Radical Beginnings is an oral history project exploring La Trobe University’s own cultural and screen studies history during a period of political and artistic ferment, the late 1960s and early 1970s, that coincided with the establishment of the University. A symposium was held at the university campus that was a two-day feast of films, filmmakers and key media figures of the era and the four panels that were convened in November 2009 are published in this issue of Screening the Past.
Panel One: ‘Radical Beginnings: Media and Cinema Studies at La Trobe University’ With Dr. Patricia Edgar, Robert Newton and Dr. Ina Bertrand, chaired by John Benson.
John Benson: This is the first panel of ‘Radical Beginnings: The Birth of Media and Cinema Studies at La Trobe University’ and, though what we’ll be talking about here is the way cinema and media studies emerged from the School of Education, if we think back to that period some really important issues that I am sure will be covered in this session had to do with the social and political ferment existing both intellectually and politically across the Australian community. Some of those issues were influenced by developments overseas, like the feminist movement in the United States, or the May ’68 student and worker protests in Paris, and a variety of other events. I will not summarise these here, but rather hope these issues will emerge out of our discussion and from questions from the audience later on.
I would now like to introduce panel members Dr Patricia Edgar, who is synonymous with the very first days of La Trobe University, Robert Newton, who came here in 1972, and Dr Ina Bertrand, who came a year or two after Robert.
Our first presenter is Patricia Edgar and not only is she synonymous with all the things that happened at La Trobe in those early days, she has an extensive history in the media and television industry. I went to her website to get some background information and I will just read to you a little from the website so that we have a bit more context:
‘Dr Patricia Edgar has been at the forefront of the development of children’s media in Australia and internationally for more than three decades. She is a Media Researcher without peer in Australia, and was the first Chairperson to centre for Media and Communication at La Trobe University. In that role, she established and taught the first courses on film and television and mass media communication in an Australian university, and undertook research for her PhD in children’s perception of film and television violence. She was the first woman appointed to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board in 1975, and shared the Board’s review of television program standards, and was also the Chair of an enquiry into children’s television generally.’
Wherever you look around the world in relation to issues connected to children’s television and Australian children’s television, you will find Patricia’s name. But there’s no point to me talking any more about what Patricia has done, let’s hear from her in person about how she was involved in developing media studies at La Trobe University all of those years ago.
Patricia Edgar: I would just like to give you a series of snapshots about what went on – even though versions have varied over the years – and about the characters involved, starting with me, then Ronald Goldman, the Founding Dean of the School of Education, John Flaus, who I see as the ‘father of cinema studies in Australia’, Jerzy Toeplitz, and Brian Crittenden, who was the first person to really drive the wedge between the Media Centre and Cinema Studies.
Just prior to coming to La Trobe, I had returned to Australia from the United States. I had been there for three years and in those three years I had completed an MA in Communication, which included film and television – so I understood how to make film and had done a little bit of filmmaking. I had also done an internship at a public broadcaster in San Francisco and after that my husband Don and I spent a year at the University of Chicago. I didn’t work in film there. I worked for a Ford Foundation project that was putting teams of African-Americans into inner city schools to try and reform the school system. I worked with very radical people. Those three years had quite a transformative effect on me and I came back to Australia reluctantly. But we had two young children and it seemed like the best thing to do after a bullet had gone through their school. I looked around for something to do when I came back, but in my view Australia had been running on the spot for the three years that I had been absent. For those of you have seen Got At, the film was made seven years after I went to the United States and so it was a very conservative Australia I came back to.
But I saw in the paper that La Trobe had a new Dean for the School of Education and that he was setting up a number of centres. One of them was called the Centre for the Study of Media. I called Ronald Goldman and he agreed to see me. When I went in to see him I found him in red socks and sandals with an Alsatian prowling around his office. He had been born into the poverty of the Manchester slum with an absentee father and a deaf mother, and didn’t read until a pair of pawnshop spectacles opened up the world. He left school at 13, but matriculated by correspondence at age 19 while working as an errand boy in a bicycle shop and on a milk delivery round, and as a trainee buyer for a department store. He was very open to new ideas and very enthusiastic about the school he was going to set up. What Ronald had in mind for the Media Centre was the idea of programmed instruction, which was very big at the time, and Monash University had just set up such a department then. But I said to him that was not what I thought he should be doing. I thought he should be teaching film courses and I outlined what I would like to do. We got along very well and he offered me the job on the spot.
However, because Ronald always was a very tough negotiator, he then began to say, “Well, I’ve filled all my staff spots and don’t have much money. I can put you on trial for a year and be on half time”. But of course a half timer doesn’t earn a half time salary, so I left and I got really furious. I went home and wrote a very long letter, four or five pages to my recall, and told Ronald what he could do with his job and what he could do with a few other things. I had decided, “Okay, that’s the end of it. I don’t want that job. I did not want to work for that man”. But as soon as he got my letter he phoned and said, “Okay, you’ve got the job on your terms for a year”, and then turned me loose. He didn’t do anything to help me in the sense of giving me a course to teach, he just kind of let me go through.
