Albert Moran. 'Documentary Consensus: The Commonwealth Film Unit: 1954-1964'. In T. O'Regan & B. Shoesmith eds. History on/and/in Film. Perth: History & Film Association of Australia, 1987. 90-100.
The faults of Australian documentaries are legion. After seeing a few dozen, one begins to suspect that all the scriptwriters were trained in radio, that the cameramen have not grasped the idea of movement and excitement in their subject, and that the editors have had no say in the photography and shooting-script of the films (if there has been a shooting-script) ...Shots of cranes hauling bales up into a ship is excuse enough for a long tally of statistics about Australian exports, or for a fruity-voiced homily on the virtues and advantages of team work in industry. Often the words could be run on with any of a score of other shots in the film; there is no immediacy or relevance about them at all... The cameramen linger on the obvious humdrum aspects of their subject.(1)
This article is about the Commonwealth Film Unit (CFU) in the period 1954-1964.(2) Up until the early 1950s, there was a good deal of variety in the films the Unit produced. Besides documentary films in the classical style, there were other types of documentary films made - lyrical/poetic and dramatic, which interweave sound and image in unexpected ways. However, in the 1950s and early 1960s, this variety disappeared in favour of the classic documentary style with the great majority of the films falling into this mode.
This article is concerned with discerning and accounting for the kind of documentary style practiced at the Unit at this time. I have labelled this the period of documentary consensus. Not only was there consensus about the kind of filmmaking undertaken during this period - the classical documentary style - but there was also consensus at a political level.
Below I will address the achievements of the Unit over this period, some of the problems against which this style emerged, the predominant themes in the films themselves, and the progressive erosion of the style over the latter part of the 1950s and early 1960s. The classical style became dominant in this period because it could accommodate a set of needs which another style could not. It was partly an accommodation between bureaucratic needs and routines, organisational control, aesthetic preference, occupational background and political context.
Although 1954 and 1964 are somewhat arbitrary years to take, I have chosen them as much for the appearance of two benchmark films as for any other reason. At one end was The Queen in Australia (1954). This was the Unit's largest and most expensive undertaking to that point in time. A documentary in the classical style, it was the Unit's first 35mm film in colour. It was given wide theatrical release as a main feature and it won a good deal of prestige and goodwill for the Unit at a time when it sorely needed it. At the other end of the decade is the 1964 experimental film From the Tropics to the Snow.(3) This year was marked by the goings and comings of different personnel at the Unit.
The period framed by these two films was dominated by the orthodox classic style to such an overwhelming extent that it has been common to see it not only as a boring period for filmmaking, but also as the lowest ebb of post war government production. As Judy Adamson puts it:
The films of the late 1950s and very early 1960s are generally admitted to have been the lowest point of post-war government film production. They were part of a bad general situation.(4)
What was this bad situation? To understand it we need to both understand some of the background to the Unit itself and to discuss the filmmaking in more detail. Founded as the Film Division of the Australian National Film Board in 1945, the Unit was conceived in a spirit of post-war reconstruction for the ideological tasks of spreading public information to produce a more informed citizenship, and to bring the Australian nation together. To that latter end, a national information production program was set up to ensure films were produced in the national interest. In the dawn of the post-war period, the Unit seemed to have a promising future, not so much as a film production body, but rather as a vital part of a national information program.
The late 1940s and early 1950s were to see these hopes eroded. In 1946 the first film Commissioner of the Board left and was never replaced. In 1947 the Board itself was reorganised, effectively bringing it under more complete public service control and also signalling its decreasing importance in the eyes of the minister responsible for its administration - the Minister of Information. In 1949 the relative position of the Unit was further downgraded when a conservative Federal Government was elected. Within months of coming to office, the government abolished the Department of Information. The Film Unit thus began the 1950s with a question mark over its future. The most serious of the problems facing the Unit were the threats made against it by both the commercial film trade and by politicians. These led to three different investigations of the Unit in 1951, 1956 and 1959.
The circumstances and nature of these investigations are somewhat sketchy and need to be researched through government achives. The last investigation, the Kennedy investigation, actually recommended that the Unit be closed down and its work farmed out to the trade.(5) Collectively these investigations added up to making the Unit feel it was under constant attack. The investigations seem to have had a number of reasons behind them: overall attempts to reorganise the public service, trade jealousy and the suspicions of conservative politicians towards a body set up under the aegis of the war-time Labor Minister for Information, Arthur Calwell. All in all these attacks were to weigh heavily on the CFU in the 1950s. As Stanley Hawes was to recall later: "You hardly knew when you came in on Monday morning if the Unit was still in existence".
