Documentary Film
in the “Creative Nation”

Australia in the 1990s

Peter Hughes

There is a potential contradiction between the desire to produce a culture which addresses questions of identity and the desire to produce "product" for a global market

If we are to learn from the realm of documentary film questions of representation and audience address, then political and ethical issues will become vital to the development of multimedia


National Identity

In October, 1994, the Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, presented a major cultural statement from the government. Although a less ambitious statement than many people had been hoping for, it was a declaration of intended direction for government support and encouragement of the creative arts. Creative Nation (as the Statement was called) also participated in an ongoing debate within Australia about national identity, a debate in which many documentaries have been significant participants.

As befits a post-colonial culture, questions of Australian national identity have been consistent themes throughout the 100-year history of Australian film, both fictional and nonfictional. Since the revival of the Australian feature film industry in the early 1970s, some of these debates have been taken up with increased fervor, and need to be seen in the context of Hollywood's dominance of Australian cinemas and video rentals. As Graeme Turner has pointed out, in the first decade of the "revival" (the mid-1970s to mid-1980s), the products of the Australian film industry "were expected to tell 'our' stories to 'our' audiences, while also collaborating in the construction of the image of a culturally rich and diverse Australia for overseas consumption."1 The image of "Australianness" which was constructed, however, tended to be one which was based on a very dated nationalist tradition with roots in the nineteenth century. This view sought to construct a single, unified, European-oriented, masculinist conception of national identity.

In the second decade of the revival, this conception of national identity has been challenged. The Australian film and television production industries have benefited from debates about national identity as the audience for local production has grown - most particularly on television. Turner goes on to argue that it may be possible, generally, to think of the nation in the late twentieth century as heterogenous rather than homogenous, and to see signs of this in Australia in the cinema. Over the last four years, he argues, the range of films being made in Australia and "the range of definitions of the nation implicity within them has widened and multiplied."2 Although Turner does not discuss documentary film in his article, I would want to argue that documentary has played a significant role in this process of redefinition of national identity, often in advance of the feature film industry.

While cinema audiences have generally grown in the past 20 years - albeit the growth has been far from consistent and uniform - the opportunities for cinematic exhibition of documentary have generally decreased in the period, even among smaller "art house" and "repertory" cinemas. As in many other parts of the world, the main site for the exhibition of documentary has become television, with programs made by independent filmmakers on social and political issues shown on the two government owned television networks: the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service. There are a number of trends evident in the types of documentary material being screened, but what is important is that throughout the period of the last twenty years documentaries have provided one vital and critical site of debate and reflection on a range of questions about just what is distinctively Australian about our culture. A large number of works have sought to re-examine Australian history, social conditions and their development, and the changing place of women and aborigines in Australian culture and society.

The European-centered view of Australian identity has been challenged by a range of films made by Aborigines or with the involvement of Aboriginal Communities (such as Two Laws (Borroloola Aboriginal Community, 1981), My Life As I Live It (Coffey, Ansara, Guyatt, 1993), Moodeitj Yorgas: Solid Women (Moffatt, 1988); and Exile and the Kingdom (Injibarndi, Ngarluma, Banjima and Gurrama People, and Rijavec, 1993)), as well as by many films about Aborigines by non-Aborigines: Black Man's Houses (Thomas, 1992), How the West Was Lost (Noakes, 1987), Land Bilong Islanders (Connolly & Graham, 1989), and Aeroplane Dance (Graham, 1994).

Women have also challenged the masculinist conception of Australianness, particularly in the re-examination of history in films such as Ladies Rooms (Gibson, Lambert, 1977), Age Before Beauty (Gibson, Lambert, 1980), For Love or Money: Women and Work in Australia (McMurchy, Nash, Thornley & Oliver, 1983), Thanks Girls and Goodbye (Hardisty, Maslin 1984), High Heels (Brooks, 1985), the sadly underrated Landslides (Gibson, Lambert, 1986), and Nice Coloured Girls (Moffatt, 1987).