But then Henry Schoenheimer, who had been the guru of education, refused to allow me to teach. I think he was a chauvinist apart from anything else. Those of you who are old enough might recall Henry was in charge of setting the DipEd Program and there was only one DipEd Program that year. He did not believe teaching film had any kind of role in the Diploma of Education course, so I spent my time thrusting myself in front of the staff, putting up things on boards, getting involved in discussion. And because I’d regarded Henry as something of a hero, I kept everything he had written and he had written an article about the importance of media in education, and so I pasted that on the outside of his door. He wrote to me saying, “I am older and wiser now”. In the end I was given one hour for a one-off lecture, and at lunchtime! I worked my tail off on that lecture, spent weeks on it, because I didn’t have a lot else to do. I had all the screens going and I did the lecture to the best of my ability. At the end, a group of students took up a petition and demanded that I be allowed to teach. So that’s how I got my first course, and I taught a six-week course in Super 8 filmmaking, which was the first filmmaking course in an Australian university. Ronald made it very clear to me then that I was in and was going to be appointed for the next year to teach BEd courses, and he gave me extraordinary freedom to appoint people who I thought could really contribute to a very lively film department.
I immediately went after John Flaus. I had met John at a conference and was sort of boggle-eyed by this character who kept popping up and talking non-stop. He was an anarchist and I didn’t know whether I’d met an anarchist before then, and I wasn’t quite sure what an anarchist did. I got John a spot as a guest lecturer and in his first lecture he talked about the Western. Now I love Westerns, always had a bit of a hidden love for Westerns because they didn’t seem quite respectable. But here was someone who was giving intellectual substance to the Western, and the students loved it. So, I got John an interview with Ronald and I said, “John, please just answer what you’re asked. Don’t do anything else except answer the question you’re asked.” Well, Ronald’s first question was, “Tell me about yourself John,” and off he went. For an hour and a half the Reader and the Dean were riveted to their chairs as John’s life unfolded. But he did not get the job right off because John hadn’t finished his Masters thesis or his Honours thesis. I had to connive with his supervisor, who locked John up eventually to make him write because John suffered from this affliction that if you didn’t know everything about a subject then you shouldn’t utter a word about it. He couldn’t commit anything to paper when there was so much more to learn about a subject. However, John did get locked up, he did get his degree, he did get appointed, and he did come to La Trobe to begin a series of courses that really attracted students.
In the case of Dave Jones, I met him at Stanford and he had said he was interested in coming to Australia. I always found Dave a bit of an intimidating figure. I thought he was a man of very few words but those words were pretty smart words, and I thought he’d be good for the place too. The remarkable thing about having Dave and John in a School of Education at that time is that they were not teachers in the conventional sense. I had begun as a teacher, but they did not have teacher education qualifications, and of course this got right up the noses of many in the school. They just did not like this, even though I was always striving for respectability for the place.
The coup came when I opened up The Age one morning and saw an article leaked by Philip Adams about the fact that the Australian Film and Television School (later named the Australian Film, Television and Radio School) had been shelved by the government and Jerzy Toeplitz, the very esteemed Polish film historian who was to be the first director of the school, could not come to Australia. Poland was still a communist country and he could not leave without an invitation. There was a big risk that they were going to lose him. I rang Ronald immediately and said, “Can we get Jerzy Toeplitz to La Trobe? We could bring him here where he can stay until the film school starts up”. Ronald, who was a very good strategist, knew he would never get that appointment through the School of Education on the professorial budget he had been allocated. So he went to see Ken Myer, who was a very cultured man and a philanthropist, and Ken Myer agreed to put up half of Jerzy’s salary while Ronald got the rest. Jerzy Toeplitz came to live with his wife in Chisholm College and had the adjoining office to me. Well, Jerzy was a very esteemed academic and it was difficult to knock him. You could knock a young woman with a degree, like myself, who they reckoned had purchased her degree in America and who was sort of a nuisance. But it was difficult to knock Jerzy Toeplitz.
I learned a hell of a lot from Jerzy. Every morning he would come into my office, sit down for 15 to 20 minutes and ask me about the happenings of the previous day, which were always pretty volatile, and so I’d tell him what was going on. Jerzy wouldn’t say a lot, but he would counsel me because he knew a lot about politics having survived in a communist country over the years. He helped steer me through some battles and really troubled times. We formed quite a bond that year and when he did go to the film school a year later, he took me with him in that I was on the board of the film school for six years, which was very good for my education as well.
But I must say Ronald did not always make good judgements and one of them was to appoint Brian Crittenden. Now I am going to read from notes written for today because these have already been passed by a lawyer and I know that they’re okay. Crittenden, this intemperate ex-priest, could not stand me or my entourage in the Media Centre, particularly John Flaus, who had an unflagging energy for writing questioning memos to Crittenden and which drove the Dean crazy. As an aside, John claims I taught him to write memos. My archived file reveals correspondence of Crittenden’s systematic effort to undermine the financing and staffing of the Media Centre. It also documents his outbursts at me, usually made in phone conversations, which I then noted and sent back to him for correction. I wanted to annoy him but I also wanted to let him know that I was keeping a record of our exchanges. Typically, he would tell me that he did not think much of my work, including the research proposals I managed to get funded, and that my publications were mediocre. He refused invitations to visit the Media Centre to see the work we were doing, and when my PhD was submitted for examination he told staff that examiners have raised valid criticisms, which was untrue. Each time he criticised me I challenged his assertions back in writing and I have been surprised at the file I had on him – on one occasion going to the Vice Chancellor, on another to the Chair of the PhD Committee. He was relentless, and his view was that cinema studies should be out of the School of Education. He did win that, assisted by somebody I appointed later called Sam Rohdie who really didn’t think being in a School of Education suited his disposition. And so he stirred and there was quite a division and cinema studies did go.
