The Minister, the Ambassador,

And the Prize


                                                                                    Roger Sandall




Funny things happen in Canberra. But the happening staged by Mr W. C. Wentworth and the Italian Ambassador 35 years ago was not just funny, it was to have peculiar and fateful consequences. On Thursday November 28th, 1968, at the News and Information Bureau, the screening of a film took place which had won First Prize for Documentary at the 1968 Venice Festival, Walbiri Ritual at Ruguri. At the screening the Ambassador was to present an effigy of the Lion of St Mark to Mr Wentworth as the minister responsible for the organization which had produced the film, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Catering was arranged, invitations were sent, and a number of members of the diplomatic community were invited. But at this point the law of unintended effects took over and the outcome was not quite what was planned.


The late sixties were a vexing time for the Minister. In Darwin Mr Cecil Holmes—film director, part-time journalist, and full-time stirrer on the Left—was gaining access to Aboriginal reserves and writing in The Australian about what he found there. In Mr Wentworth’s view these reports were downright scurrilous since they pilloried Mr Harry Giese, his hardworking and highly esteemed Director of Welfare in the Territory. Giese’s jurisdiction embraced thousands of hectares of Aboriginal Reserve and coastline. Very much a hands-on man, he had a plane at his disposal and was given to descending at short notice out of the sky for flying visits to sleepy desert settlements, arriving and departing in clouds of dust and administrative consternation.


It should have been simple enough for Wentworth to keep Holmes away from his Welfare Director (what point is there in being a Minister if you can’t protect your own staff?) but Cecil Holmes was not wihout guile. Living in Darwin, and at something of a hiatus in his life as a film director, he had embarked on a new career as anthropological documentarian, and if the members of an Aboriginal community invited him to come and record their lives there wasn’t much a Minister could do. Into the reserves came Holmes with cameras and cameramen, with boxes of film and audiotape, repeatedly gaining entry for what in Wentworth’s view were entirely the wrong reasons. Whole film crews were flying into secluded enclaves and staying for weeks at a time. What was he telling them, Wentworth wondered—“Hunters unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”?


Cecil Holmes himself had made a familiar pilgrimage. As a member of the Communist Party he first pinned his hopes on the working class. But everywhere it failed to live up to expectations. Then it seemed to him that the torch of proletarian revolution had been passed to the oppressed of the Third World, yet with every passing year they seemed less and less fit to play this heroic role. Lately he had come to feel that the only way forward was back—back before capitalism, before commerce, before civilization itself—embracing the values of the hunters and gatherers of the tribal world. Like others in Australia of this persuasion Cecil was inclined to regard the sanctuaries where Australia’s Aborigines lived as little better than concentration camps, and to see Harry Giese as their Germanic Kommandant.


At first Giese had been able to use his powers as Welfare Director to keep Holmes out of the reserves as an undesirable alien: visitors would always need a permit, and that permit could always be refused. But then Cecil had run into a Sydney university anthropologist, Professor W. R. Geddes, and a mutually congenial alliance was formed. Though an amateur, Bill Geddes was also a film-maker, and he listened with sympathy to Holmes’ complaints. He was also sympathetic to Holmes’s plans for ethnographic film-making. Soon Cecil’s forays into the closed Aboriginal areas in the Northern Territory were undertaken in semi-anthropological guise, sponsored and paid for by an organization in which Bill Geddes had a leading role—the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Reinvented as a maker of ethnographic films Holmes would always have an excuse for getting inside Aboriginal communities and winding his way into the confidence of the Aborigines themselves. Dear old whiskery elders would begin by innocently talking to him about their troubles—for example, the shortage of child brides—and soon an exposé would appear in The Australian about the shortcomings of the N. T. Welfare Department. That the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies was also supporting Holmes did not go unnoticed by Mr Wentworth, who was himself a founding father of that body.


Bill Geddes was a good and kindly man who found himself in charge of an anthropology department at the height of the Vietnam War, and increasingly out of sympathy with the political views of his colleagues. This situation was not uncommon and different people handled it in different ways. Beleaguered and isolated, Bill went underground. He appeared around the University of Sydney more and more furtively, seeking human company outside and beyond an increasingly hostile academic milieu. It was in this situation that he probably met Holmes, and he must have been delighted to discover a man who shared an overriding interest in making films. This passion is more widespread than one might think, and as those who have followed the career of Kim Jong-il will know, it can be very expensive. It has taken the resources of a private goldmine and hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for the Dear Leader’s ambitious ventures. Bill Geddes’s aims were of course more modest. He had no interest in dramatic fiction: he wanted to make documentaries instead. Under the spell of Robert Flaherty’s 1926 idyll Moana—the cinematic equivalent of Margaret Mead’s romance about Samoan life—he spent years on a series of film projects in Borneo, Thailand, and Fiji, where attractive brown-skinned people lived benignly beneath the palms, dancing their ancient dances and honoring their gods, these amiable epics being financed largely out of his own pocket plus whatever academic funds he could find.


