Magazine article Metro Magazine

Save Our Homes: Activist Documentaries 1970-1985

Magazine article Metro Magazine

Save Our Homes: Activist Documentaries 1970-1985

Article excerpt

   Green Bans Forever
   Green Bans Forever
   Green Bans Forever
   In Victoria Street
   We sang as we hopped from
   Chimney top to chimney top
   Green Bans Forever
   In Victoria Street

(to the tune of 'Waltzing Matilda'). Lyrics composed and sung by Mick Fowler, in Woolloomooloo (1979)

INTRODUCTION

IN SYDNEY DURING THE 1970S AND early 1980s, there were numerous proposals to redevelop Victoria Street in King Cross, the Woolloomooloo basin, the Rocks area, Glebe, Waterloo and other inner-city residential areas. Private developers and State authorities, such as the Housing Commission, planned and attempted to implement sweeping changes to local suburbs. These plans, particularly on behalf of the State, were part of a continuation of the 1930s and 1940s modernist call to clean up the city, to bring dignity to family life, to keep workers happy and foster the Australian dream of owning one's own home. (1) What the planners failed to anticipate was a tidal wave of opposition. Disaffected low and middle-income tenants rallied together with homeowners to form resident action groups, which quickly grew in numbers. The resident action groups were then able to forge powerful alliances with trade unionists and left-wing activists. Striking builders labourers slowed down the work on construction sites and in many cases stopped the bulldozers altogether. As the city itself hurtled toward crisis, kidnappings and unexplained disappearances entered the discourse of tabloid journalism, while a new weapon gradually emerged from within the battleground, documentary film.

The impetus for this discussion has come from thinking about how documentary film and film-makers have engaged with representing the city, both as object and subject. Gold and Ward (1997) examine the use of documentary film as an instrument of urban planning in London during the post war period. I want to extend this idea to a distinctively Australian context in which documentary film has been involved in intensive challenges to the planning of public and private development in major metropolitan areas. The first section of this article looks briefly at the expositional mode of documentary used by government departments in the 1940s to safeguard an idea of the ideal home. The following sections explore the ideology, mode of film-making and aesthetic of documentary films about housing, adopted by two Sydney-based, activist film-makers in the 1970s and early 1980s, Tom Zubrycki and Pat Fiske. Finally I ask what kind of truth claims are being made by the activist documentary project.

THE IDEAL HOUSE

The first major building boom of the last century took place during the 1940s when the New South Wales Housing Commission was established as a Government response to the problem of evictions in Sydney's working-class suburbs. The modernization of housing and the idea of the low-income dream home represented an optimistic belief in social progress that grew alongside an expansion of industrial technology. In Australia modernist architectural designs, using cheaply produced materials such as concrete slabs, formed the basis of public housing estates, which gave way much later to the building of high density concrete towers, and in turn left a legacy of resident discontentment.

The educational and reformist voice-of-god commentary of the 1940s Cinesound newsreel and other documentary films of that time now appear very familiar. A voice-of-god narration forms the basis of an expository mode of documentary, which 'raises ethical issues of voice: of how the text speaks objectively or persuasively (or as an instrument of propaganda).' (2) 2 The expository, propaganda films of the 1940s situate the film-maker as an outsider and the residents as objects of their environment, caught in an inherently slippery debate over 'whether the slum dwelling or the slum dweller produced unhealthy living conditions'. (3) Describing homes as-they-are and homes as-they-might-be, narration was used strategically to make a persuasive argument for slum (the problem) clearance (the solution) based on visible evidence of sub-standard living conditions. …

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