A growing number of documentaries have looked at the multicultural nature of the Australian population with works such as Solrun Hoass' film about Japanese war brides in Australia, Green Tea and Cherry Ripe (1989) (Hoass has also directed a feature film on the same subject (Aya) and a series of films on the island of Hatoma in Okinawa). Barbara Chobocky made a highly personal film about her mother, a post-WWII refugee from Czechoslovakia, comprised of original correspondence, 8mm home movie footage, and archival film. And Noriko Sekiguchi produced a personal diary about a trip to Yokohama by her "Australian mother" to visit her Japanese parents (Mrs. Hegarty Comes to Japan, 1992).

Discussions about national identity have been of growing significance in realms beyond "cultural production" with national political debates about Australia's place in the global economy and politics taking on greater urgency. The current Prime Minister has clearly set his government's agenda to address such questions. The process began with economic restructuring in the early 1980s when Keating was treasurer in the Hawke Labor government. The goal was to restructure the Australian economy and to futher integrate Australia into the increasingly global economy.

Since being elected as Prime Minister in his own right in 1992, Keating has been seeking to alter the course of this restructuring somewhat by placing emphasis on more symbolic elements of national identity, however much these are seen as being tied to economic, legal, and political restructuring. One element of this has been the renewal of a move to make Australia a republic. Longstanding debates about republican status are given new urgency by the coming centenary of Federation (in 2001) and by the need for Keating and his government to manage the tendency, exacerbated by economic and other forms of globalization, towards fragmentation of the sense of national identity.

Creative Nation

As the opening paragraph of Creative Nation makes clear, it is in this context that the Statement needs to be read:

Australia, like the rest of the world, is at a critical moment in its history. Here, as elsewhere, traditional values and ideologies are in flux and the speed of global economic and technological change has created doubt and cynicism about the ability of national governments to confront the future. What is distinctively Australian about our culture is under assault from homogenized international mass culture.

A number of themes are evident in this introduction: crisis, economic and technological change, and the issue of what is distinctively Australian. What might the Statement tell us about the future for documentary forms within the "new technologies" in Australia? The answer is not clear in the Statement itself, although the fact that one-third of all funding pledged goes to multi-media programs certainly has interesting implications for documentary. Who is to produce this work and will it displace documentary film and television? Is multimedia the future for what Bill Nichols has called the "discourses of sobriety"?

In fact there are very few references to documentary film or television in Creative Nation. When mention of documentary is made, it is always in catch-all phrases such as "the production of films, documentaries, and television programs" (p. 43); never are documentary film or television dealt with as special categories in their own right. Clearly, however, the considerable emphasis in the Statement on the development of a multimedia production industry in Australia has implications for documentary production, as does the introduction in 1995 of pay television (rarely alluded to in Creative Nation.)


In a highly commodified view of culture, multimedia and the information highway are spoken of throughout the Statement in terms of "content", of commodities to be traded in the global economy: "The [Commercial Television Production] Fund will encourage the creation of programs and of libraries of copyright" (p. 49); "Multi-media can provide us with an important new form of cultural expression and a major product to sell to the world" (emphasis added) (p. 55); "It is content which is absolutely critical: it is what we put onto the highway that really matters" (p. 55). This emphasis on "content" and its commodification is most explicit in a prior government report with the revealing title of Commerce in Content: Building Australia's International Future in Interactive Multi-Media Markets.

There seems to be a potential contradiction between the desire to produce a culture which addresses questions of identity - "We seek to preserve our culture because it is fundamental to our understanding of who we are" (p. 5) - and the desire to produce "product" for a global market. It appears some forms of culture (not clearly specified, but presumably "older" forms) are about preservation and heritage - the sense of where Australian identity has come from. Multimedia, on the other hand, is about globalization, about the future and about a sense of outwardness, as opposed to inwardness. What is lacking in this apparent divide is that a sense of debate and contestation is what makes culture dynamic. Identity is not fixed and stable but in constant flux, and culture is one site in which this flux is produced.

On the one hand, this sense of outwardness may be considered a good thing. Turner praises a number of recent feature films for their "lack of self-consciousness about their national origins";3 there is a sense in which a nation and an industry can be stultified by a constant reworking of debates about national identity. Globalization can foster the very heterogeneity of national identity and culture to which I referred earlier. Indeed many very strong Australian documentaries which have received international praise deal with issues "outside" Australia, such as Dennis O'Rourke's Half Life, which deals with the impact of U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific; David Bradbury's films about Central and South America (Nicaragua: No pasaran, ńChile Hasta Cuando?, and South of the Border); and Noriko Sekiguchi's Senso Daughters, which focuses on the legacy of Japanese occupation of Papua New Guinea. Films made in South East Asia include Code Name: Seven Roses (Llewellyn, 1992) and As the Mirror Burns (Bretherton, 1991) (both set in Vietnam), as well as The Tenth Dancer (Ingleton, 1993) set in Cambodia.

