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The Archive Project: The Realist Film Unit in Cold War Australia.

The Archive Project: The Realist Film Unit in Cold War Australia


In his celebrated work Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Jacques Derrida reminds us that the word archive derives from two meanings: one relating to history (establishing a 'commencement') and another to power (denoting a 'commandment'). Both elements lie at the heart of John Hughes' The Archive Project in its film (2006) and, now, book form.

In 1945, in the wake of World War II, the Realist Film Unit was formed in Melbourne by Bob Mathews and Ken Coldicutt, who were later joined by Gerry Harant and Betty Lacey (the latter of whom subsequently married Coldicutt and features, in a stylised design by William Head, on the book's cover). Their stated aim was to produce films that were, in Coldicutt's words, something more than just 'escapist entertainment'--films that could be deployed 'as a weapon to say something about the political conditions of the time'. Here, the Australian Realists redacted Bertolt Brecht's famous dictum that art 'is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it' although 'telling it like it really is' and truly mirroring reality was also part of the group's intention. From 1946 to 1958, the Realist Film Unit also screened scores of like-minded films from around the world (mostly from the Eastern Bloc and mostly at Melbourne's New Theatre), contributing to what would later become the Melbourne International Film Festival. A complete account of Realist Film screenings is provided as an appendix at the end of the book and reveals a fascinating dialectic in itself--the films of Joris Ivens, for example, are presented alongside Russian and Chinese classics, and silent comedies by Charlie Chaplin appear with local films including those made by the Realists themselves.

Clearly, the work of the Australian Realists had resonances with the scope and intentions of the more widely recognised Italian neorealist film movement, as represented in the works of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti. These films were likewise produced in the 1940s and 1950s, and had the same anti-Nazi, proproletarian predilections, moving the art of filmmaking out of the studio and into the 'reality' of the streets. In this sense, 'realists' around the world were able to take the new lightweight film technologies (developed to document the war) and apply them to the process of locating drama in 'real places'. Alas, some of the Australian Realist films have been lost or now exist only in fragments--but the Archive Project documentary traces the origins of the movement in Australia, frames it in the global political context of the Cold War, and seeks to reconstruct some of its fragmentary remains. The book therefore both rescues and adds to a growing archive about this important (and previously overlooked) chapter of our cultural history.

The book is more than just a re-creation of the documentary in paper form, however; this 'book of the film' lays out the narration/voiceover as text within a lavishly illustrated landscape. It breaks the film down into a dozen discrete chapters, covering the historical context, the key players, the split with(in) the Communist Party of Australia, surveillance, and the Realist Film Unit's overlap with the New Theatre movement. Critically, it also revisits three of the key surviving realist productions: These Are Our Children (Ken Coldicutt, 1948), Prices and the People (Bob Mathews, 1948) and They Chose Peace (Bob Mathews, 1952). In its side margins, the book even offers additional details that elaborate on the information provided only skeletally in the film. In this sense, the larger 'Archive Project' continues to evolve as new information feeds back into the process. After seeing the film televised on the ABC, the actor Joan Dyson--who played Molly Bradley in These Are Our Children--came forward to present the filmmaker with her own take on the events surrounding the making of that film, which in turn has been incorporated into the book.

In a more practical sense, the paper version becomes a kind of 'personal archive', which an individual reader can leaf through at leisure, pausing over documents and images that flash by in the more time-dependent moving version. Thus, Colidicutt's article in The Realist Review, which caused such a storm for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) as it was seen to reveal the 'methods by which Communists expect to penetrate the film industry', can now be read in full. And so, with the wisdom of hindsight, Coldicutt's quite reasonable, inoffensive and heartfelt call for film societies to work together--no doubt threatening the prevailing Hollywood hegemony--can now be appreciated for what it really was (and not the embodiment of some kind of dire national emergency). The Archive Project also tells of how Hughes unearthed ASIO footage of Mathews directing scenes for They Chose Peace, which chronicles the Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship held in Sydney in 1952 (against much hidden and not-so-hidden bureaucratic obstruction). Through events such as this, both the book and the documentary highlight the larger political constraints and the absurdity inherent in the reductive attitudes of Cold War logic.

Clearly, as the various hot wars of the first half of the twentieth century stalemated into the long Cold War of its second half (thanks to a recognition of the ultimate reality of 'mutually assured destruction'), the contest between monolithic communism (nee Stalinism) and entrenched capitalism took on more subtle features. Part of this exchange became known as 'the culture wars'; ideas could replace bullets. This was the milieu in which the Realist Film Unit operated, and it was to cost them all personally in terms of stunted careers and blocked future opportunities--certainly where any government funding was concerned. The historical background in which this story is set therefore allows us to revisit the key political drivers of our current state of affairs and the various 'culture wars' as they present themselves to us now. It also allows Hughes to quote from two of his previous films dealing with the same broad canvas--1976's Menace (on Sir Robert Menzies' attempt to outlaw the Communist Party) and 1981 's Film-work (a study of Sydney's Realist equivalent, the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit) --from which The Archive Project itself springs. In this sense, both the film and the book can be read as parts of a mega-work, as it were, in which Hughes continues to shine a light on some of the key themes and players at crucial moments in the formation of our cultural, historical and political inheritance.

Dr Paul Davies has written extensively for film, theatre and television and has been awarded AWGIEs for 'Return of the Prodigal', an episode of the ABC series Something in the Air, as well as for two plays, On Shifting Sandshoes and Storming St Kilda by Tram. His recently completed doctoral thesis, 'Really Moving Drama', examines the history of Melbourne's groundbreaking location theatre' movement in the 1980s.
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Author:Davies, Paul
Publication:Metro Magazine
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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