Upon its release, Beginnings screened to “full houses over a week at [La Trobe University’s] Glenn College Lecture Hall, subsequently the Carlton Theatre and to various trade unions and peace groups” (1). This documentary initially provides an opportunity to see inside the workings of the campus politics of the time; a General Meeting of students is called to collectively oppose suspension charges by the Vice Chancellor following a collective action to remove Defence Department officials from campus. By the second half of the film, however, this small group of dissidents is revealed to be one of many “disruptive elements” that were forming a mounting tide of hostility towards Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Beginnings is not, however, an idealised image of revolutionary fervour but a thoughtful enquiry into the workings and characters that make up Melbourne’s New Left of the period.
Many of Australia’s film societies and collectives in the late 1960s and early 1970s were resolutely leftist in their structure, curatorial and creative approach, continuing a rich tradition inherited from the post-war period (2). With the advent of the nouvelle vague, the increasing influence of critical theory in universities, and the countercultural revolution that was sweeping across North America and onto the rest of the world, Australia’s film culture took on a sensibility infused with all the hallmarks of the New Left. In Melbourne, a group of film lovers began to make their own films enabled by the same technological developments that facilitated the filmmaking of the nouvelle vague and other European new waves. This group, which would later become known as the “Carlton Ripple”, largely came out of the Melbourne University Film Society (MUFS) and related groups. MUFS was an association formed in 1949 by dedicated cinephiles that went on to become an essential force in the making of Australian film culture, and provided key foundations for the Melbourne Film Festival and the Australian Film Institute.
It is logical that Beginnings, the most cinéma vérité product of this period, was the result of collaboration between MUFS members and Carlton cinephiles and funded by the NUAUS (National Union of Australian University Students) and “various groups at La Trobe [University] including the University Film Society and the Film Society Production Group” (3). Carrying many of the hallmarks of cinéma vérité – self-reflexivity, multifaceted viewpoints, constructed scenarios and an almost anthropological approach to its volatile subject – Beginnings belongs in the margins of the Carlton Ripple’s filmography for similar reasons as Chronique d’un été (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1961) sits in the margins of the nouvelle vague: chronology, subject matter, political outlook, and it’s engagement with the politics of representation.
The image of a clapperboard that opens the film, heralds a self-reflexive approach that continues throughout. Critics of cinéma vérité have suggested that the reflexivity seen in Chronique d’un été and other examples of the form is based on a principle that makes the process of filmmaking overshadow the ostensible content or subject of the same film – “A sort of reduction ad absurdum”, in the words of Brian Winston, “because the only possible film was one about how that same film was made” (4). Beginnings’ reflexivity, however, does not dominate the subject of the film but instead sends occasional reminders that the cameras and filmmakers are there. Cameras are visible in the General Meeting that opens the film and at the moratorium marches that follow, often given several shots of their own in addition to incidental inclusions within, for example, images of marching students.
The more distanced, observational parts of the film continue this strategy, laying the film open to interpretation and debate. The General Meeting, for example, gets pretty boring. Indeed, a “very influential Melbourne critic” suggested to Bishop that he take out at least a third of the footage because it “isn’t cinema” (5). The potential boredom of the viewer in response to this scene is validated by shots of disinterested and distracted attendees scattered amongst those who nod in agreement and are supportive. Similarly, a considered but rather pompous monologue by Andrew Giles Peters, one of the seven suspended students, is interrupted by three short shots showing another suspended student who is present at the interview, rolling and exhaling smoke with a semi-bored look on his face. These irreverent little cutaways ensure that Gilles’ speech is heard in the context of a modicum of healthy scepticism. The lack of editing during another monologue, on the other hand, exposes a La Trobe University academic as an almost comic figure, an embodiment of “groovy” academic verbosity. Wearing dark glasses indoors as he addresses the camera, he talks at length and without a break while jumping from topic to topic espousing his observations on various aspects of the New Left. If the “good bits”, of which there are several, of his monologue were sifted out via careful editing then we would be granted a very different picture of this intellectual and his views but, as it stands, we are given a more accurate representation, even though it could be understood as being detrimental to The Cause.
There is one scene in particular that anchors the film deep in the heart of radical Melbourne. This scene counters the film’s digs at the hippies and intellectuals of the New Left to show the movement’s other dimension: militancy. In the midst of the interviews and observational footage stands a single lesson, constructed for the purposes of the documentary, on how to make a Molotov cocktail. The intertitle that precedes this scene – “We recommend that you do not make bombs in this way. It’s your explosion, but these compounds are unstable when mixed” – suggests a relaxed assumption that viewers are at least curious about making something of this kind. The demonstration is delivered by activist (and writer) Demos Krouskos in front of a desk and a blackboard and is reminiscent of similar scenes in Godard’s films. Potential accusations that the inclusion of this moment represents anything more than smug cinephilia – or sensationalism – are quickly quelled by the intertitles that follow the lecture – lists of the actual damage done by gunshots and Molotov cocktails to the headquarters of companies known to provide infrastructure for the Vietnam War. These hippies are serious.
Beginnings’ portrait of the complex terrain of student radicalism anticipates the criticisms of conservatives concerning leftist student movements by openly admitting that these criticisms have some basis in truth. By consciously representing the perceived failings of the New Left, the film allows an active dialogue between the filmmakers, their subjects and the spectator whilst still remaining resolutely supportive of the anti-war movement. The structure of the film – a narrative that flows from a small collective action to the 70000+ strong Moratorium marches – suggests that the original meeting is an analogy for the potential of collectivism: “we may be apathetic, disorganised, egocentric hippies and agitators but we are also passionate, articulate, resourceful and organised academics, intellectuals and activists” (6).
- Bruce Hodsdon, “The Carlton Ripple and the Australian Film Revival”, Screening the Past no. 23, 2008: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/23/carlton-australian-revival.html.
- For a detailed account of this leftist tradition see Deane Williams, Australian Post-War Documentary Film: An Arc of Mirrors, Intellect, Bristol, 2008.
- Brian Winston, Claiming the Real: The Griersonian Documentary and its Legitimations, BFI, London, 2007, 197.
- Howard Lindley, “Beginnings”, Lumiere October 1971, 45.
- Beginnings is available for viewing at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.
Beginnings (1970 Australia 58 mins)
Prod Co: ACME Films (Australia) Prod, Dir: Rod Bishop, Gordon Glenn, Scott Murray, Andrew Pecze Phot: Gordon Glenn Ed: Scott Murray