Theory into practice: Stanley Hawes and the Commonwealth Film Unit

Uploaded 1 July 1999

Documentary film has always been a contested space: arguments persist about whether it is possible to define “documentary”, and whether any attempt at definition should be couched in aesthetic/epistemological terms (what documentary is) or in functional/social terms (what documentary does). [1]

The epistemological definition is based largely on the relation of the film’s images and soundtrack to an antecedent reality: the argument in this case starts with the question of whether documentary is closer to its referent, and therefore more “truthful”, than fiction film. The aesthetic dimension of this is the conviction that truth is inherently beautiful. In postmodern times, however, it is increasingly difficult to locate not only “beauty” but also “truth” or “reality”. To acknowledge this difficulty is not, however, to abandon the search: perhaps films can be identified as documentary if their intent is to seek truth or represent reality. The issue then becomes how to identify intent: through the aims made explicit by film-makers? through the promotional material circulating around the film? or perhaps through analysis of the film itself? No matter which of these alternatives is chosen, or which combination of them, the result is always tentative and contingent.

The functional definition is based largely on the social goals of the film: documentary is assumed to provide information that can be applied in the social world, to educate viewers, to encourage people to actively engage with their environment and even to change it. But this kind of definition again depends on measuring imponderables – this time whether an individual viewer has been (or, perhaps more reasonably, could be) informed, influenced, activated by the film.

Neither form of definition can be absolute: it has proven impossible to draw a finite and permanent boundary around the field. When the Australian Film Commission needed a definition in order to allocate separate funds to documentary production, one industry body recommended that the AFC be completely pragmatic:

As a fluid and constantly developing category of film overlapping the boundaries of other categories of film, a documentary film may in some cases be distinguished only by reference to a consensus of opinion within the film industry. It is suggested that the minister seek the assistance of the Film and Television Production Association of Australia in establishing such a consensus with regard to categorising any proposed film as a documentary. [2]

This makes clear that no difficulty was anticipated in achieving such a consensus: it was assumed that anyone with film experience would recognise a documentary when they saw one, and that it was safe to use the term and to expect others to understand such use.

This consensual knowledge can be traced back to the popularisation of the term by John Grierson and the British documentary movement, starting in the thirties. Before that, there was just fiction (primarily the feature films presented in commercial cinemas) and non-fiction (a wider range of films, including the newsreels and factual short films in the commercial cinemas, but also instructional films and advertising films and other films screened in non-commercial settings). [3] But for Grierson and his followers the term “documentary” was not a substitute term for “non-fiction”, but a very specific category within that larger class of film. For some time in the thirties and forties, the term “documentary” came into use in Australia before the kind of films which Grierson intended became widely available. In fact, as Prof. A. K. Stout pointed out in a series of talks given in 1943-4 on the national radio network (Australian Broadcasting Commission), giving the label “documentary” indiscriminately to all non-fiction had given the form a bad reputation:

The word “documentary” suggests something unemotional, statistical and dry-as-dust, fit only to be tied up in red tape and stuck away in a pigeon-hole. It is a most misleading name for these films, but it is too well established to be got rid of now… [4]

Stout knew better. Following Grierson, whose description of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”[5] became the standard definition, Stout explained what he meant when he used the term:

We all know the phrase “a human document” – one that throws light on human nature – and that is what is meant by calling a film “documentary”. It is a film about real people, real life and real problems. I don’t mean by “real people” particular individuals – Mr Smith and Mrs Jones – with their private and personal problems and life-stories, but typical people – factory hands, school-children, post office workers, farmers, teachers, housewives, fishermen, W.A.A.A.F.’s, munition workers, slum-dwellers, miners and soldiers, sailors and airmen in training and at the fighting front…

You might think that a film showing ordinary people in their own environment doing their normal jobs would be a dull affair. But documentary is not just a haphazard record. It is dramatic. It dramatises life without distorting it. It shows us the struggles, the hopes and fears, successes and disappointments which lie not far below the surface of our everyday lives. The documentary director selects and arranges his material in such a way as to get across a coherent and revealing story.

Documentary in Australia

The problem was that in the days before documentary distribution through government agencies (such as the Documentary Films Councils, the State Film Centres and the National Library) or through Film Societies and the related Film Festivals, the kind of film that Grierson and Stout were referring to was a rarity on Australian screens. And, while this was so, Australian film-makers had few models to emulate or incentives to try new ways. And so, in those same talks, Stout commented:

It is not quite true to say “There are no documentaries in Australia”, but the documentary film movement here is so weak that any talk about it must start with some account of its growth overseas, to see if we can get any ideas for developing a movement of our own.

Though Australian politicians in general did not understand such a specialist concept of documentary, particularly once peace had put an end to the immediate wartime propaganda function of such films, there  were Australians who understood what Grierson might offer when he visited on behalf of the Imperial Relations Trust in 1940: not only Stout and other film enthusiasts, but even some bureaucrats, such as public servant Ulrich Ellis or National Librarian Harold White (later Sir Harold), and certainly some film-makers such as Ron Maslyn Williams, John Heyer and Colin Dean. [6]

When the Australian National Film Board was finally established in 1945, with Ralph Foster as first Film Commissioner, these people hoped that the Griersonian idea of documentary would prevail: a futher step towards this, though one not unanimously approved, was the appointment of Stanley Hawes as Producer-in-Chief in May 1946.

