Catherine Duncan: As Others See Us

Catherine Duncan’s “As Others See Us”.


In 1948 Britain’s Sight and Sound published Australian émigré Catherine Duncan’s reflection on her experiences working with the Film Division of the Department of Information. Although her essay “As others see us” is a personal account focused on the films she directed for the Department of Immigration, it also provides an indication of how a certain documentary aesthetic was understood by one part of the Film Division which was distinct from the newsreel practitioners of that era. [1]  Duncan’s essay also indicates the local and international trajectory of the films made by the Film Division, particularly those made for the Department of Immigration. Running behind this essay is a lifetime of working in radio, theatre and film that is marked by a shift from the Australian left community to the better known European left-wing film community including Joris Ivens , Paul Strand and Henri Langlois indicating how these two realms coincided.


In 1988 Tom O’Regan pointed to the “separation of the study of Australian theatre from filmmaking in critical discourse. This is despite the fact that the theatre has constituted a reference point for film producers from pre-sound cinema days to the present in terms of film properties, script-writers, acting talent, and directors”. [2]  Catherine Duncan’s work is an example of a person skilled in the use of a particular tool, that of prose writing, in the main honed in the theatre, who was able to forge an international career across a number of artistic forms.

Australian actor, playwright, film researcher, scriptwriter, director, film critic, archivist and collagist, Catherine Duncan, provides an example of the kind of fluidity and motion sought by members of Australia’s creative community in the 1940sand ’50s. Duncan was one of a number of Australian theatre/film practitioners who participated in the worldwide nexus of left cultural production. Although it would be possible to list Duncan amongst a host of actors and directors who garnered praise in the international setting, it is more appropriate to point to Duncan’s work experience as a remarkable example of how, at a variety of levels, Australians were always connected to a complex intersection of international left-wing audio-visual cultures.

Duncan began acting as “a succession of fairies and train-bearers” in her teens with the Allan Wilkie Shakespearian Company which toured Australia in the early 1930s. [3]   Later she performed with the Union Theatre located at Melbourne University where she began study before moving to professional theatre with Theo Shall and Marie Ney including the plays “No time for comedy”, “Private lives” and Alec Coppel’s “The smart guy” at the Minerva Theatre, Sydney. [3] As a playwright Duncan’s first success “was when she won the Sydney New Theater League Competition in 1937 with a verse drama called “The sword sung” and in 1943 her play “The path of the eagle” was entered in the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s verse play competition. [4]   Duncan’s “Sons of the morning” is her best known dramatic work marking an interest in the position of Australian identity within an international realm. Angela O’Brien explains how the play works:

Two Australian soldiers, veteran Major Ansen and Sergeant David Blake, spend a night in the farmhouse of Christos Velenzas, a partisan guerilla, and his daughter Christina: also there is Noulos, Christina’s betrothed, a merchant who has co-operated with the German invaders. Velenzas captures a young German paratrooper whom he brings back to the house. In the 12 hours action of the play Christina and David fall in love, and the two AIF men recognise their own peculiarly Australian problems – for Ansen, disillusionment after the last war and for David Blake, a militant ‘belief in the future of our country’. [5]

In an interview Duncan told O’Brien that she designed the play as a contrast between an ancient culture and a youthful Australian culture. Both cultures are represented by traditional pragmatists who have lost hope in the future as well as the figures of Velezas and Blake who are the “Sons of the morning” in their hope for the future free from fascism. [6]

“Sons of the morning” was first performed at New Theatre, Melbourne 21st April 1945. This performance is instructive because it indicates another history and career that runs parallel to the one I have just alluded to. While her relative commercial success was accumulating, Duncan was also involved in Melbourne’s Left theatre circles. Her concern for the growth of fascism in Europe drew her to the Workers Theatre Group, then directed by Communist Party luminary and playwright Betty Roland. Duncan believed that the creative expression of opposition to the kinds of ideals that bred fascism could be brought about through the theatre. Eventually Duncan took over from Rolland as Director of the Workers Theatre Group which had by now relocated from Brunswick town hall where the Group had put on the controversial Clifford Odets’ “‘Till the day I die”, to The New Theatre at 92 Flinders Street, Melbourne. With that move followed the play “Thirteen dead” which evolved from the contributions of numerous people including Duncan, her husband journalist Kim Keane and Alan Marshall. The play was based on the Wonthaggi mine disaster of 1937 where thirteen men died when a mine they worked blew up. New Theatre worked up a play of “dramatic reportage” or social realism aimed at ” the restoration of the theater for its historic right of social criticism. This will mean that the theater will become what is meant to be a communal institution and a weapon in the hands of the masses for fashioning a sound society'” [7]

“The sword sung” prefigured Duncan’s later “Sons of the morning” and was awarded the Sydney New Theatre play-writing competition first prize by judges including Frank D Clewlow Director of Drama at the Australian Broadcasting Commission. [8] The play opened at Sydney New Theatre in 1938 and again was concerned with the futility of war and the hope for the future without war. Duncan had met Clewlow when both were members of the Allan Wilkie Shakespearian Company and the success of “The sword sung” enabled Clewlow to offer Duncan a job as a writer for ABC radio. This, in turn, led to Duncan writing “Sons of the morning” which was originally intended for radio but Duncan turned to New Theatre to produce it because of her belief in the “little” left theatres, the network of left minded artists, actors, filmmakers and other creative people she belonged to. The success of these plays and the forging of a professional relationship with Clewlow, led to an ABC radio career and marked her name as one of the most significant in Australian women radio writers. Throughout this time Duncan was mindful of the utility of her art and through her husband Jim Keane and associations at New Theatre, Duncan became increasingly aware of the political utility of creative expression.