To do this required much ingenuity. His manipulation of the departmental finances in order to buy cine-cameras and tape-recorders was the stuff of legend. The obscurity of his operations, and the skill used to shift expenses from one budget category to another, were something his colleagues could only marvel at; while his almost invisible presence on campus led to his being called “the ghost”. Those surprised to find thousands of university dollars spent on film equipment said he was unscrupulous. But this was surely unfair. Anyone who took a large view of the matter could see that Bill was genuinely in love with his subject, that he was an artist at heart—and all’s fair in art and war.


But the expense of film production continued to soar, and the price of the required equipment got further and further beyond his professorial reach. Arriflex cameras and Nagra tape recorders cost far too much for even the most ingenious academic to purchase from petty cash. At the same time the ongoing expense at the Institute of Aboriginal Studies of paying for Holmes’s cameramen and for equipment-hire (both of which had to be flown from Sydney and maintained on location for weeks at a time) was getting to be a worry. A solution would have to be found. Holmes and Geddes put their heads together—and they soon came up with an answer. Where was there a golden vault of cash? At the Institute for Aboriginal Studies. And who had the key to the vault? The Principal. If the Institute’s Principal could be persuaded to buy both an Arriflex and a Nagra, then two almost priceless items might be obtained without the university becoming involved. Cecil could borrow the Institute’s machinery for a month or so up in the NorthernTerritory when he wanted, while Bill Geddes might draw on it for excursions to Thailand when required. They were reasonable men: it was hard to see why their needs should clash, or their activities be a source of concern to anyone.


Mr W. C. Wentworth, however, was extremely concerned. He had observed the link between the Sydney professor and the Darwin journalist with mounting fury. When Bill Geddes was on one of his periodic field trips to southeast Asia, the Minister audaciously appointed a full-time film-maker to the Institute’s staff from overseas, directly under his and the Principal’s control. No longer would it be necessary to hire a known Darwin subversive to make the Institute’s ethnographic films. No longer would this man be able to use his privileged access to Aboriginal reserves to attack Harry Giese. No longer would the Minister have to watch helplessly what was happening to the Institute’s funds. Under the supervision of the Institute’s Principal, Mr Fred McCarthy, the Institute’s own employee would make the Institute’s films, vigilantly watched by the Institute’s redoubtable accountant, Mrs Alks.

*          *          *


Looking down on Australia from a plane at 20,000 feet the arriving film-maker wondered what he would find. It was a most singular fact that an nondescript research organization on the backside of the planet should have just bought one of the world’s most advanced professional movie cameras, along with the most coveted and costly of Swiss tape-recorders, and on top of this was now paying a foreign cameraman flown in from America to use them. There must be money to burn. It soon transpired however that I was wrong about this. My cutting room consisted of a derelict and unsalubrious wing of an abandoned building at the University of Sydney—premises formerly occupied by the deaf, the dumb, and the blind, and now occupied only by crows. My staff (if that’s the word I want) were in the process of being fired. But I’d come a long way and decided to make the most of it. The camera was ready. A capable anthropologist had been assigned. Without further ado I ordered and equipped a Toyota Land Cruiser, drove it to the Northern Territory, and started work.


In the next two years anthropologist and film-maker went together to communities on the coast of Arnhem Land and visited the islands nearby; drove west of Alice Springs and saw ancient rites in caves and filmed ancient dances performed amidst spinifex and desert sand. When the films were edited they seemed interesting enough to be entered in documentary film competitions overseas, so I packed one up and sent it off to the Venice Film Festival.


What exactly went through the head of the Italian Ambassador to Australia a few months later, when he received a letter from the Venice Festival authorities informing him that they were about to send him a Lion of St Mark, is hard to say. But I imagine he sensed an opportunity. Not only was the Venice Festival an important event, this might be a chance to advertise a nobler aspect of Italian life than marijuana growing by Calabrian criminals. Italy as the land of Donatello and Michelangelo, Italy as an arbiter of taste, Italy as the source of much that Western civilization properly held dear. In which case it would be a pity just to wrap the Lion in brown paper and send it off to Sydney. More ceremony was needed—perhaps even a screening of the film. It might be a photo opportunity. There would be food and drink, and the event would be reported in the press. Moreover, clippings and pictures could accompany the report he would send back to head office in Rome.


