From 1953 to 1958, the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit (WWFFU) produced, distributed and exhibited 11 documentary films on issues affecting Australian workers. The unit’s work provided an alternative source of media at a time when Cold War propaganda on the mainstream airwaves and newsreels consistently employed anti-union rhetoric. Norma Disher, Keith Gow and Jerome (Jock) Levy formed the unit after working together at the New Theatre in Sydney. Gow was introduced to 16mm filmmaking by Bob Mathews of the Realist Film Unit, which formed around the New Theatre in Melbourne (1). The WWFFU’s efforts built on the Sydney waterside workers’ first experience of political filmmaking during the production of Joris Ivens’ Indonesia Calling (1946). All of this activity was undertaken in the context of an international mobilisation of the creative arts. This movement was galvanised in the 1920s by the Berlin-based Workers International Relief (WIR) and, in the 1930s, by the anti-fascist struggle of the Spanish Civil War (2).

Over three decades, Melbourne-based independent filmmaker John Hughes has produced a trilogy of films covering the filmmaking activities of this particular milieu in Australia: Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia (2009), The Archive Project (co-directed by Uri Mizrahi, 2006), which traces the work of the Realist Film Association, and 1981’s Film-Work, in which members of the WWFFU tell their own story. Hughes learnt of this history while researching Menace (1976), a film about Menzies’ attempt to ban the Australian Communist Party in the early 1950s. He recognised the WWF and Realist Film Units as mainstays of oppositional independent filmmaking in postwar Australia and as precursors to the filmmakers’ cooperatives and the access video movement that he and his peers were engaged with in the 1960s and ’70s (3).

The WWFFU had a progressive social purpose and was built on collaboration rather than individualism, and was sponsored by a member-based trade union rather than government or commercial interests. In 1977, the withdrawal of federal funding from the once autonomous Melbourne Film-makers Co-op and other community media focused Hughes’ attention on the need for such institutions. He pursued various initiatives with trade unions culminating with the creation of a film unit at the Victorian Trades Hall Council in the early 1980s. The historical inquiry that Film-Work embodies is driven, then, by a sense of urgency and necessity similar to that which drove the WWFFU filmmakers.

There is symmetry between the three WWFFU filmmakers featured in Film-Work and the trio who made the film. Margot Nash, its cinematographer, was camera assistant on Menace. With fellow “Anarcho Surrealist Insurrectionary Feminist” Robin Laurie she made the playfully militant film We Aim to Please in 1976. Nash wanted to understand the social function of images: “how political processes affect the way films are made and how they are seen” (4). John Whitteron was editor and sound-recordist on Film-Work and, according to Hughes, made a significant contribution to the film conceptually. The three young filmmakers shared a critical attitude toward the hierarchical, male-dominated structures and practices of the mainstream film industry. Hughes, who wrote, produced and directed the film, says there were many intense discussions with Whitteron and Nash about the modes of representation contained within it. He describes their complex and fruitful collaboration as stemming from a shared inexperience and a wonder at the art of filmmaking. This is something Disher, Gow and Levy’s recollections mirror.

In the 1950s, social-realism was important to filmmakers with progressive political ideas. The WWFFU wanted to convey with veracity what life was like for workers and looked to the realist filmmakers of the revolutionary Soviet Union, Eisenstein and Pudovkin. They also had an eye on the Italian neo-realists. After 1968, many political filmmakers were also inspired by the formally experimental, Marxist avant-garde of the early 20th century represented by such figures as Bertolt Brecht, Dziga Vertov and the Constructivists. The films Godard made for the Dziga Vertov Group, such as British Sounds (1969), were equally important conduits of this influence. This connection is explicit in many of the Melbourne films of the time including Beginnings (Rod Bishop, Gordon Glenn, Scott Murray, Andrew Pecze, 1970), Hughes’ own, unreleased, Some Aspects of Australian Racism (1973), Yackety Yack (Dave Jones, 1974), and Bert Deling’s legendary Dalmas (1973), which Hughes worked on as a young camera operator.

Two of the most wonderful moments of self-reflexivity in Australian filmmaking are the scene in Dalmas in which Deling hands over cans of film stock to the cast and crew, and a scene in Film-Work where Keith Gow turns his camera upon the crew. This Pirandellian film-within-a-film scene exemplifies the synthesis of ideas between two generations of oppositional filmmakers. While it is believable that Gow may have taken up the loaded Bolex of his own accord and spontaneously turned it on the crew who are filming him, Hughes explains that this scene is the younger filmmaker’s invention. Rather than undercutting the realist filmmakers through its formal strategies, Film-Work recasts their concerns and ideas about cinema in contemporary terms. It does so through its own dynamics and the relationship it strikes with its viewers. There is formalism to Film-Work, but it is not a formalist film as such. The film’s primary function is to open up a tradition of oppositional cultural politics that transcends generation and style.

