21 May 2012

The Antipodes of Propaganda

*This post expands on some notes written for a screening of Waters of Time and The Hungry Miles as part of Solo Show at Reg Vardy Gallery, Sunderland, 23 April — 17 May.* 

left: Waters of Time right: The Hungry Miles

 Waters of Time and The Hungry Miles as more or less contemporaneous documentary films, share an attempt at the illusion of truth in their portrayal of aspects of docklands and their work. In both these are clearly spaces and practices produced by Capital and Empire, however the two films occupy markedly different political and aesthetic positions in relation to waterside spaces and industry.

Norma Disher, Keith Gow, and Jock Levy made The Hungry Miles for the Australian Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit in 1955. As befits the concerns of a trades union the film foregrounds the workers, the hazardous nature of their work, their importance for trade and industry, dramatizing their struggles for fair employment conditions, countering negative perceptions of the wharf-side workers and the doubtful reputation that they enjoyed, parodying the greed of the ruling classes, while celebrating the sentimental resonance of the concept of ‘mateship’ - the Australian male bonding that had sustained historical workers’ struggles such as the ‘Eureka Stockade’, considered to be the birth of Australian democracy – and the ultimate success of the Union in the face of shipping company neglect and the continual struggle for reform.

The Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit is credited with crossing “the two intentions of ‘art’ and ‘message’… harnessing the formal innovations of the new documentary, [speaking] …for a group not otherwise represented in the mainstream media, engaging in cinema as a form of direct action mirroring the industrial and political campaigns which provided the content of some of their films.” [1]

The Film Unit had earlier, in 1946, worked with Dutch documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens to make Indonesia Calling in Australia, which documented the refusal of Sydney dockside workers to allow arms and ammunition to be sent for the Dutch colonial government’s suppression of Indonesia’s independence movement. Ivens arrived in Australia as The Netherlands’ East Indies (NEI) Film Commissioner. The NEI government was resident in Australia at this time due to the occupation of the Dutch colony by the Japanese.  Ivens’s job was to make a series of films documenting and supporting what the NEI government anticipated would be their reoccupation of the colony (now know as Indonesia) following the defeat of the Japanese, and to establish a nation building educational film agency. However, following a mutiny by Indonesian seamen government office workers’ and dockworkers’ refusal to load Dutch ships was supported by Australian trade unions, demonstrations, petitions and actions to stall the Dutch were organised, and seamen refused to man the ships. Ivens also walked off and resigning his commission joined the anti-colonial movement, and started to document the events unfolding on the wharves.[2]

Bill Launder and Basil Wright made Waters of Time for the Port of London Authority (PLA) in 1951. It begins rather portentously with a quote from Tagus Farewell written by Thomas Wyatt, a 16th-century English lyrical poet and ambassador in the service of Henry VIII, credited with introducing the sonnet form into English. 

“…with spur and sail for I go seek the Thames,
Gainward the sun that show'th her wealthy pride,
And to the town which Brutus sought by dreams,
Like bended moon doth lend her lusty side…”

Ostensibly following the passage of a ship from the sea to the docks as orchestral music sooths and stirs, the film’s prose poetic voice-over rhapsodizes in the clipped 1950s Received Pronunciation intonation favoured as representative of the reassuring voice of authority.  Here with Romantic allusion and simile we are in negotiation with nature: the sea is made by God, the docks by man. The sea has given up “her own”; the ‘landlubbers’ will swarm over the ship like ants, taking the spoils from the lands of exotic far-off Empire back to their anthills. A list of the names of port workers’ jobs (those ‘ants’) is a breathless rhythmic mechanical prose poem, and like ants in the nest the workers are the cogs in the machine of this great industry, the list is read with an obvious relish that belies the workers’ perilous labour and exploitation.

In this mercantile centre of Empire the shipping companies are benign engines of industry compared to the greedy and criminally neglectful shipping companies and their owners described in The Hungry Miles, all part of a teleological continuity moving on the tick-tock of the waters of time. Nothing in the film, not even goods brought in, escapes the over-weening lyricism of both the language and the roaming camera “…from grape to barrel, from barrel to hold, from hold to deck and from deck to dock… tick-tock, tick-tock…” …and the ships set sail back out to sea to their cycle of inevitability.

This ‘International Realist’ production describes a romantic vision of a vanished world and industry without which Capital and Empire could not have been sustained, glossing them in the name of progress and the consolidation of London as a modern world city.

Waters of Time is literally and figuratively shot from the god’s eye view of the Ruling Class and Empire, its clerks and managers are benign officiators, it gives itself the ability to imagine Docklands from the point of view of a gull in flight. The Hungry Miles presents the view from the Working Class, echoing the bawdy humour of the music hall, the sharp tongue of political satirical, and the militant collectivity in the grime of the dockside. Waters of Time is the propaganda of a ruler that has nothing to loose, The Hungry Miles that of the exploited with everything to fight for.

Without the ability to traverse the oceans, without the might and the will to dominate and exploit the colonies that it had established, often, as in Australia, by subjugating the indigenous population, Empire had little chance of survival into the Twentieth Century. The docks are significant in this relationship, as places of arrival and departure for the colonizer, whether deportee, émigré, or government, and for the dispatch and receipt of goods for the enrichment of the imperial homeland.  The colonial relationship of Britain to Australia could be thought of as characterized by the differing approaches of these films, their thematic and their formal and aesthetic approaches.

Basil Wright started his career with John Grierson, who is often credited with the invention of documentary (at least as a term) and with a particular intent to represent ‘reality’ as a corrective to the damage done by fiction and as a means for social reform.  Where The Hungry Miles’s call for social justice in the form of waterside workers’ rights is militant, perhaps revolutionary, there is no evidence of 'corrective' concerns in Waters of Time, which speaks with the assurance of a position that all is right with the world, progress truly is benign and workers willingly participate in the colonial machine.

To accuse Modernism of an aestheticism that tends to the hermetic and apolitical has become something of a cliché, and while Wright et al may have been bringing a new formally inventive approach to the documentary form, as a promo for what is effectively a QANGO it is no surprise that Waters of Time is a lyrical romantic meander with good reason to avoid overt class politics.   

To read the film contrapuntally, as Edward Said might have had it[3], is complicated by the fact that it is already intentionally propagandist, its pernicious idealism consists precisely in the fact that the pictorial and lyrically poetic are used as aestheticized political tools by a dominant ruler quietly convinced of its superiority in the class struggle. It is just as propagandist as the more strident, in-your-face militancy of the The Hungry Miles.

In considering these two films together it is possible to think of an ‘antipodean’ relationship, which is not to simply characterize geographical, class, or colonial binaries in historical connection between Britain and Australasia - in this alone we have already identified three binaries, or six points of reference immediately upping the complexity ante. In this the ‘antipodean’ describes a line that links two different, but crucially not opposite, points, characterizing the symbiotic relationship of Empire to that which is exploited to sustain it, a line once borne on the trade winds, traced across water.

[1]Ansara, M & Milner, L 1999, ‘The Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit: the forgotten frontier of the fifties’, Metro Magazine vol. 119, pp. 28-39.

[2]Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia’ Senses of Cinema, 2009 http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/51/indonesia-calling/

[3] Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, 1993.