Mataungan: The Epic That Almost Was

The assistance of Rod Bishop and Mal Bryning in the gathering of information for this article is gratefully acknowledged.

Note: this article on Mataungan, a documentary film project that began in 1973 but was eventually abandoned, was submitted for publication in August 1999 for the 25th anniversary edition of Cinema Papers. For some unknown reason the essay was not published, but had it been it would have coincided with the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the Federal Government’s Experimental Film Fund, which had provided financial assistance to the production of Mataungan in its first round of grants. Interest in the fate of Mataungan was sparked again in 2016 when Rod Bishop posted an article in Film Alert 101 in which he spoke about how Melbourne-based artist Lisa Hilli had contacted him to request permission to incorporate extant footage of the production in the installation of A Bit na Ta: The Story of the Gunantuna, an exhibition that ran at the Melbourne Museum and the Queensland Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art that same year. The following article is published here as originally submitted to Cinema Papers by Ken Berryman.


In August 1969, as part of a new package for the arts, the Federal Government made the historic announcement of a grant of $300,000 to aid Australian filmmaking. The first of the film industry assistance schemes to get underway was the Experimental Film & Television Fund (EFTF), in April 1970. As the lowest rung of a three-tiered funding mechanism, the EFTF seldom attracted huge amounts of publicity but, by the end of 1978, when a major revision of policies for grants changed the title and nature of this Fund, it had nevertheless dispensed almost two million dollars in financially assisting hundreds of individual projects. Low budget funding at Federal level is still around in one form or another, but the EFTF was where it all began.

The Experimental Fund as originally conceived was designed “to foster and encourage cinema and television experiment in form, content and technique and to discover new creative talent”. Then, as now, applications for grants were assessed by selected representatives of the film and television industry and from their recommendations small sums of money were made available to filmmakers to help pay for the basic costs of their projects.

Grants for this low-budget fund averaged approximately $2000 and it was anticipated that filmmakers with a “high level of creative potential” would progress to the higher funding schemes, perhaps gain a place at the new Film and Television School, and eventually go on to make the highly commercial films and television series, the ‘serious, interpretive features’ or the ‘art films’ which would distinguish the ‘new’ Australian film industry.

A glance at the list of grant recipients from the EFTF over nine years reveals many names associated with the film revival in this country: Peter Weir, Michael Thornhill, Paul Cox, Tim Burstall, Ken Cameron, Phil Noyce, Jan Chapman, Byron Kennedy, Russell Mulcahy, Michael Pattinson and others, all at one time received assistance from the low-budget fund. Arts bureaucrats were fond of citing the Fund’s success stories but, in truth, its ‘talent spotting’ function often sat uneasily alongside its other stated aimÑthe fostering of experiment.

Certainly, there was never a shortage of applicants to the EFTF. It attracted not only seasoned filmmakers, but artists, writers, academics, hobbyists – all manner of people, “from school-age to bald-age” as one EFTF advertisement put it. Not surprisingly the projects undertaken with fund assistance – over 800 of them – also displayed considerably variety: from feature or short drama subjects shot on 35mm or 16mm to modest 8mm or video subjects, embracing a range of styles from formal abstraction through experimental narrative to pure documentary.

The following article recounts the fate of Mataungan – one of the least celebrated but otherwise most remarkable EFTF projects – from its conception to (near) completion.

Mataungan‘s Origins

Although fund assessors tended to favour other approaches, a number of documentary projects attracted their support over the years. The very first film produced through the Fund Or Forever Hold Your Peace (1970) – was a documentary critical of the Federal Government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, ‘biting the feeding hand’ as Phillip Adams observed at the time. Many of the documentary projects which followed were also to adopt an oppositional stance, most notably the body of feminist films which began to appear in the early to mid 1970s.

Mataungan was one of the earliest documentary projects to secure EFTF funding. The original application for “a colour documentary to be shot in New Guinea between mid-December [1971] and mid-January [1972]” was received by the Australian Film Institute (AFI), which administered the Fund on behalf of the Australian Council for the Arts (the precursor of the Australia Council), late in October 1971 (See Box 1).

After being vested with the Australian Film Institute in 1970, the Experimental Fund was administered by a committee which included AFI Governors and Australian Council for the Arts appointees. This committee was responsible for policy decisions based on detailed reports from AFI Director Erwin Rado, who in turn based his reports on recommendations from six assessors selected by the AFI. But even with this committee structure in place, it soon became clear that the administration of the Fund involved far more time than could have been anticipated.

In 1971, the AFI appointed Isaac Gerson as Assistant Director on a part-time basis to share the workload related to the Fund. By early 1972, he in turn had extra secretarial support. But these staffing gains were offset by the resignation of Erwin Rado, one of the two co-founders of the Institute, as its Director in March 1972. The tie between the AFI and the Melbourne Film Festival, upon which the Institute’s finances had hitherto largely depended, was also to be severed later that year. Isaac Gerson had to fill the position as Acting Director until the AFI could afford to meet the salary of a new full-time Director. This was made possible by a one-off Commonwealth grant provided by the Interim Council for a National Film and Television Training School in September 1972, and film producer Richard Brennan was duly appointed for a twelve month period. Isaac Gerson continued as EFTF Administrator until leaving the AFI in September 1975.

The application for funding was submitted by Dr. Heinz Schutte, a Sociology lecturer at La Trobe University with no previous film experience. His film project – with the working title of Two Cultures – was described briefly as an “analytic documentary about the conflict between a pre-technological culture and an advanced technological culture, structured around an impending murder trial.”

Despite the lack of film experience, Dr. Schutte could cite his extensive field research in Third World countries, numerous published works and university lectures on this topic. Equally importantly, he could point to the involvement promised by filmmakers Dave Jones, Peter Beilby and Rod Bishop, all at the time with some La Trobe University affiliation (and all destined to complete their own projects with EFTF assistance). Even so, Dr. Schutte’s appeal for financial assistance from the fledgling Fund was nothing if not ambitious. His initial application sought $7871 of an estimated total project cost of $11,271 – with no indication as to how the shortfall of $3400 would be met. In addition, Dr. Schutte requested that his application be processed immediately, since he and other members of his research team were nominally scheduled to leave for New Guinea in less than three weeks from his submission date.

For the AFI Fund Administrator, Isaac Gerson, it appeared an unlikely Experimental Fund project, and inadequately budgeted. Nor did he envisage the application would be processed to finality within 16 days (See Box 2), but reluctant to turn it down out-of-hand sought advice on the matter from Melbourne-based Fund assessor Colin Bennett. Bennett saw it initially as outside the scope of the EFTF and suggested its referral to the Australian Council for the Arts for consideration as a ‘special project’.


Applications for EFT grants were advertised periodically, with Fund officials aiming to conduct assessments on at least a quarterly basis, although variations did occur. Closing dates for each batch of applications were advised and assessments held approximately six weeks later. One panel of three assessors was based in Sydney, another in Melbourne and, for a time, each worked in association with assessors based in other capital cities. Panels comprised people working in a range of areas within the film industry and membership changed frequently. They were briefed by a specially appointed adviser to the Fund, known as the Film Consultant, who acted as a formal link between the Council for the Arts and the AFI. The first official EFTF Film Consultant was Bruce Beresford, who had returned from Britain in the early ’70s.

The practice was for the assessors to review each application independently, then to meet to discuss their opinions. After viewing examples of previous work (if any) and interviewing the majority of applicants, a list of projects recommended for support would be drawn up by the assessors and submitted by the Film Consultant to the relevant authority for approval. In due course, successful applicants would receive a copy of the agreement for signature, the others an acknowledgement that their applications had been rejected. The procedural delay from closing date to notification of grants was approximately ten weeks.

Assessments were designed to be national and comparative. No state quotas existed, and borderline cases would often be held over, or applicants invited to re-submit their proposals in greater detail to subsequent assessments. The Film Consultant was expected to be in attendance at assessments to provide a briefing function for panels and, without acting as an advocate, to ensure that applicants received ‘a fair go’. The Consultant’s presence at assessments was also a means by which a balance between northern and southern panels and an even-handed distribution of grants could be achieved.