Like all of Hughes’ films, Film-Work subtly positions and re-positions the viewer in relation to its own status as a documentary and to the other texts, objects and subjects represented within it. This is most evident in the way the interviewees’ eyelines are arranged on-screen. Gow, Disher and Levy are interviewed together in a theatre auditorium and in an editing room. As each member of the trio speaks they look off-screen, acutely to the left, and towards the editing machine or theatre screen. While this device seems natural and obvious in a film about filmmaking, it is unusual for it to be used in such a sustained way. The eyeline of the speakers in these scenes is almost completely perpendicular to that of the viewer.

Gow runs the films through a Steenbeck flatbed editing-machine. The WWFFU filmmakers discuss specific elements of their films and Hughes’ film cuts to full-screen images of these works, occasionally including the frame of the viewing screen. When Gow stops on an image, a freeze-frame is sometimes inserted into Hughes’ reprint of the original film. The audience of Film-Work, then, has the illusion of seeing what the filmmakers are seeing within the mise en scène. In this way, the viewer is invited into a material and critical relationship with the WWFFU films while being placed in a position of identification with the WWFFU filmmakers.

Graphic arrangements of symbolic colours within the image and text on-screen are used in Film-Work to present historic struggles as a series of intersections, transformations, appropriations and turning points. For example, Levy discusses the foreign ownership of Australian cinemas while an anti-communist Department of Information (DOI) propaganda film is projected on a theatre screen on the right of frame. On the left, a list of over 50 British and American-owned cinema companies scrolls up from the bottom of the frame. As Levy goes on to mention that the Communist Party was near to becoming “a mass party at that time”, Hughes and Whitteron cut to a completely “empty” frame of red. White margins appear at its top and bottom, so it appears that a communist flag is about to be revealed. But as Levy’s discourse turns to American imperialism the camera pulls back further to show that this band of red is merely one stripe on the flag of the United States. Levy then appears leaning on a stage set at the New Theatre. From this indeterminate space – between reality and artifice, public and private, night and day – he explains: “If you were branded as a socialist or a communist you were finished”. On the cinema screen, the closing banner of the 20th Century Fox – Movietone News reveals the real authors of the DOI propaganda film.

Research on the New Theatre and the WWFFU by Levy’s son, Brett, provided much of the background information and factual detail for Film-Work. In 1979, Hughes, Witteron and Nash conducted an audio interview with Disher, Gow and Levy before commencing production (5). Prior to Hughes’ presentation of Film-Work at the inaugural History and Film Conference in 1981, few filmmakers and film scholars had substantial knowledge of the WWFFU. Together with Brett Levy’s thesis and the interview transcripts the film remains a primary historical source for researchers in the field.


  1. Deane Williams, Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors, Intellect, Bristol, 2008.
  2. Vance Kepley Jr., “The Workers International Relief and the Cinema of the Left 1921-1935”, Cinema Journal vol. 23, no. 1, Autumn 1983, pp. 7-23: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1225069; Dorothee Verdaasdonk, “IVENS, Joris”, Film Reference: http://www.filmreference.com/Directors-Ha-Ji/Ivens-Joris.html.
  3. This article draws on a number of interviews the author conducted with Hughes between 2000 and 2004.
  4. Chris Warner, Cynthia Connop, and Ginny Brook, “Filmmaking in Australia”, Farrago 9 July 1976, pp. 11–14.
  5. John Hughes and Brett Levy, “The Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit, 1953-58: An Interview with Norma Disher, Keith Gow and Jerome Levy”, An Australian Film Reader, ed. Tom O’Regan and Albert Moran, Currency Press, Sydney, 1985, pp. 365-73.

Film-Work (1981 Australia 43 mins)

Prod, Dir, Scr: John Hughes Phot: Margot Nash Ed: John Whitteron

Featuring: Norma Disher, Keith Gow, Jock Levy

About The Author

John Cumming is a filmmaker and a Senior Lecturer in Film and Video at Deakin University, Burwood Campus. He is currently writing a book on the films of John Hughes.

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