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Elizabeth Coldecutt Elizabeth Coldecutt
photo John Hughes
“I will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” writes playwright Lillian Hellmann in her brilliant account of testifying before the House Un-American Activities in the 1950s. The memoir, Scoundrel Time (1976), is about Hellmann’s refusal to ‘name names.’ The popularity of George Clooney’s Goodnight and Good Luck points to the continuing fascination with this bleak period.

In Australia at the same time, the fear surrounding the Menzies government’s attempt to ban the Communist Party saw people burying books and taking their kids to be looked after by relatives. Dossiers were kept by ASIO and an “adverse risk assessment” spelt unemployment for many. The 1950s have become a metaphor for our own troubled times with reference to political censorship, surveillance and government manipulation.

John Hughes’ Master Class and his film The Archive Project were among the highlights of the 2006 Australian International Documentary Conference. The film reveals a little known but crucial period in Australian documentary production. This painstakingly edited work is both a guide to the Australian documentary filmmakers of the 1950s and a road map to how we make films now.

The Hughes legacy

Hughes’ earlier documentaries, Menace (1976) and Film-work (1981), and Traps (1985, described by him as “a documentary and narrative drama with a documentary intent”), began his 30 year fascination with the political era of the 1950s: Communism, the Waterside Workers Federation and the ALP split. Only dimly remembered from high school textbooks, these become immediate and present in Hughes’ earlier films. Footage from the past becomes part of a living archive.

Hughes’ long-term filmmaking project is encapsulated in his voice-over at the beginning of The Archive Project. In order to preserve, document and elaborate on history’s traces Hughes says he relies on “exquisite trims—the past generation of memory.” Traps, Australia’s version of Haskell Wexler’s ode to the 1960s protest movement during the 1968 Democratic Convention, Medium Cool (1969), juxtaposes drama with the documentary reality of Bob Hawke’s 1983 electoral victory and the shady dealings of the CIA in post war Australian political life. (In an adroit move, Hughes uses outtakes from a seminal film of the early 80s, Marian Wilkinson and Sylvie Le Clezio’s Allies (1983), about the history of the US-Australia Alliance to extend his argument.)

The main character (actor Carolyn Howard) is a journalist at a community radio station who travels to Canberra to cover Bob Hawke’s first electoral victory then sets out to interview “real” subjects like historian Humphrey McQueen and activist Dennis Freney. It’s erratic and infuriating at times but it is also one of my favourite Hughes’ films.

A different world

If the 1950s and 1980s are different countries, then Melbourne’s history exists as a parallel universe to our own. Melbourne is the ultimate realist city. Unlike Sydney’s reliance on the dazzling brilliance of its harbour landscape the image that recurs again and again in The Archive Project is that of commuters entering Flinders Street Station, the city’s ‘real heart’, where work and leisure are embodied by the constant movement of the crowd. What also makes Melbourne a modernist city is closely linked to its post war art movement—the Nolans, Boyds and Heidi group always found a home here.

While there have been countless books written about these artists and their world, The Archive Project explores the little known story of the independent filmmakers who inhabited this decade. It’s a story about how the everyday reality of life in 1950s Melbourne can be understood in aesthetic and formalist terms. While Hughes, in email correspondence with me, sees these filmmakers participating in a broader modernist project involving the key planks of progress, culture and democracy, “the realist tradition in the twentieth century is really a moment of modernism.”

The Realist Film Organisation

The central problem facing Hughes is that 2 of the 3 key participants are dead. Bob Matthews and Ken Coldecutt were the main instigators of the Realist Film Organisation (RFO). The only other surviving member, Elizabeth Coldecutt, is still active, feistily questioning the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s “ownership” of the early 1950s housing rights films at the launch of Hughes’ film at ACMI. According to Coldecutt it was the more politically radical—and thus forgotten from history—Fitzroy Branch of the Communist Party that was the main instigator.

The RFO, born during the days of hope in the early post war period, was closely aligned to the political program of the Communist Party of Australia. According to Hughes’ narration, among the left there was a “shared vision of a just future.” The provision of childcare centres and libraries was, however, overshadowed by the housing crisis of the post war period—after a 15-year time span when no working class housing had been built. In 1947, 90,000 families were homeless. The inner suburbs of Fitzroy, Collingwood and South Melbourne were particularly hard hit.

While the Realist Film Organisation included films about housing and price hikes, including The Slums are Still With Us and Prices and the People, they also dealt with politically taboo subjects for the 1950s like solidarity with Mao’s China and Indigenous rights. They Chose Peace, the last of the Realist films, was about the International Carnival for Peace and Friendship. While the images remain, Hughes had to reconstruct the narration. Deborah Mailman’s new reading is an eloquent combination of old-school voice of God and today’s political reality—that in 2006 Aboriginal land rights remain an unfinished story:

For the Indigenous people of Australia there has never been a time of real peace. Isolated from the rest of the community into drab settlements, refused the rights of citizenship, they realised only too well the importance of the message the carnival brought and the friendship and mutual support between the carnival delegates became a token of the time when the Aboriginal people will stand in their full stature.

During the AIDC’s Master Class I told John Hughes that The Archive Project reminded me of Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik, a meditation on the Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin’s attempt to intersect filmmaking practice with a new society. Hughes’ response was one of humility and understatement. And yet, despite the similarity of a broadly defined left project, Hughes’ protagonists break with Marker’s in one crucial respect. Medvedkin was never able to escape from the constraints of the Stalinist system, but the Realist filmmakers instituted a frank and open discussion of Soviet totalitarianism a full 5 years before Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes. While this ultimately led to Ken Coldecutt’s break with the party he remained under ASIO surveillance for years afterwards and was even denied employment in Stanley Hawes’ new Commonwealth Film Unit, the predecessor of today’s Film Australia. (In another of life’s twists, it was John Hughes who was presented with Film Australia’s Stanley Hawes Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 2006 AIDC.)

Even today, the Realist Film Organisation’s influence on Australian (and particularly Melbourne) film culture remains profound. Its members mortgaged their houses to set up the Olinda Film Festival, the forerunner to today’s Melbourne International Film Festival, the longest running in Australia. Other members were employed at the State Film Centre and their interest in European and arthouse cinema has led to Melbourne’s unique film collection. ACMI holds the collection of the State Film Centre and houses Australia’s most eclectic and successful film program—a monument to our collective film history and a testament to the pioneers of the early Realist Film Unit.


John Hughes, The Archive Project, the Realist Film Movement in Cold War Australia, Australian International Documentary Conference; Hilton on the Park, Melbourne, Feb 13-16

Melbourne-based independent producer, writer and director John Hughes has taught filmmaking and cinema studies and has been a commissioning editor for documentary with SBS Independent. His films include the documentaries River of Dreams (2002) and After Mabo (1997), the feature What I have written (1996) and One Way Street (1992), about Walter Benjamin.

The Archive Project will appear later this year on ABC TV and on DVD with the referenced RFO film.

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 17

© Carmela Baranowska; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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