Australian Postwar Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors

Deane Williams,
Australian Postwar Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors.
Bristol: Intellect Books, 2008.
ISBN: 9781841502106
UK£29.95 (hb)
192 pp
(Review copy supplied by Intellect Books)

Deane Williams re-evaluates Australian documentary film production after World War 2, positioning it as part of an international left culture, which can embrace producers as different as the Realist Film Unit, Cecil Holmes, John Heyer and Maslyn Williams. The design and appearance of the book is appealing, though I would have preferred illustrations placed where they matter to an argument (rather than grouped together for economy), and I was disappointed at the absence of an index. But it is the argument that is of primary concern here.

Williams’ introduc tion, titled ‘Grierson diminished’, challenges claims by earlier historians of the seminal role played by John Grierson in post-war documentary film production in Australia. I am not, however, at all sure that he succeeds in ‘diminishing’ Grierson’s role. First, he acknowledges (both in that introduction and repeatedly throughout the book) that Griersonian principles informed many of the stylistic choices of the directors he discusses – this constitutes, surely, more than a minor influence.

Then, he down-plays the effect of Grierson’s 1940 visit to Australia, because of the well-known reluctance of the Menzies government to even meet Grierson, let alone accept his recommendations. However, Williams does not acknowledge the almost immediate influence of these recommendations on some State governments, leading to the formation of State Film Centres in both NSW and Victoria. When the formation of the NSW body is finally mentioned, quite late in the book, no attempt is made to consider any relation between its formation and Grierson’s visit. The state film bodies, however, contributed significantly to the cultural climate that allowed a national film policy (and its various organisational incarnations) in the years after the war, so Grierson’s contribution to their foundation is actually a significant part of that national story. Further, there is a paradox here, in that in his introduction Williams denies the concept of an ‘essential’ Australian cinema (p. 19), but the rest of the book still speaks almost exclusively at the level of the Commonwealth/Federal/national, while mostly ignoring the states or other regional developments.

However, though I cannot agree that he succeeds in ‘diminishing the Griersonian legacy’, at the same time I consider that any disagreement about the extent of Grierson’s influence is a red herring. There is no need to cut the legs from under Grierson in order to also acknowledge other contributors to the debate at that time – men like Watts or Ivens, or the influence of international political movements such as the New Deal in USA or cultural movements such as Italian neo-realism. It is in that part of his stated intention to “to broaden, to internationalise, the documentary discourse by tracing the many cultural influences that impacted on documentary production” (p. 18) that Williams’ work is most successful and interesting.

Each of his four substantive chapters discusses one or more films both inter-textually and contextually. The chapter on the Realist Film Unit places their productions alongside British and European films about the problems of the under-privileged, such as the post-war housing shortage (e.g. the Realists’ A Place to Live(1950) and Arthur Elton’s Housing Problems (1935)). These productions are located within a social and industrial context, which includes Workers Clubs, workers’ theatre, the Communist Party of Australia, the Spanish Civil War, film-making in the Soviet Union and efforts by the Victorian parliament to control the distribution of ‘subversive’ films.

The chapter on Cecil Holmes’ Three in One (1957) compares each of the film’s three parts to precursor culture as well as to the social context. So ‘Joe Wilson’s mates’ evokes Henry Lawson more generally, ‘The Load of Wood’ evokes Frank Hardy, and ‘The City’ evokes both the film Love on the Dole (1941) (a discussion of the censorship of this film in Australia might well have enriched the argument at this point) and the many European ‘city films’. But all three parts arise out of the international folk revival, which hit post-war Australia as it did other English-speaking countries, producing the popular stage play Reedy River, as well as the folk-ballads, and the numerous publications which sought to identify what was uniquely ‘Australian’ about Australian culture.

The chapter on John Heyer’s The Back of Beyond (1954) looks to international examples of films about journeys such as Britain’s Night Mail (1936) or the USSR’s Turksib (1929), or to those of film-makers such as Robert Flaherty or Pare Lorentz, who focus on the relationship between people and the land. It also examines the production principles at work in the Australian National Film Board, and the role of the Shell Film Unit.

‘The Neo-Realism of Mike and Stefani’ reads the Australian film through Andre Bazin’s work on Italian neo-realism, and even more through Roger Leenhardt’s concept of ‘Personalism’, comparing it with Stromboli(1950) and Paisa (1946). The textual analysis is far more detailed here than in other chapters, leaving less space for the contextual. The production process is traced very selectively through documents, with hardly any reference to the Commonwealth Film Unit as the production agency and none to Stanley Hawes as nominal producer. However, the chapter ends with an impressive section on the importance of music to Maslyn Williams’ filmic vision.

So readers are taken on an always enlightening and often exciting journey, through a complex web of people and films and events, to view Australian culture through the documentary film ‘arc of mirrors’. All the films are linked in a final chapter, as expressions of settler culture, produced within a particular moment of the search for an Australian national identity. They are, however, still presented as part of an international left culture, with diverse roots and branches, and a habit of drawing on many different models eclectically.

I found this conclusion appealing, but I was left with one large question. Was the influence of international left culture entirely one-way? Or, did Australian left culture (including film, but not limited to it) ever provide a model for others? Ross Gibson implies as much in his Preface, but perhaps that is a different question, deserving of a separate answer…

Ina Bertrand,

Created on: Sunday, 23 November 2008

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →