“I want to talk about epic poetry.” I still remember the shock when Scott Millwood opened a documentary masterclass in the bowels of the Bondi Pavilion with these words back in 2004. I was covering the class for RealTime, and had expected another pedestrian talk about tailoring “product” to the needs of broadcasters. My heart leapt to hear an Australian filmmaker – a documentarian no less – talking about their work in terms of art, but I remember feeling slightly nervous on the speaker’s behalf. This was Bondi after all. People didn’t talk about poetry. Models, sports cars and celebrities, yes. But poetry? Never.
A Tasmanian based in Melbourne at the time, Millwood had recently won an AFI Award for Wildness (2003). Given his talk of epic poetry, however, I wasn’t surprised to learn of a string of earlier, aborted projects that, in his words, had “scared the shit out of broadcasters” (1). He had managed to complete one feature-length work before Wildness, an essayistic, Chris Marker-influenced film entitled Proximity (1999) that traced Millwood’s inner and outer journeys across Asia after he had gone to Calcutta to see, rather masochistically, if the subcontinent could break him. From India he had travelled to Vietnam and China, through the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia like Kazakhstan, on to Russia, down into Iran and Turkey, and finally back to India, where he spent time with a Western woman caring for leprosy sufferers.
Part travelogue, part social commentary, part philosophical musing, Proximity is held together by a voiceover that strives for emotional resonance rather than literal meaning. In other words, it is not the kind of work favoured by Australian television. According to Millwood, an Australian broadcaster did offer to buy the film if he made cuts, which he refused to do, so Proximity was restricted to a few film festivals and now seems to have all but disappeared. No library in Australia appears to have a copy, and the tape I saw in 2004 came from Millwood himself. At that time I wrote that Proximity was “a film to dream by” (2). Eight years later, the film itself feels like a half-remembered chimera.
In contrast to Proximity’s global sweep, Wildness represented something of a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Millwood. The film even opens with a sweeping aerial shot coming in from the ocean, over Tasmania’s sandy coastline and into the wild interior. Although it traces a slice of Tasmanian folklore, this not an entirely happy tale, reflecting Millwood’s mixed feelings about his homeland and the divisions that have rent Tasmanian society in the postwar era.
Wildness traces the lives of two of Australia’s most talented wilderness photographers – Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis. Both men came to Tasmania from the Baltic as postwar refugees, and played key roles in the fight to save Tasmania’s southwest from the designs of the state’s Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC). Both men were also to die in the wilderness they spent their lives photographing.
Truchanas arrived in Australia as a young man in the 1940s, and was soon exploring the relatively unknown southwest corner of Tasmania, awed by its pristine beauty. “Every inch of Europe has been trodden on by someone before”, artist Max Angus recalls Truchanas saying in Wildness. “Maybe here in Tasmania I can stand on a mountain no-one has stood on before.” There’s an obvious blind spot here that the film doesn’t explore, with Truchanas neatly effacing tens of thousands of years of Indigenous presence in Tasmania before white people arrived and virtually exterminated the population. Like so many aspects of Australian culture, the Indigenous presence shadows the environmental movement in often discomforting ways (3). Setting aside this lacunae – which could take another entire film to unpack – Truchanas’ passionate engagement with the state’s interior is clearly evident in his photography, which often featured human figures looking out over the vast spaces he shot.
Truchanas was not just an artist, however – he staged slide shows and talks across Tasmania in the 1950s and ’60s with an explicit political purpose. The state’s immensely powerful (HEC) was instigating a plan supported by both sides of politics to dam Tasmania’s wild rivers. They wanted to generate cheap electricity and turn the island into an industrial powerhouse, or the “Ruhr Valley of the South Seas”. As someone who had witnessed the devastation of wartime Europe, Truchanas could not believe that Tasmanians did not appreciate the value of their state’s southwest corner, one of the last remaining wilderness areas on the planet. He was at the centre of a struggle that developed in the late 1960s centred on Lake Pedder, an extraordinary body of inland water 300 metres above sea level, flanked by an immense white-sand beach. Despite being located in a National Park, the Reece Labor government planned to flood the lake through the construction of several dams.