When the Ambassador put this to the Australian Minister responsible for the Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Mr Wentworth may have sensed an opportunity too. There is usually very little to celebrate in the portfolio of Aboriginal Affairs and a bit of favorable publicity was probably welcome. Along with others Mr Wentworth had been one of those instrumental in setting up the Institute. He was therefore grateful that the Venice Festival should have honored one of the Institute’s films, and thought it appropriate that the Ambassador should recognise his own contribution by inviting him to publicly receive the award. He in turn would pass on the Lion of St Mark to the Chairman of the Institute, who would hand it to the Principal, who would put it on the mantelpiece in his office—this being routine procedure for successful government-sponsored film productions at the time.


A date was fixed. A hall was hired. The catering was arranged. A copy of the film was made ready for projection—then just as the guest lists were being finalised it was fatefully decided to expand them. Shouldn’t two of the men who appeared in the film be included? Wasn’t the film in a sense really theirs? It would be a treat for them to be brought to Canberra and honored, and it would make the Minister look good too. The Minister consulted the anthropologist, who meditated for a day or so before sending an invitation off to the settlement where they lived. But just when the Minister and the Ambassador were about to complete their arrangements by inviting Canberra’s diplomatic community, certain difficulties were foreseen.


It was pointed out by the anthropologist that the ceremony was something Aboriginal women were not allowed to see. Shouldn’t this prohibition apply equally to the Ambassador’s wives? Why should such women be privileged while others were not? Secondly, in Darwin Cecil Holmes had already been making a nuisance of himself because of the publicity these films by an upstart foreign filmmaker were enjoying. If he were now to learn of a screening planned as a political benefit for the Italian Ambassador and Mr Wentworth things might get very ugly indeed. Lastly there was a matter touching anthropology itself. If the old men invited down from Alice Springs were to go back home and report that women had been present at the screening in Canberra, where might this lead? The elders of the tribe might be shocked. Young and promising anthropologists could be banned from working in Aboriginal communities for ever.


For one dreadful day it looked as if the show would be called off. But where there’s a political will there’s a way, and at the last minute a novel solution was found. If the wives of Canberra’s diplomatic community couldn’t see the film—so what? They could be expelled from the auditorium. The main point was to ensure the show went on, and by making only the slightest of changes this could easily be arranged. First Mr Wentworth would give a short speech about the Institute and its achievements. Then the Italian Ambassador would explain the importance of the Venice Festival, the honor of receiving one of its awards, and the cultural significance of Italy. After which the Ambassador would hand the Lion of St Mark to a grateful Minister, and the screening of the film would be announced.


But at precisely that point the Minister would dramatically intervene. The film, it would be explained, was of the profoundest religious significance, and in the religion of the Walbiri Aborigines it was considered inappropriate—downright sacriligeous in fact—for women to see the exclusively male rituals it contained. It was with the greatest regret therefore that the Minister, mindful of the religious sensibilities of the Aboriginal people, was obliged to ask all women present to leave the auditorium when the film was shown.


And so it came to pass. The reception was a success. The exclusion of the diplomatic wives went smoothly. According to Mr Wentworth (with whom I confirmed these details two weeks before he died) the Prime Minister’s wife was asked to leave, and departed taking the wife of the Ambassador with her. The two elders from the desert were reassured that no women had been allowed into the theatre, and returned home confident their secrets had not been betrayed. Miraculously, all the interests involved had been smoothly reconciled.


All save one. For a precedent had now been set. In future the mere photographic simulation of events (the shadows, so to speak, on the walls of Plato’s cave) would be treated as exclusive, closed, secret—as indistinguishable from the events themselves. Hundreds of thousands of federal government dollars had been spent so that a documentary record of an ancient culture should be kept, and knowledge and understanding of that culture could be brought to a wider world. Now that could not take place—indeed, quite the opposite. Along with all similar films made at public expense for educational purposes the award-winning Walbiri Ritual at Ruguri was withdrawn from public view, placed under prohibitive restrictions, and finally deep frozen in a vault for ever. In the ensuing thirty-five years Australia’s journalistic guardians of artistic and cultural freedom would noisily express their outrage when their right to see even the most degrading piece of pornography was challenged, but unless I’m mistaken (which of course is always possible) not a voice has ever been raised against this censorship.


Oct 27, 2003