Joel Archer – film historian, charity worker
It’s rare to be able to point to two life-altering moments; rarer still to have them both occur on exactly the same morning. According to Joel Archer, a Brisbane-based film lover with an upcoming showcase of rediscovered cinema at the city’s Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), this is exactly what happened to him.
From GOMA’s press release, you’d be forgiven for thinking him a bespectacled, wizened man well into his final decades. The four films he helped rediscover and preserve after actively searching “old theatres, sheds and houses across Queensland” are all silent pictures from a nearly forgotten era of filmmaking, the oldest dating back to 1913. The man I meet, however, is young, vociferous and definitely technicolour.
Joel Archer is built like a back-rower, with a warm smile and voice scratchy from – seemingly – being able to talk engagingly and enthusiastically nonstop. His love of films, he tells me over coffee, stemmed from his grandmother, whose consumption of classic American movies was voracious, and whose collection of film memorabilia included a striking portrait of the silent film actress and producer Mary Pickford, whose face immediately fascinated him.
“When I was growing up,” Joel says, “movies often took the back seat to life, but in my grandmother’s era, life always took a back seat to the movies.” This would be a theme Joel would return to.
Joel admits the films of his own youth (“brainless comedy and action movies”) had up until then been prescribed to him by peer pressure, but he never forgot that portrait. Slowly but surely, his tastes developed, and he found himself hooked not on the sugar-spike of modern Hollywood excess, but instead on the pleasure of being – as he puts it – “saturated in story”.
One school holidays, he diligently watched every Best Picture Oscar winner from 1980 to 2000, but soon his film interests began to wind back further. “As you get older,” he tells me, “I think you get a bit truer to yourself.” He recalls teenage suburban parties where “other people would be drinking and smoking, and I’d be the one in the corner with a book about Douglas Fairbanks.”
Joel’s retreat into the silver screen was mirrored, however, by a growing disaffection with the real world. “I was 19 years old, on and off the streets,” he says. “I got kicked out of home. I wasn’t a hard-luck story; I was a pretty bad kid. I had Asperger’s. I was very wild, and very difficult to raise. I was very selfish.”
Joel talks candidly and openly about the world he was entering: one of crime, drugs and violence. He began stealing, even from people he knew. “I remember going to bed one night absolutely deflated,” he tells me, “not knowing what was going to happen with my life. I remember waking up the next morning just numb to the world.” That next morning, Joel went to his car to find it occupied by a young boy he knew, sleeping, avoiding going home where his abusive father would be waiting. Joel was so struck by the image, he let the boy be, opting to take the bus. As was his wont, he struck up a conversation with an elderly woman waiting at the stop. “I would go up to older people,” Joel recounts. “I’d say, ‘I like old films. Have you seen Mrs Miniver?’ I was that brash.” This particular lady was eager to talk cinema, and told Joel she missed being able to watch the films of her youth.
These two encounters – with the boy and the elderly lady – were Joel’s dual life-changing moments, catalysts for a new direction. He began a dedicated effort to help two groups he knew from personal experience were too often disenfranchised: the homeless and the elderly.
Joel began to offer his services to retirement homes and senior centres, screening classic movies. From humble beginnings, his business, Golden Oldies, now holds screenings an estimated 250 times a year throughout Queensland. Joel tells me that the films are important, but not nearly as important as their “mechanism for memory”. After a recent screening of the 1944 musical Meet Me in St Louis, one gentleman in the crowd, when Joel asked what he thought of the movie, replied, “It was shit today and it was shit then, but you brought back a memory of my first date. That alone is worth a million bucks.”
The success of Joel’s business led to the foundation of his other passion: Hope Within Reach, a community outreach charity he set up with his wife, Brianna, which provides food, hope and connections for homeless and struggling people in greater Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. This balance, between his individual passion and a genuine desire to help others, seems foundational to Joel’s personal philosophy. “Community is key,” he tells me. “It keeps you very grounded. A lot of people in film don’t have that balance. I know film is a passion of mine, but I don’t want to be completely caught in it.”
There is a cycle to Joel’s life, one he is acutely aware of. When on the streets, he stole money to buy a projector so he could screen Charlie Chaplin movies in parks. “I never had to worry about the soundtrack,” he says of this particular choice. He’s since returned to these parks, and places like them, a different man. He screens movies, now officially, for the homeless. “When you go to a place where you’ve done so much wrong,” he says, “where you’ve done some of the worst things, and return to do good, it’s a surreal thing. It’s amazing what you can do when you change direction.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 4, 2017 as "New direction". Subscribe here.