Indonesia Calling

In early 1945 Duncan heard through various contacts that Joris Ivens was on his way to Australia to head up the Dutch East Indies Film Unit, at that time situated in Melbourne. Duncan had seen Ivens’s films such as Rain (1929), Borinage (1933) New Earth (1934) and in particular Spanish Earth (1937) and decided that she wanted to work with him and approached the Unit about obtaining a position. Although she was not officially offered a position with Ivens’s group she did obtain work writing commentaries for the newsreel productions of the Film and Photo Unit of the Dutch East Indies Government in Exile making, basically, propaganda films to be screened in the Dutch colony. [9] Ivens was appointed Film Commissioner of the Dutch East Indies, employed to “film the liberation of Indonesia and subsequently, to initiate a documentary production system with Indonesian filmmakers”. [10] Ivens had been convinced by some members of the Dutch Government that the Dutch East Indies would be subject to the Atlantic Charter of 1941 where it was stated that each nation had a right to self-determination in the post-war period and even Charles van der Plas, the Dutch delegate to Allied Supreme Command, had written propaganda stating that the Dutch East Indies in the post-war would be a “community in which Indonesians, the Dutch, the Chinese and Arabs can feel equally at home”. [11]  It seems that some people in the Dutch Government had different hopes for the colony in the post-war than those of people such as van der Plas and Ivens. While the Americans distrusted Ivens, these Dutch administrators believed that he was the person to image a new country freed from the shackles of colonialism. [12]

Ivens arrived in Australia in early March 1945 with plans to make three combat zone films; a black and white feature and two color shorts. He also had in mind two further shorts and a series of twenty educational programs for use in the East Indies after liberation for which he had received an agreement from the Dutch Ministry of Education. [13]  Initially located in offices at 170 La Trobe Street, Melbourne, Ivens gave camera instruction classes to Indonesians in exile and worked on the Educational Program. [14] On 31 August the Joris Ivens Film Unit, which consisted of Ivens, the newly arrived American, Marion Michelle, cameraman Donald Frazer and editor Joan Frazer, along with two Indonesians, John Sendoek and John Soedjono, moved to Sydney. Duncan was to join this group. Ivens and Duncan had met in Melbourne where Duncan had introduced the Dutchman to some Indonesians who had related their experiences under colonial rule to him. Ivens responded by bringing them into the Educational Unit with him. [15]  It was becoming clearer that Ivens original intentions were becoming increasingly out of step with the rapidly accelerating events in the Dutch East Indies.

After the capitulation of the Japanese to the Allied forces following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Republican movement in Indonesia gathered momentum until two weeks later the independent Republic of Indonesian was proclaimed on August 17 1945. [16]   Amongst the chaos of a quasi-civil war fought by Indonesians, Japanese, British and the Dutch, Ivens began to move with the anti-Dutch mood of the Australian trade unions, the Chifley Labor Government and particularly the left community of Sydney who had formed ties with Rebublican Indonesians on Australian soil. Ivens’s support for the more liberal minded Dutch such as van der Plas and his hopes of working for a new East Indies as Film Commissioner were at an end and shifted to wholehearted support for the Indonesian Republic. Duncan had by now also decided to work with Ivens on a clandestine film production that would serve the new Republic.

Duncan recalls that during the months of September and October Ivens was struck down by a serious asthma attack which laid him low for much of the production of Indonesia Calling  (1946). [17] Schoots writes that:

in Sydney on October 13, Ivens and cameraman John Heyer [later to join the Film Division of the Department of Information] made some shots of the departure of the Esperance Bay, a ship bearing more than one thousand four hundred Indonesians which was setting sail for one of the ports in the hands of the Republic. [18]

According to Duncan, Michelle shot most of the rest of the film due to the ill health of Ivens and probably due to his being tailed by US, Dutch and Australian secret services. Schoots reports that shooting was completed on November 16 and Ivens resigned his position on November 21 1945.  [19]  Duncan brought in her radio play colleague Peter Finch to narrate the film using her words. Duncan describes the process of combining narration with images in Indonesia Calling:

We always worked so closely together that it was difficult to delineate our respective roles. I wrote most of the commentary at the editing table, so that it developed along with the editing. For us no problem existed separately from others. We were composing a work in which sometimes the images, sometimes the commentary, sometimes the music or the sound effects were primary. I had power not only over the words, but over a whole orchestra of emotional and intellectual possibilities. But all the same I was subjected to a very strict discipline, like the discipline of composing a sonnet. [20]

Indonesia Calling  includes what sounds like a mock newsreel within its own format. Peter Finch, the narrator of Indonesia Calling  asks us to remember a newsreel from 1945 as a means of introducing a newsreel-like segment about the departure of the Esperance Bay for Indonesia from Sydney which is a means of setting up “the story of the ships that didn’t sail”; a story which is the real interest of the film, the resistance of the waterside workers and other Australian trade unions to the loading of Dutch ships sailing to Indonesia in the period prior to the announcement of the country’s independence. In the main body of Indonesia Calling, Ivens, Michelle and Duncan distinguish their own film from the “official” newsreel by turning to the story of the role of the trade unions.

