The first Australian film to ever achieve the honour of collecting an Oscar from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences was ‘Kokoda Front Line’ , which shared with three other winners the 1942 Best Documentary award. A Ken G Hall produced and directed feature length newsreel film, this iconic part of Australian cinema and military history relied upon the footage shot by one of our greatest cameramen, Damien Parer. Much like his static film predecessor Frank Hurley and the later Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis Parer was able to combine a true artist’s eye with personal bravery and a connection with his subject, giving Australians a better than expected insight into what happened to men before, during and after battle. There would be hardly any person who has not observed Anzac Day in Australia who would be unfamiliar with iconic images such as this one from ‘Kokoda Front Line’:Parer was able to do something that the founder of the Australian War Memorial and the man who did more than anyone else to create the legend of the Aussie digger, C.E.W. Bean could never do with his words and his official histories. Damien Parer showed not just the people back home but a world wide audience moving images of Australian men fighting a cruel and rapacious enemy. Yes, it may have been propaganda but the work of Damien Parer gave a world wide audience the opportunity to see how Australia was defending what it believed in, and how our soldiers fought and died battling the Axis forces. Arguably consigned to a certain anonymity whilst operating with the British in the European and North African theatres of war, the men of the AIF (as well as those of the RAN and RAAF) were properly given their own cinematic face in movies such as ‘Kokoda Front Line’, ‘Men of Timor’ and ‘The Battle of Bismarck Sea’.
Sadly Damien Parer was killed filming US Marines during the Pelielu campaign in September 1944, suffering a fate innumerable combat cameramen have both before and after his death. Other Australians contributed to the filming of war after Parer, firstly for the newsreels and then with the advent of TV their footage was made available for the nightly news. The aforementioned Neil Davis was the next cameraman to get up close and personal to the soldier fighting a war, in his case the South Vietnamese and Cambodian troops of the Vietnam War. It was Davis who took the footage of an ARVN police chief executing a VC insurgent during the Tet Offensive, then at the war’s end he filmed an NVA tank crashing through the Saigon Presidential Palace gates.
Davis would die filming a Thai Army coup, leaving the succeeding generations of Australian film makers and TV journalists struggling to match his and Parer’s legacy. Partially (and thankfully) for last quarter of the Twentieth Century Australian soldiers did not fight in any wars. Our cameramen did watch, film and (as in the case of the Balibo Five) sometimes suffer the cruel fate of becoming the victims of other countries’ wars. However no one was able to do what Parer did for the diggers of Kokoda or Salamaua on the big or small screen.
In itself this would not be something to be too concerned about except within media and film making circles. However the environment has changed since September 11th 2001. The commencement of the so-called War on Terror’ has seen Australian troops fighting in two major theatres of that war, Iraq and Kuwait. And so far, aside from Department of Defence footage, some YouTube video and the occasional ABC current affairs report the work of our fighting men and women has been woefully under-reported in film:
This isn’t a reflection on the abilities or desires of the Australian combat cameraman or film/TV maker to get deep into the heart of the 21st century digger’s war experiences. It is however an indictment of the failure of the Australian government, no matter its political persuasion to trust people at home with something more than micromanaged minutes of footage authorised by the Department of Defence. I would not call it censorship, although others almost certainly would. Nor would I say that the vision that has been released is utterly worthless propaganda (as the likes of a John Pilger may say). However the manner in which our vision of the war in Afghanistan has been conveyed since the almost total withdrawal of Australian ground forces in the Iraq theatre must be considered utterly unsatisfactory. There have been two VC’s awarded since January 2009 and our casualties there have risen steadily. Brave men have fought and become casualties in a war that supposedly is on our behalf and yet through governmental deflection (at best) or misdirection (at worst) we have not been given the moving images to properly dignify our troop’s efforts nor their sacrifices. For too long there has been a huge gulf between the occasional DoD news briefing and the almost stock scenes of our political leaders attending the funerals of those who have fallen in combat.
I’m not saying that we need to be shown a myth-making paean to our men and women in the war zone of Afghanistan, and I know that contemporary media cynicism means we won’t be able to accept a new ‘Kokoda Front Line’ set this time in Tarin Kowt. However there are effective and meaningful precedents from other countries and their film and TV journalists, who have brought back from the war on terror significant movies that actually go some way to reflecting a combat reality we don’t get in government coverage of embedded ‘Four Corners’ type reports. My prima facie evidence is the much lauded US film ‘Restrepo’:
‘Restrepo’ gets into the FOB of a company of US troops and doesn’t just go out on patrol with the men then scoots back to Bagram air base for hot meals, cold beers and an editing suite. It’s classic combat documentary cinema, insofar as the men in battle aren’t mythic heroes, they are soldiers who can do things no civilian would ever want to and yet at the same time they are fallible and vulnerable. There are mistakes and casualties, bravura and boredom, however one thing there is not is the BS factor of a micromanaged government sponsored film crew. This is a film that is a great example of how embedding with the troops to film their war actually adds depth and reality to something we civilians are almost utterly divorced from.
It has been utterly remiss of our media, our film and TV producers, our government and even those of us home here in Australia not to ask for more realism, more access to our men and women as they are engaged in a war on our behalf. We can’t all be expected to read Department of Defence media releases, nor can we seek truths that are at best relative and at worst not possible to find. We can however ask why no one has been able to put together for more than the length of a sound bite an independent documentary film or TV production that gets behind the barbed wire, goes out on patrol or nestles in underneath the OHP of a firing pit with the current generation of diggers. Marshall McLuhan said that the Vietnam War was lost in the living rooms of America; that may be true. For Australia the Afghanistan War is invisible not just from our lounge rooms, but also from our streets, our cinemas, our worplace discussions and our political debates. Let’s hope a new Damien Parer or the production team behind such a combat film maker can emerge before too late.