But despite the uncertainty this period actually saw the Unit grow and its film output increase. Paradoxically, by 1954 the Film Division (CFU), as part of the Australian News and Information Bureau of the Department of the Interior, had become a fixture in the Australian film landscape. By then it had made over 200 films varying in length from 10 minutes to over an hour. So too the Unit was firmly ensconced at Conder Street in the inner western Sydney suburb of Burwood. This location gave the Unit both a cohesion and a sense of identity. It was not the John Curtin Memorial Film Studio in Canberra that was envisaged in 1945/6, but, by then, those more grandiose plans had been all but forgotten.
Indeed the period 1954 to 1964, saw a big increase in the Unit's output. Approximately 400 films were produced in this time; rising from an annual rate of 23 films in 1954 to 49 in 1963. The staff almost doubled in size, increasing from 31 in 1954 to 49 in 1964. There was also a commensurate increase in producers from 4 in 1954, to 6 in 1964. This growth in the Unit provided the impetus for the shift to larger premises at Lindfield in 1961. It also reflected an increased workload. Much of this increased workload was taken up with making departmental films for an expanding public service.
As public service staff sizes, budgets and programs increased the volume of requests to the Unit for departmental films grew. The most important consequence of this is that it forced the Unit to scale down its national program in order to meet its increased commitment under the departmental program. This shift, when coupled with an extensive film program, resulted in a routinised film making quite unlike that of the 1940s. As Neil Beggs, writing in 1960 put it:
This Unit in the forties, gave promise of a new school of documentary.... (Today) Workers in the Commonwealth Film Unit will be the first to admit (privately) that the heart seems to have gone out of their work.... When one investigates further, this is not difficult to explain. The root of the trouble, the cause of the decline in the artistic standards of the Unit... is the overload which has been put on the Unit in recent years. Not only are the half-dozen directors required to make films to a tight schedule, they are also detailed to work in fields of study in which they have no interest and no past knowledge. On top of this, these directors may be involved together in thirty films at a time at various stages of production; this was the case in one month last year. The burden has been added, it seems, as production techniques have been progressively routinised.... now the completed products roll out with that spray-painted look of the assembly line. The smug polish of the after-dinner speech replaces the careful compilation of the significant details of some well-known field, which alone gives poetic revelation to documentary. In material terms, the cause is lack of finance. However, behind this lies the blindness of authority to the wider significance of the work of its hired hands, who have been deprived of their chance to function as artists.(6)
Under these circumstances the agenda of the organisation was now very much at odds with 1940s experimentation.
Indeed as early as 1954 the young "documentary" people of the 1940s who had been responsible for much of its innovative work (John Heyer, Geoff Collings, Bern Gandy, Catherine Duncan, Lee Robinson, Geoff Powell and others) had long since gone. This left only a few (Maslyn Williams, Shan Benson and Colin Dean) to pursue the social and aesthetic possibilities of the documentary idea. But these were a small group without alot of influence. Indeed this group became even less significant as the 1950s wore on when Williams moved into the New Guinea program in 1955, Dean joined ABC TV about the same time, and Benson joined ABC radio a few years later. Even though some of a like mind - such as Richard Mason, John Morris and Ian Dunlop - came into the Unit in these years, they were still junior and were not in positions of power until the mid to late 1960s. So during most of this period there is almost no element in the organisation that is interested in exploring and extending the aesthetic possibilities of the documentary film even if circumstances had allowed it. Thus the tone of the organisation was very much set by the "old guard" of producers and other Unit personnel.
This situation encouraged an aesthetic conservativism around documentary. The "documentary" people of the 1940s were both politically and aesthetically more progressive than their counterparts at the Unit who had come from the commercial film trade. Their departure left most of the high ground to the more socially and aesthetically conservative old guard. For a tangled set of reasons to be gone into later the Unit's head Stanley Hawes could, despite his background in English documentary film of the 1930s, reach an aesthetic accommodation with this group in the classic documentary style.
Further helping to confirm this view of an ossifying film unit comfortably going on its merry way is the fact that during this period not only senior personnel but personnel at all levels in the organization were ageing. By 1960, for example, Stanley Hawes, Reg Edwards, Eric Thompson, Jack Allen, Maslyn Williams were respectively 55, 60, 61, and 40 years of age. If personnel were ageing, there was also very little turnover of personnel. This had a number of effects. First it made it difficult to retain younger creative people; second it meant that there was little opportunity for advancement in the organisation, and third it helped consolidate the classical documentary style. As early as 1953, Hugh Alexander left the Unit because, as he put it: "None of those producers were going to leave until they had to, so I left to get more money - it was the only way." It became common to find people who had joined in 1955 still doing the same job in 1965. Thus Alan Anderson, who would have preferred to direct and produce, was left in sound.
