info I contact
advertising
editorial schedule
acknowledgements
join the realtime email list
become a friend of realtime on facebook
follow realtime on twitter
donate

magazine  archive  features  rt profiler  realtimedance  mediaartarchive

contents

  
Max Price and Brenda Hean Max Price and Brenda Hean
LAKE PEDDER LOOMS LARGE IN THE HISTORY OF AUSTRALIA’S ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT, A FOUNDATIONAL MYTH WITH A LOST SHANGRI-LA AND A MARTYR AT ITS CORE. A STUNNING INLAND BODY OF WATER IN TASMANIA’S REMOTE SOUTHWEST, FLANKED BY A PRISTINE TWO-MILE-LONG BEACH, PEDDER DISAPPEARED BENEATH DAM FLOODWATERS IN 1972, A VICTIM OF THE ALL-POWERFUL HYDRO ELECTRIC COMMISSION’S DRIVE TO INDUSTRIALISE THE ISLAND STATE. TASMANIAN-BORN DOCUMENTARY-MAKER SCOTT MILLWOOD TOUCHED UPON THE CAMPAIGN TO SAVE PEDDER IN HIS AWARD-WINNING FILM WILDNESS (2003, RT60, P17), AND HAS RETURNED TO THE STRUGGLE WITH HIS LATEST FEATURE-LENGTH DOCUMENTARY, THE MURDER MYSTERY-CUM-PHILOSOPHICAL REFLECTION, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BRENDA HEAN?

Hean and pilot Max Price vanished without trace on the morning of September 8, 1972, while flying to Canberra to emblazon ‘Save Lake Pedder’ across the capital’s skies and lobby federal politicians on the ground. It was three months out from the federal election that was to bring Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party to power after 23 years in opposition, and Hean was seeking to make Pedder’s flooding a federal issue. The cursory police investigation that followed her disappearance failed to cast light on the activist’s fate, although there was evidence that the plane’s hangar had been broken into the night before the flight. Rumours of sabotage and a cover up have persisted ever since.

In the opening moments of the documentary, Millwood evokes the sense of loss that came with Pedder’s inundation through ageing colour archival footage of the lake and its stunning surrounds. The area’s ethereal beauty is obvious even through the scratches and dust flecks scattered across the film’s surface. Shots of Pedder are intercut with black and white news coverage of Hean and Max Price as they prepare for their flight north in Price’s ancient Tiger Moth. At the end of the introductory montage, Millwood enters the film through a contemporary radio broadcast and a TV interview, announcing a $100,000 reward for information leading to the solving of Hean’s disappearance.

Millwood began his career with the essayistic Proximity (1999), an autobiographical account of a soul-searching trip around the globe that took the filmmaker from shady homoerotic encounters in Iran to time in an Indian leper colony. Wildness was a more conventional, if still quietly poetic, made-for-television documentary. Whatever Happened to Brenda Hean? lies somewhere between the two earlier films, returning to the Tasmanian environmental concerns of Wildness, while foregrounding the filmmaker’s authorial presence as he delves into the fog of contradictory stories, rumours, myths and insinuations surrounding the Brenda Hean mystery. In doing so Millwood documents the Pedder campaign and the beginnings of Australia’s Green movement, but also probes the dark recesses of Tasmania’s history, and by extension his own identity as a Tasmanian.

Having established his hotline and publicised the reward, Millwood starts to follow various leads, ranging from amusing cranks to eye-witnesses to the ill-fated flight. He speaks to a farmer who claims to have seen Hean and Price fly over his family’s property as a boy, adding that he also once spotted a Tasmanian Tiger. A more credible series of witnesses report having seen the plane on its way up the state’s east coast. We also journey out into the Tasmanian bush with Stan Hanuszewicz and Derek Kooistra, who have been obsessively traversing the island’s northeast for over a decade, searching for the plane wreck using information provided by a clairvoyant.

The most startling turn comes when several interviewees suggest the Tiger Moth was sabotaged not in order to prevent Brenda Hean reaching Canberra, as has commonly been assumed, but to dispose of pilot Max Price. The aviator was, it seems, a well-known philanderer, and among other local women was having an affair with his sister-in-law. In addition, Price had supposedly uncovered information indicating his business partner was embezzling funds from their company, Tasmanian Aviation Services, and was planning to hand over the incriminating evidence to police upon his return from Canberra.

After more than an hour of false leads and conflicting theories and accusations, both Millwood and viewers are left feeling utterly confused. We see the filmmaker looking lost and alone on a hotel bed, admitting to his information hotline operator, “I don’t think we’re ever going to get to the bottom of this mystery. Not because we’ve found so little truth, but because there seems to be so much truth.” But just as Millwood’s search and the film’s narrative seem to be floundering, Whatever Happened changes gear.

Having conceded he is unlikely to learn what happened to Hean, Millwood begins to consider whether the swamp of innuendo and secrecy he finds himself mired in speaks of a deeper truth regarding Tasmania’s culture of repressed atrocities and extreme violence. In the process Whatever Happened becomes a film about the frustrations—perhaps the impossibility—of writing history in such a close-knit, tight-lipped community. Tasmanian Greens Senator Christine Milne comments at one point, “In other places, after 10 or 15 years, usually mysteries are cleared up. There are always ways in which the truth eventually comes out. But in Tasmania it never does. The secrets go to people’s graves with them.” In this context, the act of retelling the story of Brenda Hean, and the lake she fought to save, is almost as important as revealing the truth of her fate.

Throughout the film, Millwood obsessively returns to archival images of Hean and the lake, clinging to two central facts amongst all the deceit and legend surrounding this strange story. Hean was an ordinary woman who stood up to extraordinary power, and the lake was an extant place destroyed in a misguided ideological drive to turn Tasmania into the “Ruhr Valley of the south seas.” If we simply allow the story to fade into myth it becomes all too easy for the violence at its heart to recede into comfortable abstraction, divorced from a brutal reality of greed and political struggle. Furthermore, as Tim Flannery tantalisingly reveals towards the end of the film, the fulfilment of Hean’s dream is still possible. Unlike the extermination of Tasmania’s Indigenous population or the forced extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger, Lake Pedder’s flooding is a catastrophe that can be reversed, since the beach and the lake’s surrounds still lie intact beneath the dam reservoir.

In the film’s final sequence, Millwood travels by boat to the site that was once Lake Pedder and plunges into the dam waters. We follow him down as his flashlight illuminates a glass bottle lodged in the submerged sands. A relic of some long ago beach party? The last trace of the final vigil on the Lake’s shores? As Millwood scoops up a handful of buried sand we think back to the opening images of the snow-white expanse nearly four decades ago. We recall Brenda Hean walking on Lake Pedder’s shore and planning her flight north. We ponder Flannery’s claim that this beach, and the lake it once hugged, could be brought back to life. The sand trickles through Millwood’s fingers and is dispersed in the water, an ephemeral reminder of what Pedder was and the potential wonder that still lies beneath the dam’s surface.

Whatever Happened raises more questions than it answers, but perhaps their posing is all than can be expected of a humble documentary. What Millwood’s film does reveal is that answering the question of whatever happened to Brenda Hean will require more than just bringing to light the buried truths specifically related to her disappearance. The mystery surrounding her death speaks of a broader, more profound culture of silence, cloaking a systematic abuse of power and campaign of violence against the people and environment of the island state.


Whatever Happened to Brenda Hean?, writer, director, producer Scott Millwood, producer Michael MacMahon, writer Mira Robertson, Big and Little Films, Australia, 2008

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 19

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

Back to top