One final thing I’d like to say is that the Media Centre in the School of Education was financed like a science department. More money came into the School for the Media Centre than it did for the other centres. Got At was one of five films we made that I thought was like nothing else and so I started up a business through the Centre of hiring out the films. I asked the ‘war committee’ would it be okay to establish a fund within the university with the returns from the films, which would be used for Media Centre products. I had control of that fund and Crittenden tried to take it off me every year. But he could not. Hiring out the films was extremely lucrative and a lot of things were done with the money, including going to Mexico and making a film with John Flaus, Gordon Glenn, Lloyd Carrick and myself on International Women’s Year.
John Benson: That was fantastic Patricia. Our next presenter is Robert Newton who was appointed by Patricia from the ABC. Robert completed a Masters Degree at Stanford University and had worked as a teacher and journalist before he began work at La Trobe University. I will say just one other thing, that Robert gave me the shock of my life when I first came here. I walked into his office after being appointed, thinking, “I’ve a new job and it’s all going to be fantastic”, and he said, “This is a disaster. You have to bring people to this corridor or we are all finished”. I thought, “What have I walked into?” That was my first day at La Trobe.
Robert Newton: I am not sure that I said ‘finished’, I think it was probably ‘stuffed’! I’ve worked here as an academic for 22 years and I chose the two fields about which everybody in the world is an expert, education and media. Like many media studies departments around the world, Media Studies at La Trobe started in the education school, and it was a one-department school. Founding Professor Ronald Goldman decided that the School of Education would not have the usual departments, such as sociology, history and philosophy of education, but that we would be made of issue-based centres.
Patricia persuaded Ronald that the study of media by teachers was important, and he and she created the Centre for the Study of Education Media and Communication. Now this made it sound like its interest was education or media, but it was really a misnomer. It should have been the Centre for the Educational Study of Media and Communication, even though our main interest was the study of mass media. However, we had a foot in the door and the first university media studies course in Victoria was started. It was easier to start this sort of thing at La Trobe than at the already established universities. It has been interesting to see that our success led them to introducing this field of study. Other courses with media connections did already exist at Swinburne and several of the teacher colleges, and RMIT was soon to follow. But at that time none of these institutions were universities, or had the power to offer degrees.
Our students were all education students and they had to be studying for education degrees or diplomas. This was a limiting factor but the idea that teachers should know something about the mass media and how it worked was a good one and a good place to start. The School of Education wanted staff with teaching qualifications and experience. We wanted staff with knowledge of media. It was a hard fight, one of many hard fights, to employ some staff with only media backgrounds. John Flaus is a good example of one such staff member. What I mean to say is that, although Patricia had a Masters Degree in Communications from Stanford, few of the other staff had academic qualifications in media. I had a Masters Degree from Stanford in Education and experience as a journalist. I’d followed Stephen Murray-Smith, a radical, into the position of Editor and Research Officer for the Teachers’ Union, and I edited the Teachers’ Union Journal for two to three years. I left there and went on to become a producer of both studio and film programs for the ABC’s schools education.
We didn’t know what we wanted to do here at La Trobe when we started, or could do or how to go about doing it. It took years to find out what worked and what was needed. We did not know how to fit our courses into the education program or what we could get away with. To many people in the rest of the school we were a creeping cancerous growth they would’ve loved to irradiate. We always needed to be on the defensive, because centres were not departments but part of a single department. Budgets and staffing were subject to decisions made in the school, not the centre, which Patricia has explained a bit about. My answer to this problem was to become involved in the education side of things, as well as in my media interests. But this was a very time consuming business. I eventually was in charge of the school’s total DipEd program and believed that for many years we ran the best DipEd in Melbourne. I think this helped our position in the school, although not many of the media staff had interests outside of media. It was good that we were able to come into existence, but relations between the centre and the rest of the school were always difficult. Battles had to be fought over and over again as they passed through the different levels of the school’s committees.
I came from ABC Education in Melbourne, which was considered very radical. I think the whole of Victorian education was considered radical at that time in the early 1970s compared with what was going on in other states. I look back on many of our programs with a great deal of pride, but I feel more pride in the fact that so many of those I worked with from the ABC, and seconded from the education department to the ABC, went on to lead media studies in so many institutions: Max Robinson at Rusden, Brian Sheedy at Melbourne State College, Frank Morgan at the Secondary Teachers’ College, and later the Film and Television School, and Jonathan Dawson is now a Professor in Tasmania. Ian Mills was from ABC Education in South Australia, before studying in the US and then coming to La Trobe. There were other ABC people, such as Jim White at Swinburne, Fred Maxine at Rusden, and even Peter White was an assistant film editor at the ABC before he went to Syracuse and then came on to La Trobe. Max Robinson described us as the last of the amateurs, and he was right! In the beginning, academically qualified staff had either come from overseas or had to get their qualifications in media overseas. Now they can get this sort of qualification here at La Trobe or at several other Victorian and interstate institutions.
