August 27, 2005
Australian film and the cultural cold war
This article was published in the media journal, Media International Australia, in May 2004. It is based on the 2003 Ian McPherson Lecture delivered by the author at the 50th anniversary of the Sydney Film Festival.
The Cold War between the communist bloc and the capitalist countries is traditionally seen in terms of the grand politics of international relations, including rivalry in the deployment of nuclear weapons, or by proxy wars, like Vietnam and Korea. While an ideological dimension has been studied, most prominently in the attacks on communist influence in Hollywood, interest has been revived in the wider cultural conflict between Left and the anti-Communist Right on the terrain of literature, the arts, journalism, television, radio and cinema. (Saunders, 1999; Lashmar, 1998; McKnight,1998; Eldridge, 2000, Urban, 1997)
The article examines the long term cultural effects of the Cold War on the Australian film industry, on film culture, such as festivals, and on the emerging industry of television. I want to suggest that this global ideological clash considerably affected the direction of government policy toward Australian film, the lives and work of film-makers and the cultural climate of film festivals. In particular I want to examine the interaction between the main government agency responsible for security matters, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, and the film industry component of what might be broadly termed 'the cultural Left' in Australia from 1945 to 1965. I will explore this through four issues which were of great concern during the Cold War: the involvement of left activists in the film society movement; the screening of films from the Soviet bloc; the activities of left wing film-makers, especially in connection with the Commonwealth Film Unit; and the activities of the trade union, Actors' Equity, in favour of Australian content, especially in the emerging industry of television.
The association between film and politics was established very early. The reason for this was that, from their beginning in the last few years of the nineteenth century, films proved to be cultural form which aroused immediate and broad popular interest. Films fascinated the mass popular imagination, much as television was to do in the late 1940s and 50s. On the basis of this ability to fascinate and excite large numbers of people, film was widely assumed to be an influential medium that could shape minds and political opinions. Democratic governments wanted to use film and cinema for education, for national unity and for propaganda about the nation and national interest. Fascist and Communist governments wanted to use film as unadorned propaganda for their ideological causes and for their national legitimacy. The Venice Film Festival, founded in 1932, was born in an Italy dominated by Mussolini and was a de facto vehicle for celebrating the new fascist society. In 1937 Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937) was denied the top prize because of its pacifist sentiments and this led later to the formation of the Cannes festival in France. (Turan, 2002:18)
In Australia prior to World War Two, political activists particularly in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), used film to promote Soviet socialism and mobilize people in support of Republican Spain. (Merewether, 1985) In a similar way, both radio and television were believed to be enormously influential, a belief that continues to this day. A concomitant to this was that film, television and other cultural activities were seen as especially dangerous if they fell into the wrong hands. This largely explains, I believe, the degree of political surveillance exercised over film, radio and television from the post-war period onwards.
An indication of this attitude can be seen in a speech by the Victorian Labor MP Mr Cremean. In debate over a bill to control the screening of films in 1948, Mr. Cremean damned the screening of Soviet films and said: 'This poison seeps into the mind of those who otherwise would be well disposed to democratic procedures- People who have been indoctrinated to adopt Communism in that way seem to become the most vicious of the Red propagandists.' (Cunningham and Routt, 1989:204) The Bill which Cremean supported was never passed, but the attitudes he expressed were widely held on the Right, and from 1949, the federal government passed to the Right in the shape of Sir Robert Menzies' coalition government. In office Menzies was determined to defeat the influence of communists and appointed a new head of ASIO, Colonel Charles Spry, with whom he developed a relationship of mutual respect. (McKnight, 1994:39-41) While initially established to protect defence secrets, ASIO soon exercised a broad brief against subversion, including in the field of culture and media.
One of the early security concerns of ASIO in the cultural field was centred on the growth of small film societies. These were often suburban-based groups of enthusiasts who projected films in community halls, in private homes and sometimes out of doors. In Australia there had been something of an upsurge in film societies during and immediately after the Second World War and on the crest of this wave was born the first Australian film festival, which was held at Olinda, near Melbourne.