All of these things made for a certain ambience at the Unit. This was particularly so at Burwood. Indeed, the shift to Lindfield in 1961 represented an important psychological step for the Unit. There are at least two ways of characterising the tone of the organisation in this period (depending on one's position). For the older Ted Cranstone who had been with the Unit since the mid 1940s the tone and milieu at Burwood was a very comfortable one in contrast to Lindfield:
Burwood was the happiest association that I ever had. When they built Lindfield, I went out, walked in and saw this long passage with rooms off it. I asked. Told "producers rooms". There were more producers than there were photographers. I suddenly felt that this was the end of the old Burwood where everybody was madly enthusiastic. At Lindfield a coldness set in accompanied by alot of red tape.
However, for a younger man, Jim McCarthy, who had joined as a production assistant in the late 1950s, the Unit at Burwood was a very different kettle of fish:
The general tenor of the place when I joined in 1959 was that it really wasn't all that important. There was always the feeling that it really didn't matter all that much. That if it all stopped tomorrow nobody would care in the country and nobody would be that worse off except that we would all have to find a job. We had a feeling not so much of being neglected as of not being worthwhile. We weren't making particularly important or interesting or great films. We just went on and on in this incredible fantasy. Nobody ever came and asked us what we were doing or challenged what we were doing, or suggested that we should do anything else. In moving over here (to Lindfield) we moved out into the light for the whole world to view.
There are other gradual changes across this period worthy of note. 1956 saw the appearance of an important new audio-visual medium in Australia, TV. Although the Unit was, in the early 1950s, involved in some talks with the ABC in terms of having an involvement with the national TV service, these discussions came to nothing. For this period at least, the Unit's only contact with TV was the anthology series Australia Unlimited based on re-editing its old films. This was undoubtedly a lost opportunity for the Unit to gain national exposure.
If TV is one important change in the larger social environment that was to have a bearing on the Unit's future direction, another is Federal politics. In the early 1950s it was by no means certain that the Menzies conservative government would remain in office. At the 1953 federal elections it lost votes and seats and looked as though it might lose the next election. However the Labor Party split enabled Menzies and his party to become the longest serving government in Australia's history. The post 1954 stability and lack of political change also had a bearing on the Unit and its films. All of this has its counterpart in both content and style of the films in this period.
But it should be remembered that this was not a propitious time for the documentary film almost anywhere. Whether we call these years the frightened fifties or the apathetic fifties, it was becoming more and more difficult to maintain enthusiasm for a documentary ideal. This ideal had germinated and matured in the 1930s and 1940s but now the conditions of that idea had passed.
As mentioned above the 1950s and early 1960s at the Unit saw the almost complete dominance of the classic documentary style - let us now turn to an examination of it. As John Morris explains in an interview:
When I first joined the Unit in the 1950s, it was run by Stanley Hawes who kept a very firm hand over the style of the films. He believed in the construction of the classical documentary. That is, it made general statements not individual statements. It had always to relate any particular town or establishment to the general theme. He believed in voice over commentary, commentary effects and music soundtrack. You must remember that this was his background, his training in the classical English school of documentary which was a response to the technical resources at one's command. Such things as light and portable synch sound cameras were not available - and even mixing in the early days was extraordinarily crude. So the technique that the British documentarians developed was an innovative and exciting use of techniques at hand, always tempered by the fact that in Britain a total schism existed between the documentary people and the feature people, and rarely a crossover... So Stanley didn't like features in general, and he didn't like Hollywood features. He didn't like the idea of introducing drama into films. He banned personal stories. These were the rules he imposed.
Hawes prescriptions extended to editing preferences. As Morris recalls:
You were not allowed to use opticals. His principle was that a wipe is old-fashioned, a dissolve was feminine and a cut was masculine. If you said: "So what." He would say: "We make masculine films not feminine films." What he meant was that a dissolve was soft and a cut was hard, a dissolve had less impact than a cut. And so it was very rare in Film Australia films up till Stanley's going that you find any opticals at all...
