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Prelude to a Screening

Director and Producer John B. Murray paints a vivid picture of filmmaking in 1960s Australia

hattah lakes
Hattah Lakes
The bunyip snuck out of its hidey-hole: one that overlooked Billabong number 3 right smack in The Mallee about one mile from the main highway to Mildura: not far from Hattah Lakes, actually, where pelicans practiced landings and take-offs like Catalina flying boats and red-nosed coots waded in the murk at the water's edge for tasty treats to which they had become addicted. They seemed to have nothing else to do. There was no Internet then, of course. They were not camera-shy either. It was the early 1960s, and you would have been very lucky to find a filmmaker anywhere in Australia, really. This bunyip waited around for a while, then came back later - minus its clothes.

I had previously enjoyed a taste of movie-making as an actor in a promotional new car documentary in the mid 50s. It was shot over a couple of weeks in the snow-covered Bogong High Plains. Then, I saw more film-making as a liaison-driver with the French film company awarded the contract to produce the official 1956 Olympic Games film, Rendezvous à Melbourne. During the same time, as well as creating window displays and buying stock for the lingerie and baby-wear retail outlet my then wife and I ran, I worked part-time as a stills photographer for the studio of Cardin Rofe. A period followed with Rene Mitchell at St Martin's Theatre in South Yarra. So, if one couples those things together, it could be seen as probable that I would become involved in the new age of television and film in Australia.

That path did open up, but it was not really of my doing. While at St Martin's I was mentioned to the head of the Australian Broadcasting Commission's television studio at Ripponlea, John Cameron. He, and his head of Staging, Kevin Lynch, had together created a concept whereby nominated persons outside the ABC would be recruited and nurtured as television directors and producers, enabling them to gain broad experience by working for a time in various departments. Television was very new, with little or no talent to draw upon except from theatre, radio and print media. The film industry developed by our forebears had long since been choked to death by English and American distribution and exhibition interests. I was invited to join.

  Alcheringa: on location
There was no film department as such at Ripponlea, except that which facilitated the gathering of news. Yet, after some time in live television production I was assigned to work with a part-Indigenous American cameraman, Frank Few, to develop and produce a B&W 13-part series based on the Aboriginal 'Dreamtime': Alcheringa. It was his first role as writer-director. Frank evidenced a strong empathy with Australian Aborigines, and he and his wife, Betty, had together conceived of the project which Frank then put before John Cameron. There was no application needed, no assessment panel. We were part of a group inhabiting a small, friendly world: the Victorian branch of the ABC. John Cameron looked to claim greater autonomy for Victoria by developing creative and production talent and facilities, particularly in the light of Sydney's strong centrist stance.

After an informal chat with the two of us, John Cameron asked me to create a shooting and a production schedule, with a budget that would determine the external cash expenditure required. Frank was released from most of his duties as news cameraman, and asked to complete his research and refine the script. For the project to be feasible it had to depend on existing staff and facilities, and be funded principally from within Cameron's whole budget allocation. It could not proceed without Sydney's approval, and it was apparent that there would be no chance of that if he unduly rocked the boat or created too high a profile either for ourselves or the program. Yet, it was not long before we were given the go-ahead.

Frank and I immediately set out to cast the male and female aboriginal leads. We searched all over Victoria and southern New South Wales, visiting Mission Stations and aboriginal settlements, even trawling the humpies along the banks of the Murray River, but with no success. We finally found the male lead, Arthur, working on the assembly line at General-Motors in Melbourne, and the female lead, Doris, serving as a domestic servant two streets up from the studio in Ripponlea. They had no interest in their given surnames, and one had a sense that they simply suffered their first names; that in some far-off future time all would be put right. In the meantime, they gave the appearance of not really wanting to exist in our world.

alcheringa' extra: undressed for the part
'Alcheringa' extra: undressed for the part
I set up a unit comprising a cameraman, make-up/wardrobe artist - although 'wardrobe' required the discreet undressing of our leads, not the clothing of them - then a script assistant and a runner/driver. We hired an aboriginal woman as cook for our locations, all quite remote. I requisitioned a station wagon, a 4WD, and trailers to carry equipment, tents and camping gear.

We filmed over many months, returning to Melbourne between locations and to wait for seasonal changes. The program was not without its challenges. On one location overseen by a government agent I came face to face with the ugliness of racism.  On a still, sun-drenched day we were filming at the edge of a placid lake, miles away from habitation, when two policemen suddenly appeared. Without any preamble they arrested our lead, Arthur, (naked except for a stringy loincloth and rubber lesions stuck here and there on his arms and torso). They provided no explanation as to why he was to be taken from us. We were left stranded, with no alternative but to pack up our equipment and return to camp.