Hawes’ goals

Hawes’ credentials on his arrival were impeccable: he had a fine reputation as a director and producer in both England and Canada, experience in Canada as a teacher of other film-makers, and he was part of the wider community of documentary-makers in the English-speaking world [7] , including having worked directly under the acknowledged guru – John Grierson . [8]

His appointment was as a film-maker who would deal directly with other film-makers, leaving the administration to Foster as Film Commissioner. This suited Hawes well, as he was an idealist with a very clear view of the goals of documentary, and was enthusiastic to realise these in Australia. In many talks, interviews and articles, both before and after he arrived in Australia, he sought to articulate these goals, starting with Grierson’s concept of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality”.[9] He continued to refine his definition [10] , and eventually settled on this:

Documentary seeks the dramatic pattern in actuality. A documentary film has a theme, which it dramatises not necessarily by actors and a story, but by appropriate camera and sound technique. It should be interesting (able to hold the attention of the audience for which it is intended); it must have integrity (and not distort reality); and desirably it should make some social comment.

Basically a documentary film is made in the service of the community, in the belief that the responsible spread of information (between the people of different countries and between the people of different parts of the same country) cannot but improve the human condition. [11]

This is clearly both an aesthetic goal (technique in the service of audience interest and ultimate truth) and a social one – to “improve the human condition”.

Aesthetic goals were to be achieved by the method of approach [12] , which was what distinguished documentary from other forms of actuality film such as newsreels, travelogues, and educational films:

The documentary method insists that the director shall get inside his subject, soaking himself in it until it is so much a part of him that his film is bound to be a true and accurate reflection of his subject. The theme should grow from the material and should not be preconceived in the mind of the director. [13]

Such films are often expensive to make because this approach takes so much time, but the cost, the care and the time should not be obvious to the observer:

…the harder he (the documentary director) works the more deceptively simple and easy his finished film will look on the screen. [14]

In documentary technique is not obtrusive – ars est celare artem – it is secondary to subject matter, but don’t underestimate documentary technique. The ability to handle real material calls for a high degree of skill. Direction, photography and editing of the best documentaries is unexcelled in any films. I’d go so far as to say that the best editors anywhere in film are working in documentary, and if you can shoot real people and make them seem convincing you are doing a much more difficult thing than shooting actors. I mention this because I sometimes hear people saying that a film didn’t have to be technically very good, because it was only a documentary. [15]

In the days before film schools, filmmakers learned on the job, from each other, and from watching every (new and old) film they could manage to see – not only in the cinemas. They often were instrumental in founding and maintaining the Film Societies, [16]  which, in an eclectic programme, screened fiction and fact, feature and short, from all over the world. Film Society members saw films not available on commercial screens, and vigorously debated their merits. Hawes’ interest in the film society movement began in England and continued in Canada and Australia. For instance, in a lecture to Ottawa Film Society on 25 April 1945, he praised the use of sound in A nous la liberté:

You don’t realise, until you see a film like this, how stereotyped and dull the majority of films have become. Our critical faculties have become deadened by the regular diet of uninspired productions made to formula. [17]

The new Soviet cinema had challenged many of the accepted formulae. In another lecture in Ottawa, on 14 February 1944, Hawes explained how Soviet filmmakers had re-theorised editing:

The basic unit of film construction, they said, is the film strip – the single shot – not the acted scene as it takes place before the camera. This strip of film has no filmic meaning – even after it has been shot – until it is related to the strips which precede and follow it. [18]

He considered that too many fictional films had “little relation to real life”[19] so he preferred documentary realism to “the fictional nonsense of Hollywood”, [20]  despite the fact that: “Some fictional films are works of genuine artistry and integrity – Open City, Children of the gods, The Informer, Chaplin’s films, Stairway to Heaven, and so on.” [21]  Above all, he repeatedly averred that technique must always be subordinated to integrity and social function.

Though he admitted that it sounded rather “pompous”, Hawes explained that:

Grierson was a communications man with a social conscience and he believed that painters, poets, writers and musicians should use their skills in the service of the community and project social problems into the national consciousness… (documentary) is film in the service of humanity. [22]

The overriding social goal was the development of what was sometimes called “citizenship”: that sense of community that generates loyalty among members but also recognises personal responsibility. Professor Stout explained that documentary deals with “… the sort of subject in which every citizen of a democratic country should be interested, and about which he (sic) should have an informed opinion.” [23]  The publicity brochure for Rotha’s Strand Films, where Hawes worked for a time before he left Britain, explained that “By illuminating one aspect or another of the community, the Documentary Film has helped to articulate the terms of citizenship”.[24]  Hawes agreed:

These are days of the mass-mind. The part documentary can play in counter-acting this is tremendous… It can give (citizens) knowledge and understanding, and through that the capacity to judge the issues of our time by the light of their own well-informed and unprejudiced reason. [25]

But if citizens were to “have minds of their own”,[26]  they must also be kept informed – about the bad as well as the good: documentary film must therefore have the courage of its convictions, and be prepared to show the world warts and all, if it was to play an active role in social change.

These idealistic aesthetic and social goals were not easy to maintain in a government film unit operating within a bureaucracy. For in 1947 Foster had returned to Canada, and Hawes had taken on the administration of the Films Division of the ANFB as well as the production role. So he had to work on several fronts at once – to constantly improve the standard of films made, to train new talent to make this possible, to develop distribution networks to get the films to audiences (particularly Australian audiences), and at the same time to maintain the viability of the organisation. Though the last was a constant drain on his time and energy, he pursued the first with continued vigour.

Making “good” films

Few filmmakers have the kind of power over other filmmakers that Hawes had as head of the Films Division: he monitored the production slate, assigned directors to projects, read every script, and viewed every film – most only at release print stage, but some repeatedly during production. This is recognised in the credits of all of these films, which list Hawes as “supervisor”.