But when we started we really did not know what to teach or how to put it into practice. Were we to be a film school? The idea was in the back of some minds because we had provided a home for Jerzy Toeplitz as a Professor before he became the first director of the national film and television school (AFTRS). This was a particular baby of Phillip Adams and Barry Jones, and it was always going to end up in Sydney where it sat on the edge of Macquarie University.
Our courses have evolved over nearly 50 years since we started. We introduced cinema studies to the university, teaching it in the centre on behalf of the School of Humanities before it found a permanent home there. The influx of overseas staff brought with them Semiotics, Structuralists and the work of French philosophers. They brought with them the kind of disputes that raged through all humanities departments and some of us may have felt a bit left behind. Many years later, Media Studies followed the same route, though for a period the same courses were taught to both teachers and undergraduates. Fashion is a strange thing sometimes and it would be a shame if the study of media disappeared from education, if it hasn’t already.
Our facilities, nightmare country! I started here in 1972, during Gough Whitlam’s time as Prime Minister, and we were given money to build some really expensive facilities. This was before we had a chance to work out what we needed. We did not really know how we were going to use them. Outsiders thought they were for making audio-visual aids. We did not know what we would be able to do in television. Studio programs that were made at the ABC never had fewer than 50 people working on them, but that was never going to happen here. It was easier in film with smaller crews, and Patricia did very well to take advantage of this and produce interesting work with her students and a skilled crew, many of whom are here right now.
Studio TV was never going to make it here, but video had just come in and that was where my interest went. We bought some of the very first video portapaks in the state. Things changed for film too, though it took a long time for people to realise that films were going to be seen in the living room, or the home theatre more than in the cinema. Nor did they realise that electronic cameras would improve in quality and diversify in use. They now dominate. Mind you, inside the media there have always been disagreements between film and electronic media exponents. Personally, I have been delighted by the technological changes, which have reduced some of the aesthetic arrangements to dust and put the importance on the product rather than the medium. I am glad ACMI is the Australian Centre for the Movie Image, rather than just a centre for film. Though, I must admit the best programs I made at the ABC were always on film.
And what about the changes that computers have made? And have you seen people making movies with their phones? One of the people who helped with the technological side, or the technical side of my teaching and production is Ian Armet, who is back there in projection room now. He started here as an apprentice when I came to teach. I would like to think that we worked together to develop the sort of practical courses that suited our students. That ‘white elephant’ studio, which cost so much to build, is now a wonderful production facility with modern computer editing, and that is because of Ian Armet’s responsibility. He has done an incredible job with that. It is a place with a truly professional look, and I can now throw away my nightmares. Student producers could no longer blame the equipment for poor results. The new technology empowers them, apart from giving them nowhere to hide.
The centre was the early home for Cinema Papers and for the Children’s Television Foundation. Great feathers in our cap! We also developed a close relationship with the Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM). We taught many of their leaders and supported and advised them in the creation of a media curriculum for schools, and together we produced a syllabus that was intellectually demanding and was not just for playing with cameras. I must say that one of the people who did a lot for that was Bill Routt, who helped a great deal despite being very critical with some of the things he said. But the result of that criticism and the fights that came out of it resulted in a much better and more intellectually based syllabus than would have otherwise happened. I was on the committee of ATOM for many years, I was on the 3RRR Board representing the university, and also directed Open Channel and Open Channel productions, and in that way the Centre played a part in helping develop new kinds of production.
We did make some good productions here and our video students have continued to do good work. But we are not a film school, and to me the prime purpose of teaching production is to inform theory. Good luck, though, to any student who does become a media professional, director, or whatever. We were certainly never going to be a production house, though there was a misguided attempt at doing that once. For my part, I was strongly influenced by the use of video and the Canadian program Challenge for Change, with its use of relatively simple equipment. Video access centres and local cable studios were successful in some places in the US. Dave Jones reminded me yesterday that when I once visited him while he was in Pennsylvania, we went to the little town of Redding where they had an extraordinarily effective community cable station. They used the cable very well in some places. I learned a lot from them and from the use of video as an art form.
I was also fortunate enough to be asked to help set up local information centres in Papua New Guinea, some of which still exist today. These helped get across ideas about such things as self-government and independence. I ended up going there some nine times, and the last work I did there was with the Museum of Victoria to revisit Milne Bay with some fascinating archival footage. We traced the locations, we interviewed people who knew the locations, people who knew the people who were in the film, and we wove those together and produced, I think, a very useful historical document. Most of the tapes and films that I made while at La Trobe were in fact historic films, things to do with the history of the Mallee or Bass Strait, and so on.
I think there was an opportunity missed when cut backs hit the university and various related areas of study were asked to combine. Drama, music, cinema and media studies were brought together. Most of these separate areas wanted to stay completely independent. They did everything possible to combine in title only and the result was the loss of the most innovative music school in the country. I would have loved a more co-operative approach.
Lastly, I expect Media Studies has still one of the highest entry scores in the university. Its development has been a success story in itself. But even though it is now a well-accepted area of study, it will always require reflection and change, if it is to prove its worth.
John Benson: Thank you Robert. Dr Ina Bertrand is our third speaker. Ina’s original area of study was in history at Melbourne University and she then took up a PhD at La Trobe. Her main field of expertise is in the history of the Australian film industry and she has published widely in that area. Ina was appointed to La Trobe a year or so after Robert, and went to become one of the most important people in terms of shaping our direction and movement towards humanities in the 1990s.
