Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 1, No. 1, 1987
Australian Film in the 1950s
Edited by Tom O'Regan

Nation Building:
The Post-War Documentary in Australia (1945-1953)

Albert Moran

This article is about a brief "moment" of the Australian documentary in government sponsored filmmaking from the mid 1940s to the early l950s.l It is about the conditions under which films were produced during this period the political environment, the backgrounds of the personnel involved, the raison d'tre for this film making and the debates over filmmaking practices within the producing organisation, the Film Division. It is also about the films themselves both in terms of their "nation building" themes and their stylistic preferences. Whilst the classic documentary style is the dominant style of documentary produced, other styles were adopted in a significant body of films. If the classic documentary style typically uses an off-screen, voice-over exposition of a problem and has the visual images acting as both illustration and an chor for the commentary, these other styles might utilise dramatic fictional codes or tend toward a lyrical and observational (rather than rhetorical) treatment of their subject matter. Some of the latter films were major productions up to an hour long. Indeed a good deal of the time and resources of the Film Division were given over to making these kinds of films.

In this moment of government filmmaking some of its most interesting documentary films were made while some of its most gifted directors - such as John Heyer and Ron Maslyn Williams - were working in it with a relatively free hand. Thus unlike most of the 1950s and the early 1960s there is considerably more heterogeneity and variety in the films of the 1940s and early 1950s.

The year 1945 is chosen as a beginning date because in that year the Federal Labour Government established the Australian National Film Board (ANFB) and set in train the events that were to lead to the Film Division being established and run on more adequate lines. At the other end of the period, 1953 is chosen as a finishing date as it marks the unchallenged supremacy of Stanley Hawes at the Division as well as the diminishing importance or departure of key figures in the preceding years. By the end of this period centralised control was being asserted and filmmakers were starting to lose the freedom they had had.

The article is in three parts. The first part deals with the institutional con text of the Film Division during these years. It notes the conditions under which the Australian National Film Board (ANFB) came into existence and was transformed over this period. It notes divisions within production staff which were drawn not only on political lines but also on aesthetic lines. The second part finds a general thematic at work in the films despite the different styles of documentary. This thematic centres around the notion of nation building. The third part deals with film style and its contexts. Here the concern is with the nature of the different kinds of film practices embraced at the time and the ways in which these were articulated by the film practitioners themselves.

Institutional Contexts

When the ANFB was established in 1945 by Cabinet minute, it marked the fullest commitment by the federal government to film up to this point in time. "Film" here, though, was conceived not as the entertainment feature film but rather as the informational film, designed to help produce a public informed on vital social political, administrative and other matters. The Film Division of the Department of Information was the film production arm of the ANFB. It was the instrument through which its film policy would become manifest.

Within a year both the ANFB and the Film Division were actively pursuing these goals. Ralph Foster, a Canadian distribution representative of the National Film Board of Canada (NFBC) accepted the job of Government Film Commissioner - the ANFB's chief executive. Stanley Hawes, who had been in charge of non-theatrical distribution of NFBC 16mm films, followed him in May 1946 to take on the position of Producer-in-Chief supervising film production and training film crews. Foster also employed about 25 men and women who were busy within a year making films, varying in length from 8 to 20 minutes. By late 1946 some eight films had been produced of which the most notable were Native Earth (1946) and Watch over Japan (1947). The first concerned Australia's trusteeship of Papua and New Guinea and the second de scribed the post-war occupation of Japan. When Foster left in ]ate 1946 to re turn to Canada, Hawes became de facto chief executive.

Under Hawes' leadership the Film Division made steady progress. By the end of 1953 it had produced over 150 films as well as some 72 issues in the Australian Diary series. Production rose from 2 films in 1945 to 30 in 1953. Staff numbers increased from around 20 in 1945/6 to 30 in 1953.

Comparison with the Canadian NFBC provides a sense of the limits of the ANFB and its unit in this period. The NFBC was set up in 1939 as an independent statutory body (unlike the ANFB) and was given its own production arm in 1942 during the war. Had events in Australia followed a similar path, then the ANFB and its unit would have had more autonomy and independence. With its autonomy guaranteed by an Act of Parliament the ANFB and the film unit would have been in a stronger position and perhaps more daring in this initial period.2So too the ANFB and the unit would have been in a stronger position vis-a-vis the bureaucracy if they had been set up in the early stages of the war in the wake of Grierson's visit.3 World War 2 undoubtedly did a great deal for the NFBC in giving it an immediate and urgent purpose in the dissemination of information. 4 By the contrast the ANFB and its unit were established only in the last months of the war when victory was in sight. Thus it lost its chance to make a similar impact. Certainly the newsreel series Australian Diary, begun in 1947, did obtain a certain visibility for the ANFB. But the ANFB and the unit would have been much stronger had they been established earlier.

At the end of 1946 the ANFB was reogarnised. This marked a crucial downturn for its aspirations. The Board now became merely advisory and the position of Film Commissioner was abandoned. The Board position representing film societies and therefore the public at large was abandoned. These changes meant that the ANFB and its film production arm had far less importance in the eyes of government.

Together with this reorganisation and redistribution of its power, the prospects of obtaining a new studio complex (in Canberra) receded. Until the end of 1947, the Film Division was inadequately housed in a series of rooms in an office block in down-town Sydney. In 1948 it moved into a converted building in suburban Sydney, a slight improvement but still temporary accommodation. This accommodation problem was not finally overcome until the early 1960s when it moved into its own buildings in the suburb of Lindfield.

Another setback to the ANFB and the film unit came from a fire in Melbourne in early 1946 that gutted the film laboratory of the Department of In formation in that city. This fire destroyed the first two films completed by the new unit, together with valuable laboratory equipment.

One rumour had sabotage as the fire's cause. Whether true or not, it was not the only instance of suspected sabotage. In I948, for example, splicing cement fell over one of the Film Mvision's films ruining it. Such happenings, whether accidents or not, took on the appearance of sabotage in the intense political atmosphere at the Film Division. The Cold War had begun and political differences exacerbated an already tense situation.

Within the Film Division a number of distinct factions bustled against each other. Their differences ran across religious, political, social and aesthetic grounds. There were two main factions out of which a number of smaller groupings were formed. One faction was animated by "the documentary approach - the other by the "newsreel" approach to filmmaking.