Later that day, after learning that our man had been jailed, I drove to the major town where the lock-up was situated, taking food and some warm clothing for what I anticipated would be a cold night in the cell for Arthur. I entered the station and asked to see the prisoner, but was curtly refused permission by the lone police officer on duty. He did not willingly take the items I had brought, and gave no assurance that they would be passed on. It was made clear that my presence was not wanted, and all I could do was leave. I was deeply shocked and felt sickened by the incident. I was not at all prepared for this first encounter with the hatred and contempt for Aborigines that I later also found while filming on other projects, more so in rural areas. This attitude was righteously indulged by more than a few 'old' Australians at that period when our common heritage was predominant; those with Irish, Scottish or English forebears, as I have.

I realized as subsequent years went by, how my generation had been shielded from the reality of the suffering and hardship Aborigines endured. I had enjoyed an idyllic country and the most wonderful environment to grow up in, but in reality it belonged to the Aborigines. It was a fact that had not been fully acknowledged. They had been appointed custodians of this great continent for as long as civilization had existed. Yet, not only had we treated them most cruelly, we had no respect for their knowledge of the land, nor did we understand the unique and palpable empathy with it they experienced.

It later transpired that Arthur had been arrested for carnal knowledge of a girl under the age of consent. We were surprised, particularly me. I had set up his tent just a few metres from my own - placing the entrance out of my view so that he would have some privacy - and I saw nothing untoward. Not so the occidental government representative in the area, a man responsible for supporting many aboriginal families, and whose dwelling was some way off. He claimed to have observed a young girl entering Arthur's tent. To him that was enough to call in the police and have Arthur apprehended.

When I learned of the circumstances I called on the representative, and remonstrated with him in support of Arthur; saying that he was a gentle, shy, and most co-operative young man, and that there seemed to be no evidence to warrant any charge. It was clear that this official had no understanding that aboriginal culture did not embrace our concept of sexual mores and laws of carnal knowledge. Even so, and regardless of their 'guilt' or otherwise, there was no comprehension that these two lonely young people could be seen to have every right to find warmth and comfort in each other's company.

This official had shown no courtesy to us by taking a secretive and pre-emptive action against Arthur, one that adversely affected our legitimate program.  What he claimed to have seen - and there was certainly doubt as to its actuality - was to him and the police enough to justify action. They worked together, and to me, even indulged a sombre pleasure in finding an occasion to release hatred and contempt towards Aborigines. The latter's difference alone seemed to be a provocation and an excuse to 'put them in their place'.  Furthermore, the fact that not only Arthur but also the members of our team were interlopers, seemed to encourage these feelings.

It may have been that the two shy, ostracized young people did have a sexual relationship. But I doubt that young Arthur had been manipulative. Some aboriginal women did suggest to me - after a longish, relaxed association during the course of our project - that their culture allowed for them to be sexually exploited from a young age. I perceived that they felt demeaned by this and had, understandably although disappointingly, become fatalistic; quite powerless in the face of entrenched customs. Nevertheless, it had not engendered in them a feeling that foreign, occidental interference, such as that of the Police, was an answer to their plight.

Once more we cast Arthur's role, and while we were away on another location far off, the police proceeded with their action against him. I did not feel free to attend Court given my work responsibilities. I also felt that my knowledge of his situation and culture was too inadequate for me to be of much help to him. Frank's attitude was not encouraging. I was surprised, given his sincere empathy with the Aborigines, that he showed the same apathy and fatalism; immediately accepting that there was nothing one could do. No doubt it was a legacy of his former life in America. Yet, I regret to this day that I did not attend Court and defend what I knew of Arthur's character.

Despite this, our little series came to a satisfactory conclusion. It was the first program on film initiated by the ABC in Victoria; in fact, outside the headquarters of the national broadcaster in Sydney. While it was in post-production I was again coupled with Frank, this time to document the life of a lyre-bird: by name, Spotty: as a pilot for films on wildlife. This male charmer lived in Sherbrooke Forest and was well-known to Frank, who lived nearby. The two of us filmed sporadically during a year to capture important moments in Spotty's life, the record of which was titled Dancing Orpheus.

The film was well regarded within the organization - and later overseas - and gave John Cameron and the Head of Film in Sydney, Kip Porteous, faith to proceed with a series on Australian wildlife proposed by naturalist, Graham Pizzey. We proved that the production of programs on film was viable, principally within the resources of the studio.

Ferdi (Nandor) Genes, a refugee from USSR-controlled Hungary, who had joined  ABC-TV, was appointed to assist Graham as director. I was assigned in the capacity of producer; although no roles were then designated as such. It was all a very loose co-operative excise and all the more enjoyable, especially as Graham and I had together grown up in the same beautiful area of Melbourne, one made famous by the Heidelberg School of painters; although Graham boarded at school in Geelong, and was therefore away for much of the year. It was an idyllic spot just up the hill from a wonderful swimming hole in the Yarra River, at that time surrounded by open fields and lined by Eucalyptuses.

