The opening night audience at the Sydney Film Festival enthused over Black and White, a doco-drama about the trial of an Aborigine for rape and murder in the late 1950s. With films such as that, as well as the latest Ned Kelly film, the disdain for the history film has dissipated. Filmmakers not exhausted the ways in which presenting our history can help us to understand contemporary issues. How we represent ourselves on screen, the choice is not between the present and the past. Irrespective of the period, our filmmakers need to be more daring with both subjects and structures.

Dominating all local screen production is one fact. The funds available from the Film Finance Corporation in any year are less than the marketing budgets for a single Hollywood blockbuster.

With the latest Ned Kelly providing work, the disdain for the history film has dissipated. The high moral tone about putting nostalgia behind us is deflated by the candidness of the producers who admit that they cannot afford replicas of precincts. Rabbit Proof Fence got by because its outback setting required few historical sets.

The absence of big bucks leads our writers and directors to multiple reactions: despair, the arms of Rupert Murdoch, or the quirky. A few confirm the maxim that when you have no money you need to use your brains.

The films on race relations that Peter Sellars commissioned for this year’s Adelaide Festival were low budget. They proved that there is no one way of being relevant. Tracker is set a century ago; Beneath Clouds is contemporary and Australian Rules shifted an incident from thirty years ago up to the present. Yet, all three speak to current issues.

Another film from the Adelaide Festival, Walking on Water, is Lantana for grown-ups, opening with euthanasia before exploring how those surviving at the far edge of urban speed create rituals for grief in a secular society.

Were money no object in the making of films to feed Australian daydreams, who would refuse to work on screen versions of our nineteenth-century novels?

Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom was one of the 1970s period pieces, a genre which now embarrasses our cultured critics. Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony has never been filmed although it offers a tangle of social and psychological forces to leave most contemporary settings look shallow and thin.

Similar intricacies inform Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney, a superior predecessor to her For Love Alone, screened in 1986. And if you thought The Bank did a job on global financiers, you ain’t seen nothing until someone brings Stead’s House of All Nations to a multiplex near you.

To set a film in the past need never turn into formulaic writing or a costume parade. Rodney Hall’s 1990s trilogy, The Island in the Mind, explores the European discovery of this continent as a work of the imagination long before the navigators sighted our coastlines. Bringing so much inventiveness to our screens would challenge every convention of our film-making.

Even greater demands in realisation would be to make features set in Aboriginal Australia before any whites appeared. Few projects would engage more with contemporary concerns by puncturing New Age fantasies about their immanent spirituality and One Nation slurs about their innate stupidity.

The centenary of Federation did not bequeath us even one hour of screen drama. Because novelists have never fictionalised the Founding Fathers, script writers had nothing to lean on. At the level of high politics, a dramatised version of how British investors got our draft Constitution altered remains an opportunity to revel in intrigue. Here, the directors would do well to plagarise the venom and wit of Alfred Deakin’s insider memoir, The Federal Story.

Filming our past is now more a mine-field than a picnic-spot, requiring foolhardiness as much as cash. Imagine the cross-fire for anyone making The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith in 2002. Tom Keneally says he would not now write that novel. Those troubles beset Australian Rules, which is really a story about a white boy and his father. Rabbit Proof Fence was trailed by a hunt for an Aborigine to play the part of victim of the film’s success.

The slinging match between “the black-armband” brigade and the “three-cheers” squad warns film-makers away from re-imagining our past. Deniers of every crime pick on the minutest slip to damn any mention of class, race or gender as having been concocted by the politically correct.

Historical settings on screen are not a substitute for scholarly examinations of our past, or for schoolroom lessons. The pedagogue’s job is to make us say: “I’d never heard of that”. The work of the feature film is to catalyse debate through the community. Its achievement is to hear us say: “I’d never looked at it like that”.