The latter group tended to be older, many having had a film industry apprenticeship in the 1930s at places such as Cinesound. They were mostly cameramen and editors who prided themselves on their ability to perform a clean, efficient job. At the same time they were largely uninterested in, if not hostile to, the aesthetic consideration of film. They were also uninterested in the larger social function of their films.

By contrast members of the "documentary approach" group were interested in the social and aesthetic side of the documentary. They were younger, generally leftist in their politics and were either non-religious or else Protestant. Although generally fairly new to film they often possessed an extended education or an artistic background, or both.

Factionalism was by no means confined to rivalry between the newsreel and documentary groupings. On the newsreel side there were further loyalties and groupings. Probably the most important of these was the conservative Irish working-class Catholicism of the "two Hughs". Hugh McInnes and Hugh Alexander. This differentiated them from several other technicians of a different religious persuasion. The documentary group itself was divided into distinct camps. One camp was interested in what Maslyn Willi subsequently called the "social political side of documentary". several depending on who one speaks to - belonged to this camp.5 Another, more loosely defined camp was interested in a more aesthetic, observational approach. This group included both Williams and John Heyer. Both occupied an ambiguous position in the documentary faction not only because of their aesthetic preference but also because of their involvement in the ANFB's establishment and eir percened political connection - Williams to Canberra (he had been a writer/director with the Department of Information during the war) and Heyer to important figures such as Alan Stout (initially on the ANFB Board). Williams was also an outsider because of his Catholicism (albeit of a somewhat roman dc, Jesuitical flavour). But he was by no means isolated. 6

Into this set of documentary groupings came Stanley Hawes who was already in his forties, a veteran of documentary in Britian and Canada, and schooled by John Grierson. Whilst Hawes' sympathy undoubtedly lay with the documentarists, he also differd from them in several important aesthetic social and epistemological respects. In addition, as the new Producer-in-Cheif, his job was to wield the Film Division into a cohesive body. he had to be seen to be above factionalism.

It is important to note that while this factionalism made for a good deal of tension, rivalry and animosity inside the Film Division it does not appear to have had a damaging impact on either the output of films or on the production of any particular film. The two factions were not on an equal footing. The newsreel group were primarily technicians while the documentary people were directors and production assistants. For the most part the situation was one in which the newsreel people were simply servants to the documentary people.

This dissension in the Film Division was further stained by the advent, even before the end of World War 2, of the Cold War. It became increasingly dangerous to be, or merely to be seen to be, on the political left. The suspicion of politicians and others that documentary filmmakers were pink seemed con firmed when John Grierson resigned in 1945 from his NFBC position under a political cloud because of his alleged involvement in communist espionage in that country.

In Australia political suspicion fell on the newly established Film Division in the wake of the production of the pro-nationalist, and-imperialist film Indonesia Calling (1946) by the communist and former Film Commissioner of the Dutch East India Film Unit, Joris Ivens. The film, made in Sydney in 1945/6, was produced despite the surveillance of police and against Dutch interests. It provoked questions in Federal Parliament causing the Minister responsible to assure parliament that the newly established ANFB and the Film Division had not been involved in the film. Formally this was true. But many individuals in the Film Division were involved (among them Ted Cranstone, Geoff Powell, John Heyer, Catherine Duncan). Indeed the Film Division gained some of its first staff from those who had resigned from the Dutch East Indian Film Unit along with Ivens. 7

In this intense political atmosphere, the federal security service were suspected of having a plant in the Film Division. Factionalism was also kept alive by members reporting innocent political activity of fellow members to the authorities - whether this was out of mischief or other reasons is not clear. There were also two sackings (although the two were later reinstated) and politics was suspected.

Politics and factionalism both inside and outside the Film Division undoubtedly contributed to many of the prominent documentarists' disillusionment with the Division's direction and production practices which led to their Aeparture in the wly 1950s. Certainly their individual reasons for departing were real enough. John Heyer left in 1948 to head the newly created Shell Film Unit in Australia and Bern Gandy joined him there a couple of years later, Catherine Duncan followed Joris Ivens to Europe; Geoff Collings went to UNESCO; Lionel Trainor to New York TV; Jules Feldman to pursue a career as a writer; and Lee Robinson to start a commercial feature film production partnership with the actor Chips Rafferty.

The documentarists of this period brought an intensity of social outlook as well as a capacity for variety in the making of documentary films that would all but disappear from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. In their brief "moment" at the unit they brought to it a variety of film traditions and practices. lndeed they were Australia's first film intellectuals. In doing so they constituted Australian government documentary as a lively, interesting, some times moving body of work far from monolithic in subject, outlook or style. Nor was their impact and influence confined to their own contributions.

In these years the output of the unit as a whole is more varied and interesting than it would be again until the late 1960s. This output is not entirely due to this group as the social and bureaucratic environment had much to do with what was possible.

Film Themes

Yet for all of the differences over politics and filmmaking practices the Film Division s films are unified around the common theme of "building the nation. This nationalism is different in ideology from later government films which tend to stress a more individualist, less group centred vision of "the lucky country". The theme of nation building was an optimistic vision of the nation and society that carried its own program of film subjects. These subjects were invariably treated in the spirit of optimistic reformism: it was assumed that the change for the better could be achieved. Work too was seen positively as every part in the vast system of the nation seemed busy building its strength through work.

This sense of nation building can be gleaned not only from the discources of the film but also from the writing - of prominent documentarista and the film criticism- of this period.