Ina Bertrand: My first experience of La Trobe was in 1968 when I came here as a part-time student doing an MA Prelim. I was here for two years doing an MA Prelim and then three years on a full-time scholarship to get my PhD. In the last year of my PhD, I had suddenly discovered that there was a Media Centre. Now I had been working in history in the Humanities Department and nobody told me, and so I rang up and explained to whoever I was speaking to – I think it was John or possibly Dave, I’m not quite sure – what I was doing and said, “Is there anybody on your staff with an interest in Australian films who would be able to give me any kind of advice or assistance with my thesis?” They said, “No, but we’re doing a series of film screenings”. There was a series of screenings in the late afternoon, which was in the period when the BEd classes were happening, where they would screen an Australian film and invite the filmmaker to come and talk about it. I had difficulty getting there at that time, so I only saw two or three of them. I realised pretty quickly that this was fascinating stuff even though it wasn’t relevant to what my thesis was about. But I did hear that Jerzy Toeplitz was going to be around and so at the end of my PhD I enrolled as a BEd student in order to take advantage of Toeplitz’s huge knowledge of film history. To understand why that was important to me, I had been a member of Melbourne University Film Society all through my time as an undergraduate, and when I married and moved to Eltham, I became a member of Eltham Film Society and very quickly its secretary and writer of the newsletter and the one who did the film bookings. My husband was the projectionist too. Anyway, I already knew quite a lot about film, but thought that Jerzy Toeplitz was going to give some wonderful new insights.
When I first arrived the campus was a mix of bog and desert. They drained the bog into the moat, but the desert remained. There were very few building; it was a building site. By the time I enrolled as a BEd student, there was actually a place where the Media Centre was located, but the History Department started off in Glen College and Jerzy Toeplitz’s lectures were over in the Menzies College theatre. He would walk in at one minute to five, he would nod or smile at the audience and he would stand at the podium, put his notes down and read. At five minutes to six he would fold his papers and he would walk out, and then the film would come on. The projectionist was well trained too.
In the first session we had, a woman in the front row tried to ask a question and Jerzy Toeplitz’s voice just went on. It went on at the same level and when he realised that she was still talking it went up until he drowned her out and she stopped talking. Then he went back to his normal voice. At the end of that year I felt I really hadn’t learnt anything that I couldn’t have learned from a book. Jerzy Toeplitz’s political clout must have been really important but I was very disappointed. However, I was by now involved as a student in the BEd program and did subjects of both John’s and Dave’s. Halfway through my BEd a job was advertised and I went in and got it. Because all of my qualifications were history, I remember Patricia asking me, “But do you know anything about film?” I said, “Yes, I’ve got quite a lot of experience of film”, although I didn’t at the time know enough to say, “But I don’t have John Flaus’s eidetic memory”.
What did I find when I came to the Media Centre? I was the youngest member of staff and what I found was a very eclectic mix of fascinating people, who all had very different backgrounds. None of us had come straight from university courses and took up tutoring in the same place, which very many people did in that period. As well as our qualifications, all of us had life experience of some kind that was feeding into our roles. I found the whole experience exciting and part of the excitement came from the fact that Patricia ran the department just as Ronald Goldman ran the school. You could do what you wanted provided you convinced them that it was a good thing. I was able to do all sorts of things that I might not have been able to do under a different kind of leadership. One of the things I didn’t want to do was teach film history like Jerzy Toeplitz. The year I started, Patricia said, “Don’t bother about teaching, just find your feet”. Well, I had to finish my BEd., I still had to do classes, take subjects and write essays. Apart from that, I went around and listened to what other people were doing and watched what was happening in the department, and I shared teaching a film history class with Ian Mills, whose main interest was in aesthetics and who taught it as the history of aesthetics, which I found really fascinating and I thought, “That’s a great way to do this, but it’s not my way”. Over the next two or three years I worked out what my way of teaching film history was going to be. One of the things I wanted to do was to incorporate Australian film into film history. And despite some people, who shall be nameless, telling me that the Australian film industry had not made anything worth looking at, I did and introduced the study of Australian film history in the third term. So, there were two terms of looking at the international industry and one term looking at the Australia industry. We later changed from terms to semesters and then it was one semester of Film History and one semester of Australian Film.
As a historian, I felt that there was a lot of misunderstanding about the relationship between history and film. People assumed that if I talked about history in film that I meant those films that represented the past, like, in the Australian context, the mini-series Against the Wind (1978), which reproduced the convict era. But I wasn’t. I was talking about how every film is a representation of the time in which it is made, and that a course on film and history could use anything, including something made yesterday about today. That was another thing I was able to do because this department was just so different and so open. The mix of people in it was so eclectic. The possibilities were so exciting. By the time I left I was frustrated, disillusioned, fiercely angry and sort of didn’t want to ever see this place again. But that’s another story. The beginning of that department, despite the fights, was just exciting to be a part of. I am really glad we are talking about those early days now, because I think a lot of that excitement and ferment would otherwise be forgotten.
John Benson: Thanks very much, Ina. Let’s take questions from the audience.