The fight for Pedder was eventually lost, and Truchanas’ images are one of the only records we now have of the lake and its surrounds before they vanished beneath floodwaters in 1972. Tragically, Truchanas drowned the same year photographing the Gordon River, the damming of which would be central to the next stage of the HEC’s plans. His drowned body was found by his young protégé, Peter Dombrovskis.
In the decade following Truchanas’ death, Dombrovskis was to play a crucial role in the ultimately successful fight to stop the damming of the lower reaches of the Gordon and the untouched Franklin River. Dombrovskis’ photograph of Rock Island Bend, a stunning but treacherous turn in the Franklin cleaved in two by an enormous rock, was the central image of the anti-damming campaign in the lead-up to the 1983 federal election. Tasmanian environmentalists, led by a young Bob Brown, made the Franklin a national issue and helped swing the vote in favour of the Australian Labor Party, led by the newly elected Bob Hawke. The ALP’s victory eventually led to the termination of the dam project. 13 years later, Dombrovskis suffered a heart attack while hiking in the wilderness he had helped preserve, passing away, like his mentor, in the landscape he loved.
It’s easy to see why the story of Truchanas and Dombrovskis appealed to Millwood. It has all the elements of an epic poem, including rebirth in a new land, struggle, and tragic death – all contained in the moving tale of two talented men whose strangely symmetrical lives are intimately linked to Australian art and politics. The resistance to the destruction of Lake Pedder also spawned a green political movement that was to have global repercussions. The world’s first environmental party, the United Tasmania Group, emerged from the fight and later evolved into the Tasmanian Greens, the first chapter of what was to become a national political movement. It’s this political context that subtly informs Wildness, but Millwood deliberately avoids grandstanding, preferring, like his photographer subjects, to let the images of Tasmania’s southwest speak for themselves. If viewers are not moved by the 300 or so stunning photographs included in the film to care for the beauty they capture, then no amount of words will convince.
The images from Truchanas and Dombrovskis throughout Wildness are mixed with contemporaneous footage, highlighting the seemingly eternal nature of Tasmania’s ancient wilderness. Split-screens compare the footage with images shot by the photographers years before. The scenes are often barely changed – except where humans have intervened, as in the case of Lake Pedder. Then the devastation couldn’t be clearer. By placing his moving images next to the photographs, Millwood is also able to illustrate the poetic layers Truchanas and Dombrovskis projected onto already astonishing landscapes, in order to bring out the spiritual luminosity of Tasmania’s southwest.
Wildness stirs hope, longing, inspiration and melancholy in equal measure, making for a much more emotionally demanding journey than the short 50-minute running time would suggest. The film unquestionably succeeds in capturing what Millwood describes as the “gentle, noble, elegant” aesthetic of Truchanas and Dombrovskis’ work, but its emotional punch comes from more than just the awe-inspiring landscapes they documented (4). The film manages to convey a sense of the immanent power of the land that is both comforting and fearsome. And then there is the sense of loss tied to Lake Pedder – a depthless sadness at the shortsightedness of the men who have ruled the island state for so much of its history.
This sense of sadness bleeds inexorably into Millwood’s third film, the feature-length Whatever Happened to Brenda Hean?, completed in 2008. In many ways less satisfying than Wildness, it is also the film that most clearly reveals Millwood’s conflicted relationship with his island home. Brenda Hean was a central figure in the Lake Pedder Action Committee, the group formed in 1971 to campaign against Pedder’s flooding. On 8 September the following year, Hean set out from Hobart for Canberra in an ancient Tiger Moth biplane, piloted by Max Price. Australia was on the eve of the federal election that was to bring the Whitlam-led Labor Party back to power after 23 years in opposition. Hean planned to make the flooding a federal issue by skywriting “Save Lake Pedder” over the capital, before landing to lobby politicians on the ground. Soon after leaving the Tasmanian coast, the plane disappeared and neither she nor Price were ever seen again. A slipshod police investigation uncovered evidence of a break-in at the hanger before the fateful flight, and death threats directed at Hean and Price before they set off. Rumours of a politically-motivated murder and cover-up have persisted ever since.