Security interest in film societies began in May 1951 when the ASIO Director General asked all states to provide details of film societies which had been penetrated - such was the language of the memo -- by the Communist Party of Australia. Of particular interest was the Sydney Film Society whose president was John Heyer, and whose vice president was Anthony Michaelis, both of whom had ASIO dossiers. Heyer is well known to anyone who has studied post war film in Australia. Heyer worked at the Film Division of the Dept of Interior (later Commonwealth Film Unit) between 1945-1948 where he made a number of documentaries which expressed an idealistic populism about post war reconstruction. (Moran 1991: 49) He later worked for the film unit of the Shell Oil company where he made a landmark documentary, The Back of Beyond which was one of the highlights of the first Sydney Film Festival. Heyer was suspected by ASIO of being a communist.
In early 1954, ASIO drew up a summary of its concerns about film societies. It noted that since 1952 there had been a marked increased in non-commercial film societies in Australia and that some of these screened films from the Soviet bloc. The ASIO report said :
While claiming to be purely cultural societies, concerned with merely providing high class international films for the public, these organizations do, in fact, exploit those films which show the Soviet Union and her satellites in a favorable light, thereby providing the Communist Party with an effective means of spreading propaganda in Australia.
This ASIO report was shown to certain public figures to alert them to the dangers; this was quite outside the charter of ASIO and constituted an early tendency for ASIO to be a player in politics and not simply an observer.
While ASIO was busy investigating film societies, hostility to communism was present within the film society movement. One anti-Communist was a film lover, Neil Gunther who wrote an article in Film Guide entitled 'Goodbye Mr Red' in which he urged all film societies to force communists out as soon as possible. (Cunningham and Routt, 1989:208) Such people were not genuine enthusiasts, their enthusiasm was 'in proportion to its usefulness in promoting Communism'. The Film Society Red, he said, was:
a battler for discussion groups, purely for the use he can make of them in thought-direction. For the same reason he is in favour of the society running a journal. He's sold on the idea of a film-society federation, for concentration of power in a few hands has long been the goal towards which he has worked. With such power he can hope to swing the film society movement his way, import more films to be used in the fight against freedom and get more backing for his censorship quarrels.
Partly as a result of such moves, the constitution of the NSW Film Users Association was amended in 1954 after a bitter argument, to make it compulsory for all candidates for office to submit a statutory declaration that they were not members of the Communist Party. As a result the Sydney University Film Group left the Association. (Donaldson, 2003)
Mr Gunther's action was significant because it illustrates an important point. It is tempting sometimes to look back on the Cold War and see things in the simple terms of 'good idealistic film people' versus 'big, bad government agency'. But in many film institutions, the Cold War was fought out internally at the grass roots between leftists and anti-Communists, most of whom acted independently and some of whom co-operated with ASIO.
Film Festivals in Australia
One of the consequences of the popularity of the film societies was the creation of an audience for broader film festivals, the first of which was held at the village of Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges near Melbourne in January 1952. The Olinda festival has attained a legendary character now among film lovers and film historians. It was a raging success and a triumph of grass roots improvisation. It highlighted the vitality and vision of alternative cinema exhibition in Australia. Its long term success was the impetus to the creation of both the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals.
The program for the Olinda Festival featured a congratulatory message from Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Paradoxically, at the same time ASIO was collecting information on the event. In a sense this would have flowed naturally from its surveillance of left wing influence in the film societies movement but another reason may have been that the Olinda festival had planned to feature two films from the Peoples Republic of China, 'The White Haired Girl' (1950) and 'Daughters of China' (1949). It also featured several Soviet films, including 'Forest Story' on the underground life of a family of beavers in Russia. But 'The White Haired Girl' was not shown. The Commonwealth Censor banned it on the extraordinary basis that it was likely to be 'offensive to a friendly nation' that is, Nationalist China. The Censor did not pass 'Daughters of China' in time.