Gerson forwarded the application to the Arts Council as suggested, but quickly found himself under pressure to have it resubmitted to the Experimental Fund. In terms of eligibility for ‘special’ funding, Arts Council policy included as a prerequisite some percentage backing from a television station – anticipating more recent changes to funding policies but at that time something of an impossibility for a project deemed by its advocates to have ‘experimental cultural significance’. Gerson then advised the team to submit a revised application to the EFTF, and promised to have it included for consideration by the Melbourne assessors at their next meeting.

Heinz Schutte responded quickly to this invitation, indicating in his new submission actual or potential sources of additional finances or services in lieu: the La Trobe University Media Centre; the Australian Council of Churches; the Myer Foundation; and – failing all else – his own pocket. By the time his application was processed, however, Dr. Schutte had already left for New Guinea to renew contact with the subjects of the proposed documentary – the Tolai people of the Gazelle Peninsula in New Britain.

The Mataungan Association

For years prior to the Schutte documentary project, Australian films depicting the peoples of New Guinea had been confined largely to uncritical essays by the Commonwealth Film Unit, reporting on the smooth adjustment to change and ‘progress’ across social, political and economic fronts under benevolent colonial trusteeship. Alternative perspectives from independent filmmakers like Dennis O’Rourke, Jane Oehr and Ian Stocks, and others had yet to appear.

On this basis alone a film project seeking to examine cultural conflict through the eyes of the New Guineans – by involving them directly in all aspects of the production – and also aiming to tackle its subject with no hierarchical crew structure or designated allocation of tasks had, in 1971, some claim to be considered radical or ‘experimental’ in nature.

The Mataungan Association, which was the principal focus of the Schutte documentary project, had begun in 1969 as “a grass-roots, village-based economic, cultural and political movement towards self-directed progress of the Tolai people of the Gazelle peninsula”. At this time, it embraced the majority of the Tolai people and represented the first organised mass attempt to challenge the Australian administration on a broad line.

While the Tolais had a number of grounds for protest, their major grievances concerned the introduction of an administration-backed Multi-Racial Council (in place of the all-Tolai Gazelle Peninsula Local Government Council) and the transition of the old cooperatively-run Tolai Cocoa Project into a public company (under foreign controlling interests). The resultant racial tensions led inevitably to open conflict, culminating in the assassination of a white district commissioner in August 1971.

Fourteen Tolai tribesmen were to be tried for this murder, but it was the Mataungan Association which was considered by many observers to be the real defendant. Dr. Schutte regarded the trial as simply “the latest and most dramatic in a series of conflicts between the pre-technological Tolai people and the technologically sophisticated governing system.” The trial, he argued, could be seen “as a microcosm of the broader conflict between the two cultures, and perhaps symbolic of the world-wide conflict between technologically advanced and primitive cultures”. Either way, he was determined to structure the film around the trial, scheduled for mid-February 1972, and wanted to begin filming on location at least a month in advance of this event – hence, the unseemly haste in pressuring the AFI to have his funding application instantly processed.


In the event, the funding process had only slightly delayed the Two Cultures project. It was assessed out of chronological sequence as a matter of urgency by the Melbourne-based EFTF panel of Mal Bryning, Colin Bennett, and Fred Schepsi in mid-December 1971. This time, the assessors recommended a grant of up to $4000, subject to committee ratification and confirmation that the balance of the estimated total project cost of $11,271 could be met.

After a further meeting with Bryning, an additional member of Dr. Schutte’s prospective film crew submitted a revised budget to the AFI, modified in the absence of further finance. Under the new budget, the film’s concept would not alter but changes would be made through more economic filming methods – less film stock, and a reduction in the number of film crew travelling to New Guinea. American lecturer, Dave Jones, then based at La Trobe University’s Media Centre, had withdrawn as an active member of the film team, choosing to remain as a project advisor and provider of Media Centre facilities as required. The project team had been promised use of a car for filming purposes in New Guinea by Oscar Tammur, Member of the House of Representatives in the New Guinea Parliament and a founding member of the Mataungan Association. Tammur had also reaffirmed “the complete co-operation of his people” to assist the film crew’s desire to avoid the ‘visiting expert’ syndrome.

Accordingly, the agreement relating to the EFTF grant for the Two Cultures project, outlining the terms of disbursal (see Box 3) was issued under AFI Director Erwin Rado’s signature on 22 December 1971. The contract was signed within days, Schutte writing to Gerson at the AFI to thank him for his “invaluable assistance” and, by mid-January 1972, all members of the small Australian crew were on location in New Guinea. Some background footage was soon “in the can” and “all the ingredients of an extremely interesting film” seemed finally to be within reach.