The Film Division's films were seen, like their British predecessors of the 1930s, as a means of promoting sympathy and understanding both at home and abroad Documentaries were constructed on the assumption of a universal humarlism: people everywhere were "just like ourselves" and inherently deserving of our interest. As Alan Stout, a great supporter of the documentary, put it in 1948: is always interesting to get behind the scenes of the other man's pb, to know what it is like to be a railwayman, or a fisherman... That has its own fascination .... It tells a coherent and revealing story, takes you to live with people whose lives and problems it portrays, and by revealing the common humanity of its real characters, compels your sympathy and understanding.8

Because it showed people sharing the same problems the documentary was an ideal vehicle for civic education. It was a means by which a set of social duties, an "active citizenship" could be built up. The documentary could not only help overcome regionalism and parochialism by moulding a civic and national viewpoint but it could also promote international knowledge and understanding:

Once you can bring home to the ordinary people in every country that they are facing fundamentally the same problems - housing, health,

A crucial way of showing this universal humanism was through images of work. Indeed workers and work are central to many films. For example a series of films were specifically concerned to outline the lives of workers: Cane Cutters (1948), The Lighthouse Keeper (1949), The Pearler (1949), The Timber Getters (1952) and The Steel Worker (1953). These images of work and workers are part of the staple of the classic documentary tradition particularly as it was practised in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s.l0 This representation of work often goes beyond the factual to embrace an heroic representation of labour. In another context Peter Morris has described this impulse as "Hail the hero worker".11 The heroism of this work is visually summarised in the last shots of The Cane Cutters - low angle shots of an anonymous cutter standing among the cane, a towering image agzunst the sky. A more elaborate summary can be found in a contemporary review of Hawes' School in the Mailbox (1947):

(the film's) Documentary priority lay in the human notes of the theme - the teachers, the kids.... The team saw the problem as a human one, set in the spacious Australian heartland. They saw that the mailman bringing the lessons along the dust track to a "kiddy" in some forsaken spot was fulfilling a social need - an Australian need... In that school the filmmakers saw something which went beyond the drab daily routine of correcting papers and sending out work to do. They saw something of the will that moved the system... But the core of this picture lay in the work of the outback mothers. One taught six children, kept house for the family, killed and cooked for them all. The children kept to the regular school hours on the verandah. Dad was ... mostly away. The mother was a cripple. Like many others of her heroic kind, she studied the lessons in advance by candlelight, so that she could teach them to her kiddies. With the older children, that called for intense effort on her part, but she never flagged.12

The work of teachers, children and mothers - like that of lighthouse keepers, cane cutters, bricklayers and post-office workers - is heroic partly because it is not ostentatious; it is sufficient reward unto itself. Each worker in his other her work contributes to the national effort, contributes to the building of the nation. As the voice-over narrator at the end of School in the Mailbox puts it:

Each year the rolls of the correspondence pupils grows longer, because parents know that education means more than reading, writing and arithmetic - it means the future of the children, their country and the world.

Another component of building the nation is nation is the identification of national problems to be tackled:

Housing, food, education, health, working conditions, standards of living, child welfare, community centres, town planning, traffic control - all of these problems and many others equally concern ordinary men and women all over the world.13

To which could be added some distinctly Australian problems such as "soil erosion, conservation of water (and) reafforestadon".

There are films dealing with all these topics.14 The vision animating the treatment of all these topics on film is optimistic, suggesting that these problems can be identified and overcome and that a better citizenry will bring about a better nation and world.

But the nation is more than a collection of individual citizens. It is unified into a whole by the coming together of its parts. Many films contain images and representations of this national unity at the local level. Unions and business come together for the betterment of the city and its people in The Story of a City (1947). The bush fire brigade in the film of the same name has men in different walks of life voluntarily coming together for the common purpose of fighting a fire and saving a community and a national resource - the bush. The Murray River is a giant unifying thread joining the states, people, communities in a variety of ways in The Valley is Ours (1948). The standard guage railway is seen to be the means to overcome the parochialism of the different states for the good of the nation in Journey of a Nation (1947). Jamboree (1949) translates this nationalism into an internationalism, finding in the 1949 world scout jamboree in Melbourne a microcosm of the union of nations.

Perhaps the most interesting representation of national unity is in Talk it Over (1949) a one-reel film about the need for discussion groups in the community, workplace and elsewhere. The active participation in a group is seen as more than just social intercourse. Rather it is democracy in action. The off screen voice-over narrator underscores this in his warning accompanied by a series of images of Hitler addressing a silent German rally in the 1930s, of drilling soldiers, and of concentration camps that "..if you're so uninterested to leave the talking to someone else, you may be sure that someone else will do the talking for you." Thus critical public opinion is seen to make for a more effective citizenship.

Representations of unity are inflected in a more pastoral direction in other films. In The Meeting Place (1948), set in Nuriootpa, a small town in the Barossa valley in South Australia, an image in miniature is produced of the idealised socialism that Australia might attain. The townspeople recognised the need for a number of public facilities such as a community centre, a library, a swimming pool and a playing field. Instead of waiting for government or business to do the providing, the community set about achieving these things. Through this community initiative "class differences fall away" and the people have "new interests, new fellowship". The Meeting Place ends with scenes of this organic community quietly enjoying the fruits of its labours at a music concert and a cricket game.

Its idealised image of country life pushes it towards a pastoralism and ru al populism that is a feature of several other films. In The Bushman goes Home (1948) the country and city are not only interconnected but the country supports the city. Similarly "the modern city dweller has retained some of the in dependence of the countryman" in his very being in Advance Australia (1951). The country is seen as a way of overcoming juvenile delinquency (a city problem) in Know Your Children (1951). The country is even seen in Hold the Hand (1949) as the origin of everything: "from our soil comes our food, our clothes, the elegance of city life.."

Several films construct the country as an Edenic garden. Take The Jacaranda Festival (1949) which depicts the summer festival held in Grafton northern NSW in larger-than-life terms. Shot in 16mm colour, the film culminates in the most traditional symbol of the country's bounty, the harvest, and is amply supported by images of lushness and abundance of food, people, music, dance and colour.

Music and dance are also images associated with the unified rural community in No Strangers Here (1950). This film shows a family of newly arrived Europeans settling in a small Australian country town which is rendered in idyllic terms. After some initial problems, the newcomers settle in. Their newfound fellowship with the town is celebrated in a picnic that includes European dancing. This vision of assimilation, community and indeed of country is, as a contemporary review suggests too idyllic, too pastoral:

Some spirited dancing by migrants in costume is all very well, but there is still a need for a producer to show us the drama of migrants assimilating into capital cities, striving for better housing condition, absorbing themselves into industry and above all meeting Australians half-way in the matter of social relations.15

Such idealised images open up a more general question about the range of subjects dealt with. In the political situation of the late 1940s and early 1950s (and it got more difficult in the mid to late 1950s) the Film Division avoided contentious subjects. Despite this self-censorship some interesting and difficult social subjects do creep into some films. At least three touch on the intolerance and hostility of Australians to non-English migrants (Mike and Stefani (1951), Double Trouble (1951), No Strangers Here); two address juvenile delinquency (Public Enemies (1948) and Know Your Children); one touches on the antagonism between labour and employers The Story of a City; and two refer to women in the workforce (This is the Life and School in the Mailbox).

