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Our Patch

How is Australian sovereignty being acted out at home and abroad in the second century of federation? In this agenda setting book, Suvendrini Perera brings together leading thinkers to map the imaginative and political space claimed as  'Our Patch'. Contributions by Tim Anderson, Ruth Balint, Anthony Burke, Maxine Chi, Maria Giannacopoulos, Suvendrini Perera, Henry Reynolds, Jon Stratton, Dinesh Wadiwel and Irene Watson. To order, please contact Network Books at 08 9266 3717 with your order details. ...
Thursday, 21st August 2014
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API Review of Books

Altitude BirdIssue 44
Features reviews by Kathleen Broderick, Linn Miller, Christine Choo, Bill Thorpe, David Ritter, Eve Vincent, Stephanie Bishop, Alison Miles, Richard Kay, Amanda Day, Bernard Whimpress, Mads Clausen, Marion May Campbell, Sylvia Alston, Catie Gilchrist, Eva Chapman, Lucy Dougan, Stephen Lawrence and Nathanael O'Reilly. Click here for more details.


Altitude BirdPopular Music: Practices, Formations and Change - Australian Perspectives
The papers collected here in this special edition of Altitude offer a brief snapshot of popular music research broadly connected with Australia. The essays demonstrate the variety of theoretical and methodological approaches used by researchers in the fields of popular music studies and cultural studies to explore themes of popular music practice, formation and change in an Australian context. Click here for more details.


Fighting Films: A History of the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit

By Lisa Milner, North Melbourne: Pluto Press, 2003, 166 pages, paperback, $29.95. Reviewed by Rebecca Johinke in the April 2004 issue.

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Lisa Milner has done an excellent job of transforming her PhD thesis into an entertaining and accessible read for anyone interested in film culture, the history of Sydney's wharf workers, or trade unions in Australia. Fighting Films provides an account of the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit (hereafter WWFFU), which operated in Sydney from 1953-1958. It was the first film production unit within a trade union anywhere in the world. The three members of the Unit (Norma Disher, Keith Gow and Jock Levy) made fourteen films before the WWFFU was dismantled. Milner describes the political and social climate of Sydney in the 1950s and paints a picture of what life was like for working people on and off the wharves. She succeeds in locating the WWFFU internationally, and as part of the lively political and artistic culture that thrived in inner city Sydney. Milner suggests that groups such as New Theatre, Realistic Film Association, The Sydney University Labor Club, and the Communist Party of Australia all shared similar aims and ideals, and mirrored socialist and communist organisations overseas.

Milner provides readers with a history of the WWFFU and explains that its purpose was to supply educational material, propaganda, and documentary footage of Union activities. She explains that the Unit wanted to present a counter-view to negative images of strikes and Union action, and provide evidence of what 'really' happened. Milner notes (in Chapter Five) that reality is, of course, subjective, and some of the most thought-provoking material in the book centres on 'evidence' that the WWFFU footage provided. Indeed, it transpires that ASIO were avid watchers of the Unit's films and used the footage for their own purposes against the Union. In another fascinating 'recycling' incident, some of the Unit's dramatised footage was (mis)used in the ABC mini-series The True Believers and labelled as 'archival footage' and not attributed to the WWFFU. Milner provides us with some fascinating titbits like this, but does not offer an in-depth theoretical discussion of the material; this was probably a good editorial decision given that Fighting Films was funded by the MUA, CFMEU and the AMWU and is promoted to members as an easy read.

Chapters One to Three provide us with an introduction, the context, and a history of the WWFFU. Chapter Four supplies us with a summary of each of the fourteen films produced by the trio, and once again the facts are presented with few detours and very little theoretical discussion. If readers are prompted to make their own minds up about the films, the MUA website states that VHS copies of the films are available from the union. The first film released was entitled Pensions for Veterans (1953) and, as the title suggests, it documents the delegations that went to Canberra in 1953 to lobby for pensions for wharf workers. Perhaps the Unit's most significant film was released in 1955 and was entitled The Hungry Miles. This film highlighted the working conditions on Sydney's expanse of wharves, and the struggles endured by the wharfies and their families -- most of whom lived near the wharves and in slum conditions in inner-city suburbs such as Surry Hills, Pyrmont and Woolloomooloo. The Hungry Miles received wide acclaim and won an award at the 1957 Warsaw Youth Festival. A nine-minute animated film (entitled Aboriginal Culture), which depicts two Aboriginal legends, was shown at the Sydney Film Festival in 1957, and then overseas. In addition to films with broad cultural scopes, there were safety films such as Bones of Building (commissioned by the BWIU in 1956), and Think Twice (commissioned by the Boilermakers Society and filmed on Cockatoo Island in 1957). The films were shown at Union meetings and at lunch-breaks on site, and at local clubs and pubs where workers congregated -- indeed the Unit's VW Kombi van worked as a mobile cinema and took the films to the people.

Fighting Films has an eye-catching cover, a rousing foreword, is well organised, and the layout is clear -- all important ingredients for an enjoyable read. However, it is difficult to comprehend why Pluto Press used roman numerals for the endnotes, as this was annoying and clumsy, and made accessing the endnotes a chore. And while I'm nit picking, it is also lamentable that Pluto Press incorrectly named the text in their press release (they omitted the word 'Federation'). These minor irritations should not diminish Milner's achievement, as she has delivered a lively account of an extremely interesting period of our national maritime culture.


  • Rebecca Johinke. 'Review: Fighting Films: A History of the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit by Lisa Milner' [online]. Network Review of Books (Perth, Australian Public Intellectual Network), April 2004. Availability: <please cite the web address here> ISSN 1833-0932. [accessed 21 August 2014].

Back Cover Blurb

  • This book documents a largely forgotten piece of Australian social and film history.

    This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit which operated in Sydney from 1953 to 1958, making films that gave voice to the workers' point of view during a period of intense conservatism and anti-communist feeling.

    The first film production unit within a trade union anywhere in the world, they offered an alternative to the mainstream media of the day. They made fourteen films on subjects that other production units would never tackle - such as the working conditions and health of wharfies, builders' labourers and miners, industrial disputes, and other matters concerning workers' rights, such as the post-war housing shortage.

    Wharfies had a particularly savage history of poor working conditions, and their efforts to improve their lot provoked scathing attacks from the mainstream media, as well as from the government and the shipowners. Many of the Unit's films were produced to counter what the union saw as misinformation and anti-worker propaganda.

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Pluto Press

  • Pluto Press is a wholly Australian-owned, independent publishing house specialising in agenda-setting and thought-provoking books.

NRB April 2004

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