In relation to administering the EFTF, undoubtedly more time and energy was devoted to financial matters than to any other facet. That this should be so was largely of the AFI’s choosing: it treated its role as disburser of public money very seriously. As a result, Fund beneficiaries were obliged to master the system of payments and relate it to their original budgets if they wished to keep their projects within grant limits.

Since it had been determined that financial assistance to filmmakers should cover production expenses only, the manner in which payments for goods and services could be most effectively supervised was the subject of some debate among members of the original EFTF Committee in 1970.

They eventually settled on the following procedure:

Filmmakers shall request from the Institute, on a voucher form, supply of specific materials or services, in response to which, the Institute shall send the filmmaker an order form for a specific item at a specific cost, made out on a supply house designated by the filmmaker. Payments will be made direct to the suppliers, against invoices.

With no provision for direct grants or inclusion of any kind of salary arrangement, this scheme was inevitably criticised as unduly bureaucratic.

Apart from philosophic objects to the payment procedure, there were also practical difficulties associated with the voucher system – frustrating to filmmakers, suppliers and administrators alike. On occasions, holders of grants would use the numbered requisition vouchers, issued to them upon receipt of their signed contracts, as warranty for payment. Firms would in turn accept such vouchers in good faith and supply the required goods or services. The AFI however refused to accept liability for payment of the invoices raised on these vouchers, and insisted that the only document it would support was

… a Purchase Order issued … and signed by this Institute, provided that the claimant is the person or firm named in the Order, the goods or services correspond with the description, the charge is not appreciably in excess (say, + 5%) of the amount stipulated, and the Purchase Order number is quoted in the invoice.

In other words, the requisition voucher held no weight with anyone but the AFI. Official wording on the voucher made this clear but a superficial examination of the two documents indicates how confusion could have arisen for those dealing with both for the first time.

Pre-Production and Filming

From the filmmakers’ viewpoint, the difficulties of the AFI voucher system and operating within a pre-ordained budget were apparent before the party had left Melbourne. Some purchase orders had to be cancelled or modified in the light of available or suitable equipment for hire, and changes in choice of insurance agency and film stock. The modest budget savings derived from these changes did not, however, cover the cost of vehicle hire made necessary by the non-availability of the car promised to the group by the Mataungans on its arrival in New Guinea. Ready access to a vehicle was crucial to the project since the movement of both personnel and equipment was otherwise extremely restricted in ‘wet season’ conditions. Failing a contingency allowance from the AFI, Heinz Schutte was obliged to use his own money to buy a pick-up truck for the use of the film crew – a decision he would soon regret.

Filming proceeded nonetheless and more than six hours of footage was shot in the ensuing month. Dave Jones was also able ultimately to spend a week with the rest of the crew, courtesy of AUSGrant, and, from his observation at the time, they were likely to return with the basis of “a very good film”. But the limitations of the small crew and budget had already compromised the project. As the members of the party had been able to raise money for production expenses, not wages, they could spend one month only with the Mataungans. As a consequence, their efforts to involve the locals in all aspects of the production were necessarily limited. The crew had also become aware of its shortage of experience in communicating with people from a fundamentally different culture – which no doubt would have been seen as disappointing, given the prior determination to at all costs avoid the charge of “paternalistic ethnocentrism”.

The next major setback was the poor picture quality of much of the exposed footage, an outcome they perceived to be due to the nature of the crew formation and structure. As Bishop, Schutte and Jones explained subsequently, in an article for Cineaste in 1972:

No one selected the crew. It was more or less “jelled” from people who didn’t know each other terribly well. The crew member providing the initiative in getting the money raised was the cameraman. The “functional director” and “the functional production advisor” were the last to commit themselves to the project. It turned out that the cameraman was most unsuited for a project of this sort. The rest of the crew – the “project supervisor” (the sociologist) had already gone to the Gazelle to work with the Mataungans – got wind of this shortly before the anticipated departure date. Because of the anti-role structure of the crew, there was no one person who could dismiss the cameraman from the project. And it turned out that the crew as a whole, partly because each was aware of his own shortcomings and the group had not grown into a coherent entity to exert pressure, did not have the will to decide to replace the cameraman, who had organizationally done more than most other members of the crew to get the project financially underway.