This list is short and helps point to subjects generally missing from the Film Division's output: women (particularly in the workforce), Aboriginals, politics, trade unions, drug addiction and mental health. Although a couple of ethnographic films were made in these years - Tjurunga: The Story of Stone Age Man (1946) and Walkabout (1946) - these were picturesque films recording Aboriginals in non-contact situations. Images centring blacks in contact situations were rare: where present Aboriginals are usually part of a wider story (the exception here is Namatjira the Painter 1947). Where paid work is concerned the images are almost always of men not women; and only School in the Mailbox offers any images of women and housewife. The closest to a political film that the Division got was Talk it Over which although advocating democracy, is not partisan to any political party. Indeed Ivens' Indonesia Calling stands very much as a one-off production in this period. A partial exception proving the rule of a-politicism is to be found in the two and-communist shorls made at the Film Division in 1952: Menace and One Man's War. Both were produced by the acting head, Jack Allan, whilst Hawes was on an extended visit to Morocco. Both are politically propagandistic and reflect both the Korean War and the up-coming Communist (Party) referendum in which voters were asked to outlaw the Communist Party. A comparison with the Canadian NFBC output of this period points to the absence of films dealing with drug addiction, mental health, and trade unions in the Australian output. Given the intercourse between the two bodies in this period it can only be assumed that their Australian absence was a deliberate choice.

Film Style & Context

Despite the commonality of themes there are, as noted at the beginning, two clear and even opposed tendencies in the Film Division's films. On the one hand there is a tendency towards the classic style of documentary, on the other hand a tendency towards a more observational, aesthetic style of documentary. Broadly speaking, one tendency gave documentary a social purpose; the other gave documentary a more personal and aesthetic inflection. As Maslyn Williams put it in a recent interview:

There were two streams - one you might call the art form stream. This stream was culturally-oriented and I was a member of it. The other we called the social political stream which Hawes represented with his English training. They were all going to reform the world, make it better by showing how things worked, how a workman was part of the whole state machinery. All their films had a humanist, social orientation whereas ours were more concerned with people as in dividuals. This created a dichotomy, quite a deep one, within the organisation. A result of that was that many people left the organisation.16

These different tendencies also existed in both British and Canadian documentaries of this period. This fact neither points to inherent tendencies in the very fonn of the documentary itself nor to some intemational zeitgeist. Rather it points to the historical situation Film Division filmmakers were part of. They were working with, as well as in some instances against, different aesthetic tendencies in the documentary and in the cinema in general.17

The Classic Documentary

This tendency was initiated by John Grierson. As a documentary film the orist Grierson placed little emphasis upon film aesthetics but a good deal of emphasis on social questions. This characteristic underlies the fact that he sold the idea of supporting documentary film to governments in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia not on the basis of its being an art form but on the basis of its being a means to spread public information and mould public opinion. The classic documentary form was a suitable instrument to this end. Voice-over exposition provided both information as well as a point of view on its subject. This information tended to be general rather than particular. At the same time visual images acted as an anchor for such a general exposition, instantiating points made in the commentary, confirming their reality and existence.

What is the classic documentary? Cameron suggests that it is characterised by:

...the straightforward description of an incident or a process or a way of life ... which calls for a commentary and some music and effects which more or less fill in the spaces between the words ... these.. contribute little to the story told by the film ... This type of film is merely a reportage of fact. It is, if you like, an article in a newspaper, which no matter how well it may be written, is never a classic piece of literature. l8

We are helped to a sense of some of the typical choices and standpoints taken in this kind of film making by Hawes' own discussions of what a documentary should do (in this case a documentary about lighthouse keepers), his argument with Geoff Powell over the sound/image relation in From Orchard to Can (1950), his detailed criticisms of the use of actors in documentary and finally in relation to the construction of his film School in the Mailbox. Hawes argued in 1948 in a local film magazine that if a film was being made for example on lighthouse keepers a false impression would be given if it concentrated on one man and one lighthouse: "for all are different in one way or an other". His solution was that a number of lighthouses and lighthouse keepers needed to be shown in order "to give a picture of the whole scene". Only after doing that, after having "stated the general side of it, was it permissible to "come to the particular, to one man" and say: " is one lighthouse keeper, let us spend some time with him, and get to know him as a human being, see how he lives and works."19

For both Grierson and Hawes the film image was seen as a record of the eality of the world. The first task of the documentary filmmaker was to render that record a faithful one where sound and image should support and collaborate each other. Thus on Powell's film From Orchard to Can Hawes would not accept Powell's proposal to have sound effects of a train over an image of people in a car. As Powell put it:

Stanley felt you should have been listening to the car, a literal translation of that image, and not listening to the train. So his objection was that there was no picture of a train to go with its sound.

Whereas Powell was seeking to construct a narrative (fictional) space with the train and the car marking the boundaries of that space, Hawes insisted on seeking only the surface of things. This kind of literalism (what Heyer called "died-in-the-wool realism") was the necessary means whereby reality could come to register itself.

Allied to this literalism was a concern to protect the integrity of the distinction between the documentary and the feature film against contemporary moves to use both actors and dramatisation. Dramatisation and the use of actors would interfere with documentary's truth effects:

The public had come to regard pure documentary films as authentic records and their value would be lost if any extensive use of actors were to prevail.20

Hawes took this argument further. He noted that "by using actors you are deciding to represent reality, not to present h" This could entail a loss of authenticity because:

..An actor can only act within the limits of his experience - his own and the directors. If you put an actual cane cutter on the screen he may be difficult to handle but he will automatically do the things which a cane cutter does - hold his knife, wipe his face, drink from his water-bag, in the way a cane cutter does. The actor must learn his part well, for there is no instrument like the camera for detecting the difference between an unconscious and a conscious action, or for that matter between reality and not-quite-reality.