In two segments from Indonesia Calling  it is possible to better understand the point that Duncan makes about the third dimension in documentary film. The first is the transition from an Indonesian folk group playing to images of Indonesians on a boat in contemplative shots. Over images of three Indonesians looking out on the mid-ground, Peter Finch narrates:

We liked their old Indonesian folksongs, even if we didn’t understand the words – but they did. Yet here in Australia it wasn’t just the river and the rice fields, the villages of their homeland they thought about, but something they didn’t have before the war, something they fought for with the allies – independence.

This sequence provides a space between the narration and the images which invites the spectator of the film to enter into the minds of the Indonesians depicted. This device may be the kind of thing that Duncan found attractive about documentary aesthetics compared to the newsreel. Later in the film this kind of slowing down of the rhetorical onslaught experienced in newsreels is apparent in the sequence apparently shot by John Heyer. In this sequence the Indonesian Independence Committee in tandem with the Waterside Workers Union discover that one ship, the Esperance Bay, has “slipped through” the bans placed on manning ships headed for Indonesia and decide to chase it out towards the heads. After much appealling to the supposedly Indian crew, the ship passes in silence through the Sydney Heads and makes for the ocean waters. The narration recommences over a long shot of the ship passing through Heads. “They’ve gone. But outside Sydney Heads, to the throb of the engines, the Indians were thinking. ” There then follows three long still shots of single crew members with the narration recalling the appeals of the Indonesians and waterside workers, “Brothers, Indonesia’s fight is your fight, stop engines, stop engines. ” The last image of an Indian worker fades to black.

Indonesia Calling is an example of an international documentary production filmed in Australia. For Duncan the film provided not only a connection with the international documentary movement through the figure of Ivens but it also led to her working with the Films Division of the Department of Information. Duncan obtained a position there as a writer, principally of narration, and as a researcher. The Film Division is often discussed along with the newly constituted National Film Board, in terms of function, as part of the Department of Post-war Reconstruction. In a bureaucratic sense it was. Aesthetically, the Film Division belonged to the international documentary movement because its personnel looked to the movement in Britain and United States in particular, but also to the Soviets and the Italians, for documentary models to adapt to local issues.

The discourse of documentary that Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan locate in the 1940s in Australia relied on Griersonian tenets to fulfil “social duties” based on “the assumption of a universal humanism. People everywhere, so the argument goes, are human, just like ourselves, and therefore inherently deserving of our curiosity and interest”.  [21] Moran and O’Regan point to the emergence in 1940s Australia of a new cinema, “documentary”, which they distinguish from its predecessors in actuality filming such as newsreel by drawing on Alan Lovell’s description of British documentary film as “an art cinema that had no interest in art”.

However to say that the filmmakers were not interested in art is not to imply that they were naive and crude in their aesthetic practices. As the films themselves bear witness, they were not. Rather it is to suggest that Australian documentary in the 1940s and 1950s, like English documentary, lacked any very extended vocabulary for the articulation and discussion of aesthetic questions and issues. Most frequently terms from a social/ethical vocabulary were pressed into service in the aesthetic sphere. In particular documentary film was unable to render any account of the filmmaker as artist. At the most the filmmaker was little more than the facilitator of reality’s register on film. [22]

The point here is that while it is possible to understand documentary at this time through the discourses of realism and nationalism it was understood by the people who worked in the institution itself, such as Catherine Duncan, as a distinct art form, unlike newsreel. Albert Moran [23]  provides instances of these discourses as they emerged in the journals of the time. The talk here is more to do with location and the search for a “true” representation of Australian identity. Duncan’s “As others see us” should be counted amongst these writings. Part of the problem in attempting to identify how people were thinking about documentary in this period is that history has more often than not been distorted by the positioning of documentary film within a national cinema. Much of the writing from that 1940s and 1950s was caught up in the prevailing tendency to address the issue of “what is wrong with the Australian film industry?” and, of course, this is an address to the feature film industry. In making precise distinctions between newsreel, documentary film and feature narrative we can be more specific about “the art of documentary” as it was conceived by some of the young Turks at the Film Division, such as Duncan, John Heyer and Lee Robinson, in relation to the Department of Information’s reliance on the magazine style of newsreel production.

The formation of the Film Division of the Department of Information and Australian National Film Board saw a bifurcation between the entrenched Department of Information personnel who remained with the Government from war service or from the Cinema and Photographic Branch of the Department of the Interior, located in Melbourne, and those people who entered the Film Division in 1945 from a variety of backgrounds. Joan Long tells us that:

in Australia in the thirties, despite the cultural lag, documentary was already influencing some young film-makers, including Damien Parer, John Heyer, Maslyn Williams, Geoffrey and Dahl Collings, Lee Robinson, as well as influential intellectuals like Professor Alan Stout. [24]

Long lays out the problems that immediately beset the Film Division.