In many interviews conducted while researching this paper, repeated reference was made to the “rules” that operated within the Unit: writers and producers forbidden to depict church spires or policemen, cameramen forbidden to use wide-angle lenses, sound engineers required to keep music tracks and sound effects tracks separate. But these rules seem to have seldom been spelled out – even by Hawes himself.

Ian Dunlop described how he had been attached as a production assistant to Shan Benson, and had learned a great deal from him, on-the-job. [27] When Dunlop was given his first directorial assignment, at a remote weather station in the outback of South Australia, Benson wrote him a chatty letter detailing the “ten commandments” of filmmaking, which Dunlop found extremely helpful at the time, though as he gained experience he abandoned all of them. Benson, in an interview with Graham Shirley, [28]  explained that he had been embarrassed when Dunlop had shown the letter to others at the Unit, because these “commandments” had originated, in fact, with Hawes, who was amused at the situation and let it pass.

For mostly the rules were not articulated: they were simply common knowledge, and many of those interviewed were not inhibited by them at all, were never hauled over the coals by Hawes and were not aware of the operation of self-censorship. Others, particularly those who already had a developed personal style that did not match Hawes’ expectations, could not live by Hawes’ rules, and resented and resisted them.

Such creative differences should not have surprised anyone, and probably could not have been avoided among people of such diverse talents. For the Unit was a business, with a large staff, and the forties to the sixties were a hierarchical time: it was natural that the head of an organisation such as the Films Division should operate like the head of any large corporation – establishing structures that kept the organisation functioning within its administrative and budgetary guidelines, and establishing quality standards to protect those aesthetic and social goals which were not usually part of such a commercial venture. To be artistically adventurous was to take too much of a risk, considering the low standards that Hawes found when he arrived, the large numbers of films turned out every year, the lack of understanding demonstrated by most departmental clients, and the need to placate the unit’s political critics if it was to keep functioning at all. Also, risks could more easily be taken at some periods of the Division’s history than at others.

At the beginning of 1947, when the production unit had been in operation for only a year and Hawes had been Producer-in-chief for half that time, visiting British director Harry Watt announced that he had been “considerably impressed” with the output so far:

In the face of all the difficulties of lack of equipment and experience, trade apathy and antagonism, Civil Service accountancy and the rest, the Film Board has done a grand job.

He praised Foster, saying he had “by his energy, enthusiasm and imagination, begun to weld together a neat little unit”. But he also sounded a warning note:

It is no use being complacent. As a first year’s work, starting from scratch, the films are pretty good. As representative films to go out into the world as examples of Australia’s film-craft, they are naive. [29]

Watt offered Hawes advice: that documentary film meant teaching citizenship, widening horizons, and encouraging self-criticism; that humour was an essential ingredient in documentary, [30] and that it was necessary to avoid the mindless promotional films which government departments so often requested. [31]  But these were principles which Hawes had already endorsed.

By July 1947, though he still felt that the situation was a “shambles”, Hawes was beginning to feel that a few good films were being made. [32] In September 1947, he was pleased that people had begun to comment on this progress: even Prime Minister Menzies, who boasted that he had only seen two films in his life, had remarked that he had heard of the improvement. [33]

This very tentative new start in 1946-7 was followed by a period of growing confidence in 1948-50. It was both a thrill and a deep disappointment that School in the Mailbox, produced and directed by Hawes in 1947, just missed an Oscar in 1948. [34]  In April 1948, Hawes summed up what he thought the Unit had achieved to that point:

Frankly, we have to walk before we can run, and we just are not able yet to tackle many of the more profound subjects… Many of our films are not very good, some of them are little better than travelogues. We have a five-reel film on ballet which is in execrable taste, and some of our “Australian Diaries” are little better than the Pathe Gazette, but there are some bright spots among them. [35]

The following year he was more optimistic:

All is by no means perfect, but I feel that output and standards are improving, and we are now getting a lot of friendly comment in the Press. [36]

One such positive assessment was Stout’s, who gave much of the credit to Hawes:

The Board owes its present achievement and its well-based hopes for the future very largely to the work of Stanley Hawes, (though the history of the struggle of a few devoted enthusiasts to get the board itself established has yet to be written). [37]

This was also the year when the Shell Film Unit was formed under John Heyer – a development that Stout welcomed, calling the new unit “a strong but friendly rival” to the Films Division of the ANFB. [38]

The early fifties were a good time for the Division’s films. Whereas in 1947 Hawes had written to Grierson for re-assurance, fearing that he was losing his standards and possibly overestimating the quality of the unit’s films, [39]  by 1951 he was saying to Grierson (concerning Australian films at the Edinburgh festival):

We have one or two quite bright shorts entered, and a seven-reel epic from Ron Williams which I find hard to assess – after all the grief that has gone into its making, but which may well be something special, called “Mike and Stefani” – about DPs. [40]

But then the administrative problems began again to impinge seriously on the films. Hawes reported to Grierson:

Menzies, who made a mess of things for you in 1940, is Prime Minister again, and his government in three years has reduced Government film production to mediocrity by masterly indecision. Three and a half years now his government has been in office, and in all that time they have found it too difficult to make a decision on whether there shall be a Film Division at all.