Whatever Happened to Brenda Hean? opens with evocative, scratchy 8mm footage of the vanished lake, stunningly captured in the Kodachrome colours of 1960s film stock. Again, there is the aching sense of loss, compounded by the loss of two lives in the fight to save the lake’s ethereal beauty. The opening footage segues into media appearances by Millwood during the making of his film, offering $100,000 to anyone with information leading to the solving of the mystery of Hean’s disappearance.
Inevitably, the reward brings out cranks, a lot of vague memories, and numerous inconclusive leads that Millwood chases in the first hour of the documentary. Unfortunately, the film conspicuously fails to answer the question posed by the title, and the foregrounding of Millwood’s presence throughout infuriated certain reviewers, notably David Stratton, who roundly criticised the director on Australian television (5). Other critics echoed Stratton’s reservations, but few attempted to really understand Millwood’s approach.
In an interview at the time of the documentary’s release, Millwood stated he was “deliberately usurping the role of public authority” by situating himself as an investigator in the film, because “the truth of what happened to Brenda and Max was not only unimportant at the time, but had been ostensibly avoided” (6). Further, he believed that uncovering the truth “might contribute to the healing of a society” in which he saw “the constant repetition of violence”. This notion of a cycle of violent abuse in Tasmania was central to Millwood’s investment in the project, a point made clearer in an accompanying book of the same name penned by the director while making the film.
The book’s most revealing chapter is entitled “The Chair Remembers a Sapling”, comprising memories triggered by a set of “George Peddle chairs” spied in the Tasmanian Archives while researching the Hean story (7). Peddle was a renowned colonial-era Tasmanian furniture maker, whose blackwood timber is said to have been supplied by one of Millwood’s ancestors. An obsessive collector of these antiques, Millwood’s father told his children, “We must understand that through these chairs, something of the trees and the land of Tasmania belongs to us”. These memories, in turn, lead Millwood back to his childhood in what he describes as a faux-colonial mansion built by his father, who he says affected the airs of landed gentry and filled his home with colonial portraits and antiques. Millwood also alleges the home was the site of sexual abuse he suffered as a teenager at the hands of a close family member. Through this highly personal backstory, Millwood evokes a particular relationship to Tasmania’s colonial history and the island’s environment – a relationship based on abuse, domination and repressed silences – that he believes extends well beyond his immediate family. He writes that if he could undo the injustice perpetrated against Hean, he might undo the injustice of his own childhood. The personal and political come together in Millwood’s moving, though disturbing reverie about the culture that made him.
None of this is hinted at in the documentary, resulting in a slightly unsatisfying hybrid of a film, lying somewhere between investigative journalism and a personal philosophical reflection. Despite his understandable desire to usurp the role of public authority in the Hean case, Millwood doesn’t have the temperament of a rigorous investigator, and more cripplingly, lacks the power or resources to seriously cross-examine his witnesses or pursue some of the claims they make. On the other hand, his presence is never justified in the more personalised terms set out in his book.
It is only in the film’s final third that we get some sense of what Brenda Hean means to the director, after Millwood frankly admits that he doesn’t think he will ever uncover the truth of what happened to the missing activist. From here the documentary changes gear, as the director begins to consider whether the swamp of innuendo and secrecy he finds himself mired in speaks of a deeper truth regarding Tasmania’s history of repressed atrocities and extreme violence. Historian Peter Hay goes so far as to say that were Tasmania not part of Australia, he has no doubt there would be “death squads operating on the island”. The film contains graphic footage of violence perpetrated on environmentalists and media personnel to back up these claims, as well as numerous firsthand accounts of assaults, threats, attempted shootings and intimidation. Brenda Hean becomes partly a reflection on the frustrations of writing history in such a small, tight-lipped community, and partly a reflection on the meaning of the Hean legend. Her name endures, says Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan, because she showed up the “lie of the age” – the belief that everything exists to be bought and sold. It’s a stirring conclusion, but perhaps a little too vague after the expectations set up by the film’s title.