Fergus Robinson: I was a participant in the radical activities that took place at La Trobe during the years from 1968 through to 1973. I learned a lot today about the background and history to the development of Media Studies and the development of film culture at La Trobe. But what I didn’t get was a sense of connection between your particular roles and what was happening at La Trobe at the time. I understand that we were in different situations. I was a participant. I was a student. I came on to the campus at the age of 18, and you were probably older. I assume maybe 10 years older than me, and you may have had families at the time, and you had academic positions, almost sinecures or developing towards sinecures, and you had responsibilities and accountabilities to your families. But when we were involved in the very intense political activities at the time, we didn’t get a lot of support from academia. We might have had support from behind the scenes, and certainly there must have been some support. But Ron Goldman, for instance, was a force of conservatism. He strongly opposed a lot of the activities that took place on campus, and perhaps he was even ambivalent about the expulsions and the gaoling. I don’t know, I never had that conversation with him. But I did not get any sense of your interaction with the activities that were taking place. I know you probably couldn’t become involved, because it would have jeopardised your positions and your roles. But surely in terms of the intellectual ferment, a lot of the education students were highly politicised. There was a strong Marxist undercurrent; it was a sort of Positivism. This pre-dates Postmodernism, which has become the fashion. Marxism was probably a dominant new trend in social science departments and in politics. It was challenging existing structures. I was wondering whether you had any interaction with this and could you talk about that and your views about what was taking place at the time? I won’t take it personally if you saw us as troublesome and too extreme. I will understand that. But surely you must have had some input? You’ve really just talked about things in terms of the wider social situation with education, but not linking it back to what was actually happening at La Trobe.
Patricia Edgar: I’ll have a go at that. There is quite a lot I would like to say about it, but they’re not connected thoughts, just a series of statements. The biggest opponents I had to fight on this campus were the de-schooling radicals, the Marxists, who at the end of the day had extremely conservative views about the nature of education. They did quite a lot to undermine the values that this university actually set to establish. I came in the fourth year after la Trobe opened, but in its first three years La Trobe was a model of a new type of learning, a new relationship between teaching and staff, one of a community of scholars both students and staff. It fell apart very quickly. It fell apart because there was staff who did not like the idea of being in schools, rather than departments, and who did not like the fact that the hierarchy that they were used to was really being challenged.
But it also fell apart because most of the students didn’t want it either. So, while you were part of a vocal group, that group was not the body of student opinion. In fact, the body of student opinion really turned against the discussion. Now, at an individual level, you did walk down the corridors and the marijuana floated out to greet you as discussion groups were taking place. I certainly recall being very much part of that. I know that Don marched in that moratorium. I didn’t march for various reasons; children were one of the reasons. We had come from campuses, particularly Chicago where we travelled to take up the jobs, and where everybody was beaten up, or all the students were beaten up outside the Democratic Convention. Chicago was one of the most militant universities, and it got closed down because there was incredible activity. To tell you truth, I thought what was happening here was pretty small bananas along side what I’d experienced and been through in the United States.
Ina Bertrand: When I came her in 1968 and 1969 I was doing a part-time course here and I was teaching part-time. I had two children at home and I had a baby at the end of 1969. I did not have time for any kind of student activity. I was hardly aware of it
Fergus Robinson: In 1968 and 1969 it definitely wasn’t happening.
Ina Bertrand: Well, I would not have known if it had been. I came on to campus for my classes and then I rushed home to cook the dinner and wash the clothes. But my whole family was involved in the moratoriums, and that is why it was lovely watching last night’s film Beginnings, picking out the places I knew. But that was another part of my life. My life was never involved in student radicalism. What I found radical was the way the department operated when I got into the School of Education.
Robert Newton: A couple of things I’d like to say. One of them is that I was very interested in yesterday’s film, not so much as a film, but, as I was saying before, for its content and historical context. I was fascinated by the number of radical students who wore ties in the film, which I thought was quite extraordinary, and the number of cigarettes smoked and various other things.
The other thing I’d like to say is that I was not involved in the moratorium that was filmed but I had taken part in one of the big moratoriums, and I had decided to take leave without pay to do that. Some sort of moral decision that I wasn’t going to be paid while I was on strike, as it were, and I would have had to anyway because we were told we had to do that.
But by the time I came here, Whitlam was in government and that was the end of involvement in Vietnam. So, all that ferment which actually revolved around the Vietnam War had virtually come to an end. There was a bit of a hiatus in terms of the ferment that started here, there weren’t the lock-ins and all sorts of other thing happening. It is difficult for me to say whether we didn’t take a part or we did take a part. By the time I had come here, things had quietened down. It was different.
Fergus Robinson: You came in 1972, is that right?
Robert Newton: Yes.
Fergus Robinson: That’s the year we occupied the administration building for three days. It was the year I was gaoled. It was quite an intense year of political activity.
Unidentified #1: I was a higher degree student in Education in 1970 and 1971. I got a scholarship to do a PhD and I arrived and found that Education didn’t have PhDs. So, I enrolled in a Masters in Social Science for the first couple of years. But it was a small school and, as Patricia said, Ronald set us loose. I was called into an office at the end of 1971 and asked if I wanted a job. I said yes and was given the job. That was the whole interview process. I feel rather nostalgic about it, as I do about all the egg cartons on the walls of the studio. But my impression as one of three higher degree students within the School, and who were very much embedded into the school, was that the staff were very much behind the students. There was a very strong Marxist cadre within the School of Education, around Doug White for example.
