Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

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Equal but different

22 September 2009

Filmmaker John Hughes responds to Ruth Balint’s essay on history and television


Above: Tony Barry as Ben Chifley and Lorna Lesley as his personal assistant Phyllis Donnelly in Geoff Burton’s Infamous Victory: Ben Chifley's Battle for Coal, a Making History documentary.
Photo: Marcus Filinger © Screen Australia

Above: Tony Barry as Ben Chifley and Lorna Lesley as his personal assistant Phyllis Donnelly in Geoff Burton’s Infamous Victory: Ben Chifley's Battle for Coal, a Making History documentary.
Photo: Marcus Filinger © Screen Australia

RECENTLY in Inside Story Ruth Balint surveyed the first offerings of the Making History series from Film Australia and the ABC, which went to air in March 2007. She located their genesis in the “history wars” and made a number of salient points about the ideological imperatives driving the series so far. But my experience suggests that the interaction of factors is even more complex. In fact, a detailed account of the making of the initiative – one that really engaged with the cup-to-lip, cut-and-thrust of commissioning politics, management oversight, agenda setting, scripting and production, and editing-room tears and tribulations – would make a wonderful series in itself, something like a cross between Moving Wallpaper, Dexter and The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

I admire what I know of Ruth’s work, and was delighted to work with her briefly during the course of her first film, Troubled Waters, for SBS Independent several years ago. This important documentary critically examined Australian policy and practice in relation to “illegal” fishing in Australia’s northern oceans, showing that these waters are often traditional fishing areas for subsistence fisherman on Indonesia’s eastern borders. The film explained how poor fishing communities are subject to exploitation in their own villages – where boat owners can extract enormous payments from the families of fishermen who suffer the destruction of boats by Australian authorities – adding to the punishment routinely handed out by courts in Broome, where fishermen are gaoled if they are caught working in waters deemed Australian.

This was Ruth’s first film, produced by Joanne McGowan and cut by Kim Moody. It was characterised by an empathy informed by the personal relationships that Ruth established with the protagonists over a long period. The film’s strength lay in Ruth’s commitment to thorough, historically informed research. It succeeded in juggling its investigative and advocacy moments – its “current affairs” content – with an almost ethnographic encounter with its islander protagonists. This is always a difficult juggling act, and the film deserved the success it achieved, winning best documentary at the Sydney Film Festival’s Dendy Awards in 2002. Ruth has produced a book with the same title, taking the research materials further and into other realms of the cross-cultural hybridity of Indigenous northern Australia and its neighbours.

Ruth’s piece doesn’t examine the individual films in the Making History series in detail; she doesn’t distinguish much between the three films that made up the first Constructing Australia series, and the bio-pics that followed (Menzies, Chifley and the coal strike, Harold Holt and his disappearance). Rather, she argues, “although each was independently directed, and a couple quite good on their chosen subject, it is important to recognise, and thus judge them on, their commissioning under the Making History banner… [T]hey were intended to create a specific meta-history of the Australian past through the topics that were chosen and, equally, those that were not.”

Ruth prefers the dramatic recreations of Peter Butt (in The Prime Minister is Missing) to those of Constructing Australia, which “sought to produce a version of the past that was seamless, authoritative and unambiguous – all of the things, in other words, that history is not.” She links this affirmative and conformist mode of historiography with the historical agenda advocated by the series, an agenda unquestionably consistent with John Howard’s views: the affirmation of historical progress and the absence of serious, critical attention to questions of race, class or gender – in other words, “the Australian Legend… writ large.”

In her discussion of the structural conditions that give rise to and sustain this mainstream, Ruth makes reference to recent commentary by Marcus Westbury, in which he cites the policy-driven tendency for larger, industrial style factual production to dominate Screen Australia investment. But, in so far as this is the case, I would argue that it is more the preference of broadcasters, in particular the ABC, that determines, for the most part, what can be made and how. It is difficult, even for the historian-filmmaker, to unpick the relationship between the ideology of certain works, the political economy framing their production possibilities, and policy frameworks that gather to influence how work is made.