It's a very safe formula because it guarantees a certain structure, it guarantees a certain strength. But there's no doubt that the imposition of that formula did to a certain extent hold back a variety of styles at Film Australia. And I believe that any fool can look at any of those Film Australia films made while Stanley was there and pick it as a film made under Stanley Hawes' overall supervision.(7)
As John Morris says, the classical documentary style initiated by Grierson in the late 1920s has an off-screen voice over commentary that depends on dynamically edited images as illustration of its exposition. The voice-over is usually not identified. Because it sounds powerful and authoritative it is often dubbed "the voice of God". The commentary is usually an exposition - what is done about soil erosion, how health serums are developed, how air force cadets are trained and so on. This exposition is usually pitched at the level of the general, although it will often reach for a particular detail by way of illustration. Meantime images run in a parallel fashion; complementing, illustrating and confirming the general points of the exposition. The images are always concrete, particular images. It is always "this air force cadet" in "this plane" at "that runway" - even when the exposition is talking of cadets, planes and runways in general. At the same time these images act to corroborate the claims of the exposition. The moving images assert that cadets, planes and runways really do exist because this particular on-screen one does. Another point where the authority of the voice is reinforced is in the overall organisation of verbal exposition and image. Some effects provided they are in at least a loose synch with their image will tend to further confirm the apparent reality of the image. Music on the other hand, lacking strong denotation, will work to orient the viewer as to how to receive the film by signalling moods such as comedy, suspense, excitement and so on.
The classical documentary films produced in this period featured a particular kind of expositing voice. In them the voice is always confident and authoritative. It is also in the 1950s and early 1960s colourless - what A.G. Mitchell was to label "Educated Australia". Such a voice is different to the broader accents of the earlier period where actors like Chips Rafferty (Bush Patrol) and Peter Finch (Journey of a Nation) were employed. The voice of the 1950s and early 1960s is polished and oratorical - not rasping and nasal. It is the voice of a Menzies rather than a Chifley. Just as the Educated Australian accent was thought, in the realm of politics, education and public speaking, to be above the connotations of working class associated with the harsher, more nasalised accent, so the voice in these films attempts to signal its ascendancy over class and sectarianness by its very lack of colour and accent. During this period the Unit drew on the services of professional radio and TV announcers with this kind of accent. Figures such as John West, Paul McLeay, John Chance, Brian Henderson and James Dibble had in their voice and persona as newsreaders, quiz masters, and radio commentators the kind of authority, confidence and consensual objectivity that made them well suited to being the voice of God in many Unit films.
Clearly, there is a certain politics in this voice. It is the voice that presents itself as impersonal and objective: acting not on behalf of a particular class or group interest, but on behalf of the general interest. And clearly too, there are direct parallels between this voice and the "statesman" persona of Menzies (in whose repertoire, voice and intonation played a large role) in appearing to represent not the ruling class of capital but rather the common good of all. Thus an important component of the style of these films - their voice - has a precise meaning in the general political and social context of Australia in the 1950s and 1960s.
But if the expositing voice has authority because of its imbrication in this social context, its power and authority is also constituted within the films in particular ways. I have already mentioned the classic documentary's general strategy of conferring on the voice an authority and omniscience through its seeming ability to summon up the images it needs. Some other factors should also be mentioned. One of these is the classic documentary's ability to set in train subordinate voices to supplement and reinforce the dominant voice. The Earth Reveals is a typical enough instance of this. It begins with an impersonal voice introducing the topic of mining. Then as the scene shifts to different places and different kinds of mining, the film introduces the voices of different miners. The impersonal voice acts to link these together and has the last word. Such a soundtrack is typical of this period.
This kind of soundtrack points to the way that new sound technology was making possible a more varied and flexible soundtrack than had been possible earlier. Thus the films of this period carry more information on their soundtracks than do their predecessors. New equipment made it easier to record speech, to record sound effects and to synch these up with their images. Yet the effect of this technology was to increase the apparent power of the voice in that it is seemingly capable of holding together this greater variety of sound.(8) Unlike the practice of the classical style of documentary by the Unit in the 1940s where music will fill the soundtrack gaps between segments of exposition, in this period there is likely to be less music and more sound. The most frequent and, of course, the easiest kind to achieve is wild sound that can be loosely synched with appropriate images (machine noise, animal sounds and so on). But other effects are also possible and increasingly frequent: on the one hand, the interweaving of different off-screen expository voices; on the other, the use of synched speech from an on-screen figure either by direct address to the audience or by addressing another on-screen figure.