We filmed the wildlife series and, as with Alcheringa, on many locations in the bush away from human habitation. I secured two Land Rovers from the Commonwealth Government Pool and hired caravans to accommodate us. We were now four, as Nobby Clarke joined as cameraman. The cuisine was not great, our repertoire limited. So much so that the other three boys could hardly wait to get a weekend free. They would pile into one of the vehicles and head for Mildura on the Murray River to enjoy showers, a swimming pool, clean sheets and professional tucker. I am more the contemplative type and relished the peace at the edge of Hattah Lakes. It was only disturbed by the cacophonous chorus created each morning by the aforementioned pelicans, coots and dozens of other wading birds, then later, by their more quietly spoken résumés of the day's activity as the sun went down. Besides, someone had to mind our settlement.

the camera hide
The camera hide
Our main quarry at Hattah Lakes was the Mallee Fowl. We set up a tubular steel platform to support a hide that looked down on the birds' incubation mound, capturing - I think for the first time on moving film - their breeding cycle from the mating and laying of eggs to the monitoring of the mound by the parent birds and the hatching of the chicks. Both the male and female fowls return at least once each day to measure the temperature to within half of a degree by probing the mound with their sensitive beaks. If too hot, they claw away some of the heat-producing humus. If too cold, they cover the mound with more soil and vegetable matter. Nobby would sit up in the hide all day, waiting, for we never found a printed timetable for the bird's activity. They were too intelligent to leave one around; or to come back to the mound when they heard from afar the footsteps of someone approaching the hide. After a while we worked out how to fool them. One of us went in with Nobby, then left him there and walked away out of the couple's territory. What they obviously couldn't do, was distinguish between one set of human footsteps and two. Clever birds, but not perfect.
  nobby and frank
  Nobby and Frank

During the series we recorded many native animals, from seals on Seal Rock in the cold southern ocean to kangaroos in the hot, dry country, then ibis, egrets turtles and more on the River Murray flood plains in the northern area of the State. Dancing Orpheus joined five of these 30 minute programs to comprise a six-part series. I was, however, absent for the finale. There was a delay waiting for the right season to finish shooting, and therefore, post-production. As I had decided to become an independent filmmaker I resigned from the Australian Broadcasting Commission in late 1961.

My first project, which took some time to complete as I could raise no money and had to finance it with the help of part-time work, was Yoga and the Individual; a 35mm film of 16 minutes duration in beautiful black and white. It was unusual to shoot a documentary on 35mm then; 16mm, being more portable and, due to cost factors, almost exclusively used. But I wanted to prove that we could demonstrate professional first-class quality in both image and sound. This was the Australia of 'near-enough is good enough', a very frustrating and limiting milieu in which to work, one that lasted a very long time in many fields of endeavour.  I did succeed in attaining my goal in that Yoga and the Individual won a Silver Award in the Australian Film Institute's annual competition (1966), and was broadcast by both the BBC in the United Kingdom and ABC-TV in Australia. I also made it available for distribution on 16mm.

There followed a number of commissioned documentaries during the 1960s that I wrote, directed and produced before joining Tim Burstall and Patrick Ryan as associate producer and first assistant director on their first feature: 2000WEEKS. Later, during pre-production, David Bilcock Snr, founder of Senior Films, also joined us as associate producer, bringing with him additional finance and facilities. The film was released in 1968 and also introduced us to the reality of feature film distribution and exhibition; moribund with regard to Australian narrative drama.
  the lido girls
  Putting the Lido Girls on film
This experience made me much more aware of the need to break the strangle-hold on film marketing by both British and American distributors and exhibition majors. The injustice that had resulted from the unwillingness of progressive Australian Governments to protect the legacy created for us by pioneering Australian filmmakers, spurred me on. Without 2000WEEKS, The Naked Bunyip, filmed in 1969, and the making and success of Libido (1973): a 4-part portmanteau film made by The Producers and Directors Guild of Australia (Victoria) - of which I was then  president - would probably not have come about.
As the astute reader will have gathered, in a sense - following the release of 2000WEEKS - I went back to filming wildlife. Even facing an enraged sugar glider was safer than putting locally made narrative drama out to be ravaged by critics and the community, I reasoned. But I could ratch things up a bit: I would this time tackle human wild life; hold a mirror up before most of my fellow Australians so that they could come face to face with their attitudes and beliefs on sex and censorship. I say 'most' as I could not include the views of Aborigines on the topic, despite the help that could have been derived from such a study. It was difficult enough to find occidental Australians to speak on certain aspects of sex. To encourage Aborigines to do so in the climate of that time, given their reticence to speak openly about many aspects of their culture, would have been too great a challenge.

the naked bunyip: developing sex appeal
The Naked Bunyip: developing sex appeal
You may well ask: Why call the film that resulted The Naked Bunyip? But don't feel embarrassed. It's a good question.

John B Murray ©2008

NOTE:  The development, making and distribution of The Naked Bunyip and Libido can be discerned from two essays by this same author. They are titled: The Genesis of The Naked Bunyip and The Genesis of Libido. These essays were first published online in 2006 by Senses of Cinema, and can be accessed via links provided on the website: They give an account of the renaissance of the Australian film industry in the 1960s, as well as detailed descriptions of the creation of the above two works. There are also more complete versions of the essays available online to researchers through the National Film & Sound Archive.

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