power from one person to another with the camera and I trained myself to read people's reactions, impulses and body language and could improvise the framing in tune with them. The more unguarded the protagonists, the easier it is to read and follow.  But, as a camera operator, I found it frustrating not to be able to get in tune with the actions of actors who are blocking their impulses (trying to get it right). 'To act impulsively while pursuing your real desire', requires courage and gracefulness. These are qualities worth filming. But actors often block their impulses when there is not enough time for them to analyze the scene or discover their true desires, or to get into a groove with the other actors.

Preparing actors through scene analysis and practice, as proposed by Nico Lathouris, is, in my experience, the best way to achieve those moments of truth with actors. When I am also technically well-prepared and committed enough, I will be filming at that moment.

In 2000, I worked on Survivor as a camera operator and re-visited that sort of filming. It was drama to the extent that Americans are always starring in their own movie and the Survivor format is dramatically structured for television. While it was interesting, Survivor manufactures a facile story.

I wanted to capture something deeper about our lives - to depict a story of people's true desires in relation to the people and conditions of where they live. 

I developed this approach over thirty years. But because it grows the movie directly as a movie, it does not fit into any of the funding categories of the AFC or the NSWFTO. This is one of the faults in their development process. Film culture and commerce needs these real developmental efforts, especially since our current development processes have reduced our films' audience share down to 1.3% currently from the total of around 18% twenty years ago. While the NSWFTO could not support Orange Love Story, they gave me a directing fellowship which was very helpful.

Tom Cowan, March 2005

See also page on Orange Love Story.


Promised Woman

Nimmo Street (1962, 11 mins, 16mm, drama)

The Dancing Class (1964, 12 mins, 16mm, doco)

Helen of Sydney (1966, 12 mins, 16mm, doco)

Australia Felix (1970, 28 mins, 16mm, doco)

The Story of a House (1971, 20 mins, 16mm, doco)

The Office Picnic (1972, 74 mins, 35mm, drama)

Aboriginal Family Education (1972, 12 mins, 16mm, doco)

Promised Woman (1974, 90 mins, 35mm, drama)

Chanda Maruta (Wild Wind, India) (1975, 95 mins, 16mm, drama)

Journey Among Women

Journey Among Women (1976, 84 mins, 35mm, drama)

Sweet Dreamers (1982, 82 mins, 16mm, drama)

The Time of Their Lives (1984, 48 mins, 16mm, doco)

Journey into Amazing Caves (1998, 48 mins, 70mm, doco)

China - The Panda Adventure (1999, 52 mins, 70mm, drama)
2nd unit director

Simone's Story (2001, 28 mins, video, doco)

Orange Love Story (2004, 83 mins, video, drama)

Life Class (2016, 92 mins, HD, drama)

Orange Love Story TRAILER (2004)

Sweet Dreamers


The Last New Wave - The Australian Film Revival, David Stratton - 1980, Angus and Robertson.

"Sweet Dreamers", review by Stephen Wallace, Filmnews, March 1982.

"Orange blossoms as a city with real character", Garry Maddox, Sydney Morning Herald, October 18, 2003

"Orange Love Story" review, David Stratton, At the Movies with Margaret and David, May 2, 2005.

© Tom Cowan, July 2017

Life Class - website

Tom Cowan Movies - blog

Contact Tom Cowan

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Melbourne independent filmmakers is compiled by Bill Mousoulis