[T]he staff lines at the D. O. I. were split between the old-hand technicians – mostly former newsreels cameraman and editors – and the young film-makers, experienced and inexperienced, who had battered on the Unit’s door for jobs, because it was one of the only places to work if you wanted to work in films. If you were one of the latter you were known as one of the ‘documentary mob’. In fact, the very word ‘documentary’ was anathema to these people [the old DOI ]. [25]

Duncan was fortunate to have a close friend who managed to straddle both camps. Ted Cranstone was officially a D. O. I. camera -operator. He also, along with Bob Matthews, commenced the screenings that led to the formation of the Realist Film Association in Melbourne. Cranstone was considered more of a “documentarist” and less adherent to the strictures of newsreel production than most included in the D. O. I. personnel.

For Duncan working within this progressive documentary initiative still had its frustrations. Working on Journey of a Nation (1945) with John Heyer, was an example. Compared to the “orchestral” method Duncan admired so much in working on Indonesia CallingJourney of a Nation provided her with an indication of a different kind of reliance on narration in documentary film, as distinct from newsreel.

I wrote the script in verse. I was really in love with the whole thing you know. He shot verse by verse. . . . that film is a cut version of the text, and when I’d finished and I saw the film I said “Well I think it’s wonderful, I like your film very much indeed, so now I’ll write the text”, and he [Heyer] said “Oh no you won’t”. But I said “You’ve shot it, you don’t want the text and the shooting, you’ve now translated that into image” He said “nothing doing”. I was absolutely furious. [Y]ou don’t describe what you see on the screen. . . it’s not necessary, but you can add to it. They’re two different things. I mean, the relationship between the word and the image is primordial. [26]

Duncan also provided the background research for Native Earth (1945), Men and Mobs (1947), Born in the Sun (1947) and later directed Christmas under the Sun (1946), Men Wanted (1946) and The Meeting Place (1947).

The Meeting Place

The Meeting Place is a film about the South Australian town of Nuriootpa. The film is particularly interested in the community mindedness of the townsfolk and their “community plan” which involves such things as the setting up of a community cooperative store, a community hotel and the planning of a Centennial Park which is to include housing sports fields and an amphitheatre. In this film Duncan’s role as director is apparent in the manner in which the film adopts a relaxed tone whereby the images consist of panning shots across images of people working in orchards, fields and in building community works. The emphasis is on people grouped within the frame and with a narration that is more general and concerned with the attitude toward cooperation, planning , consultation and cooperative effort. These terms punctuate the narration. Overall the film announces itself as being concerned with a “town for the people of Australia and the world”.

Following a description of the Centennial Park works that are to commence, there is a key sequence in which it is possible to see another example of the distinction between Duncan’s work and that of the newsreel approach to image and narration. Over images of people working in the fields, ploughing, raking and digging, the narrator says:

The builders are the people. The farmers, the townsfolk, the young, the old and the middle aged working freely in their spare time towards something they are building together. Class distinctions fall away. They have new interests, new skills.

This sequence ends with some orchestral music composed by Martin Long and a final image of a pole being raised and half a dozen hands, in mid-shot, supporting the pole as it is secured. The music in the film is of a less “dramatic” nature, cohering the images without staccato punctuation or giving emphasis to singular images. In distinction to the model for newsreel documentaries of the time, The Meeting Place, in its use of music, narration and editing, correlates with the communal spirit divined in the town.

Having remained in touch in the years following Indonesian independence, Joris Ivens contacted Duncan about the possibility of her working on a new film project. Duncan tells us of how her relationship with Ivens and Michelle provided her with a sense of solidarity with the international left, in particular a European left-wing documentary community:

After Indonesia Calling, Marion and Joris got onto a British ship which could take them back to Europe. You know there was nothing, absolutely nothing, you couldn’t get there any other way, and it was very difficult to get a berth, so, and then, and what had been so exciting [in Australia] during the war were all the refugees from Europe, and they were going back too. So, I felt like an orphan. I’d been left behind. So I eventually got onto a French ship … and when I got to Suez I had a telegram from Joris asking will you come to Czechoslovakia when we are ready for the text for The First Years [1949] [27]

In the summer of 1948 Duncan met up with Michelle and Ivens where they had taken up residence in the former Turkish Embassy in Prague. For seven months Duncan worked away on the commentary for the film. [28]   The house became notable for its part in the passage of intellectuals who were moving through the socialist states of Europe. While Duncan was in residence left-wing luminaries such as Bertolt Brecht and Hans Eisler came to stay. [29]

Rosalind Delmar tells us more about this film project:

It was on the initiative of Lubomir Linhart, director of the Czech State film Organisation, that Ivens made his first film in the new People’s Democracies, The First Years, which is dedicated to the task of post-war reconstruction. In its final version it comprises episodes shot in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. A Yugoslav episode was originally included, but a serious rift in relations between the Yugoslav and Soviet governments which led to the expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform and its exclusion from the ‘anti-imperialist’ camp, meant that this episode was not finally included. [30]

Prior to her arrival in Czechoslovakia, Duncan was in London where she met up with the remnants of the John Grierson led British Documentary Group. She met with Grierson and felt that she could have obtained work with him but had already committed herself to working with Ivens. [31]

While in London she was asked to write an essay on her experiences in the Australian documentary movement. Duncan positions herself as outsider in this essay beginning her writing with a dreamed film titled: “As others see us”. She draws on the clichés of newsreel representations of the time, of images of “sheep, koalas, thoroughbreds of the turf” and “the sun [that] always shines”. In the essay she contrasts these images with what she understands to be the “reality” of life in Australia. “overcrowding in the cities and lack of suitable accommodation for thousands of families; soil erosion helped along by the sheep; strikes; shortage of man-power and, of course, Melbourne rain”. Duncan’s “experiment” in altering the clichéd narration by accompanying these words with counter-images, recalls the problems that Duncan experienced in working on Heyer’s Journey of a Nation where the images were built around Duncan’s verse narration.