Film society enthusiasts who were influenced by or were members of the CPA presumably wanted to show these films because they would humanize the Chinese and undermine the war which the US was waging at that moment in Korea and which many feared would extend to the People's Republic of China. The Olinda festival was held four months after a referendum which attempted to ban the CPA in Australia.
When the Olinda Festival opened, the organisers were amazed at the response. Every guesthouse and possible bed in the mountain village was booked by film enthusiasts. Among the enthusiasts was a field officer from ASIO who was also amazed to find that three of the seven members of the organizing committee had ASIO dossiers. After watching some of the discussion sessions, he noted the presence of pro-Soviet speakers and tried to get the names of a group of about 25 film-goers who clapped them and who seemed to be enthusiastically pro-Soviet. The field officer spent quite a bit of time looking and listening at the Olinda Schoolhouse which held the most obvious Communist Party presence at Olinda -- an exhibition of Russian and East European photographs and posters. He noted that Ken Coldicutt, from the Realist Film Association, seemed on good terms with the organizers. He also recognised Betty Lacey who, he noted in his report, 'was once employed by the Victorian State Film Centre, but dismissed because of Communist tendencies.'
The ASIO officer concluded that communists had a strong presence on the organising committee of the festival but also noted that one member of the committee was from the 'Victorian Amateur Cine Society' which has a clause in its constitution which prevented communists from becoming members. He concluded that the festival was not communist inspired, although he noted that a number of Olinda locals and festival subscribers believed it was. Several contemporary newspaper reports of the Olinda Festival highlight the political undercurrent during the event. Before it was held, something of a red scare was mounted, so much so that a few days after the big success, Roberts Dunstan on the Melbourne Herald wrote an article reassuring readers that the Olinda festival, in his words, was not a 'Communist Show. Dunstan reported that in a forum on censorship, CPA members argued for 'freedom on the screen' while their much more numerous opponents were worried about moral aspects of cinema. But all in all, he said in the overblown rhetoric of the time, 'the Reds took a hiding' at Olinda. Nevertheless the CPA regarded the Olinda Festival as a 'cultural landmark' in part because , it argued, it showed that people were sick of seeing American horror films and because they responded enthusiastically to old Australian films such as Longford's The Sentimental Bloke and O What a Night by George Wallace (Guardian 7 February 1952) .
The Olinda Festival was clearly seen by both sides in the Cultural Cold War as a battleground. It was a chance for the CPA to popularize films from the Soviet Union and China as part of their political work, and this called forth a hostile response from both some within the film community but especially by the government security agency. By the time of the third Melbourne Film Festival in 1954, the CPA newspaper The Guardian complained that no Soviet, Czech or Chinese films were screened. 'The Festival organizers may believe that by avoiding controversy they will curry favor with the government authorities and the commercial film interests but this is no way to build a strong film society movement', the newspaper argued. (Guardian 1 July 1954) It also argued that unlike the Olinda festival, the subsequent festivals did not allow participants to discuss the films or other subjects of interest.
The CPA's cultural policy at this time attacked US cultural influence generally and championed a national culture especially in popular forms such as film and later, television. In September 1952 a conference of the CPA-inspired Australian Cultural Defence Movement warned that many Australian artists could not possibly find work in Australia and had gone overseas. In large part, conference speakers argued, this was due to the fact that Australian drama and book publishing were actually in decline while at the same time there was a growing importation of American movies, syndicated radio, magazine articles and comics. The conference argued that along with local cultural decline went growing political conservatism. The painter Lloyd Rees opined that 'I hope the beautiful colour vermillion is not eliminated from our palette.' The left-wing conference also called for a National Opera and criticised the disbanding of the Victorian Ballet.
