Amongst Equals1 has never been released, and while several iterations found their way to the screen in the early 1990s, the film has yet to be completed. Instead, wrecked and stranded on a reef of competing imperatives, it remains emblematic of great turbulence in the 1980s as Australia was reconfigured in the image of neoliberalism. It was a period of global seismic shifts, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the USSR and Tiananmen Square. In March 1983, a thirteen-year rule for the Australian Labor Party (ALP) began, incorporating the leadership of Bob Hawke (1983–1991) and Paul Keating (1991–1996). A Prices and Incomes Accord with trade unions was the foundation of ensuing structural change in the Australian economy. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Film Australia and other cultural institutions were subject to downsizing and privatising. Recession, unemployment and economic inequalities accompanied the lead-up to 1988, the bicentennial year.

This period also saw a resurgence of interest in labour history and working-class culture. For example, the Art and Working Life movement brought artists of every creative practice into collaborative projects with organised labour. The Australia Council co-funded Arts Officer positions in trade unions and peak bodies with devolved funds for projects through the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). These projects challenged artists to review their tendency towards individualism and disengagement, encouraging creative practice for purposes “other than art’s sake”. The Amongst Equals case is of particular interest from the perspective afforded by new scholarship on utilitarian film, that sector of film arising from sponsored, public-relations and educational production – in short, films for a purpose. Contractually, Amongst Equals was a sponsored film, a corporate, but the filmmaker refused to acquiesce to the corporate line. For him, History was at stake.

In 1986 Tom Zubrycki, among Australia’s foremost independent documentary filmmakers, proposed that the ACTU sponsor a “critical” history of Australian trade unions, a story never before articulated for television, and an essential one, he argued, to a balanced account of the country’s history in its bicentennial year. The series would be versioned for teaching, filling an enormous gap as materials on the history of organised labour in Australia were (and remain) very scarce.

His proposal was welcomed by ACTU Arts Officer Steve Cassidy. The ACTU had just such a project on their wishlist for bicentennial funding. Zubrycki’s previous work evidenced his commitment to social documentary and his recognition of the impact of structural change taking place on the lives of working people. His Kemira: Diary of Strike (1984) chronicled events at the Kemira colliery on the New South Wales South Coast, where 31 miners occupied the pit, five kilometres underground, protesting widespread retrenchments. The dispute galvanised broad support, resulting in a dramatic demonstration that broke through police lines and stormed Parliament House in Canberra. More recently, he had completed a controversial feature-length observational film documenting the historic SEQEB (South East Queensland Electricity Board) dispute in Queensland from the point of view of rank-and-file members of the ETU (Electrical Trades Union), Friends & Enemies (1987). This had enraged certain union executives, who felt exposed by the depiction of their complicity in siding with the political interests of the ACTU and the ALP against the wishes of the rank and file.

Zubrycki received no response when he first proposed the series to Bill Kelty in 1986, but his second approach arrived with Film Australia backing. On Cassidy’s recommendation, the ACTU Executive endorsed the project in principle. An editorial workshop involving executives from the ACTU, Film Australia and Zubrycki informed a final draft script that was approved by the ACTU Executive in December 1987. Contracts were signed: the ABA (Australian Broadcasting Authority) allocated $200,000 to the ACTU as the commissioning body with copyright on the project; Film Australia were producers; and Zubrycki’s company, JOTZ, provided the director on contract. The ACTU Executive appointed a Film Committee to oversee Film Australia’s work. Shooting got under way (on 16mm film) early in 1988. Following the first rough-cut screening in May, structural changes were made, and some new material was shot. The ACTU wanted more emphasis on white-collar unions as well as on the Accord.

By June, the project was ready for fine cut; it was now a work of three half-hours. At this point, Steve Cassidy left the ACTU to pursue policy work elsewhere, and Peter Duncan was appointed Arts Officer. He looked at the final cut and found it wanting. Advising superiors of his concerns, Duncan thought it would be better if it had three or four narrators guiding each section:

Successful historical programs such as The Ascent of Man reflect an identifiable individual viewpoint. I suggest this piece would benefit from a number of prominent narrators putting their points of view on different sections, e.g. Manning Clarke [sic], Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Simon Crean.2

Meanwhile, the ABC was considering whether they would acquire the series; they liked parts one and two, but found part three, which had been extensively revised in response to concerns from the ACTU, too didactic. ABC executive producers thought it was “ACTU propaganda”, simply advocating the Accord “like a political commercial”. Dispute between Film Australia’s executive producer Paul Humfress and Duncan escalated as Humfress pressed Duncan for final approval and Duncan ramped up hostile responses, embarrassingly losing track of which version he and his committee were responding to. Soon, any hope of the series going to air in 1988 was spoiled, and the Bicentennial Authority, unable to elicit ACTU cooperation, called in its contract with the ACTU.