Under these circumstances, Hawes found it difficult to operate effectively: “I just manage to keep afloat, though I don’t know how long I can keep it up.” [41]

Albert Moran suggests that Hawes moved with the political climate, which allowed innovation in the late forties and early fifties. [42]  Then anti-Communist hysteria took over, and the McCarthy witch-hunt in Hollywood overflowed into a suspicion of `pink’ tendencies in the Film Division. [43] This, and the split in the Labor party in the mid-fifties, encouraged conservatism, [44]  so that the ideology of the unit shifted from collectivism to individualism, [45]  and the classic documentary thrived. [46]

My evaluation of Hawes is slightly different from this. It depends first on Hawes’ absolute loyalty to the Griersonian ideal of documentary – the classic documentary, which in the nineties is often dismissed as mere illustrated lecture, but in the early post-war years was highly regarded. Some of the best films to come out of the British documentary movement – such as Grierson’s own Drifters (1929) or even Basil Wright and Harry Watt’s Night Mail (1936) – have voice-of-god commentary over their visuals, without becoming either boring or didactic: they provide a dramatic vision of their rather mundane subject-matter, with impressive visuals cleverly cut together, and a soundtrack comprising both poetic commentary and stirring music.

It was no secret that Hawes preferred the classic documentary – a form at which he himself excelled. It was his efforts in those early years to mould others into this style that produced creative differences with some of the brightest and most innovative of his staff. So he resisted people like Ron Maslyn Williams or Colin Dean, whose use of reconstruction or straight fiction he considered to fall outside the rules governing the integrity of classic documentary. These differences of film-making style and philosophy were evident right from the beginning: they were compounded by interpersonal rivalries and sectarian divisions within the Unit, discussed elsewhere. [47]  It is to Hawes’ credit that, though they were not the sort of films he would have made himself, and in some cases he constantly interfered in their passage to completion, they werenevertheless made and released – and became highlights of the Unit’s output, which Hawes himself also regarded with pride (as in the comment on Mike and Stefani quoted above), even before the films received critical acclaim. But the bitter confrontations along the way took their toll: Williams built up the New Guinea unit so he no longer had to work under Hawes’ direct supervision, and Dean moved on to greener pastures at the BBC.

Hawes as director

Hawes claimed director’s credit on only three films during his long term at the Films Division/Commonwealth Film Unit: School in the Mailbox (1947), Flight Plan (1950), and The Queen in Australia (1954). Each, in Stout’s terms, “throws light on human nature”, not by examining individuals but “typical people” – pupils of the correspondence school living in distant parts of Australia, employees of the Department of Civil Aviation keeping air traffic moving safely, citizens mobilised by the visit of their sovereign. Each, again following Stout, “dramatises life without distorting it”, and gets across “a coherent and revealing story”.

Stylistically, they are all “classic documentary” – a series of images organised thematically and tied together by a verbal commentary and appropriate music. This is currently an unfashionable form, denigrated not only as old-fashioned but also as authoritarian, because its commentary locks a viewer into a single spectatorship position. Despite being out of fashion, the form still survives, and, as film fashions are cyclical, may yet return to favour. The very clearly-stated authorial position usually taken by such films is at least honest and up-front, which is more than can be said of many of the films favoured by current film theory, where apparent openness simply disguises an ideology just as over-determined as any classic documentary.

The ideological position taken in Hawes’ three films is absolutely clear: they are designed to promote a sense of community across the huge Australian continent, to celebrate what holds the country together as a nation.

This is demonstrated by the peroration of Flight Plan:

New ground is broken. Rivers are filled in to make way for the airways of the future… Shatter with the roar of engines the menace of distance. Fly over the tops of mountains and make neighbours out of strangers. Bind together the scattered segments of this huge country. No longer do natural barriers divide the drover of the Kimberleys from the orchardist of Tasmania or the canecutter of Queensland from the axeman of Victoria. The steelworker of Newcastle and the shipwright of Whyalla know the goldminer of Kalgoorlie. And all the farflung people of the continent are within a few hours of the cities of the coast. There are no distant places anymore. Just as the aircraft has brought the people of Australia together, so too it has brought them closer to the people of countries overseas… flying the greater part of the all-red route that circles the globe. Aviation and modern Australia have grown up together and they go forward together, uniting the citizens of this country, uniting the countries of the world…

The film is an illustrated lecture, with stirring music, rousing narration, beautiful images of Australian landscape and people (often working, always busy). It expresses an ideology of nation and empire, of progress, of Australia as the “lucky country” in action. This is an all-male world: the only individuated woman is using the pedal wireless to summon medical help, the rest of the women are just passengers at the terminals. But it flows effortlessly, images and sounds blended into a constantly moving kaleidoscope.

The same could be said of School in the Mailbox, which was nominated for (but just missed) an Oscar in 1948. The social problem addressed is again distance – specifically the difficulties of access to education for children living in remote and isolated areas. The solution illustrated by the film is the correspondence school, welding parents and teachers and transport workers into a well-oiled team. This is an idyllic picture of a country where the sun always shines, where the nuclear family is unchallenged, where racial and familial harmony is unthreatened, where the community looks after everyone regardless of age or location, where parents recognise that education is (in the words, again, of the peroration) “The future of their children, their country and the world”. This may now be considered a naive – even a distorted – picture, but it is still an impressive film: it flows naturally, builds inevitably, carries a viewer along with it.

The third film is The Queen in Australia. [48]  There is much here that grates on a modern viewer: direct reference to the Queen and Empire is jingoistic and sycophantic, and the rest of the commentary is an uncritical paean of praise to Australian progress and diversity. It is again overwhelmingly a male perspective, including usually a male voice-over, and the ending is entirely cliche – the ship sailing off into the sunset, the queen taking our hearts with her!