The Commonwealth Film Unit (Film Australia)
In those early and formative years of the cultural cold war there was another institution which drew a lot of attention from Australia's security authorities. This was the film division of the Department of the Interior, later the Commonwealth Film Unit and after 1973, Film Australia. It had emerged from wartime documentary enthusiasm which included a visit to Australia from John Grierson who successfully urged the Minister for Information, Arthur Calwell, to set up such a body. (Moran 1991) But like all federal government bodies, the unit was open to the scrutiny of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization which was charged with conducting security clearances for government employees.
In addition to this surveillance, the film makers of the Unit were divided politically and aesthetically. One group tended to be younger, animated by idealism about the social purpose of film and interested in artistic issues. They were largely directors and producers. The other tended to be older, more artistically conservative and uninterested in the social purpose of film-making. They were largely editors and cameramen. (Moran 1991:33)
A number of film makers in the first group had worked on Joris Iven's 1946 film, Indonesia Calling, though not officially. One Film Unit employee, Catherine Duncan wrote the commentary which was spoken by left wing actor (and later Hollywood star) Peter Finch. Indonesia Calling, which was a stirring piece of political filmmaking, was part of the Left's struggle against the attempt by the Dutch to re-establish their colonial rule in Indonesia.
At the other end of the political spectrum, the unit produced a strident film warning of the dangers of communism, called Menace (1952). Originally suggested by Ernest Turnbull, the general manager of Hoyts Theaters, the film was sponsored by the Minister for the Interior, Wilfred Kent-Hughes. The film's producer, Jack Allan wrote to ASIO's Director-General and described the film as 'a pretty scorching indictment of the menace of communism'. He invited ASIO to vet the script which they did in June 1952. The film had the biggest distribution of any Film Unit film since the war being released in September 1952 through Hoyts, Greater Union and MGM cinemas. After the success of Menace, Allan went on to make One Man's War, a film based on an Australian soldier who fought in Korea, which he told ASIO had 'a strongly anti-Communist theme'.
But such films were unusual. From the film unit's founding in 1945 until around 1953 it produced many documentaries imbued with an optimistic nationalist streak, promoting civic consciousness and often depicting the lives of working people. But from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, the unit's output became much safer and less interesting artistically. Moran notes: 'The federal security service was suspected of having a plant in the unit. Factionalism continued and whether out of mischief or patriotism, some in the unit reported innocent political activities of fellow members to the security authorities. There were two sackings (although the two were later reinstated) in which politics were implicated.' (1991: 35) A number of files released by National Archives now confirm that there were informers and close surveillance of the Film Unit.
One of the key concerns about the unit was that its members often made classified and defence-related films on topics such as the British A-bomb tests and missile testing. On this basis, film unit members were subject to security scrutiny and the participation of a number of them in Indonesia Calling damned them in the eyes of ASIO.
In 1958 a detailed report on the Film Unit was undertaken by the security division of the Department of Interior which also worked closely with ASIO. Apart from describing the political views of many film-makers, the report contains a vicious personal attack, to a degree which was actually unusual in such files. It concerned a female member of the Film Unit who was described as 'an undoubted communist'. It outlined her alleged sexual liaisons and her 'unusual moral code' and, on this basis, her ability to influence senior men at the unit. The source appeared to be someone working at the Film Unit.
The 1958 report named several other people as security risks or as possible communists such as Frank Bagnall, Bern Gandy and Malcolm Otton. The report also described another person of security interest, cameraman Ted Cranstone, who had been sent to make a film on the testing of tanks on Manus Island and was then brought back to Sydney after security concerns. Even the head of the unit, the respected British producer, Stanley Hawes, was regarded as a possible member of the Communist Party for a number of years.
Another director of the unit, Richard Mason, aroused security concerns because of his connections with the Waterside Workers Film Unit and New Theatre. According to an ASIO source, probably within the unit, he also apparently made it known that as a Methodist lay preacher, he would never offer prayers for the Royal Family in church services. Given all of this it is surprising that the unit survived at all, give that there were several attempts to disband it and hand its work over to the private sector.