At one level this tendency towards the increase of dialogue and sound effects at the expense of music would have been uncontested, even positively welcomed. For within the practice of the classic documentary style, dialogue and sound effects in loose or tight fit with the image could be seen as increasing the living quality, the reality, of the image. If this image is (at least according to a realist aesthetic of film) a piece of the real world, a trace of reality, then sound is a reconfirmation of the reality-quality of the image. Dialogue and appropriate sound effects further corroborate the reality nature of the image: "that pilot really did sit in that plane - here is a moving filmed record of that event and here too is a record of the sounds that occurred at that time." In terms of the realist aesthetic where documentary is the "creative interpretation of reality", the increased use of sound is fully validated as a further step towards realism. Thus the new sound and editing technology could make a relatively untroubled entry into the arsenal of the filmmaker.(9)
Another feature of the classical style in this period is the personification on screen of the expositing expert. Examples of this are the school teacher in School in Australia, the announcer Rupert Chance in This is the ABC (1955), certain painters in Australian Landscape Painters, David Johnson in The Jackeroo and, more marginally, Sister Joan in The Happy Island. However, the practice here is not monolithic. We should mention one instance where this strategy is deliberately undercut. In The Story of Sand (1959) the expert exposition about the mineral properties and resources of sand is dramatically framed by a prologue and epilogue that reveals the expert as a bespectacled professor and his audience to be a party of teenage boys and girls. The status and authority of this expert is comically undercut in the epilogue where at the end of his exposition the professor finds that his on-screen audience have abandoned him for the pleasures of the surf.
This tendency towards an individuation of some central figure(s), has dramatic implications for the films. The Jackeroo is a useful case in point. The film does not have even a rudimentary chronology such as, dawn to dusk (as This is the ABC) or a geographical or journey sequence (as in North West Horizon, 1958), let alone a story or narrative. It does though have a narrator who engages in a broad-ranging exposition about the life of a jackeroo. Although the narrator is individualised in the name David Johnson and is also an off-screen figure, the voice-over exposition takes place from an off-screen position. Not once does the on-screen figure of David Johnson speak. Although there is a sound track with sheep cries, car sounds and so on, this is "wild" rather than synched sound. There is no dialogue. Thus Johnson and the figures he encounters remain "flat" and can hardly be said to constitute "characters".
The case of The Jackeroo helps make the point that we can have an individualisation of the speaker and even have him as an on-screen figure without the film emerging as a drama. Thus although there there is some tendency toward drama through individualisation in this period the process is kept in check.
Indeed, of the films viewed and surveyed for this paper, what is interesting is how few dramas are produced in this period. Probably only a small handful are able to count as dramas. These would include Two Boys and A Boat (1958), Call For Order (1955), Project Public Service (1957) and Spanner In The Works (1961). In these films the exposition becomes personified in an active on-screen figure: Skipper teaches the two boys, Bill and Jack, about sailing in Two Boys And A Boat, the off-screen expositer outlines the benefits of tidiness in Call For Order, Hammond, a public servant and his father teach the schoolboy, Bob, about the public service in Project Public Service, the neighbouring factory owner instructs fellow factory owner, George, on how to keep a factory tidy in Spanner In The Works. Although these films are exceptional inasmuch as they have dramatic elements we still do not have any of the tight rules of the classical Hollywood style operating (like closeups, shot/reverse shot dialogue, spatial continuity and so on). The films are dramatically looser, less tightly organised than their Hollywood counterparts. Clearly this looser dramatic style is a means whereby the documentary film employing drama attempts to generalise the applicability of its information rather than having it refer just to the individuals and situations that are the subjects of the film.
What is never in doubt in these films is their overriding instructional and pedagogical interest. These films show how the incorporation of dramatic elements need not detract from their informational purpose.
The classic documentary style adopted in the period was neither invariable nor necessary. In the 1930s and 1940s in Britain, documentary filmmakers explored other modes. In the 1940s at the Unit, other styles were also adopted. In the late 1960s, while Stanley Hawes was still Producer-In-Chief work in other styles surfaced. Thus we cannot assume that there was no alternative. The question is rather: why was this style re-valorised in the 1950s?
More locally, we can discern a number of elements that worked in favour of the classic style as the favoured mode of making films. For one thing the practice of the voice-over exposition allowed control over the verbal information conveyed by the film. This kind of control was necessary for several institutional reasons. The first relates to the effects of the political and trade attacks upon the Unit. As Stanley Hawes remembers it: "In the 1950s, we couldn't make very controversial films. In that period when the very existence of the Unit was under threat, you couldn't be too experimental, too enterprising." Beyond the hostility of this larger environment there was also an occupational inclination towards a certain kind of literalism in CFU scripts. Journalists in the public service were important gatekeepers on Unit scripts. These journalists - whether in the Australian News and Information Bureau, whether in different government departments, whether on Australian National Film Board, or whether journalist publicity/information officers attached to different government departments and authorities - were the mediators between their employers and the Unit on any particular film. The training and occupational orientation of this kind of gatekeeper accorded preference to the verbal exposition of the films - even if that component were not important already.
