53rd Sydney Film Festival--Part 6

The Archive Project and Beyond Hatred—two documentaries

This is the sixth part of a series of articles on the 2006 Sydney Film Festival, held on June 9-25. Parts one, two, three, four and five were published on July 17, 19, 22, 25 and August 1, respectively.

Documentary filmmaking in Australia during the Cold War

The Archive Project, written and directed by Melbourne-based filmmaker John Hughes, examines the origins and activities of the Realist Film Unit, which was initiated by the Stalinist Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1945 and continued until the late 1950s.

While little remains of the group’s work, Hughes has skillfully combined the films and miscellaneous clips that have survived with commentary from Realist Film Unit members, contemporaneous newsreels and Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) surveillance films and photographs.

The footage from Realist Film Unit documentaries includes: A Place to Live, The Slums are Still With Us, These are Our Children, Prices and the People, They chose Peace and various agitational shorts for the CPA.

A Place to Live (1947), one of the unit’s first films, depicts the soul-destroying poverty that gripped the Melbourne working class suburbs of Collingwood, Fitzroy and South Melbourne. According to the film, which features scenes of rubbish-strewn streets and rat-infested slums, 90,000 people were homeless in Melbourne in the immediate post-WWII period.

These are primitive productions and, notwithstanding the overblown claims of one film critic interviewed in the documentary, have little artistic merit—the debilitating influence of socialist realism is clearly apparent. Some of them, however, reveal the extraordinary social deprivation facing working class families at the time. This poverty ultimately produced an explosion of militant strikes in the late 1940s, as workers fought to overcome the horrendous Depression-style conditions.

The Realist Film Unit was also a key element in the film society movement, which initiated the first Australian film festivals. Importing movies from Europe—east and west—and the Soviet Union, the societies were extremely popular. Such was their success that one Victorian state Labor MP attempted to have legislation passed in 1948 restricting the society’s screenings. This was eventually abandoned after widespread campaigning by the societies and the CPA.

The Archive Project reveals the increasingly repressive Cold War atmosphere that developed in Australia. In line with repressive censorship laws and moves to ban the CPA, government spies and provocateurs were infiltrated into the film societies and leading members of the Realist Film Unit, including its founder Ken Coldicutt, were blacklisted. In 1958, when Coldicutt applied for work with the CSIRO, the state-funded scientific research unit, he was told that the job was his, but only if he agreed to provide ASIO with information about CPA members.

The documentary also touches on conflicts between members of the Realist group and the CPA leadership, which attempted to keep a tight rein on the group. Coldicutt resigned from the Realists and the CPA in 1952, angry over the party’s refusal to provide enough financial support to the group and its promotion of the Soviet movie, The Fall of Berlin, a sycophantic glorification of Stalin. Bob Matthews, another leading figure in the Realist Film Unit, quit the party after some of Stalin’s crimes were exposed in Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956.

Director John Hughes, however, does not examine these questions in any real depth, much less explain that the Stalinist bureaucracy’s claims to be a communist movement were bogus and its assertion that socialism could be built in “a single country” a repudiation of the internationalist perspective that guided the Russian Revolution. Nor does the film indicate the disastrous consequences of Stalin’s nationalist policies for the international working class, or provide any examples of the CPA’s political betrayals in Australia.

In fact, The Archive Project, uncritically accepts the rationalisations offered by the CPA leadership for its actions—that they were a result of a Stalin “personality cult”. Former CPA leader Audrey Blake is given a platform to disingenuously claim that she “didn’t understand the question of Stalinism”.

Hughes, an experienced and capable documentary filmmaker, has performed a vital service in locating and preserving what remains of Realist Film Unit footage. But unless this archival work is used to clarify the bitter experiences of the Australian working class in the 1940s and 50s, and to expose the lie that Stalinism represented in any way genuine socialism or communism, then it will simply serve to reinforce the current political and artistic confusion.

An enlightened response to brutal hate crime

One of the most imaginative documentaries screened at this year’s festival was Beyond Hatred (Au-delà de la haine). Directed by Olivier Meyrou, the film explores the murder of Francois Chenu, a 29-year-old gay man, by three skinhead youth in France in 2002. The young men later admitted that they had gone to Rheims’s Leo Legrange Park to beat up Arabs, but could not find any, so they turned on Chenu, accusing him of being gay. When he refused to be intimidated by their taunts and openly admitted that he was homosexual, they beat him unconscious and then threw him in the park pond where he died.

While the documentary examines the circumstances surrounding the brutal attack and provides some background on the murderers, its central focus is the humane response of the Chenu family. The documentary’s title is taken from a comment by Francois’ parents, Jean-Paul and Marie-Cecile Chenu, who, notwithstanding their intense grief, determined that they had to somehow use the tragedy to assist and enlighten others. Meyrou, who was able to win the complete trust of the Chenu family, shows how they overcame their trauma and fought to understand why their son died.

Intimate and at times heart-wrenching discussions between Francois’ parents over several months see them resolve that they will not be consumed by hate, but will try to understand what produced this terrible social tragedy. After the trial, they write to the murderers in an attempt to establish some communication with them. The film includes interviews with the prosecution and the defence lawyers and relatives of the skinheads, and shows how various journalists attempt to ingratiate themselves with the trial lawyers and the Chenu family.

Beyond Hatred’s lengthy opening scene consists of a static camera shot of the park where Chenu died, with his sister’s voice describing when she first heard about the murder, her journey from Paris to identify the body and how she told her parents. Meyrou’s minimalist approach, along with the film’s austere string instrument soundtrack, gives the film an underlying dignity and sincerity.

Meyrou’s film has many painful moments but, in line with the Chenu family’s response, it refuses to sensationalise the murder or embellish the bigoted views and deprived social background of the killers. Its restrained approach is anathema to the contemporary media, which seizes upon such social tragedies to whip up hysteria and vengeful sentiment, along with strident demands for more police and law and order repression. This is all aimed at preventing any examination of the deeper social causes.

Beyond Hatred deservedly won the best documentary prize at this year’s Berlin film festival. (Seeinterview with director Olivier Meyrou).

To be continued