As much as “As others see us” displays Duncan’s strong regard for a poetic documentary mode, the article also understands this mode in relation to the newsreel aesthetics of the D. O. I. people at the Film Division. Later in the article Duncan employs the phrase “Sun gods of the surf” which is a direct jibe at the Jack Allen directed newsreel with the same title. Allen was one of the D. O. I. people who specialised in the newsreel format. Son Gods of the Surf was part of the Around Australia with Movietone series, a Twentieth Century Fox company production. The format of this newsreel is typical of the time with Wilfrid Thomas’s narration extolling the virtues of:

sun, surf and sea, nature’s contribution to happiness throughout the world. Nowhere else in the world is sun bathing more popular than along Australia’s 13, 000 mile coastline where a sports loving people have made it their favourite past-time.

The images of the newsreel include sharks, surf life-saving carnivals, body surfing and the obligatory images of women in swimming costumes. The film is basically about the “tough job for tough men”, the heroics of lifesavers. It would seem that Duncan’s alluding to this film points not only to the bifurcation within the Film Division (an entirely appropriate title) but to the aesthetic approaches and documentary modes found in use in each camp. Sun Gods of the Surf is marked by its hyperbolic narration which is slavishly tied to the images. The film employs a voice of God narration without the distance between narration and image that Duncan saw as the source of a productive documentary form; the kind of documentary work she was to pursue in the post-war years.

“As others see us” is also notable in its regard for the international, or more specifically British, immigrant. Duncan describes her research for her films:

I began then by reading hundreds of letters from prospective immigrants, noting down their questions as to living conditions and the reasons why they wanted to come to Australia. I suppose the British Education Department has brought its Australian history up to date, but one might suppose from many of these letters that we were still living in the good old days of Ned Kelly. [32]

Duncan is well aware that her films were designed to not only to attract immigrants but also to satisfy domestic audiences that the government film organisation is acting responsibly in its attitude to immigration. Duncan clearly believed in the projects that she worked on:

There is also another side of the question which must be considered, and one which has not been overlooked by the Department of Immigration. If immigrants need information on Australia, Australians are equally in need of information on the whole policy of immigration. Half its success depends on the attitude of the ordinary Australian towards his neighbour and, at the moment, I should say it was lukewarm … Australians accept the idea of large-scale immigration in theory and resent it in practice.  [33]

For Duncan the answer lies in the potential of films to familiarise domestic audiences with the plight of refugees and immigrants, including the procedures immigrants had to endure as well as the opportunities that lay ahead for them.

The problems that the post-war Australian government faced were direct consequences of the war. The fall of Singapore in February 1942 and the Japanese attacks on Broome and Darwin seemed to threaten Australia itself. Just as importantly, the war in Australia’s near North was responded to by the appointment of the American General Douglas Macarthur, as supreme commander of the allied forces in the Pacific, with headquarters in Melbourne, and later Brisbane, thrusting an image of US influence into the faces of Australians. [34] These events heralded major shifts in Australia’s thinking about itself. The country found itself positioned outside of the Commonwealth and in a volatile Asia, and under the increasing influence of the US. The anxieties and relative uncertainties that Australians had felt through the depression and the war years remained as strong forces in the post-war years. As Stephen Alomes et al. point out:

The paradox of the postwar period was that in an era which saw economic stability and growing affluence and personal comfort in Australia there was also growing uncertainty and fear. . . . Nearly two decades of deprivation and uncertainty had left a legacy of insecurity and desire for security, both domestic, personal and international. [35]

Alongside the residue of these images of Asia, of America and of the kind of nationalism discussed above came the influx of large numbers of non-British immigrants to fulfil the “reconstruction” model envisaged by the Labor government. While this initiative may have been seen as a contribution to nation building, it evolved into another source of patriotism and continuing the long history of migration and xenophobia that exists in Australia. Opposition to “alien” immigration had a long history. It had been intense during the 1930s when there were fears of non-Caucasians, and the prospect of large numbers of refugees offered raw material for traditional populist anti-Semitism. The war experience exacerbated the fear of foreigners. [36]

“As other see us” also relates to the notion of “social duties” and “the assumption of a universal humanism” that Moran writes about as they stem from the Griersonian principles for documentary. Of course, Ivens at most stages of his itinerant international oeuvre, was pursuing these same ideals yet without the larger institutional conditions often ascribed to the Grierson documentary. After The First Years Catherine Duncan was a participant in one of the more prominent international film institutions which enabled her participation in French intellectual and cultural life.

In the late forties Duncan turned from verse and commentary writing to the research for and administration of one of the more influential international film institutions. These were the International Federation of Film Archives and the International Federation of Cine Clubs. Duncan’s participation at this worldwide level saw her participate in revitalising a film culture network in the post-war years.


The Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF) was founded in 1938 by Henri Langlois, Georges Franju, Olwen Vaughan and Iris Barry. [37]

Initially an association between the Cinémathèque Française, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the British Film Institute, FIAF went on to stimulate the emerging film archives in other countries such as Italy, Belgium and Germany. [38] In the case of Langlois’s Cinémathèque Française, the war brought about a simple mission for the organization: to save as many prints as possible. After the war, Langlois’s reputation for administrative incompetence had reached mythological heights, such as the famous story of the holdings of the Cinémathèque Française being stored in his bathtub. Richard Roud’s account of FIAF excludes Catherine Duncan. He writes:

FIAF started its activities again when Langlois held the 1946 Congress in Paris, the first since the one in New York before the war. By this time Franju had had enough of both the Cinémathèque and FIAF, and resigned as secretary-general. Iris Barry replaced the absent Frank Hansel as president. (Franju’s place was taken by Z. de Malewsky-Malevitch, who held the job until 1951; he was followed by Farrokh Gaffary, and in 1956 Marion Michelle took over the job). [39]

Roud’s genealogy omits Duncan’s work as secretary-general from 1954-55. Duncan tells us how she obtained the position:

That came about because the International Federation of Film Archives was at the Cinémathèque Française, and I needed a job to survive, so it was suggested that I take over the secretarial work for the international film archive, because the man who was doing it was leaving, and I spent a couple of years doing that, and then I think it was suggested that I take over the Cine Clubs. Well you know I did all my research, I went to all the films, because I didn’t have any background of really what the Archives meant. So I went to, perhaps, five films in a day. It was a wonderful entry into the Cinémathèque and of course everybody knew Langlois and I was part of Ivens’s group so I had an entry there, which I used.

Duncan worked directly with Henri Langlois attempting to administer an organisation that had become, according to Roud, a “much more official, even bureaucratic affair” that had been run in a manner peculiar to the now famous head of the Cinémathèque Français. [40] Duncan elucidates:

Impossible! That story has never come out. I’m not talking about myself because I didn’t play such a large role. I started perhaps the machinery which only broke things open, but Marion [Michelle] took it over because I went back to Australia for two years, and she took over the work I’d been doing, and she went further than I did. But you can’t imagine what the Cinémathèque was like. You simply cannot imagine. You never got any mail for example. Now I felt for an international federation [that] was a bit curious, and one day I saw a big screen against a corner of the Cinémathèque, and I looked behind it and it was just one whole pile of mail which had never been opened. This is just crazy. . . . . I mean Langlois did an extraordinary job, he was a brilliant man, but he was mad! I was in touch with all the different Federations. There were Federations all over the world of archives. The British Film Archive also, and I think we had about 16 or 17 different countries at that time, and now they’re an enormous international body, and very rich, but then they had very little money, and it was just after the war really, you know. And so I met of course all the archive people at that time because we had international assembly, general assemblies in each different country, a different country every year. Soviet Union, Germany, Poland, Yugoslavia, Americans too. Oh yes, it’s a very big body now because these are of course indispensable these archives. They borrowed for any particular showings. . . . they could borrow, or some one body for example would have part of a film, and then with another one they’d find another bit of the film, and bit-by-bit you could put the film together again. But they’re very important bodies of course. Cinémathèque was a film archive. Langlois was one of the first to do this too, and he used to keep the films in his bath until finally he persuaded the government to give him money and give him a place and give him the possibility of keeping these films. Most of the directors of course liked Langlois because here was somebody prepared to keep their films. So at the Cinémathèque you could meet almost anybody. . . people coming in. It really created the audience for another kind of spectator in the cinema. [41]

Although somewhat of a hiatus in her work with word and image, the time spent at the Cinémathèque entrenched her in French intellectual life. In an essay written to commemorate the centenary of the birth of Paul Strand, one of her close friends, she wrote about the milieu she found herself a part of.

With the end of World War II, an extraordinary displacement of artists and intellectuals began all over the world. Many Europeans who had found refuge from Hitler in Allied countries returned home, hopes high for a new beginning. In such countries as the United States and Australia, where the stimulus of revolutionary ideas has been particularly fecund, artists – and I was one of them — were acutely aware of the reflux. Once the exiles departed, the intellectual and artistic horizons they had opened for us threatened to shrink back to prewar insularity. The exiles were returning to the mythic countries of their origins, to the building sites of a new world, leaving us to a more lonely exile in the tightening grip of the cold war.

It was Europe where everything was happening, or likely to happen, and Paris was the halfway capital between two worlds. From Paris, the Orient Express still set out for Prague, Belgrade, and Sofia. Through Paris, international delegations made their way into East Germany and to Poland and the Soviet Union. In Paris, ideals still flourished on the Left Bank, and every afternoon you could drop into the Café Flore or the Deux Magots, catch a glimpse of Sartre and talk your head off over a pot of tea with men from the Resistance, dadaists, surrealists or, crossing the Seine, swap the latest political news with journalists from Combat. On Saturday afternoon, a stone’s throw from the American Embassy, Elsa and Aragon animated discussions at La Maison de la Pensée.

Sooner or later, then, a disparate group of world citizens, as we liked to think of ourselves, converged on Paris. We took it for granted that we were all there for the same idealistic reasons, and no doubt we were. But as the years passed and the cold war diminished, instead of returning to our respective countries, some of us stayed on; so perhaps there were other reasons. [42]

The figure of Paul Strand represents a parallel path to Duncan’s with his work in both radical left film production alongside official Government projects. Both friends were itinerant artists interested in collaborative work and the relationship between text and image.