In turning her attention to remedies, Ruth seems to edge toward advocating more rigor, presumably delivered by academic historians. She notes that the “well respected historian” Professor John Hirst was “attached to the Making History Initiative as the consultant historian,” and argues that his “political conservatism” would not have mattered if there had been others “to balance opinion.” “A lone voice,” she writes, “he was there, it seemed, to tick the box.” Ruth may not have been aware of Professor Hirst’s concurrent role as a Howard government appointment to Film Australia’s Board; first appointed in May 1999, he remained on the board until Film Australia was incorporated into Screen Australia in mid 2008. During this period Making History was developed, approved by cabinet, implemented through Film Australia and delivered, exclusively, to the ABC.

If we knew more of the inside story concerning the dexterity with which Professor Hirst’s box-ticking pencil negotiated the boundaries of Film Australia Board member and Film Australia consultant historian that would add another layer to the mix of our understanding of the genesis and delivery of this series. In September 2005, after Film Australia had announced the government’s allocation of an extra $7.5 million for the series, had appointed the British executive producer Alex West to oversee the project and had called for “applications” from filmmakers, Screenhub noted “unfortunately, it does nothing to help the problem of supporting independent voices, since this is a huge project… under a specific remit from a government agency acting as a production company.”

A comprehensive account of the making of the first series, Constructing Australia, could throw invaluable light on the important questions Ruth Balint raises about relationships between the “consensus engineering” tasks of ideologically driven historiography and public television. The hierarchies of editorial and creative control that conditioned the development, writing and production of these works – and the role of collaboration with ABC executives – constitute an apparatus that might arguably be considered the real author of the films we see on the screen.

Of course, the degree to which this governing apparatus contributes to the silencing of a critical historiography that Ruth identifies could only be understood if we were to review the process in detail. But it seems to me that this context should add a cautionary note to Ruth’s implied suggestion that the problems she identifies in the ABC’s recent specialist factual history programs could usefully be addressed with the addition of a committee of academic historians who might bring their expertise and balance to the process. Sadly, the application of academic discipline is just as likely to compound most of the problems that Ruth identifies, rather than alleviate them.

While reassuring us that “this is not a call for historians to abandon the craft of scholarly writing” the article concludes with a call for a more “collaborative partnership between the academy and the film and television industry” as one strategy directed toward “break[ing] the monopoly of the ‘amateur historians’ over the viewing public.”

Yes, there could be more rigour in the exercise of scholarship in broadcasting, just as there could often be more informed engagement from the academy in accessible and public discourse. It may be, however, that a very useful contribution, and a collaboration that might play most effectively to the strengths of each of these, let us say, “equal but different” voices in the public sphere, arises when the specific resources and skills of a professional historian with knowledge of media forms takes up the challenge to engage with media texts with the same degree of respect, critical intelligence and attention to detail that is applied to the work of colleagues in the academy.

If it is the case, as Ruth says, that history programs on television are “the most prolific and influential constructions of history in the public arena today” and that they contribute to a “marginalisation of historians in the creative process,” rather than the opposite, then perhaps we could intervene by encouraging thoughtful and informed writing about specific works of history in radio and television for newspapers, magazines and online journals that broadcast audiences read. A determined program of this kind over time could contribute to more informed and accountable commissioning, better films and broader, more informed audiences for Australian cultural work. A better constituted and informed Screen Australia could support this work as “marketing.”

Inside Story has been taking the lead over recent times in publishing thoughtful accounts of documentary on television, including Ellie Rennie’s piece on The First Australians, and Norman Abjorensen and Peter Brent on Nick Torrens’s three-part series Liberal Rule. And it’s interesting to see that Peter Brent’s piece also evokes the figure of historian John Hirst: “The show would have benefited from a few other talking heads. Supporters of the Howard government are scarce in academia, but they do exist. The historian John Hirst, for example, would have been ready made for the job.” •

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Chair of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission Christine Bennett (right) with health minister Nicola Roxon, ANU vice-chancellor Ian Chubb and prime minister Kevin Rudd at the launch of the commission’s report. Karen Edwards/ANU

Chair of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission Christine Bennett (right) with health minister Nicola Roxon, ANU vice-chancellor Ian Chubb and prime minister Kevin Rudd at the launch of the commission’s report. Karen Edwards/ANU