The chilling effect of cultural anti-communism induced forms of self-censorship. For example, when film maker Cecil Holmes tried to get a job at the Commonwealth Film Unit, he privately approached the unit's chief producer, Stanley Hawes who was 'polite and agreeable', according to Holmes, but who made it clear he 'would not have his particular government boat rocked by the presence of some trouble-making Red.' (Holmes, 1986: 38) . Holmes was an unashamed member of the Communist Party and had left New Zealand after being sacked and blacklisted. However he had made one of the few Australian feature films in the 1950s, Captain Thunderbolt (1953). This had the rare distinction that it was denied normal exhibition in its own country for four years and it is likely that Captain Thunderbolt was blacklisted by the major exhibitors, perhaps prompted by ASIO. But policing of communism extended to voluntary bodies such as the Sydney Film Festival. In 1956 he approached the Sydney Festival to screen Three in One (1956). Three in One was a 'portmanteau' film comprised of three smaller and independent stories, linked by a theme of mateship. These elements were Henry Lawson's short story, Joe Wilson's Mates , Frank Hardy's story The Load of Wood, and The City, a story by contemporary writer Ralph Peterson. (Shirley and Adams, 1983 : 189-90)
At that time all Festival films were ordered by the director, David Donaldson and were not previewed by others. He later recalled: 'It seemed to be in the genre of 'Reedy River', the extraordinary stage success with New Theatre. Suddenly I heard we had to preview it! Quite a large ad hoc panel arrived, to my surprise. I thought the film had substantial, indeed exciting merits together with the over statement that one came to recognise as Cecil Holmes' style . . . But everyone seemed to be down in the film, even before we discussed it. John Kingsford Smith seemed to be the leader in this strange little event.' (Donaldson 2003) The upshot was that the Three in One, a rare Australian film, was not screened at the Festival.
Holmes' treatment, both by exhibitors and some colleagues raises the wider issue of blacklists. While the existence of such lists are very hard to prove, archival research has indicated at least two blacklists in the cultural field which operated in Australia. The first was a black list directed against leftwing actors and is referred to in a 1953 ASIO document. The document, circulated among employers in the radio world in Sydney, listed 11 actors - most little known today -- as 'definite communists'. Three others including Leonard Teale and Peter Finch were listed in the 'very doubtful' category which, the ASIO document explained, meant that management was 'almost certain' they were CPA members. Teale went on to be a very well known actor in early TV dramas such as Homicide while Finch had a successful career in Hollywood.
The other blacklist was one operated by the ABC and is referred to in an ASIO memo about a militant trade unionist in Actors' Equity. The file is not completely clear in its reference to what it calls 'the ABC black list' but it is well known that an official vetting process existed designed to exclude people from the ABC with past or present sympathies with the CPA. (McKnight 1998)
The Sydney Film Festival
Around 1960 ASIO showed a sudden and deep interest in the Sydney Film Festival which was to last for many years. The reason appears to be that in that year diplomatic relations between Australia and the Soviet Union were re-opened after a break caused by the Petrov Affair. After 1960 the Sydney Film Festival was able to deal more easily and directly with Russian cultural attaches in order to obtain Soviet films such as Bondarchuk's Destiny of a Man (1959) which was screened at the 1960 festival.
In ASIO's eyes the problem this presented did not lie solely in the films themselves although the files showed that some ASIO officers and one or two unidentified members of the Festival described them as 'communist propaganda'. Rather, it was that such a cultural exchange necessitated many contacts between Australians and Soviet diplomatic personnel. The Russians had a long history of inserting their intelligence officers into jobs such as cultural attachÃƒÂ© precisely because it allowed them to travel and mix with people of the target country. This was useful for an intelligence officer, who was always on the look out to recruit agents but who also might use the freedom to make surreptitious contact with an agent already in place. Such activities might sound like scenes from a bizarre spy movie, nevertheless these kind of activities actually did happen during the Cold War.