But, it is also a remarkable achievement. The production was logistically complex, with a team of cinematographers working all over Australia and the editing being done on two continents as the rushes came in, so that the film was finished within a short time after the Queen left Australia, and into the cinemas to take advantage of the left-over euphoria. It was also Australia’s first feature-length film in colour. [49] There is a complex sound mix, cutting images to voice, and there are also segments where the music track is laid over dialogue or commentary (something critics of Hawes claimed he absolutely refused to allow).

The content is daring for the time. There is very little pomp. Prime Minister Menzies and the Governor-General are seen at the beginning and the end, but are not heard at all: the only official speech is that of the Sydney Lord Mayor on the arrival of the Royals. The structure is basically chronological: it begins with the Queen’s yacht entering the heads of Sydney Harbour, and ends with it sailing out again. But within that, there is a thematic organisation, with much more emphasis on the people and places the royal couple visit rather than on them personally. The drama comes as we follow ordinary people living ordinary lives, disrupted by an extraordinary event – the visit of the Queen. The bridging of distance by a sense of community is demonstrated: ships, planes and trains arrive and leave at various moments, but the sense of a unified nation joining in this event together is never lost. There are montages of various armed services events or children’s displays rather than incorporating these repetitiously into the chronology. One long sequence covers various visits to country towns: in Ballarat the Queen sees begonias, in Dubbo sheep, in Wagga wood-chopping, in Toowomba the agricultural show, and in Broken Hill the flying doctor base.

The latter is an example of the economical and imaginative presentation typical of the film as a whole. The budget was larger than for many Films Division films, but still not as large as a commercial operation would have been: they had to economise as much as possible. As it was obviously necessary for the crew to fly into Broken Hill, aerial shots along the way were easy, so there are several of these, all of different places and different homesteads. But location shooting on the ground was harder, and it is to their credit that it is not immediately obvious that they photographed only four places for this sequence – the Queen at the base, a woman at a homestead welcoming the Queen over the pedal wireless, a group of men gathered around a bore with their horses, and another group of people gathered under and outside the verandah of another station homestead. Skilful cutting gives the impression of many people listening in many different places – an impression absolutely essential to the film’s message.

Again for the sake of economy, there is very little synch sound, but they still manage to make a virtue of a necessity. Cuts are made on the words spoken – so when the outback woman says “My family is very isolated” we see her husband holding the baby, with the homestead windows behind him, providing a glimpse of the barren land outside. When the Queen begins “My husband and I send to you who are listening…” we see the first image of the men gathered round their car at the bore listening; when she sends her “thanks for the kind words spoken” we are watching the beaming close-up of the woman who spoke those words.

Though we see the Queen briefly as she enters the radio room and settles in front of the pedal wireless, we do not see her speak at all: her speech on the soundtrack is accompanied by images of her audience and of what she is speaking about. In contrast, the outback woman’s words are heard before we see her, making her a spokesperson for all such people. When we do see her, it is in company with her family (her husband and baby), establishing the parallel with the young Queen as a mother. Only later do we see that the wireless before which she is seated is decorated with flags and a crown and a portrait photo of the Queen – symbols of the (social as well as physical) distance between the two women, as well as of Australia’s imperial ties with Britain. But this then prepares us for the flag-draped homestead verandah, an image that might otherwise have appeared rather incongruous.

Of this film, Hawes reported to Grierson:

I believe we’ve done something on a scale that is not often possible, and projected something of the spirit of a nation on the screen, as you say, and I’ll depart so far from the humility that you preach to say that in that sense I think the film is quite an example of the things which we all believed in twenty years ago. [50]

He explained to Grierson that “It has been quite a job of organisation and planning for a unit unaccustomed to feature production, and weakened by Government policy over the last few years”, but he was right to believe that he had “a good film”.[51]  It was successful commercially in Australia, and won acclaim overseas, including an accolade from Grierson, published in The Times. [52]  Responding to this, Hawes told Grierson:

But of course the film has come too late. Too late in the immediate sense because the public is sated with films of Royal Occasions; too late to be of any use to international documentary because there is no longer any such animal, and no new generation of film students who can appreciate it; too late even to help me personally.

The later years

The final comment is a reference to more political battles both within the Commonwealth Film Unit (as the Films Division was now called) and between the Unit and the Department. Hawes had thrown himself into the Royal visit film, and was away from Australia for months at a time, leaving Jack Allen in charge, and so weakening his own authority. Also, throughout the fifties the unit suffered from the insecurity of repeated official enquiries into its future. So perhaps it is not surprising that Judy Adamson is not the only one to believe that by the end of the fifties things had gone badly wrong:

JA: …when I joined the place, which was ’50, and I stayed there till ’52, the films were exciting. And by the late 50s they weren’t. The fiction slid away. The odd approaches slid away. The sponsored films were – had very nasty sponsors who wouldn’t let people do anything… [53]

Several critics have categorised the late fifties and early sixties (1954-1964) as the low point in the unit’s standards. Writing in 1960, Neil Beggs declared that “the pompous drum of considerations of prestige has replaced the artistry of the Film Unit’s earlier days”, and that “the heart seems to have gone out of their work nowadays”[54]  :

The wholehearted adoption of documentaries for public relations on the grand scale has been the nemesis of the Griersonian idea of documentary. It has led to the routinisation of the industry, and through the setting up of film-makers as general practitioners, to superficial treatment of half-comprehended subjects. [55]