Throughout 1989 and 1990, various attempts to rescue the project failed. Simon Crean was elected to Parliament during the federal election of March 1990. Duncan meanwhile had visited the Bicentennial-funded Workers Heritage Centre in Barcaldine, Queensland (Duncan had grown up in Mt Isa). In June 1990, the ACTU received a request from Barcaldine for the ACTU’s unfinished film, with the intention of having it re-edited for use in the Barcaldine museum. On Duncan’s recommendation, the ACTU Executive agreed, and sought delivery of the footage from Film Australia for this purpose.3 Film Australia’s new CEO, Bruce Moir, happily agreed, as this seemed to alleviate the risk of various threats made to Film Australia by the ACTU. Zubrycki didn’t agree.

Early in 1991, Zubrycki went public and screened Amongst Equals as a work in progress at a “Festival of International Films with a Working Class Perspective” sponsored by the youth division of the NSW Labor Council. John Lyons reported on this screening and the dispute for The Sunday Age, quoting Crean:

 “We don’t want the film to go out […] we don’t want to be seen to be censoring, but, on the other hand, we believe we have got a positive message to sell. […] We expect to get what we asked for […] We didn’t get to the last big chapter (the achievements of the Accord).”4

Film Australia demanded Zubrycki return any copies of the work in progress in his possession as “there is no mention in your contract (that you have rights to a copy)”. But several months earlier, Zubrycki had distributed VHS copies, along with a background to the dispute, to the 32 members of the ACTU Executive in his attempts to have the Executive reconsider its decision refusing approval of the fine-cut. The cause célèbre grew with public screenings and forums (including at the Melbourne International Film Festival), with every well-known labour historian defending Zubrycki’s account of the history of the trade-union movement. The Hollywood Reporter carried a story.5 Zubrycki also had the support of many trade-union branches and members, as well as writers and critics like Sylvia Lawson, Donald Horne and Julie James Bailey. Finally, after numerous acrimonious exchanges, an agreement was reached that allowed the film to be screened, on the condition that copyrights were cleared and a disclaimer disassociating the ACTU from the film was appended at the start.

On one level, the dispute was about competing readings of Australian labour history. Zubrycki’s film constructed a history of struggle between labour and capital. His film recognized failures and defeats and acknowledged the role of the Communist Party in trade-union history; whereas, for the ACTU in the late 1980s, cooperation was the keyword. They wished to depict a chronicle of progress through arbitration and incremental change, to give emphasis to the present day and the achievements of ‘strategic unionism’, of Australia Reconstructed and the Accord. From Simon Crean’s point of view, Zubryicki’s romanticised and heroic narrative of struggle misrepresented the real character of contemporary unionism, and sidelined a PR opportunity for a positive story.

On another level, the Amongst Equals story is a matter of two kinds of politics. On one hand, the politics of ‘moral rights’, of the ethical responsibility of an artist or a historian to the past as it presents itself to them, and to their informants, rather than the functional utility of a story in the politics of the present. On the other hand, the kind of politics in play here is that more granular variety of the exercise of power: the strategy and tactics of the ‘spoiler’.

• • •

Amongst Equals (1986–1991 Australia 93 mins)

Dir: Tom Zubrycki Scr: Tom Zubrycki Phot: Joel Peterson Ed: Ray Thomas Mus: Paul Charlier Snd: Russ Hermann

Cast: Graham Pitts (temp. narrator)


  1. A detailed account of the Amongst Equals story is forthcoming under the title “Zubrycki’s Point” in the refereed journal Studies in Documentary Film, research supported by an ARC Discovery project, “Utilitarian Filmmaking in Australia 1945–1980”, hosted by the University of Canberra.
  2. Peter Duncan to Bill Mansfield, June 1988.
  3. The camera original from Amongst Equals cannot be found.
  4. Simon Crean, quoted in John Lyons, The Sunday Age, 13 January 1991.
  5. See The Hollywood Reporter, 22 January 1991.

About The Author

John Hughes – a writer, director and producer of documentary and drama for film, television and online – has an ongoing fascination with the interventions of groundbreaking filmmakers in Australian documentary. Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia completes a film trilogy with Film-Work (1981) and The Archive Project (2006).

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