Cultural exchange therefore was seen as a weak link. Just as science and scientists had a tradition of free exchange across borders, at least in peace time, so it was with artists. Writers, filmmakers, musicians and dancers are often natural internationalists because they recognized the common humanity in people from other countries. They were also impelled to explore other cultures and were prepared to be explored by other cultures. In a polarised Cold War this was a dangerous weakness. The trouble was that in order to watch cultural contacts between Soviet diplomats and Australians, for example, ASIO had to examine many people doing many normal things.
For example, when Ian Klava, the Festival Director, dined with the Czechoslovak consul in 1963, his dinner companions were Sir Charles and Lady Moses and Sir Bernard Heinze. At this time a record of a conversation with Klava was put in ASIO's files. Either someone whom Klava met at the dinner was an informant or he was in a room which was bugged, presumably the Czech consulate.
This in turn lead to a routine check in June 1963 to establish just who Ian Klava was. This revealed a matter of interest to ASIO immediately. A witness to Klava's electoral enrollment was a film maker, 'Joe' Scully, who had an ASIO file. Ian Klava therefore had a question mark over him, since he was associated with someone who was 'adversely recorded', as the jargon had it.
Another more probing report on the Sydney Film Festival was done in January 1964. Of the 33 office bearers and committee members, one diligent ASIO officer noted that 11 already had personal files. The field officer then said:
'If further inquiries are required- it is suggested that [ name deleted] could be approached as he has indicated that he would co-operate with ASIO as he did not like to think that the Festival was being used as a means of exhibiting Communist propaganda films. It is also respectfully suggested that [second name deleted] is another person who would be willing to supply informant to the organization.'
In 1965 ASIO formally recruited a source within the Sydney Film Festival whom they described as someone 'who has been connected with the Film Festival for many years' In February 1966 one of ASIO's contacts within the Festival reported that the Festival had received a letter from Moscow offering an exhibition of 300 art works related to Eisenstein for the 1966 Festival. In July 1968 a security officer reported to ASIO that he had been to a cocktail party at the Polish Consulate in Sydney and met Festival Director, David Stratton. The latter, he said, 'celebrated the occasion by wearing a red tie and pocket handkerchief.' A year later when Stratton called the Soviet embassy in Canberra, his telephone conversation was routinely recorded and passed on to ASIO counter-espionage section. And when he visited the embassy, his photo was taken. All of this was routine, ASIO drew no obvious implications from his visit.
Conclusion: Anti-communism and the cultural Cold War
What were the long term cultural effects of the cold war in terms of the Australian film, industry, film culture and the nascent years of television? This is the most important question but the hardest of all to answer simply.
One of the characteristics of the Cold War was that political and cultural issues became polarised between Right and Left and that certain positions were declared to be communist or communist-inspired simply on the basis of an association. This dynamic affected two important aspects of cultural life: the failure of an indigenous film industry to revive following World War Two and linked to this the introduction of a television service which 'should have guaranteed consistent employment for those fleeing from the void in feature film activity but - it saw a continuing drain of Australian creative talent'. (Shirley and Adams, 1983:185)
There are connections between the anti-Communism of the Cold War and the problems of film and television which followed, though they are not simple and direct connections. From the start, the issue of government support for the film industry and for quotas of Australian content were partisan issues that divided the Labor Opposition from the Menzies Coalition government.
This was entangled with the issue of the degree to which commercial interests should participate in television. Labor, church groups and the CPA shared a disquiet over the likely decline in moral standards if commercial television was allowed. (Curthoys 135,149) All opposed the issuing of license to commercial groups and favoured a national government-owned television service on the British model. A number of artistic and trade union bodies influenced by the CPA (such as Actors Equity) made submissions to the Royal Commission which examined TV in 1953-54. They had little impact.