Moran speaks of the “aesthetic conservatism” of the period, and suggests that, after some of the Griersonians had departed the unit in the early fifties, Hawes reached what Moran calls an “aesthetic accommodation” with the conservatives who remained on staff. He also suggests that this is the period when the departmental program (films made on contract for government departments) almost squeezed out the national program (films made on the initiative of the Unit itself). [56] Shirley and Adams agree: they suggest that Hawes was hoping that The Queen in Australia (1954) would be a sufficient success to get the national program back on track, but this did not happen, so the departmental films prevailed in the next ten years, which had “an adverse influence on the group’s initiative and quality.” [57]

Looking back over that period, Hawes explained that the ANFB drew up a list of subjects for films in the national program each year, and he selected from this:

In the 1950s, we couldn’t make very controversial films. In that period when the very existence of the unit was under threat, you couldn’t be too experimental, too enterprising. [58]

Fiction was on the list for ten years before it was possible to actually make such films: in the fifties, there were just too many departmental commissions, which had priority. [59]

By the mid-sixties, the administrative crisis seemed to be over and the Unit back on track towards making “good” films. In 1965 Hawes reported to Grierson:

We make some progress here, and I feel a certain satisfaction in having kept alive, through quite difficult times, a national documentary unit that produces a lot of films, and occasionally a distinguished one. It has taken a long time, but we are at last starting to make one or two films on social and even controversial topics, and it is now accepted that we can make story films for children, experimental films, and so on. There are problems, of course. Pressure of work on bread and butter films for Departments leaves little time or energy for more enterprising films, and we are limited in the number of people who can tackle a demanding film. But we move forward, even if only slowly. [60]

From the Tropics to the Snow (1964) is an example of a “more enterprising” film, made for a departmental sponsor. [61]  The sixties was also the time of Ian Dunlop’s ethnographic films, which were well-received world-wide. [62]  In a 1976 interview, Hawes praised the team spirit evident in the production of films like Festival in Adelaide (1962), in which Ron Maslyn Williams “was responsible for some fine sections”. He was also proud of the social comment in films like Under Stress (1964), and pleased that the unit was able to move into children’s films with Nullarbor Hideout (1965). [63]  His own swan song with the unit was the technical tour-de-force of the multi-screen circular projection at Expo 70. [64]

He maintained to the end his insistence on the value of specially-composed music whenever the budget allowed, and his desire to ensure that Australian audiences had as much access to the unit’s product as overseas audiences. But by the end of the sixties he was aware that not all the films produced by the CFU qualified as “documentaries” in the classical Griersonian sense:

Such a Unit as the Commonwealth Film Unit, for instance, which can rightly be regarded as a documentary unit, makes its films in a wide variety of style, ranging from documentaries in the original sense of the word to documentaries in the current sense of the word, with some travelogues and tourist films, dramatised films with actors and fictional stories, some classroom film, some ethnographic, some experimental films. [65]


The three films that Hawes himself directed strictly followed his own (Griersonian) definitions of what a documentary film should be. All three films were constructed from visuals gathered across many locations and linked by skilful editing (which was the aspect of film-making which Hawes personally enjoyed most and took most pride in) and a carefully-constructed soundtrack. There is no fictional element, not even any suggestion that the characters are re-enacting their own lives, so all three films meet Hawes’ criterion of integrity as well as interest and social comment. They are surprisingly watchable even half a century later, after film techniques and social values have shifted dramatically. If we have reservations about them now it is simply because, in a postmodern world, we are more aware than people were in Hawes’ time that even a “true and accurate reflection”[66] of a subject must also be partisan and incomplete.

But even during Hawes’ time at the CFU, the documentary idea was changing. Albert Moran has analysed in detail the shifts in style of the unit’s films, and the relation of this to the technical, ideological and bureaucratic constraints in operation at various times. [67] Moran associates Hawes personally with the strengths and weaknesses of the product of the Commonwealth Film Unit under his direction, which is a heavy burden to carry, though Hawes himself acknowledged that it was part of the job. Moran dedicates his book to Stanley Hawes, but remains ambivalent about Hawes’ role.

It seems to me that the legacy of bitterness carried by some filmmakers who felt that Hawes stood in their way and prevented them from achieving their potential is unfortunate: it should not be allowed to overshadow the real achievements of the Commonwealth Film Unit under his direction. Large numbers of films were made, and many of them were quite ordinary, but the high quality and the variety of the best films must also be admitted. This was attributable ultimately to Hawes. His personal style could be dogmatic, but it could also be generous and supportive. He favoured the classic documentary, but he also allowed filmmakers to pursue other styles. As time passed he admitted that the documentary aesthetic was changing, but he never gave up that clear vision of documentary’s social function. Above all, he kept the unit afloat against constant bureaucratic opposition, making good films and training people to enter the broader industry.

Hawes was frustrated that the process of building the CFU took twenty years when it should have taken four or five, but what happened after he left would not have been possible without the groundwork he laid. It was Hawes’ concept of the documentary that dominated the Films Division/Commonwealth Film Unit under his direction, and that shaped the thinking and practice of all those who worked in that organisation, including the many who passed through it on the way to careers in the wider Australian film industry: the feature film revival and the explosion of independent documentary production from the sixties on would have looked very different without his vital contribution.