However, the critical point of view is crucial to documentary; the seeking after international audiences sometimes serves to dull the edge which a specific perspective is able to bring. What may make a particular documentary distinctive and important is the specific cultural point of view it brings to an issue, along with a sense of debate. The constant talk in the Statement of "content" misses this vital point; it speaks of "content" as if it were fixed and stable and separable from debate - in fact from history itself. Documentary is not about "content" alone, but about debate and contestation. The question of audience is always central to documentary as the purpose of documentary is to produce changes in attitudes, values, and behaviour. Potential meanings in documentary are not merely a matter of some discrete and fixed content which is simply "given" and available to be extracted by the audience; rather, meanings arise from the interaction of text and audience in different contexts of reception. The relationships of text and audience and the implications of these have been the focus of debate by filmmakers and theorists in the field of documentary throughout the world. In Australia they are evident in films by John Hughes, Ross Gibson, Tracey Moffatt, Sarah Gibson, and many others. Questions of representation have become increasingly urgent in relation to the growing number of films by or about indigenous peoples, with theoretical debates on these matters being taken up in films and in Marcia Langton's influential essay "Well I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television . . ."4

Television and Documentary

Australian documentary filmmakers are now almost totally dependent on television presales, either for direct funding or to enable them to apply for moneyfrom the Film Finance Corporation - the federal government established "film bank" which is charged with investing in films on a largely commercial basis. Documentary filmmakers are being required by the FFC to seek some funding or presales from overseas distributors (generally television), so the outcomes increasingly need to cater to an international market. While this may force filmmakers to produce better quality proposals, it also runs the risk of producing programs which avoid any specificity of content. The requirement for such presales also makes them more liable to influence from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and to a much lesser extent the Special Broadcasting Service. These two state owned radio and television networks have been buying an increasing amount of independently produced documentary in the last decade, with the ABC now being the major market for independent filmmakers.

However, the ABC, pressured by perceived "charter obligations" to become a broadcaster rather than a narrow caster, "has lost its energy as a documentary producer, both in what it makes in-house and what it purchases from independents."5 The result is a high degree of orthodoxy. The pressure to conform to the needs of broadcasters as opposed to the cinema market (a form of "narrow casting"), linked with the necessity for a television pre-sale to obtain film finance corporation funding, is constraining filmmakers.

It must be recognised that television provides a vastly increased audience for documentary, and that within the constraints of what is seen as its charter obligations, the ABC is providing a variety of exhibition opportunities for documentary filmmakers. However, the predominant view of documentary in television is that a good documentary is transparent - a model based on the journalistic origins of many of the people who work in television documentary, with its strong links to current affairs.

So there is a danger that in seeking to produce "content" for the global market, multi-media product will be bland, safe, and lacking in any form of cultural relevance, a danger already facing those working in film and video. From the start, the development of multi-media will involve private enterprise "to ensure that good ideas can be turned into commercial product." The government proposes to fund forums to encourage on-going dialogue between software companies and "traditional content producers" (p. 57). The previous statement notwithstanding, the rhetoric of the Statement does very little to link "multi-media" to "ideas" or to any notions (perhaps dated) of creative individuals. Multi-media products are to be produced industrially, and within a corporate structure, just like motor cars. The assumption presumably is that the "traditional content producers" (and the Statement is always silent about what is meant by the phrase) will be the makers of corporate videos and sponsored documentaries. There is no indication of any attempt to foster a sector analogous to that of the independent documentary filmmaker; the view is very much of culture as an industry. In such a model, political and ethical questions about participation, relationships between filmmaker and subjects, as well as many other issues which have been exercising the minds of documentarists for decades appear to be off the agenda. One of the defining characteristics of documentary, as opposed to other forms of nonfiction film and video making, is its critical analytical approach to the material, which particularly distinguishes contemporary documentary from training and instructional materials.