A more serious problem facing the project team – and the AFI – concerned not merely the cameraman’s competence but also his character. A plaintive letter from Dr. Schutte to Isaac Gerson in March 1972 alerted the Acting AFI Director to the gravity of the situation:

… I have reason to believe that [the cameraman] has embezzled considerable amounts of money both from me privately and from the Tolai Defence Fund. Also, he is withholding from us some of the footage shot in Rabaul, and he has equipment from the project … What should we do? There is no doubt that [he] has brutally and viciously exploited my naivete. [1]

Such behaviour was unprecedented in the short history of EFTF grants and, however galling for Dr. Schutte and his fellow crew members, it was to prove of equal embarrassment to the AFI in terms of potential liability under the voucher system it had devised.

Registered letters sent by the AFI to the defector at his only known address – seeking immediate return of the Beaulieu R16B camera and accessories hired from Encel Electronics at the outset of the project – drew no response. Encel, for its part, considered the Institute responsible for the equipment loss by reason of its issue of a Purchase Order. Unsure of the AFI’s freedom from liability for anything beyond what the Purchase Order stipulated, Isaac Gerson was moved, only half-jokingly, to ask Phillip Adams, at that time still an AFI Governor, whether he knew a good lawyer.

With the equipment valued at $1470.60, still outstanding, Encel Electronics instructed its solicitors to issue a summons against the Institute in November 1972. The AFI, in turn, was obliged to seek legal assistance. While the Institute had authorised the expenditure of $500 for equipment hire, under paragraph 7 of the EFTF contract between Dr. Schutte and the Institute:

… the contractor agrees to indemnify the Institute from any loss or claim of whatsoever nature arising in any way out of the project or of any breach of any warranty, representation or agreement given or made by the contractor.

It appeared that if any direct legal liability to Encel existed, the AFI with no funds at its disposal for such matters would invoke this clause of the contract. Having already been once bitten, Heinz Schutte, for his part, had no immediate means to make financial reparations to Encel either.

With court proceedings impending, Dr. Schutte, Peter Beilby and Rod Bishop had little option but to press for an out-of-court settlement. Almost a year later, Schutte reached an agreement with Encel whereby he consented to pay compensation of about $1300 by 1 October 1973. On top of this, he had both his own legal fees and those incurred by the AFI to meet. Again he appealed to the AFI for relief and Isaac Gerson wrote on his behalf to John B. Murray, then Executive Director of the Film and Television Board – which was by this stage the relevant EFTF funding authority (See Box 4). It had proved a chastening experience for all concerned, and remained so when the Film Board rejected Schutte’s claim for compensatory allowance – on the basis that Schutte should have been more discreet in his choice of cameraman!


In its nine years of operation, the Experimental Film and Television Fund came under the jurisdiction of four different government authorities but was administered through them by another organization with independent status. This somewhat complex pattern of administrative responsibility is set out below:


1970 Australian Council for the Arts  Australian Film Institute
1971-72 Interim Council for a National Film &
Television Training School
 Australian Film Institute
1973-76 Film and Television Board* of the
Australian Council for the Arts **
 Australian Film Institute
1976-77 Creative Development Branch of
Australian Film Commission ***
 Australian Film Institute
1977-78 Creative Development Branch of
Australian Film Commission
Creative Development Branch
of Australian Film Commission

* Note: Renamed Film, Radio and Television Board during this period
** Note: Re-structured and re-named Australia Council during this period.

Post Production

During all this time, Dr. Schutte had also been endeavouring to bring the film project – now retitled Mataungan – to completion. Since returning from New Guinea, the team had received various grants and loans which were intended to help the film to double-head stage. Beyond that point, however, Schutte needed a further $2050 to take it from double-head to release print, and sought supplementary EFTF funding for the purpose.

The project was again assessed by Mal Bryning and Colin Bennett, who looked at a sample reel of rushes and interviewed Rod Bishop, representing Dr. Schutte who was overseas once more when the second batch of EFTF applications for 1972 were considered. Both assessors continued their support for the project, Bryning commenting on its “truly experimental approach – certainly more than a purely anthropological film, with no financial gains for any of the group,” which was something of an understatement given its history to that point.