[1] This section on defining documentary owes much to valuable discussions with my colleague Peter Hughes.
[2] Film and Television Production Association of Australia submission to Ian Wilson, Minister for Home Affairs and Environment, 21 May 1981, quoted in The Documentary Film in Australia, eds. Ross Lansell & Peter Beilby (Melbourne: Cinema Papers in association with Film Victoria, 1982), 18.
[3] See, for instance, Lansell & Beilby: though John Langer (in Lansell & Beilby, pp.11-18) makes the arguments clear about definition, the rest of the book addresses all forms of non-fiction – from television newsreels to instructional films – as if all are equally “documentary”.
[4] Transcript of radio broadcasts, no.1, “What is a documentary”, Alan Stout papers, National Library of Australia, Canberra.
[5] This has been explained by Forsyth Hardy:
“The word documentary made its first appearance in a review written by Grierson for the New York Sun in February 1926. It derived from documentaire, a term applied by the French to their travel films. Grierson used it to describe Robert Flaherty’s[Moana which, he wrote, `being a visual account of the events in the daily life of a Polynesian youth, has documentary value’. Later he defined it as `the creative treatment of actuality’. It came to represent in the next twenty years a vast and far-reaching use of the film for social comment.” [Grierson on Documentary, (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), 13]
[6] These three are discussed by Deane Williams, “The Commonwealth Film Unit: predecessors and precursors.” Metro104 (1995): 52-57; also in his article in this issue of Screening the Past. In fact, each of these three filmmakers did their best work after Hawes arrived, and, at least in the case of Dean and Williams, for the Films Division/CFU.
[7] In a talk to the Ottawa Film Society on “The background of British documentary” (23 March 1944, typescript, p.8, Hawes papers, box 9, National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra) he said: “We in Canada, for instance, though insisting on our distinct contribution to documentary, still think of ourselves as part of that movement which was born in the E.M.B. fifteen years ago.”
[8] Over the ensuing years, he maintained an irregular correspondence with many old colleagues, including Grierson, though surprisingly he does not appear to have discussed with Grierson the latter’s earlier visit to Australia. In a talk to the Canberra Film Centre (“The rise of Australian documentary”, 17 April 1951, transcript, p.10, Hawes papers, box 9) Hawes said:
“Personally I never heard much from Grierson about his Australian visit. Years afterwards, when I was just about to set out myself from Canada to Australia, he advised me to be careful what I said to the press – so I think he must have had a fairly rugged time.”
In 1951, this advice seemed to puzzle Hawes slightly. He commented: “The Press, incidentally, has always – in general – been very generous and helpful.”
[9] He used that phrase, without attribution, in a talk on “The production of documentary films”, to Wolverhampton Film Society, reported in Wolverhampton Express and Star, March 1936, p.1, in Hawes papers, box 9.
[10] Other examples are in: “Documentary”, Film, September 1948, pp.2-4; “Pity the poor documentary director!”, Film Monthly, January 1952, p.16; “What does the documentary producer aim at?”, ABC broadcast, 15 March 1956, transcript, Hawes papers, box 9; UNESCO seminar on Professional Training of Film and Television Scriptwriters, Producers and Directors, 12 November 1968, transcript, Hawes papers, box 10.
[11] Hawes, quoted by Judy Adamson, “Stanley Hawes 1905-1991” (obituary), Cinema Papers, 84 (August 1991):64.
[12] “Documentary, in fact, describes the method of approach to one’s material, not the material itself.” (Hawes, “The production of documentary films” p.1).
[13] “The production of documentary films” transcript p.3. The use of the male pronoun here is typical of the times, though Hawes was less sexist in his attitudes than many others within the industry.
[14]  Hawes, “Pity the poor documentary director!”:16.
[15] “Background of British documentary”, talk by Hawes to Ottawa Film Society, 23 March 1944, transcript p.3, Hawes Papers, box 9.
[16] Hawes described how his efforts to arrange screenings of Soviet films for the Birmingham Film Society were frustrated by bureaucracy, till he found a sympathetic cinema owner who allowed the screenings to take place after the advertised commercial screenings. (see “Films in the Soviet Union”, talk by Hawes to Ottawa Film Society, 14 February 1944, transcript p.3, in Hawes Papers, box 9). Judy Adamson later commented, referring to the vast knowledge acquired during these years:
“Stanley Hawes used to watch new prints of pre-war fiction films at recent film festivals and list all the sequences that had been left out.” [“Changing times”, in The Big Picture: Documentary Film-making in AustraliaPapers from the 2nd Australian Documentary Conference, ed. Jane Yule (Clayton: National Centre for Australian Studies, 1993), 9].
[17] Stanley Hawes, talk to Ottawa Film Society, 23 April 1945, transcript, p.1, Hawes papers, box 9.
[18] “Films in the Soviet Union”, transcript p.4, Hawes papers, box 9. Earlier, Hawes had been less impressed with the role of editing:
“I was particularly interested in your point about the necessity for Documentary to face the individual. I am always more interested in people than in inanimate objects and organisations, however complex, and I believe that a good deal of the dullness of current documentary is due to its shirking of the problem. Also, I thoroughly agree with you that obsession with technique particularly editing, is strangling Documentary.” (Stanley Hawes to Paul Rotha, 11 March 1935, Hawes papers, box 83)