But this was not the only credibility problem that the use of actors created. Another was that the appearance of the same actor in a number of films could confuse the audience and irreparably damage the reputation of actuality films:

You make a film and use a little-known actor - as a coal-miner say and to be sure, he looks and acts just like a coal-miner - only more so, because he is an actor and his dialogue can be clearly heard - and your film is a great success.
He is so good that you use him in your next film - on gold mining, and some of the people who see this second film also saw the first and recognise him. There is some doubt in their minds as to whether he has changed his job or not, and when they see him as a Postman in the third film they begin to lose any belief in the authenticity of actuality films.2l

Hawes' views were by no means universally shared within the Film Division. Several members of the unit interviewed for this paper spoke about their interest in using drama and fiction and there are a number of films which are either fully or partially dramatised which we will turn to below.

School in the Mailbox, the film that Hawes directed shortly after joining the Film Division clearly stands as a social and aesthetic manifesto of this classic style. Certainly it stood that way to filmmakers at the unit. The film is elegantly organised into seven parts: a short prologue that outlines the educational problem of children in the outback, sections 2 to 6 outline how the correspondence school system deals with this problem. The last section comprises both a summary of the system and a concluding statement about its importance. The parts are stitched together by the shift of focus backwards and for wards between teachers and pupils. Sound also plays its part - the voice-over guides the viewer's interest and knowledge of the subject, speaking voices animate images and give a vivid sense of individual teachers and students. At the same time the film balances this tendency towards the individual by invoking the general at other points. For example a succession of illustrative images accompany both the recitation of the Dorothy McKellar poem, "My Country" and details of how the correspondence mail is delivered.

Why was the classic style the dominant style in this period? There were several reasons for this mode being adopted by the Film Division as its pre ferred style in this period (and indeed why it would persist until today).

Firstly, it was not new. The preferred style of government documentary in the 1930s was also along these lines. Thus, despite differences of emphasis and theme, there is little formal difference between the 1936 film Triumph of the Telegraph and the 1949 film Forward Communication.

Secondly, the presence in the Film Division of a group of filmmakers in the technical area drawn mostly from the commercial film production industry (particularly newsreel production) encouraged the classic style. As there was little formal difference between the newsreel and this kind of documentary, this group was able to adapt to the classic documentary.

Thirdly, Hawes' preference for the classical documentary undoubtedly had an effect on the Film Division's output given his position of Producer-in Chief. Stories about Hawes' aesthetic preferences while in charge are many: he liked only certain lenses, preferred the cut rather than the fade or dissolve, disliked shots that had elements of the mise-en-scene out of sharp focus, disliked the use of flares or reflections on the lens, and disliked the use of mobile framing particularly the dolly and the tracking shot.

Fourthly, the classic documentary style was supported by the pre-eminent position of the one-reel film. Australian commercial cinema managers were - willing to accept Film Division films provided they were no longer than a reel long (and 35mm in guage). For reasons of prestige and visibility, it was crucial for some films to achieve wide public circulation. At the same time Hawes saw the one reel film as offering young filmmakers a means of disciplining their talents and energies. This practice of cutting a two-reel film down to one worked against any observational or lyrical tendency being left in as such pas sages would carry little hard information so would tend to be omitted in the shorter version.

Fifthly, the classic style was supported by the technical difficulty of achieving a soundtrack of anything other than the voice-over commentary with accompanying music with the state of technology.

Docu-drama and the Lyrical Mode

The other tendency within documentary in the Film Division towards the aesthetic and dramatic was also part of a larger tendency in documentary film in the 1940s. Lovell and Hillier in their discussion of the British documentary in the 1930s have pointed to the seminal influence of Alberto Cavalcanti in that movement in terms of helping to orient it towards a more aesthetic interest in documentary and Harry Watt sees his The Saving of Bill Blewitt (1937) as helping to dramatise documentary.23 In the 1940s documentary practice generally berame even more supple, flexible and varied whether in the films of the Crown Film Unit in Britain (particularly those of Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister) or in the marriage of documentary and drama at Ealing Studios with San Demetrio London (Robert Hamer, 1943) and with its Australian location film, The Overlanders (Harry Watt, 1946). There is also a tendency towards both documentary drama and observational documentary in the output of the Canadian NFBC in the late 1940s and early l950s.

These were part of a general intellectual climate surrounding documentary film with particular connections to the Australian unit. Colin Dean worked at the Crown Film Unit in the late 1940s before rejoining the Australian unit. Williams was at the NFBC in the late 1940s.

Of particular importance was the Australian presence of Watt in 1945/6 and again in the late 1940s to make The Overlanders and Eureka Stockade (1949) for Ealing Studios. Watt not only provided employment - he had Heyer as his second-unit director on The Overlanders; but he also actively promoted the idea of wedding drama to the documentary form. He criticised the ANFP. for "still making the type of films that documentary people have been making for 10 or 15 years." He noted that the Crown Film Unit was "moving towards the theatrical and employing actors"24 and urged Australian documentarists to do likewise. Watt contended that as long as the director had the basic factual story "a director is entitled to use any dramatic trick ever invented".25

Moreover his film set an example to other filmmakers. The Overlanders told the story of an epic cattle trek across the continent in World War 2. The subject of the film tends to be the representative group of people which made the trek rather than Bob Hawke (Chips Rafferty) its main character. Indeed the film is de-dramatised, both because Bob Hawke's voice-over summarises events and explains the work involved in droving, and because at certain points it eschews Hollywood editing rules that might have heightened dramatic intensity. The not insignificant use of docu-drama (partially or fully dramatised films) in the Film Division could be seen to owe itself to this film. Like it they didn't quite conform to the norms of the Hollywood narrative. These films might "closely follow the pattern of the ordinary commercially produced feature film ... yet have their own peculiarities and individuality."26

However various distinctions can be made between the narrative films made by the Film Division. There are different balances between exposition and narrative, between voice-over and dialogue of on-screen figures, between the individualising and the generalising of images, between character and situations in them. There are at least three examples of the fully-dramatised narrative film, The Flying Doctor (1948), Capacity Smith (1951), and with qualifications Stephen Banner, Supervisor (1953). Alongside these films is a larger body of films which tell stories but do so only to the extent that it furthers their expository purpose. These, more hybrid mixtures of drama and exposition, use voice-over commentary more systematically than do the fully dramatised films.