Despite their recommendation, the Sydney-based funding authority, the Interim Council for a National Film and Television Training School, rejected the application due to exhaustion of funds. Undeterred, in February 1973, Schutte pleaded his case to new AFI Director Richard Brennan, urging reconsideration of his July 1972 application, and citing intense overseas interest in the project and its links with his published material. This time he was successful, and was advised by Gerson in May 1973 of approval of a supplementary grant of $1875 to complete the film. Schutte was delighted with the news. The group had already completed the script, and sought comments on the footage from Professor Jerzy Toeplitz at La Trobe. The film, Schutte reported to Gerson after settlement of the legal wrangle with Encel, “should be ready early in February [1974]. At long last!”

But two years later, Dr. Schutte was seemingly no closer to having the finished work at hand. According to then EFTF Administrator, Irisa Zilveris, he was “at wits’ end” trying to contact Peter Beilby who was supposedly responsible for completing the project. Beilby, it was claimed, was “the only one who knows where the project stands and, in fact, holds much of the material”. He was also, apparently, uncontactable – at least by Heinz Schutte.


Official EFTF records do not indicate what transpired beyond this point or indeed whether any of the supplementary grant money was expended but, after spending some time researching the history of various Experimental Fund projects and being absorbed by the incredibly protracted and unresolved nature of this one in particular, I was curious as to where and why the Mataungan project lapsed and what fate had befallen the filmed material.

Rod Bishop, who had been more or less involved with the project throughout, could tell me that it had ultimately lapsed through lack of agreement and what became irreconcilable political and cultural differences between the sociologist and his film crew. According to Bishop, Heinz Schutte saw the Tolais as the “socialist vanguard of the Pacific” (possibly a Cuban model) and wanted what was essentially a propaganda film, whereas the others were more interested in releasing something with legitimate cultural value.

Bishop also gave me the address of Dave Jones in Pennsylvania, in the hope that he could cast some light on the fate of the surviving footage. Jones had returned to the US many years earlier, after making the low budget cult film Yackety Yack (1974), one of the few experimental narrative features to be produced with EFTF assistance. I wrote to him at Drexel University in Philadelphia in September 1985 and received a prompt reply:

Most – possibly all – of the surviving Mataungan film footage is sitting in my office. A few years ago, when the project seemed to have been finally abandoned in Australia, I asked that the material be sent to me in the hopes I could manage to do something with it.

The material arrived in an appalling state; nevertheless, I thought and still think that an intriguing 40-minute film could be made out of it. Because much material is missing, damaged, faded, or stretched, the print should be a black and white slash print made from a tape-spliced workprint, with no subtitles, but with brief introductory titles added to place the film (and its problems) in context. It would cost about $2000 to do it right.

I’d be pleased to produce such a print if money is available for it … I have no idea who the rightful owner is.

The film footage in Dave Jones’ office in fact was the double head material from which Peter Beilby had eventually prepared a 1″ tape master, from which in turn I was able, ultimately, to view a VHS copy – almost 20 years after the events depicted on it! [2] After viewing the tape, it was hard to disagree with Dave Jones’ assessment. Much of the colour material had faded, much of the camerawork was ordinary, and the continuity was poor given the lack of introductory titles, voice-over explanations, and other finishing touches.

An understanding of the cultural conflict in the Gazelle region would not be easy from a single viewing of the surviving Mataungan footage without some prior knowledge of the Tolais and their problems. [3] At the same time, the producers’ efforts to integrate and make sense of the social, political and economic activities of the Tolai are evident, and most of the long interview sequences are not without interest or substance. [4]

The tape also includes footage of a seminar held at La Trobe University (in 1972) in which Heinz Schutte introduces John Kaputin, the principal co-ordinator of the New Guinea Development Corporation, to an attentive student audience. Schutte, who could well have continued at the time to press his claims for access to the surviving film material, eventually left La Trobe in the mid-70s and had subsequently based himself in France. One can only speculate as to what the Australian Film Commission would have made of an application for funding to resurrect the project in the mid-80s, were Dave Jones’ suggestions to be pursued. Indeed, how many other worthy ‘near complete’ funded projects are still out there?