Another way of answering the question as to why the classical style was re-valorised in this period is supplied by John Morris. He notes that the classical style was that learnt by Hawes in the 1930s when he served his apprenticeship to Grierson. So, as his master's apprentice, he followed the way set by the master and imposed it on the Unit. Yet such an answer is incomplete. Hawes, it could be said, was alternately ogre, benevolent despot and saviour of the Unit during this period. Films such as School in the Mailbox, Flight Plan and The Queen In Australia make clear his aesthetic preference for the classic documentary rather than for drama or the more evocative, poetic forms of documentary. Undoubtedly, the classical documentary was much easier to teach to would-be filmmakers than were other styles of documentary film practice (from the late 1940s till into the sixties Hawes seems to have been at his busiest in his role as a supervising gate-keeping producer).
Intermeshed with Hawes was the old guard, a group of personnel that have already been discussed. Whether by background training or social inclination, this group had much in common with the commercial film trade. Many had technical backgrounds and even more saw filmmaking in a technocratic, "professional" way. In the 1950s and early 1960s, they continued on at the Unit in part because there was very little in the way of a film production industry for them to go to. Theirs was a Public Service careerism that paralleled the kind of careerism that had replaced 1940s idealism in the ideology of the Australian Public Service. Although the social motivation of a Stanley Hawes was very different to that of this group, the aesthetic inclination of them both was very much along the same lines. Hawes had in effect confessed as much in a piece he had written some years earlier. Speaking of newsreels, he wrote:
One obvious example of a factual type of film that appears regularly in Australia, keeping up a decent standard, without much ballyhoo, is the newsreel. Two newsreels are produced in this country ... In any survey of documentary we must stop at least for a moment to do justice to the newsreels, for each week they bring to millions of people a breadth of reality and a glimpse of the world outside their immediate experience. But the newsreel, by its very nature, has its limits. Like the newspaper, it reports reality; but, also, like the newspaper, it must show the unusual not to say the sensational, aspects of reality.(10)
In other words despite their differences of emphases, newsreels and the classic documentary were close enough in type so that the old guard were easily able to adjust to the norms of the classic documentary.
If Menzies' political hegemony finds an aesthetic parallel in the dominance of the classical style at the Unit, it also finds an expression in the thematics of the films. On one level little has ostensibly changed from the 1940s, yet just below the surface, things are shifting. There is a change away from John Curtin's vision of a "united Commonwealth" moved by a vision of nationalism and pioneering Socialism towards a different national ideology in the Menzies years (1949-1964) that of the "lucky country". In this new ideology, Australia is populated by a nation of laissez-faire individualists. Inheritors of a bountiful land, their political, social and cultural frameworks were drawn equally from British and American models and so equally emphasised the complimentary roles of government and business to the public order of things. The sense provided by many of the Unit's films is of things improving bit by bit, but doing so of their own volition. Gone is the sense of the effort needed for reconstruction. In its place there is a celebration of improvement, of things getting better, of social and physical amelioration. This kind of "spirit" can be found at all levels in the films of the period. An Immigration Department film of the period for example, bears the title Passport to Progress. In The Konrads: Swimming Champions, the sound track ends with "and it's all because of the decision to emigrate to Australia."
This sense of things improving and changing for the better is directly linked in many of the films dealing with the physical environment, to an ideology of development. Here natural resources are there for the taking. Thus Oil Our Hidden Wealth (1962) celebrates the development of a resource just waiting to be developed, North West Horizon examines the exploitation of different staples (minerals, fishing, pearling, cattle and so on) in the north of Western Australia, Power From The Snowy (1955) examines the energy and the irrigation resources that have come from the Snowy Mountains scheme. Bush Harvest (1954) explains about the oil that can be obtained from eucalyptus trees, Coral Kingdom (1958) extols the riches of the Great Barrier Reef coral, Pearlers of the Coral Sea (1960) looks at the industry that can be engendered around a natural resource.
At one level, of course, the fact that so many films are about the development of staple industries is not all that surprising. Through most of its history, staples have been the principal base of Australia's economy. Even when Australia experienced an industrial take-off from the 1930s, staples still accounted for the largest share of gross national income. Given their developmentalism, these films are mostly unconscious of any environmental impact. Indeed that consciousness only came in the 1970s.