[19] “Documentary films in Australia”, talk to Sydney Feminists Club, 8 March 1949, transcript p.2, Hawes Papers, box 9.
[20] Talk to Ottawa Film Society, 23 April 1945, transcript p.4, Hawes Papers, box 9.
[21] His argument was not with fiction per se, but with those fictional films which had lost touch with reality. In 1985 he was very proud of Film Australia’s fiction feature Annie’s Coming Out. He called it a “truly remarkable film” which “gives me enormous pleasure, not just because it is interesting, lucid and delightful, but because it is just the kind of socially significant film which Film Australia can and should make and few others would attempt”. (Hawes’ speech on his 80th birthday, transcript p.12, Hawes Papers, box 52).
[22] Hawes, interviewed by Andrew Pike & Joan Long, 14-15 February 1980, transcript (page no. unreadable – p.21?), Hawes Papers, box 52.
[23] “Documentary films”, typed scripts of four radio talks, presented on ABC Radio, Dec.1943 – Jan.1944, no.2, “The documentary film as an instrument in adult education”, n.p., Stout papers.
[24] Strand Films, publicity brochure, not dated, Hawes Papers, box 53.
[25] “The production of documentary films”, transcript pp.10-11, Hawes papers, box 9.
[26] “The production of documentary films”, pp.10-11.
[27] Telephone conversation with Ina Bertrand, 10 June 1997.
[28] Interview 30 June and 7 July 1981, held in NFSA, Canberra.
[29] Harry Watt, “Australian films have had a brave year”, Sydney Morning Herald 4 January 1947, Stout papers, National Library, Canberra
[30] “Humour and humanity are powerful weapons in the hands of the documentary filmmaker, but they are not easy to use, and not every film maker has the ability to be amusing”. (Stanley Hawes, Talk on opening night of Canberra Film Festival, 9 April 1957, transcript p.3, Hawes papers, box 9)
[31] Hawes probably also agreed with Watt’s comment that: “There are trade organisations which can turn out such films extremely well, if supervised in the scripting stages.” (Watt, “Australian films have had a brave year”) One of the Unit’s most successful films was From the Tropics to the Snow (1964), a delightful parody of just the kind of tourist film that Watt was warning against (see notes of talk, School for Seniors, “Humour in the factual documentary film”, 15 October 1981, Hawes papers, box 10).
[32] Stanley Hawes to John Grierson, 1 July 1947, Hawes papers, box 9.
[33] Hawes to Grierson, 29 September 1947, Hawes papers, box 82.
[34] Hawes to Grierson, 14 April 1948, Hawes papers, box 82. Concerning the film, see Hawes notes for the WEA Film Study Group, 27 September 1981, Hawes papers, box 10.
[35] Hawes to Grierson, 14 April 1948, Hawes papers, box 82.
[36] Hawes to Grierson, 13 August 1949, Hawes papers, box 82.
[37] A.K.Stout, Edinburgh Film Festival, Documentary 49 (page number missing), Stout papers.
[38] Stout, Edinburgh Film Festival, Documentary 49.
[39] Hawes to Grierson, 29 September 1947, Hawes papers, box 9.
[40] Hawes to Grierson, 2 July 1951, Hawes papers, box 82.
[41]  Hawes to Grierson, 11 August 1953.
[42] Albert Moran,  Projecting Australia: Government Film Since 1945 (Paddington: Currency Press, 1991), ch.2.
[43] Albert Moran, “Nation building: the post-war documentary in Australia”, Continuum 1, no.1 (1987): 61-2.
[44] Albert Moran, “Documentary consensus: the Commonwealth Film Unit 1954-1964,” in History on/and/in Film: Proceedings of the Third History and Film Conference, Perth 1985, eds. Tom O’Regan and Brian Shoesmith (Perth: History and Film Association of Australia (WA), 1987), 93.
[45] Moran, “Documentary consensus”, 97.
[46] Moran, Projecting Australia, ch.3.
[47] Ina Bertrand, “Stanley Hawes and the Commonwealth Film Unit”, Australian Journal of Communication 24, no.3 (1997): 85-97.
[48] Click here to view a quicktime video clip of The Queen in Australia.
[49] Though that achievement was overshadowed by Jedda (dir. Charles Chauvel) a year later, because that was a dramatised feature.
[50] Hawes to Grierson, 1 July 1954, Hawes papers, box 82.
[51] Hawes to Grierson, 1 February 1954, Hawes papers, box 82.
[52]  The Times London, 5 June 1954, Hawes papers, box 82A.
[53] Stanley Hawes interviewed by Judy Adamson, April 1981, n.p., Hawes papers, box 52.
[54] Neil Beggs, “The heart seems to have gone…”, in An Australia Film Reader, eds. Albert Moran & Tom O’Regan (Paddington: Currency Press, 1985), 101.
[55]  Beggs 103.
[56] Moran, “Documentary consensus”, 92.
[57] Graham Shirley & Brian Adams, Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years, 2nd ed. (Paddington: Currency Press, 1989), 193.
[58] Hawes 1983, quoted in Moran, Projecting Australia, 79.
[59] Hawes to Ina Bertrand, 14 November 1979.
[60] Hawes to Grierson, 3 July 1965, Hawes papers, box 82.
[61] In the wake of the success of that film Hawes spoke to the Conference of NSW Regional Tourist Organisations at Terrigal, NSW, 16 November 1965, explaining what he thought were the responsibilities of a filmmaker and a sponsor to each other, and urging sponsors to encourage filmmakers to use modern techniques. (transcript, Hawes papers, box 10)
[62] Hawes taped for Australian Archives, 26 May 1976, transcript pp.38-9, Hawes papers, box 10.
[63] Hawes taped for Australian Archives, 26 May 1976, transcript pp.36-7.
[64] Hawes taped for Australian Archives, 26 May 1976, transcript pp.48-50.
[65] UNESCO Seminar on Professional Training of Film and Television Scriptwriters, Producers and Directors, 12 November 1968, typescript, Hawes Papers, box 10.
[66] Stanley Hawes, “The production of documentary films”, transcript p.3. (see note 13).
[67] Moran, 1991.

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

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