Learning From Documentary

It is never made clear what is actually meant by the term "multimedia" in the document, but it appears to be "content" which is distributed on CD-ROM rather than on film or video. The focus of the sections of the Statement which deal with multimedia remains resolutely on the question of "content" - the view is that a good multimedia product is transparent. This seems to have been the opinion of many bureaucrats in the film industry to date, where technological concerns prevail. Certainly filmmakers who have dealt with the Australian Film Commission, which has been seeking to fund multimedia production for three years, have found little interest in formal questions relating to multimedia. Just as the more formally innovative documentaries produced in Australia have been seen as "problems" by broadcasters, to date there is very little interest in theoretical questions about the production of potential meanings in multimedia, and ways in which audiences produce potential meanings through so-called interactive media. Such matters appear to be taken for granted, yet for some filmmakers, such as Melbourne filmmaker John Hughes, who is working on a multimedia project on Mabo,6 these questions are pressing concerns.

Will multimedia technology alter documentary, and if so how? Multimedia results from the convergence of a number of technologies dealing with sound, image, and text. The "interactivity" of the technology, and its ability to deal with each component separately means that it has the potential to create texts which are nonlinear in structure in comparison with film and television. Indeed for this reason the term "texts" is not really suitable; there is the potential for each user, each member of the audience to produce a different "text" each time they "interact" with the production. The possibility is that concepts of montage in film can be extended much further when the user of the multimedia product is able to explore potential connections between, for example, archives of television news reports, newspaper feature articles, parliamentary speeches, sound bites from radio current affairs, official government publications, and other sources. While the choices made by audience members are not totally free (they are constrained by what the interactive text makes available to them), they are able to make choices and connections not necessarily determined by the filmmaker. In this sense, documentary multimedia may be less constrained by narrative. This potentially produces a much less deterministic relationship between "text" and "audience" - a situation many documentary filmmakers have been seeking for years.

However, the mere possibility of utopian outcomes from multimedia does not guarantee them. In the same way that many documentary films seek to foreground their production, their rhetorical strategies, and their epistemological assumptions, multimedia works need to develop similar strategies. If we are to learn from the realm of documentary film questions of representation and audience address, then political and ethical issues will become vital to the development of multimedia. The possibility of further displacement of sound, image, and text, and the many potential combinations and permutations of media which are available with multimedia are matters which go beyond "content" and marketing. But if Australia is really to be a world leader in the field, and if multimedia is to be seen as "culture" and not merely as industrial product, these issues will have to be addressed. It will not be sufficient to see multimedia as a more advanced technology for the production of authoritarian instructional and promotional material for the training and tourism industries. My own experience with multimedia authoring packages is that they can be very singleminded and deterministic!

Creative Nation almost seems to recognise this when it pledges funding for the development of six co-operative multi-media centers which will be "collaborative enterprises between the education and training sectors and other public and private organizations" (p. 59). But the rhetoric of the Statement is not reassuring here either with its talk of "product testing and evaluation . . . for the development of a major new export industry" (p. 60). In what is perhaps the only glimmer of hope that some attention is to be paid to theorizations of multi-media, "the [Australian Film Commission's] New Image Research Program will be extended to develop experimental multi-media projects work in addition to film" (p. 61).

It is to be hoped that encouragement will also be given to the development through education and other cultural bodies to the production of a vigorous and theoretically adventurous debate about the nature and form of multi-media; and to the promotion of a vigorous oppositional culture within the multi-media field, drawing from already vigorous debates in documentary praxis.



1. Graeme Turner, "Whatever Happened to National Identity?: Film and the Nation in the 1990s," Metro: The Media Magazine 100 (Summer 1994/5): p. 32.

2. Turner, p. 33.

3. Turner, p. 33.

4. Marcia Langton, "Well I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television . . ." (Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993). A core work for anyone interested in the representation of "aboriginality" in the Australian media.

5. Phillip Adams, film producer and media commentator in an open letter to the Chairman of the ABC Board, published in The Australian, 21-22 January 1995: p. 10.

6. A recent High Court Ruling recognizing the prior "ownership" of what is now called "Australia" by the indigenous peoples. The case has profound implications which are still being grappled with.

Peter Hughes

Lectures in media studies in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Enquiry at the University of Ballarat, Australia. Has also done work in marketing documentary film for a number of film distributors and some script development work.
E-mail: phughes@fs3.ballarat.edu.au