Paul Strand married Hazel Kingsbury in 1951 and moved to France where they both formed a close friendship with Duncan. Strand at that time was a well known figure on the left having made Manhatta (1921) with Charles Sheeler, supervising and shooting The Wave (1936), a film made for Mexico’s Secretariat of Education about the unionising of village fisherman and for his work photographing Pare Lorentz’s The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936). In 1936 Strand had become a member of the political film making group Nykino which evolved into the collective Frontier films with Strand as its President. Frontier films made Native Land (1942), a film about union busting and labour spying. Of course Strand is best known for his still photography. Marion Michelle worked as a stills photographer on Native land and it was through Michelle that Duncan met the Strands. [43]

Before arriving in Paris Strand had completed his first book Time in New England (1950), a collaboration with Nancy Newhall which combined images and text. This book belonged to a tradition of written text combined with photography that came out of the depression. Time in New England was in the manner of James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s An American Exodus (1939) except that Strand and Newhall decided to combine Newhall’s historical account of her native New England with Strand’s contemporary photographs. Time in New England would commence a new way of working for Strand; a series of books that adopted the use of a writer familiar with a very specific area to which Strand would provide photographs resulting in what John Rohrbach would call “cultural studies … each collaboration would evoke the spirit of the culture under study, emphasizing its rural roots and tenacious independence”. [44]  Subsequent projects include Un Paese (1955) with Cesare Zavattini, an account of the Italian writer’s village Luzzara and Tir a’Mhurain (1962) with Basil Davidson (and a preface by Catherine Duncan), a rendering of the Outer Hebrides. Mike Weaver argues that it was “only in his books and films could Strand hope to overcome the naturalistic limitations of [his still photographic] documentary”. [45]  He supports this assertion with a quote from Strand that recalls Duncan’s problem with Journey of a Nation.

That’s why I want text with my photographs because I think text properly used or properly written – a text that doesn’t say the same thing at all as the photograph – adds to the photograph, and they both get a new dimension that way. [46]

Catherine Duncan’s friendship, and eventual working relationship with Strand was based partly on this enthusiasm for this combining of text and image much in the same manner that Duncan had envisaged for Journey of a Nation and tried to achieve in The Meeting Place.

Just prior to his death Strand and Duncan worked on a text and photo portfolio entitled The Garden which came about due to Strand’s inability to travel to take photographs. Hazel maintained a magnificent garden in Orgeval and Strand took many photos there. In an echo of the work undertaken with Joris Ivens on Indonesia Calling, Duncan and Strand decided to collaborate on the work arranging and rearranging the images in endless patterns to which Duncan would add the text. [47]

In 1988 Duncan published The Grandmothers Book, a collection of tales from her childhood in Tasmania told through the arrangement of text and image and calligraphy contributed by Hughes Pera. [48]  This collage book can be understood in relation to her earliest work in radio, in theatre, in film commentary and more recently in her work with digital images and text. Duncan sums her work up:

Joris said ‘What you say in the image you do not say in word, and you create a third dimension and therefore this relationship, and once again the relationship between word and image creates something else. Word image, sound. I found that absolutely fascinating in a sense that I have been doing nothing but that for the rest of my life. [49]

Catherine Duncan Filmography

Indonesia Calling (1946)
Director: Joris Ivens
Script: Joris Ivens
Camera: Marion Michelle and others
Editor: Joris Ivens
Commentary: written by Catherine Duncan, spoken by Peter Finch

Native Earth (1945)
Producer: John Heyer
Photography: Frank Bagnall
Production Assistant: Lionel Trainor
Research: Catherine Duncan
Music: John Kay
Australia and Your Future no. 1: Men Wanted (1946)
Australia and Your Future no. 3: Christmas under the Sun (1946)
Camera: Frank Bagnall
Editor: Hugh McInnes
Music: Kurt Herweg
Production: Stanley Hawes

Journey of a Nation (1947)
Director: John Heyer.
Camera: Frank Bagnall.
Music: Sydney John Kay.
Script: Catherine Duncan.
The Meeting Place (1947)
Director: Catherine Duncan
Camera: Frank Bagnall
Music: Martin Long
Supervisor: Stanley Hawes

Born in the Sun (1947)
Director: John Heyer
Camera: Edward Cranstone
Assistant Producer: Bern Gandy
Script: Lee Robinson
Research: Catherine Duncan
Commentator: Jim Woods

Men and Mobs (1947)
Producer and Director: John Heyer.
Camera: Edward Cranstone
Music; Esther Rofe.
Research: Catherine Duncan

Pierwsze Lata (The First Years) (1949)
Director: Joris Ivens
Script: Marion Michelle
Narration: Catherine Duncan
Editors: Joris Ivens, Karel Hoeschl
Music: Jan Kapr, performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Otakar Parik.
Bulgarian Episode
camera: Zachari Shandov, Ivan Fric;
ass. Camera; Dmitri Kitanov;
production delegate: Nikolai Tankov.

Czech Episode:
camera: Ivan Fric:
ass. camera:Josej Molhanek;
ass. director: Karel Kabelac;
production delegate: Miloslav Jilovec.