What makes these films distinct is not just their subject matter but their attitude to it. Development seems to be pursued not for economic or monetary gain but almost for its own sake, out of a sense of adventure or a pioneering spirit. Thus in The Changing Hills the voice over narrator notes: " ... and with the promise of water the fertile earth blossoms where once there was dessicated scrub and dusty wilderness." This same point is made in a more fulsome manner at another point in the same film:
... whether we came as Australians or as migrants, we came with a purpose - to bring change and development to the Australian Alps ... We are making our mark ... we are helping to build for the future of our country ... And when the time comes for us to take out citizenship we do so with eagerness and pride ... Men grind down so that they can build again ... Machines tear down mountains, turn the rivers from their course.
Part of this developmentalism is the belief that where the environment is not harnassed to produce some immediate material benefit then it is useless: a wasteland or a desert. Just a Trace, which examines how the addition of trace elements can improve the soil's capacity for agricultural industries, notes that " ... this is an Australian discovery that is transforming the waste lands of the world." Development and nationalism are linked in other films too. In The Jackeroo, for instance, David Johnson, the jackeroo of the title, expounds about his job:
Sure the job has its drawbacks, what job hasn't? But I look at it this way, a man doing this job is helping the country to grow. You're part and parcel not only of the work of the pioneer settlers who opened up this part of Australia but of the Australia to come. That's it. I guess you're a part of Australia.
Development is also seen to occur on yet another agenda. It occurs as a part of modern times. Machines are both a symptom as well as the physical tool of science and technology. They represent the rationalism of contemporary life which can come up with scientific and technological solutions for physical problems. Thus in Just a Trace, science has discovered the secret of soil infertility and has overcome it. In The Changing Hills before the dam is built, scientific testing occurs to pinpoint and correct problems facing the dam's construction. In The Earth Reveals, modern mining and the search for minerals is contrasted with the fossicking for minerals that occurred in the past. Fossicking was haphazard, and inefficient, a pastime (rather than a livelihood) for ignorant generalists. Modern mining by contrast is "big business" as "hills rich in ore are being levelled by the machines of modern man." Above all mining is no longer haphazard - not only because of the application of science but also because of the rationalisation of labour:
...now, men in the field are backed by scientists, ever advising, assessing. A far cry from the man with his pick and shovel and pan ... Now the men who go out are specialists - geologists, geophysicists, surveyors ... the earth has been good and so men continue for what the earth reveals.
Where aspects of the economy are looked at, staple industries rather than manufacturing industries are more likely to be the subject. This in turn points to a larger absence in these films of images of groups, of social class, of communities of working men and women at work and at play. This lack can be highlighted by pointing to their presence in some Unit films of the 1940s - The Meeting Place, The Valley Is Ours, Bush Brigade, The Cane-Cutters, and Start A Discussion Group. In these films there is a vivid set of images of democratic, self-supporting, and actively initiating groups. But in the 1950s and early 1960s the working community group is largely absent. This is only partly explained by the emphasis on staple industries with its sparer use of labour. In such films, opportunities to present the working group present themselves but largely go unrealised. In its stead there is a concentration upon individuals and the family. The Jackeroo is a good example. "My name is David Johnson, I'm a jackeroo" says the on-screen narrator. But beyond sharing an evening meal with the boss and other jackeroos, the film is marked by David Johnson's encounters with a series of undramatised individual figures, the dogger, the boundary rider, the boss, the overseer and so on. In films set in the industrial workplace, workers are even more anonymous. They belong not to groups but to the background. The workforce is seen this way in Spanner In The Works. Tom, the metaphorical "spanner in the works" of the title, is seen as a clown because of his untidiness.
Brisbane (1960) is a good example of the focus upon the individual family unit in the place of urban solidarity. It is a typical enough film in the sub-genre of films depicting capital cities, the Queensland capital is seen through the eyes of a family. The film mobilizes a certain construction of the family. The family is invariably seen at leisure rather than at work. In consonance with the boom in the sale of consumer goods (the white good industries, leisure industries, tourism and so on), the family is produced as the site of consumption. And, in parallel with the arguments of Pringle, McGregor and Horne, the family is a symbol of a suburban society as it goes about the rituals of consumption in the quiet place of home and the suburbs. This discourse of domestic suburban consumption is well summarised in Australian Weekend (1960): "every Friday the Australian city dweller leaves his work behind and changes his personality ... until Monday morning." Then follows a litany of the activities of the weekend - the beach and swimming, sailing, sport, a visit to Luna Park, a Saturday night barbeque, church on Sunday morning, home building, more sport, mowing the lawn, a beer and a quiet Sunday evening - " ... and so another Australian weekend is over."
