Magazine article Metro Magazine

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

Magazine article Metro Magazine

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

Article excerpt

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

* JOHN HUGHES. EARLY WORKS & ATOM, 2013.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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. …

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