Polish Episode:
camera: Wladislaw Forbert;
ass. Camera M Wiesolek;
production delegate: W Hollander.


[1]  Duncan, Catherine. “As others see us. ” Sight and Sound. Vol. 17 no. 65. (spring 1948): 12-14.
[2] O’Regan, Tom. “The Historical Relations Between Theatre and Film: The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll . ” Continuum. Vol. 1: no. 1 (1987): 116.
[3] O’Brien, Angela. The Road not taken: Political and performance ideologies at Melbourne new theatre 19[3]6-1960 . Diss. , Melbourne U, 1989. 6.
[3] Introduction. Sons of the Morning: A Verseplay in three acts . (Sydney Mulga Publications, 1946).
[4] “The Path of the Eagle” is included in Leslie Rees (ed. ) Australian Radio Plays. (Sydney and London, Angus and Robertson. 1946).
[5] O’Brien. 117-118.
[6] O’Brien. 118.
[7] O’Brien. 9-10.
[8]  O’Brien. 18.
[9] Duncan, Catherine. Interview. Michelle Rayner. Australian Broadcasting Commission. Radio National Hindsight. 26/9/2000. Thanks to Michelle Rayner for permission access this interview.
[10] Hogenkamp, Bert. “A Special relationship: Joris Ivens and the Netherlands. ” Joris Ivens and the Documentary Context. In Kees Bakker ed. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 1999). 187.
[11] Hans Schoots. Living Dangerously: A Biography of Joris Ivens. Trans. David Colmer. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2000). 187. This book contains the chapter “Indonesia merdeka (1945-1946) which is based on Ivens’s own biographical notes of the time spent in Australia which never made their way into his biography The Camera and I.
[12] For details of the FBI’s close attention to Ivens in this period see Schoots.
[13] Schoots. 194.
[14] Schoots. 196.
[15] Schoots. 198.
[16] Schoots. 198.
[17] Duncan. Personal Interview. Paris 6. 4. 2002.
[18] Schoots. 200.
[19] Schoots. 201.
[20]Joris Ivens: 50 years of Film-making. (London: BFI, 1979). 44.
[21]Australian Journal of Screen Theory. 15/16 (1983): 164.
[22][23]Arena no 64.
[24]Notes from John Grierson Lecture. State Film Centre, Melbourne 19/11/1984.
[25] Long ibid.
[26] Duncan. Personal Interview.
[27] Duncan Personal Interview.
[28] see Duncan, Catherine, “The First Years. ” Sight and Sound. vol. 19 no. 1 (March 1950) 37-40.
[29] Schoots. 218.
[30] Delmar. . 44. Delmar explains that: “Cominform was the international organization of communist parties set up after the second world war in response to pressure from the Yugoslav party. It was a short-lived organization and its main operation was the co-ordination of an eastern European and Soviet boycott of the Marshall Plan. P. 44.
[31] Duncan. Personal Interview. 6. 4. 2002.
[32] “As others see us “. 12.
[33] “As others see us “. 14.
[34] Bolton, Geoffrey. The Oxford History of Australia vol. 5 The Middle Way: 1942-1995. 2nd Ed. (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996). 7-10
[35]Alomes, Stephen, Mark Dober and Donna Hellier. “The Social Context of Postwar Conservatism. ” Society, Communism and Culture. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1984. 1-29. Vol. 1 of Australia’s First Cold War 1945-1953 Eds. Ann Curthoys and John Merritt. 2 vols. 1984-86. (2)
[36] Alomes et al. 13
[37]Roud, Richard. A Passion for Films: Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française. (New York, Viking, 1983). 29.
[38] Roud. 30-41.
[39]Roud. 62-63.
[40] Roud. 62.
[41] Duncan. Personal Interview . 6. 4. 2002
[42] Duncan, Catherine. “The Years in Orgeval. ” in Paul Strand: Essays on his Life and Work. Maren Stange. Ed. (New York: Aperture Books, 1986). 232.[ ]
[43] Duncan, Catherine. “An Intimate Portrait. ” in Paul Strand. The World on my Door Step 1950-1976. (New York: Aperture, 1994).
[44] Rohrbach, John. “Time in New England: creating a usable past. ” in Paul Strand: Essays on his Life and Work. Maren Stange. Ed. (New York: Aperture Books, 1986). 232.
[45] Weaver, Mike. “Dynamic realist. ” in Paul Strand: Essays on his Life and Work. Maren Stange. Ed. (New York: Aperture Books, 1986). 203.
[46] Weaver, Mike. “Dynamic Realist. ” in Paul Strand: Essays on his Life and Work. Maren Stange. Ed. (New York: Aperture Books, 1986). 203.
[47] Strand, Paul. The Garden. New York: Aperture Books, 1976).
[48]  Duncan, Catherine. The Grandmother’s Book. (Melbourne, Hyland House, 1988).
[49] Duncan. Personal Interview. Paris. 17. 2. 1996.
Created on: Thursday, 29 April 2004 | Last Updated: Friday, 7 May 2004

About the Author

Deane Williams

About the Author

Deane Williams

Deane Williams is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies at Monash University. His books include Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors (2008), Michael Winterbottom (with Brian McFarlane, 2009) and the three-volume Australian Film Theory and Criticism (co-edited with Noel King and Constantine Verevis, 2013–2017).View all posts by Deane Williams →