Both Capacity Smith and Stephen Banner were made for the Department of Agriculture and the Public Service respectively. Both have the individualised character of their title at the centre of dramatic events. In the first, farmer Smith learns about the new farm methods from his son who has attended agricultural college. In the second, Banner learns how to run an efficient office at a training course of supervisors. Much of the action of both films was filmed on sets using professional actors in the main roles. Despite their didactic purpose the teaching is integrated into the drama. This is clearly seen in Stephen Banner when general points about the task of a supervisor are being made. At these points the film comes back to the senior of ficer running the course speaking to his audience which includes Banner. Although both operate within clear fictional frameworks, they are careful never to lose sight of their didactic purpose: various characters momentarily take on the rob equivalent to that of voice-over commentary. Where this occurs the exposition is not, as in the classic docu mentary, directly addressed to the viewer, but is rather addressed to an on-screen character. In addition these shifts into on-screen exposition are brief and the films are quick to recover their drama.

Among the films that use a mixture of exposition and narrative, we can distinguish a group whose technique is to generalise from the particular situation.27 The particular instance can be a set of incidents which become a story as in Bush Policeman (1953) where a typical Northern Territory policeman, In spector Littlejohn "thought nothing of ... bringing in two native murderers, their wives and witnesses." By using such an example, an impersonal off screen voice-over can commentate on the typicality of the images, and situations and in doing so develop an expository commentary as well as outlining what story there is to tell. The voice-over narrator in some other films is even more remarkable. Outback Patrol (1952 directed by Lee Robinson) is narrated from the on-screen policeman's point of view, using the voice of actor, Chips Rafferty. The fact that the exposition here is given to a policeman is in no way exceptional. The position of commentator is after all a privileged one vis-a-vis other on-screen figures. Thus where commentators become visible on-screen, they always hold positions of some power - and this legitimates their authority. Authority figures in this group of films include teachers, lecturers, public officials, policemen, and newspaper editors.

Of these authority figures, perhaps the most authoritarian are the postman in Public Enemies and the social worker in Know Your Children. Both films deal with juvenile delinquency and produce radically different views of children from those contained in more socially optimistic films (where they are seen as symbols of the nation's future). Here children are constituted as potential deviants and parents are counselled to undertake roles of surveillance and policing. Public Enemies covers a series of incidents of vandalism culminating in a deliberate fire in a post-box. The postman's voice-over claims that vandalism often has tragic results, then he reappears and the vandals run off. There is a close up of the postman's face whereupon the film cuts to one of the boys being struck down by a car. In Know Your Chldren the narrator, a truant officer, Mr Husde, encounters three cases of young people in trouble. The last of these involves a teenage girl. He visits her parents while she is out at a dance with a girlfriend, and later sitting in a dark park with two young men. Mysteriously omniscient, he tells her unsuspecting parents of her whereabouts, counselling that "you won't always be able to catch her before she does something really wrong."

Of this body of wholly or partially dramatised films Mike and Stefani is the most accomplished. This film, telling of the wartime and post-war displaced people of Europe and in particular of the Ukranian couple, Mike (Mycola) and Stefani, was shot by Williams and photographer Reg Pearce in Europe in 1949/1950. Williams had journeyed there to make a film about the work of the International Refugee Organisation. At one camp at Leipheim in Germany, he met Mike and Stefani who were about to be interviewed by an Australian immigration officer for permission to emigrate to Australia. Williams filmed their interview and, while they waited to hear whether they had been accepted, he reconstructed the details of their life from the late 1930s, often using thousands of other refugees as extras in crowd scenes. Williams had few resources - in fact only what he and Pearce could carry between them: a 35mm camera, a half-dozen or so lights and a wire recorder.

Andrew Pike has aptly described the film as neo-realist. It is loose and episodic in structure without the tight cause and effect chain of Hollywood narrative. Its ending, like that of De Sica's Bicycle Theives, is open ended. Mike and Stefani are on their way to Australia but have been warned that, because of the shortage of housing, they may have to separate again. Stefani's brother Lazlo has not come with them. The sympathetic camp director, Valerie Paling, has been left behind. The narrative chain of the film is also looser be cause the characters are caught up in large public events beyond their control. Thus they are unexpectedly separated. Mike's return is surprising and is given little explanation. The refugee camps are closed with little warning. Like the Italian films of Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti, the causes of character's actions are economic and political, most especially to do with World War 2 and its aftermath.

The film also has much of the mise-en-scene and iconography of neo-realism. The characters depicted are ordinary people. Much of the film was shot on location and it depicts contemporary events. Its images also have a raw rough feeling to them. The black and white photography here seeks neither the chiaroscuro beauty of film noir nor the elegant pictorialism sought by other Film Division directors. The film was mostly shot in available lighting. Apart from a close-up of Mike's face, against a black background, when he becomes a German prisoner, the film avoids the three-point lighting system of Hollywood.

Just as de Sica chose a real factory hand to play the central character in Bicycle Thieves, so Mike and Stefani uses real people: Mike, Stefani, her brother Lazlo, Valerie Paling and the Australian official.

Finally we should mention the use of voice-over narration by an omniscient unidentified commentator who constantly works to link the story of Mike and Stefani into the larger area of events:

Peace came back to Europe/ peace came back / and the cracked monu ments stand like gravestones over a dead dream of conquest ... those who neither won nor lost ... eight million people and among them Mike and Stefani and their baby.

This voice, like the titles at the head of different segments of the film, can be paralleled with Rossellini's use of titles in Paisa. These practices tend to de dramatise the story of the central characters and point towards the more general historical events of which Mike and Stefani's story is a part.

But if Mike and Stefani can be linked to neo-realism it can also be seen to anticipate the 1960s and 1970s cinema verite movement in documentary. This is particularly so in the interview sequence where Mike and Stefani are questioned by an Australian official in the long climactic segment of the film. This was filmed and sound recorded as it happened. Certainly Australian government officials saw the segment with its fight, somewhat relentless questioning by the formal, unsmiling Australian official as unfavourable and the film was not given a wide distribution.

Mike and Stefani has a contemplative, observational and certainly spare quality to it. Certainly it is less exhortatory and didactic than other Film Division films (apparently more suitable to officialdom). In being like this the film shares a set of features in common with the more aesthetic side of the Film Division's output. It is to these films we will now turn.