Once the government's dual public-private television system was introduced in 1956, it faced attacks from Labor and the Actors Equity over commercial TV's heavy reliance of American drama and movies. In October 1957 Actors' Equity took industrial action to protest the federal government's easing of control over the import of films for TV (SMH 12 October 1957). A week later, when Equity members demonstrated in Kings Hall, Parliament House, the Attorney General asked ASIO for information on the union 'which could be released to the public'. The purpose of this was to smear Equity and its communist officials and its campaign for Australian content on TV. In the event, the smear backfired because ASIO said that the general secretary of Equity, Hal Alexander, had stood as a communist candidate for election in 1955. This was in fact another Hal Alexander and the Senator who revealed this was forced to apologise. In any case the government continued to defend commercial television and blamed Actors' Equity's lack of co-operation as one of the reasons for the low level of Australian content. (SMH 18 Oct 1957) This practice of discounting Equity continued into the 1960s when ASIO assessed the communist influenced union as the 'prime mover and driving force' of the reform-minded 1965 National Television Congress.
But regardless of the mistaken 1957 smear, the Government was quite correct in believing that Actors Equity was strongly influenced by the Communist Party. The post-war CPA had developed a strong 'radical nationalist' approach, especially in cultural matters (Docker, 184-87) and this approach was particularly appropriate for a union like Equity. The security authorities and government were both well aware of Equity's links with the CPA and thus its public campaigns were constantly undercut. Movement on the relevant policy issues only really began in 1960 when the independent-minded Liberal Senator Hannan suggested that 'national sentiment and culture' were being endangered by the virtual monopoly of foreign films screened in cinemas and television (SMH 18 August 1960)
Another instance of anti-Communism undercutting the campaign for Australian content occurred in the run up to the first TV license hearings. It concerned the production company Associated TV run by a New Zealander, Colin Scrimgeour. The company had gathered significant business backing and part of its bid for winning a TV license was a pledge that it would be heavily committed to local production. But both Scrimgeour and one of his film-makers, Cecil Holmes, had associations with the Left and this badly damaged the bid in the license hearings. (Shirley and Adams 1983: 188-89)
Broad brush anti-Communism directly affected the creative work of left-wing film-makers and this in turn affected the struggling film culture of Australia. For the small number of film makers who actually were -- or had been -- communists the effect was very direct. Loss of jobs and loss of opportunities for screening their work minimized their cultural input into the wider Australian community. Less direct but more widespread was the knock-on effect on broadly liberal and leftish filmmakers. This is most easily seen in the evolution of the Commonwealth Film Unit which began with a flowering of creative and idealistic post war documentaries. By the mid-1950s these hopes were eroded and only revived when the political climate brightened. (Moran 1991: 55-81) A similar kind of evolution affected the ABC.
Nor was it confined to the public sector. John Heyer's loving portrait of an outback mail deliverer, The Back of Beyond, was produced for the film unit of the Shell Oil company. But at this time Heyer was regarded as a 'suspected communist' by ASIO. Heyer was never a CPA member but perhaps not surprisingly he joined the cream of Australia's artistic and intellectual elite in leaving for Britain in 1955.
Finally, there is the issue of screening of Soviet, Chinese and East European films at the Film Festivals. At first glance this seems to have little direct relevance to the constriction of film-making and television in Australia. In the framework of anti-Communism these were propaganda films, whose intent was to glamorise countries with little or no artistic freedom. Within this framework but taking an opposite position the CPA members and their sympathisers saw the screening of these films as little victories for their side in the Cold War. They believed that the communist world really was the precursor to human liberation.
But there was another way to interpret the validity of screening of these films. To the vast majority of non-communist film-goers these Soviet films were important not because they were excellent films but because there was a profound problem of cultural insularity in Australia at the time. The anti-Communist hostility to such films was linked to a desire to subject literature and art to narrow political criteria. Thus support for their screening was a way of supporting cultural diversity and breaking down insularity.
For all these reasons it is worth acknowledging the significant effects of anti-Communism on Australia's film culture.
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Posted by David at August 27, 2005 6:57 PM