So through many of these films where work and groups are involved, there is a tendency, on the one hand towards rendering figures as anonymous background figures, and, on the other towards foregrounding and individuating single figures. What has gone was what filmmakers could achieve in some of the films of the 1940s: the capacity to hold the group or collective as the subject and agent of a film.
However the argument thus far about the absence of groups and the presence of individuals and, less frequently, families, needs a slight qualification in that there are one or two films that do have a larger group as their subject. The very fine This is the ABC goes beyond the mainstream of these films in being primarily concerned with sounds (of ABC radio - TV did not begin until 1956) rather than images. It is concerned not only with the ABC but also with its audience, the Australian people as a whole. In groping out towards a nation and tracing the way it interacts with and through sounds, the film is not unworthy of comparison with Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister's documentary masterpiece, Listen to Britain. Equally too, we should mention Festival in Adelaide (1962). Like The Queen in Australia, it was a publicly prestigious film and a very large production undertaking. In Festival in Adelaide, the large community at the centre of the film are the residents of Adelaide who form the different audiences of the Festival events. What is most striking in this film is both the emphasis on the public consumption of culture and on the role of culture, particularly music, in helping wither away class and social differences. Whether it be classical music, jazz or rock and roll, music is seen to aid the process whereby social differences melts and everything converges towards a norm.
This last point leads into the final point to be made about this body of films, their absence of politics. At one level this is surprising given the intense political and social struggles in Australia that saw the defeat of the referendum to ban the Communist Party and the split in the Labor Party in the middle 1950s. This absence can be explained both by the fact that the Film Unit was a government body, and therefore above taking sides, and because of the attacks made upon the Unit by politicians and others in the 1950s.
However, as a way of marking the boundary of subject material the Unit did not tackle, but might have, we should mention the work of the Waterside Worker's Film Unit between 1953 and 1958. This Unit made a number of films covering a range of subject matter from the point of view of labour and the working class. These films were concerned with labour conditions on the waterfront (Pensions for Veterans, 1953 and The Hungry Miles, 1955) in coal mining (Hewers of Coal, 1958), and in the building industry (Bones of Building, 1957). These examples from the Waterside Worker's Unit films help show what was and was not possible for the Film Unit at this time.
By way of conclusion, we should note the homologies between the classical documentary style in the 1950s as a mode of accommodation between various exigencies and the very notion of accommodation, compromise and partnership as one of the key ideological components of the period. It was, wrote Daniel Bell, the period wherein ideology (of the Left and of Right) was ending, extremism of one kind or another was falling away, and a consensual politics of the centre was taking its place. We have noted the repeated working together in partnership in several films of the figure of the adventuring developer on the one hand and the rational scientist on the other. We might also note in Menzies' Australia of the 1950s and early 1960s the accommodation of business interests into fields previously dominated by government in such areas as transportation (the two airlines agreement), broadcasting (Menzies' decision to allow commercial interests into the field of TV) and banking (Menzies' and the conservative parties were firmly opposed to any attempt to remove the private enterprise banks from the field by a nationalisation of the banking system).
This prevailing ideological climate found its concrete expression in a Unit geared more to Departmental filmmaking than to a national program and its expressive realisation in both the classical documentary form and a thematic content reflecting this business/ government consensus.
1. Neil Beggs, "First Words on Australian Film," Film Journal, no. 15 (March, 1960), p. 44. An abridged version of Beggs' article appears as "The Heart Seems to Have Gone", in Albert Moran & Tom O'Regan eds., An Australian Film Reader (Sydney: Currency Press, 1985), pp. 100-103.
2. In the early 1950s the Unit was known as the Film Division of the Department of the Interior. About 1955 or so it started to become known as the Commonwealth Film Unit.
3. See my discussion of this film in An Australian Film Reader, pp. 104-111.
4. Judy Adamson, p. 59.
5. The federal government appointed Eric Kennedy , a public relations/ advertising man to enquire into the unit after various attacks being made upon it by the commercial film trade. However the unit had its champions in cabinet, most especially Paul Hasluck, the Minister for External Territories, and Cabinet decided to take no action on the report.
6. Beggs, pp. 43-44.
7. J. Morris, 26/9/1982, transcript.
8. Here one should note a tolerance for a more varied soundtrack on the part of figures such as the producers, the Producer-In-Chief, the National Film Board as well as persons lower down on the production hierarchy.
9. However, the increased use of sound in some later films did lead to various stylistic instabilities which disrupted the authority of the voice and the veracity of its exposition thus leading to unresolvable contradictions around the status of image and sound. One such film was Paper Run (1956).
10. Hawes,"The Documentary Film Front", The Film Monthly, August 1951, p. 16.