In the Canadian context Peter Morris has found a "native style" at work in some NFBC films of this period. The films which exhibit this style are:

... less concerned with immediate social issues, they tend towards the observation of daily life on the exploration of the impact of our natural environment on Canadian culture and sensibility ... (they) are best characterised by reference to Narthrop Frye's "pastoral myth" with its "nostalgia for a world of peace and protection with a spontaneous response to the nature around it.28

Without wishing to wrest this style from its Canadian heritage we can notice a number of Australian films which conform to this description. Among examples of the style in the late 1940s and early 1950s are Maslyn Williams' Gold Town (1949) and Music Camp (1949) and Lionel Trainor and Geoff Powell's The Lighthouse Keeper (1949).

The fact that two of these films had uneasy gestations suggests that there were pressures against such a style operating at the unit in these years. The Lighthouse Keeper was intended as a longer film (it was halved in length). The finished film is an uneasy compromise between a documentary in a more lyrical, observational mode on the one hand and one which tends towards giving "a picture of the whole scene" on the other. Although the voice-over reels off information about lighthouses around Australia, the film is mostly preoccupied with one lighthouse keeper and his family on a lonely island south of Tasmania. Indeed the film's centre seems to lie in the witnessing of the awesomeness of nature and the precariousness of life in the face of it. The other film, Gold Town, is also a short film. As originally shot by Williams the film laid more stress on the human cost of gold mining. Despite the usual mise-en-scene of machines and heroic workmen with a suitably rhetorical commentary there is Still traces of this interest. The camera lingers enough on images of giant mullock heaps, deserted mining towns, the tombstone of a young man, and a life-size statue of Paddy Hannan to turn it at times into a meditation on the vanity of human wishes.

Music Camp is more successful in maintaining this lyrical, observation al style throughout. The camp in question is an annual sea-side camp on Port Phillip Bay run by the Youth Training Program in conjunction with the Victorian Conservatorium of Music. However this information is given only incidentally. What little there is in the way of commentary deliberately tends to elide detail: "By the swing of the sea / In the summer of the year/ We came to make music". Music takes the place of commentary: it serves as the film's principal means of progressing from one segment to the next through its a1ternating use as diegetic and non-diegetic sound.

Clearly on the basis of Mike and Stefani, Music Camp, Gold Town and others (including his later films This is the ABC 1955 and New Guinea Patrol 1958) there is good reason to single Williams out as a filmmaker of stature.29

Another figure who needs individual mention here is John Heyer. He was a senior producer like Williams and was already something of a veteran filmmaker by then. Heyer had a distinguished output of films in this period which could be seen to be within a "native" style.30 With the exception of two films his films have a number of common features that give one a sense of a distinctive Heyer signature.31

On the one hand there is a populism and a full commitment to the values of post-war reconstruction in Journey of a Nation, The Cane Cutters and The Valley is Ours and on the other, there is a marked pictorialism in the image. Images are cut together into dynamic montage sequences, the rhythms of the soundtrack controlling and orchestrating the rhythm of the cutting.

If anything detracts from Heyer's achievement in these films, it is his commentary. In Pare Lorentz' The River (1936) Heyer found justification for his litanies of places, things and actions. Today, however, many of these commentaries seem bombastic, none more so than that of Journey of a Nation (the script was written by Catherine Duncan).

Hopeless bottlenecks
with only one solution
Standardise, Standardise
Draw the blueprints
Put the plans into action
From Perth to Darwin on a standard guage
Map the deserts, span the rivers, fill the
swamps, tunnel the mountains
Break the barriers between the states...
And standardise

The Valley is Ours however makes amends for these verbal excesses. This longer film allows Heyer to cover his topic - the Murray River, its problems and their different solutions - more leisurely. In particular there are a long series of beautifully composed shots either static or, more characteristically, travelling: the ripples of water in a mountain pool; large chunks of snow into the river and starting to float downstream; white foam of water at the Hume Dam; children marching in lines in two opposite directions in a paddock; fishermen in very long shot on the beach at Goolwa in South Australia, dominated by a bright sky above; a spade opening up an irrigation row to a stream of water. Nor is the film just a collection of such striking images or, as a contemporary review mistakenly believed, a kind of travelogue about the valley.32 Rather these images are pressed into an argument about the Murray valley which follows the same structure used by Lorentz in The River. An outline is given: of the geography and history of the river; of the different industries the river supports; of the various problems that beset the river; of the solutions adopted and the new developments attracted into the valley as a result. In a short epilogue, a chorus of voices exhort each other to fulfil the valley's potential - "The valley needs our labour ... the valley is ours" Despite this chorus and the film's general social utilitarianism it shows Heyer;s capacity for a more lyrical style of documentary which comes into its own in his film for Shell, The Back of Beyond (1954).

How are we to explain the presence of these films in the Film Division's output? The influence of conditions inside the Film Division in this period as well as a fluid sense of what constituted documentary was at the heart of this other tendency.

Firstly, it is important to note that the senior producers at the unit - Jack Allan, Williams, Heyer, and Geoff Collings - were all appointed by Foster prior to Hawes's arrival. Inheriting this group, Hawes seems to have been con tent to allow them a degree of autonomy and latitude. For instance Allan was given control of a small unit of his own in 1947 to make the Australian Diary series; Williams was away in Europe for a year making Mike and Stefani- and Heyer, according to Bern Gandy, "had a fairly free hand at the unit and was able to get away with a lot that others would not have been able to."

Secondly, the system of the filmmaker as generalist gave filmmakers the scope to adopt a variety of approaches. This was the system whereby the filmmaker researched the subject, wrote the script, directed the actual shooting, arranged the soundtrack and oversaw post-production. Hawes was undoubtedly reacting against this in trying to tighten up films, particularly those of the younger filmmakers.

Thirdly, when Hawes first joined the film unit, he was on loan from the NFBC and it was intended that he should return there in 1948. But in 1948 he extended his stay by another year and finally in 1949-he became the permanent rather than temporary, Producer-in-Chief. Once the position became a career one, Hawes began to exert more control over the Film Division than he had up to that time. Hawes may well have been encouraged to do so because of the external political pressures on the Unit. The new Menzies government elected in late 1949 was under pressure from the commercial film trade to disband the unit and the "red scare" made for a degree of sensitivity in its choice of subject matter that encouraged a more interventionist Producer-in Chief.


This moment of the Australian documentary from the mid to late 1940s to the early 1950s was a brief one. In the Unit centralised control was being as serted and filmmakers were losing a good deal of the freedom that they had had. The Cold War and a conservative coalition meant that political and stylistic orthodoxy became the order of the day. The long, frightened fifties was beginning.