Robert Newton: Socrates.
Unidentified #1: Yes, Socrates, as we saw last night in Beginnings. I really can’t recall particular activity from staff, but I know that their sympathies were pretty much with the students. As for the role of Ronald Goldman, he was a total conman and fraud, as I discovered after he had been supervising my PhD for a couple of years, but he was also a visionary with an enormous imagination, who wasn’t constrained by any notion of ethics.
Unidentified #2: He would do well today.
Unidentified #1: Yeah, he would do well today! But the sense of volatility evident in Beginnings was true of what was going on in the School of Education at that time as well.
Robert Newton: Just one thing about Socrates …
John Benson: You mean Doug White?
Robert Newton: Yes, Doug White. Sorry, those of you who weren’t here last night wouldn’t know who I was talking about. But Doug, like Brian Crittenden, was in many ways one of the major opponents of the Media Centre. He didn’t like it being in Education. It somehow did not fit his Marxist view of how things ought to be. The same thing applied to the DipEd program and what we eventually did was to create a course in which like-minded people could go and do their own thing, and this actually eased tension amongst a lot of the staff and students, as far as DipEd was concerned.
But the thing I found interesting about Doug, who was a very intellectual kind of guy, is that he would come to me every year at the beginning of the DipEd and say, “That’s rubbish. You can’t do that and you can’t this”. What that made me do was to change something about what we were doing. I found his kind of criticisms extremely positive, whereas a lot of other people just couldn’t stand him because he was extremely rude.
Don Edgar: I taught in sociology for a year at La Trobe, from the end of 1969 to the end of 1970. As staff, we were heavily involved in the student movement. In fact, a lot of our interaction was talking to students about getting to focus on what they really wanted. As Patricia said, one of the real problems was the conservative/radical divide within the staff, but also a very conservative streak amongst students, because this university was set up as a radical university based on the ‘community of scholars’ idea. It was based on the idea of students participating in the design of courses, the running of tutorials, the structure of degrees and so on. It was ahead of the times. Professor Hugh Stratton was on the original founding board of La Trobe and was highly disappointed with the way the place turned out, as were many of us who came here and really believed in the La Trobe concept of a ‘community university’.
Most of the students did not live on campus and the college system was destroyed because tutorials were not run in the colleges. The idea was that the colleges were meant to function as a community where students and staff could interact with one another and be radical in a true sense, in an educational sense. The reason why there was no union building at La Trobe originally was that there was a fear of student radicalism, and that would’ve been a focus. And it did become the focus, but the political protest here I thought was very na•ve. Much of the quality of debate I thought was pretty pathetic and I spent quite a lot of time talking with people involved in the radical movement about the quality of their thoughts and ideas. Where they thought they were going because indeed they were not going in any radical direction within the university. They’d been given the opportunity to participate, but had not seized that opportunity. It was interesting for me to see that film last night because certainly the protest against Vietnam was a real focus, but interestingly here, compared with Chicago or even Stanford, the protest was not so much against the dominant hierarchy. It seemed to turn into that and become that, but the university had already sold out. The cause was lost well before that moment began.
Ina Bertrand: For me, a symbol of the victory of conservatism, I suppose, was the establishment of the Teaching and Learning Centre within Education, because Goldman’s vision had tried to get away from that kind of formalising. It always seemed to me that to have a centre for teaching and learning implied that no teaching and learning went on in any other centre. That was the point at which I realised the battle had been completely lost.
John Benson: You would be pleased to know, Ina, the whole idea of teaching and learning has been completely re-articulated and the whole university is now a centre for teaching and learning. But it comes with a slightly different option in the sense that we have a requirement that if students get into the university, we also have to make sure they go out qualified, whereas that used to be their responsibility.
Geoff Mayer: I was a History Coordinator in the time we’re talking about, the late 1960s and early 1970s, and Vice Principal of a girls’ school. I was also a student of Ina’s and John’s and other people in this room, and what was radical about what was going on at La Trobe was just the introduction of media and film. As a History Coordinator in a school situation, I wanted to introduce media and film into the curriculum. You have no idea of the battles that were fought at the secondary level. But to then have it validated in a university situation was magnificent. I immediately took the opportunity to come here and it was really an exciting time. My career transformation from teaching history at a girls’ school came about from walking down Collins Street and hearing and seeing John Flaus in a cafŽ talk about the Bride of Frankenstein. I went from Vice Principal to a tutor at Coburg Teacher’s College within a couple of weeks, just from the idea that film and media was validated in a tertiary institution, and could also be in a secondary school.
I would also like to mention something about the way film and media were taught when I was a student here in the 1970s. I was in Ina’s class with Ian Mills and, as you would expect, Ina’s was a very ordered, systematic study of film, whereas Ian was a little more all over the place. Then I went to John’s class. Now, John had a starting time, but he never had a finishing time. He would just go on. There was a real excitement during that period and what it did was lay the platform for what we have today. There’s no question that they’re validated now. But if you go back 30 or 35 years, it was very problematic that they would ever become part of a secondary curriculum.