The film’s inconclusiveness was not the only thing that irked critics. Millwood’s dark take on Tasmania angered the state’s prominent gay rights campaigner Rodney Croome to the point where he was moved to write a rebuttal in Hobart’s The Mercury (8). Croome acknowledged that the “corruption, violence and silence” detailed by Brenda Hean are deeply ingrained aspects of Tasmanian life, and even claimed his experiences as a gay rights campaigner told him “things can be even worse than Millwood’s film says”. He argues, however, that “this grim, gothic view of Tasmania is only part of the truth”. He goes on: “There is another Tasmania, a Tasmania of belonging, joy, freedom, beauty, abundance and love, which is greater than our island’s closed and hateful twin… But Millwood is blind to this Tasmania, despite having spent most of his life here.”
Whatever Happened to Brenda Hean? is not quite as one-sided as Croome implies – the actions of Hean and her fellow campaigners speak very eloquently of the positive side of Tasmanian life. But given her fate and the woefully inadequate investigation into her death, it’s hard to see how Millwood could have cast her story in a more positive light, and it’s questionable whether he had the right to do so. Millwood’s overt authorial presence in the film also makes it clear that this is a personal view of the island and the mystery it investigates. The film does not purport to be “balanced”. The weakness of the documentary, rather, lies in Millwood’s reluctance to delve further into his personal investment in the tale and the web of silence that hangs over it. Having evoked a subjective viewpoint, he is curiously reticent to flesh it out. Perhaps he felt burnt by his earlier attempts to make personalised documentaries in a culture unsympathetic to such an approach.
For all its flaws, Whatever Happened to Brenda Hean? brought an important chapter of Australian political life back into the spotlight, and the film contains numerous effective passages. Intriguingly, it also raises the possibility that Lake Pedder could be restored. The area was flooded so quickly in 1972 that the original white beach still lies intact beneath the dam waters, a point illustrated by the film’s final moments when Millwood dives down to the submerged sands and lets the grains run through his fingers. It’s this wavering between a sense of hopeful possibility and irrevocable loss that informs both of Millwood’s Tasmanian documentaries and gives them such emotional depth.
Irrespective of what happens to Lake Pedder in the future, however, it seems unlikely the country will ever learn what happened to Brenda Hean. In her lifetime she, and other conservationists like Truchanas and Dombrovskis, were threatened, scoffed at and belittled for their work. The violence perpetrated against environmentalists has never been subject to serious public reflection, and contemporary Green politicians like Bob Brown and Christine Milne are still treated as little more than a joke by large swathes of the Australian media. Our reluctance to critically examine the darker corners of our history and culture perhaps also informs the resistance to the more personal aspects of Millwood’s style. Behind his three completed works – one of which is already virtually impossible to see – stand many other projects that he has not been able to realise, and the filmmaker now spends most of his time in Berlin. Watching Wildness and Whatever Happened to Brenda Hean? again for this article, I couldn’t help wondering whether ten years from now we would be celebrating the later films of one of Australia’s most imaginative documentarians, or asking, regretfully, “whatever happened to Scott Millwood?”
- Scott Millwood quoted in Dan Edwards, “Scott Millwood: Documentary Poet”, RealTime no. 60, April-May 2004: www.realtimearts.net/article/60/7395.
- Millwood in Edwards.
- Controversial Indigenous academic Marcia Langton recently went so far as to label the whole notion of wilderness as “a new incarnation of terra nullius”. See Langton, “Comment: It’s a Knockout: How the Aboriginal Vote Won the NT election”, The Monthly October 2012: www.themonthly.com.au/how-aboriginal-vote-won-nt-election-comment-it-s-knockout-marcia-langton-6495.
- Scott Millwood, “The Making of Wildness: The Story of Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis”, Island no. 93-94, Winter-Spring 2003, p. 11.
- Stratton aired his criticisms on At the Movies, ABC Television, broadcast 1 October 2008, transcript available at: www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/txt/s2367992.htm.
- Author’s interview with Millwood, conducted via email, November 2008.
- Scott Millwood, Whatever Happened to Brenda Hean?, Allen and Unwin, Australia, 2008, pp. 194-200.
- Rodney Croome, “A One-sided Portrayal of Tasmania”, The Mercury 8 October 2008. This article was republished on Croome’s blog: www.rodneycroome.id.au/other_more?id=2822_0_2_0_M11.