It’s not often that you find yourself in another world, a parallel universe that’s real, has sentient beings passing through it and you quietly observing. But it’s happening to me more and more. These are very much like acid flashbacks – they could in fact be acid flashbacks from the 1970s. They have the same intensity, the same visceral sensuality, and here I am sitting in an editing room on a deathly quiet Sunday afternoon with rain hissing down outside experiencing one. On the screen of the editing machine a man stands in a doorway, braces and waist high pants casually looking up and down the street. It’s Bourke St. in Melbourne and this is previously unseen Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) surveillance film of “Persons of Interest”. Shot in the late 1950s, the doorway it shows is the entrance to the Australian Railways Union building in which meetings of suspected communist organisations took place. He’s dead now, the man in the braces, he must be; but he’s quietly alive in the vaults of ASIO and in my mind. The last time I had seen this doorway, I was walking up Bourke St. to attend actor Bill Hunter’s funeral. As I approached the doorway, a strange feeling crept over me. A sense of déjà vu overcame me – but I couldn’t work out why. I had to stop and stare at the building, a boutique hotel in bluestone with a stained glass window. It was the relationship of these elements to each other that struck me. And then, like a sheet of water finally clearing, there it was – the old Railways Union building (now a hotel) but in the doorway an old man in braces stood, still, looking up and down the street as he had in the late ’50s. I turned to check where ASIO’s camera must have been – the third floor of some old offices across the street – quietly watching, invading and stealing the image of that old man.
This is what happens when you’ve spent a few years working on a series of history films. You get to be a believer in the existence of parallel universes. Stand on the steps of Parliament House in Melbourne and look up to the camera position in the third floor room of the Windsor Hotel (from which every protest was filmed ); or 535 George St. Sydney, the offices of the Building Workers Industrial Union, where author Frank Hardy once sheltered under the awning. The fact that it was shot from the window in the offices of Hoyts film distributors, a company part owned by Twentieth Century-Fox and enthusiastically anti-communist, a reminder that establishment business had convivial relations with the security agency.
I’ve now passed into the world of these “Persons of Interest” – from which our series takes its title – as I trawl the files, surveillance photographs and movie films recorded by ASIO in their attempts to catch spies and subversives. Our series tells four stories of four people and how their lives were affected by having intelligence files. We’re not making a history of ASIO, but highlighting the little stories buried inside the files of people swept up in some of the biggest political events of the 20th century. We give them the chance to respond to some of the allegations contained in the previously secret files. It’s been one of those projects where richness and veracity comes from spending time with the archives, getting to know them so intimately that true gems appear. The shattered ASIO agent we found who was dumped when deemed no longer useful, suddenly walks out a door at a Communist Party conference in the Collingwood Town Hall. Communist bonhomie as the party members take a lunch break with the ASIO agent they think is a fellow communist. You can’t find these things randomly but only through spending time in the world of the stolen images.
They say Australia has no history but I know they’re wrong. It’s sitting just under the surface. Scratch and it’s there. Unknowing crowds pass Soviet Intelligence officer Vladimir Petrov as he strolls past the Age offices in Melbourne the day before he defects. The parallel narrative that runs right next to you and you don’t know it. I’ve got film of KGB operations in Bondi Junction in Sydney, longhaired revolutionaries feeling up their girlfriends in Carlton. I also have ASIO camera operators filming their plain clothed mates at an anti-Vietnam War demo in the City Square in Melbourne. The streets tell surprising stories. Our stories. In fact, some of the stories I hope are going to have an audience saying: “ I thought this sort of stuff only went on in East Germany”.
My series is just about complete, sound mixed and colour being adjusted before its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August. I know I’m going to have to leave the world of Persons of Interest and I’m not looking forward to it. Like cutting off a little bit of yourself.
Persons of Interest is screening at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Haydn Keenan is a guest of the festival.