Since then, the Mataungan footage has been forwarded to Tolai representatives in New Britain after a request to the filmmakers that it be made accessible to them. Part of the initial agreement between the film crew and the Tolai people was that the Mataungans would not only see the completed film, but also be able to use it. Given developments in Bougainville in more recent years, one wonders also what became of the Mataungan Association in its quest for self-determination?

For the AFI/EFTF Administration, the entire Mataungan project was a salutary experience. The voucher system – which many filmmakers already saw as over-bureaucratic – had been exposed as imperfect, although it was not, as such, a principal cause of the problems with Mataungan. Sydney filmmaker Albie Thoms, in characteristic style, had argued at the time that the imposition of the voucher system “tended to suggest mistrust of filmmakers and the desire to build the AFI into a monolithic organisation controlling independent filmmaking in Australia.”

One suspects that the AFI, with its small staff, was actually more intent on keeping its finger on the public purse. The equipment theft, in fact, prompted Isaac Gerson to ensure that future purchase orders for hire transactions were endorsed with a disclaimer of all responsibility on the part of the Institute, beyond the undertaking to pay the hire cost. The decisions to hurry this project through the system, and to allow more than one signatory had also come unstuck.

The Mataungan experience also highlighted the difficulty Fund administrators faced in implementing policy, particularly the contractual requirement that all projects be completed within twelve months of the signing of the agreement. As industry commentator Barrett Hodson wrote in 1976:

Because it heralded a new era of government involvement in funding of the arts in Australia, the funding programmes existed in advance of the rationales to explain them. Hence arts support programmes were based on a few generalised assumptions which provided considerable freedom in actual implementation of such programmes.

For the AFI, the time that was spent in devising and amending the EFTF contract and the heated protests that any changes incurred appeared quite disproportionate to the actual utility and authority of the document itself. As early as 1973, Isaac Gerson indicated to the AFI Executive Committee that there was practically nothing in the agreement inexorably binding upon the beneficiary. Gerson argued that an informal letter to successful applicants would serve as well, since:

… there is not the remotest chance that even with flagrant infringement of its conditions the Interim Council, or the AFI, or their officers will litigate for the enforcement of the conditions. In these circumstances the issue of a contract is about as valuable an action as fitting a corpse with a perfect set of dentures.

But the contract remained, with administrators and filmmakers alike working around it where necessary – all of which would have been of little consolation to Heinz Schutte.

Overall, however, the AFI’s predilection in its years of administering the Fund was to play down the ‘school teacher’ role and allow the learning experience for those on grants to proceed in its own fashion. In any case, it was difficult for AFI staff to assess the progress of projects by correspondence or telephone calls alone, since filmmakers would invariably swear they intended to complete. As a consequence, there were several instances of EFTF projects somehow remaining active for four or five years. At the same time, it is hard to imagine that any of these had as bizarre a history as Mataungan.

[1] At the end of shooting in the Gazelle, the cameraman apparently decided to return to Australia via the Sepik River. Nobody else associated with the film ever heard from him again after his departure for the Sepik.
[2] The whereabouts of most of the Mataungan negative still remains a mystery.
[3] Remembering that the Mataungan film was intended to be supported by published material as well.
[4] In the continued absence of original film components, the surviving VHS copy of Mataungan has been lodged with the National Film & Sound Archive.

Rod Bishop, “Structure and Strength of the Mataungan Association”, and Heinz Schutte, “The Matuangan Association: a preliminary and descriptive account”, both articles are published in Niguini Reader, AUS publication (ed. Helene Barnes) 1972, pp. 40 – 42, 51-56.
Rod Bishop, Heniz Schutte and D.B. Jones, “Mataungan: A Film on ‘Development’ and the Tolai People in Niugini”, Cineaste, Vol. V, No. 3, Summer 1972, pp. 53-57.

About the Author

Ken Berryman

About the Author

Ken Berryman

Ken Berryman was appointed the first Manager of the Melbourne Office of the National Film and Sound Archive in 1984. In 2005, he became the first full-time Manager of the Archive’s Oral History Program. He has now retired from the Archive but remains involved as a freelance interviewer and volunteer assistant of the Oral History Program.View all posts by Ken Berryman →