John Benson: In relation to what you’ve said, Geoff, in the last couple of years media studies in high schools has surpassed economics and legal studies in terms of student enrolment virtually across Australia. And most of the intellectual and academic credibility for that subject literally came out of this place, which kind of verifies what you’re saying.
Robert Newton: On the same point, and I agree with Geoff entirely, I am very proud to have been part of something that did make media a legitimate area of study and to see it grow up in the schools, and the relationship with ATOM and what they did was very important. But for me one of the sad things is that almost everybody in the press and in Parliament think that media studies is a bit of a wank, to put it mildly. That media has nothing to do with intellectual analysis. Their attitude is, “What would they know? They’ve never been journalists. To be a journalist you’ve got to be lying in the gutter when they’re shooting”. That sort of stuff! But I’m very pleased that there has been a development of those courses on an intellectual basis.
John Benson: If nobody else has a question, I would like to ask Patricia a question about Got At. For me, it is a really interesting film from lots of points of view, but given your overseas experience, I would like you to articulate a bit about the influence of American feminism in terms of the way you constructed the film, and some of the issues that come out of the film.
Patricia Edgar: I was sort of well on the way before I went to America. My big point of realisation came with Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex. I read it very soon after Don and I were married, and I would be sitting up in bed going through that book and calling Don to account every night. I then approached the Council of Adult Education (CAE), because it was just something I felt and felt very strongly, and asked if could I teach a course on the changing role of women. They said, “Oh, yeah, yeah. You can do it, but we don’t think it’ll be very popular”. I said, “Let me promote it”. I got on to the women’s magazines and other places. Well, in the end they had to move it into the biggest classroom they could get. It was packed. It was very clear that women in Australia were just like those young women in that film. They were ready to go and they really had enough of what was the post-war definition of womanhood. This was pre-Germaine Greer too.
Germaine Greer was with me at university college in Melbourne and I thought she was a real ratbag. I still think her book (The Female Eunuch) undermines women in many respects, which Simone de Beauvoir did not do. I’m referring to the whole anti-marriage, anti-child stance, which many women sort of followed, and which Germaine came to regret. She left it a bit late. So, I was kind of ready when we made Got At, and I always thought I was a bit odd in Australian society. People would say I treated Don badly and say, “Why didn’t do this, that or the other?” When I set foot in America, on the first day or two I realised there was nothing wrong with me, but that there was something really wrong with the structures and everything that was going on back here because the flow of feminist ideas, with Betty Friedan and so on, from the US to Australia had a few years gap. I was extremely comfortable in the United States. Nevertheless, there was still discrimination, and a very big turning point for me was the program in Chicago where they had me writing a Ford Foundation proposal for $1 million. This was in 1968 and that was a lot of money and they were paying me an absolute pittance while they kept telling what great work I was doing. I came home one day and said to Don, “I’m not going to do it anymore. If they want me to do it, they can pay me properly”. That’s what I said to them and sure enough they paid me properly. That kind of prepared me for the Goldman episode.
But with that group of women in the film, those of us who were finally responsible for the film just got together one night and just talked about it, and of course we were all smoking our heads off. There was a picture taken of us, I think by Gordon (Glenn), who was the DOP on the film, and the only thing I recall saying to Gordon was I want them very close up. That was the start of it and it flowed from there. Then everything they said we set out to document. They talked about what happened in pre-school, they talked about what happening in high school, and one of them found this amazing woman who sounded like Edna Everage and had heard her speak to a group. This woman went around teaching young girls how to be women, that was how she earned her living, and we thought we just had to get that in the film. We were so attached to that footage and we didn’t want to lose any of it, either. It kind of went on for a long time and I can remember thinking at the time, “Should we go on for this long?” It would be interesting to ask Gordon about his memory of making the film, because Gordon was the DOP on all of the films that were made through that ‘war committee’ grant, also the DOP in Mexico in 1975.
1975 was International Women’s Year and so, with Whitlam in power, all of a sudden women were appointed to every single committee. That’s how I came to be appointed to the Broadcasting Control Board. They wanted a woman who had some background in media, and because I’d been speaking up about various things, I was appointed. That totally changed my career, my direction.
Do you want to say anything? What are you memories of the film, Gordon?
Gordon Glenn: Well, it was interesting seeing it again because I remember at the time just how funny it was. How funny the woman conducting the class was. Yet some of the things she says, like, “Take responsibility for boys driving their cars”, and things like that actually seem to make a lot of sense. But I don’t remember thinking that at the time and so there was a bit of a change over the years in the attitude to what she says. But, no I don’t have many strong memories of that film particularly. I remember going to Mexico and how we suddenly thought we were being pursued by the secret police in Mexico. That was probably a measure of how far things had moved here, and perhaps of our attitudes towards what we were trying to get, what we were trying to record, and how we were opposed to the culture and attitude toward women there. That perhaps you were bringing back things from America, developing here and then taking them to a third world country, which was miles behind Australia, is a very strong memory of that time.
John Benson: Thanks Gordon. One of the things this session is supposed to do is stimulate ideas and avenues of interest that could be followed up in more detailed analysis. We have only started to scratch the surface but from the issues Patricia, Robert and Ina raised today there’s going to be an enormous amount to explore. So, please, let us all thank Patricia, Robert and Ina for their invaluable contributions. I would also like to thank you as participants, because in the long run your questions are also going to be really important to explore.