  1. For helping to put this manuscript into its current form I would like to express my thanks to Rita Shanahan and especially Tom O'Regan.

  2. But just how much is a moot point. After all, the statutory nature of the NFBC failed to protect Grierson when, in 1945, he fell under a political cloud and was forced to resign as Government Film Commissioner. It also failed to save the NFBC from Moundes and security force investigation in 1949 in the wake of a "red scare".

  3. Grierson came to Australia in 1940 on behalf of the Imperial Relations Trust. He was charged with fostering the idea of Britain and its Empire and saw documentary films as a means of achieving these ends.

  4. Its newsreel series, Canada Carries On and The World in Action, won a great deal of visibility for the NFBC among both the Canadian public and Ottawa politicians.

  5. Among them were: Geoff Collings, Catherine Duncan, Geoff Powell, Frank Bag nall, Ted Cranstone and others.

  6. He was particularly close to Shan Balson, friendly with Colin Dean, and probably a patron of Lionel Trainor.

  7. Catherine Duncan, Leo Elia and Jules Feldman.

  8. A.K.Stout, The Film in Educanon, unpublished MS 1948. Papers of AK.Stout, National Library Canberra.

  9. Stout, p.l6.

  10. It should be noted that Grierson's first film Drifters (1928) was about fishermen.

  11. See Peter Morris, "The Ideology of John Grierson" in Tom O'Regan & Brian Shoesmith eds History on/and/in Film (Perth: History and Film Association of Australia (WA), 1987).

  12. Anonymous, "School in the Mailbox ", Monthly Film Guide Dec.1949 reprinted in Tom O'Regan & Albert Moran eds. An Australian Film Reader (Sydney: Culrancy Press, 1985), p.85-6.

  13. Kevin Smith "Power of the Documentary, Part 1", Monthly Film Guide, March 1949, v.l, no.6, p.l95.

  14. For films on soil erosion, irrigation, water conservation and reafforestation see Farming for the Future (1948), Devestation (1951), Hold the Land (1949), The Valley is Ours (1948), Australia's Greatest River (1951), Bush Fire Brigade (1949) and The Timber Getters (1952); for films on housing, food, education, health, working conditions, standards of living, child welfare, community centres, immigration, city plarming and load safety see Builing a Brick Home (1946), A Loaf of Bread (1949), A Pint of Milk (1949), Australia at School (1947), The Universities of Australia (1951), The Flying Doctor (1948), They Found their Place (1948), Men Wanted (1947), No Strangers Here (1950), Christmass Under the Sun (1947), Thc New Ipswich (1947), Know your Children (1951), The Meeting Place (1948), Mike and Stefani (1951), Double Trouble (1951), Plan for Living (1949), J.A.Y. Walker (1948) and I Know What I'm Doing (1948).

  15. Review "No Strangers Here", Monthly Film Guide Aug/Sept 1950, p.7.

  16. Andrew Willoughby, "lnterview with Maslyn Williams", Bowral, August 1983.

  17. European art cinema and Soviet cinema provided another filmaking context which unit directors defined their work in relation to. For instlmce Hawes referred to the work of Pabst in his writings of the period and Williams mentioned Eisenstein and his cinanatographer in an interview.

  18. Cameron, p.5.

  19. Stanley Hawes "Documentary", Contemporary Photography (Sydney), v.2, no.l (Nov/Dec 1948) pp.61 & 84.

  20. Anon, 'Integrity First Duty of the Documentary Says Stanley Hawes" Film,(Nov./Dec 1948), p. 6.

  21. Stanley Hawes "Documentary", Contemporary Photography, v.2, no.l (Nov./Dec.1948). p.6.

  22. Some of these difficulties can be grasped by Geoff Powell's discussion of the sound procedures involved in mixing From Orchard to Can: "Here I was pioneering sound-on-fihn, using 16mm and a wire recorder. It got synch later by transferring the sound to 35mm film sound (not tape - we didn't have tape recorders), and enbrging the 16mm colour image to a 35mm negative. I then edited the 35mm negative so that I could use the wild sound from the wire recorder and then I cut back to have the 16mm colour film in synch with the voices or the soundtrack."(Albert Moran "lnterview with Geoff Powell", Beaudesat, May 1983).

  23. Halry Watt, Don't look at the Camera (London: Elelk, 1976).

  24. Anon "Harry Watt Dramatises Documentary", Film (Sydney, Jan. 1947), p4.

  25. Anon "Harry Watt Address to Members", Film, August 1948, p.6.

  26. Cameron, p.5. Films of this type include: Men Wanted, Know your Children, The Flying Doctor (1948), Bush Fire Brigade, Double Trouble, Outback Patrol (1952),Bush Policeman(1953), In a Manner of Speaking, A Matter of Manners, Capacity Smith, The Selection Interview, Stephen Banner, Supervisor, The Crocodile Hunters, No Strangers Here and Mike and Stefani.

  27. Films such as The Crocodile Hunters, Bush Policeman, Bush Fire Brigade, Men Wanted, and Mike and Stefani fal1 into this category.

  28. Peter MoIris, "After Grierson: The National Film Board, 1945-1953", Journal of Canadian Studies, v.6, no.l (Spring 1981), p.4.

  29. Williams is remembered as such by various of his contemporanes at the film uniL As Shan Benson recalls his work as a producer: "If you said: 'Do you think we should cut it this way or that?'... He'd say: 'Take the fifth sequence, cut it in half, make it the second, then your film will work'. And he was usually right. Williams was brilliant at that kind of thing." (Andrew Willoughby, 'lnterview with Shan Benson", Sydney, June 1983)

  30. Native Earth (1946): his trilogy of 16mm films for the Department of Agriculture - Men and Mobs (1947), Born in the Sun (1948), and Turn the soil(1948), shorter one-reel films Journey of a Nation (1947) and The Cane Cutters (1948) and his magmficent valediction to the unit The Valley is Ours (1948).

  31. These two films are The Cane Cutters and Native Earth.

  32. This review said that its "treatment on the whole is jerky and unbalanced. The opening part gets nowhere - you reach the river mouth half-way through only to be dragged upstream again". Anon. "Review: The Valley is Ours", Monthly Film Guide (June 1950), p.26.

  33. For an account of this period in documentary production see Albert Moran "Documentary Consensus" in History on/and/in Film.

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