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Revealed: how Australian spies filmed Indigenous activists during the cold war

In the early 1950s, as acute cold war paranoia about possible communist infiltration began dominating Australian politics, the next generation of Indigenous activists took their equality fight to Europe.

And not just anywhere in Europe. On 7 June 1951, a 21-year-old Aboriginal man, Ray Peckham, and another increasingly prominent Indigenous activist, Faith Bandler, 32, were due to set sail from Melbourne to the World Youth Festival for Peace in Soviet-controlled East Berlin.

Agents of the homeland security agency Asio – the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation – were watching and filming them as the drama unfolded on the docks and while Peckham and Bandler waited on the ship.

Given the destination of Peckham and Bandler – official delegates to the festival and members of the Margaret Walker Dance Group set to perform there – it was inevitable they’d attract even closer scrutiny than usual from Asio.

How closely Asio filmed their activities in Australia, on board the ship to Europe and in East Berlin, is revealed by Alec Morgan in his new short film, Asio Makes a Movie.

It is the first of five short films – creatively linked by a reliance on archival material produced by Macquarie University’s Kathryn Millard and Tom Murray – that will appear in the Guardian Australia series, Present Traces, over the next few weeks.

While researching a film on other Indigenous activists, multi-award-winning film-maker and scriptwriter Morgan came across the Asio footage of Peckham and Bandler in the National Archives of Australia.

Asio Makes a Movie includes the spy agency’s footage of Peckham waiting anxiously aboard the ship at Port Melbourne while immigration officials held his passport. It features the agency’s secret home movie-style film of he and Bandler (and many other delegates) aboard the ship en route to Europe and at a factory in East Berlin where Peckham addressed the workers.

Morgan’s film explains how Asio made immediate use of the latest technologies after its inception in 1949, including stills and home movie cameras, to chronicle the activities of targets. The film illustrates how the new affordability and popularity of such cameras in the early 1950s made the Asio agents’ task of publicly filming their subjects – on the street, outside cinemas, even on the beach – far less conspicuous.

As the film points out: “Asio agents could now spy in public without suspicion.”

Morgan says while Peckham, Bandler (a woman of part-Vanuatuan descent whose advocacy was critical to the 1967 citizenship referendum) and other Indigenous activists always knew Asio was trying to spy on them, they did not know who aboard the ship or in Berlin was filming them.

“They always were aware that spies were in their midst and Ray was not overly surprised when he first saw the film … but he wasn’t aware Asio was filming him on the boat or in East Berlin and he doesn’t know who was doing it,” Morgan says.

He says the varying quality of Asio’s archival spy film footage from around the 1950s indicates professional cinematographers, as well as just regular intelligence officers, were shooting vision for the agency.

“We are not sure who was filming the surveillance footage – they weren’t actually credited and of course didn’t want to be. Some of it is technically poor, badly framed and blurred. But some of it is of professional standard,” he says.

Asio Makes a Movie details how as subsequent generations of Indigenous people became politically active, thereby adding momentum to the movement for civil rights preceding the 1967 referendum, the spy agency increased its filming and photography of targets.

A still from Asio Makes a Movie.
A still from Asio Makes a Movie. Photograph: Macquarie University

Kathryn Millard, professor of screen and creative arts at Macquarie, explains the genesis of the films: “We are a group of film-makers and writers at Macquarie University who share an interest in recorded social history – fragments of film, photographs, audio recordings, transcripts and documents. Sources that are often elusive and incomplete. How can these traces of the past help us reframe the present? We set out to make a collection of short films with that in mind.”

Millard’s own film, Experiment 20, dramatises the recorded accounts of three women who participated in psychologist Stanley Milgram’s infamous “Obedience to Authority” experiments involving 800 residents of New Haven, Connecticut in 1962. The female subjects of the experiments were duped into believing they were required to administer electric shocks to male subjects who answered questions incorrectly.

The three women depicted in Experiment 20 defied orders to shock the men.

“I wanted to bring the women participants from 1962 to life for audiences now. Scientists often record human interactions as numbers and data. But the arts are good at exploring the complexity and messiness of human behaviour,” Millard says.

Meanwhile, Tom Murray’s film The Skin of Others revolves around Douglas Grant, an Aboriginal man who, as a child, survived a massacre of his people in north Queensland before serving in the first world war when the Germans captured and imprisoned him in Berlin.

The Skin of Others – featuring actors Tom E Lewis, Max Cullen and George Washingmachine – focuses on a 1921 visit by Grant and his ex-digger mate, violinist Percy Cowan, to the Sydney home of renowned author Henry Lawson. Drawing from Cowan’s papers, archival stills and Murray’s extensive research on Grant, The Skin of Others adds another dimension to Lawson’s affinity with Indigenous Australians while evoking the “sleeping history” of the frontier wars.

“These films are a testament to how audiovisual works can re-present our past in ways different to written accounts. Each of the films restores a sense of the personal and idiosyncratic to archival materials that are often depersonalised by the process of their capture – surveillance footage, evidence from crime scenes, laboratory data and news reports. The films seek new meanings from these archival materials – and we hope this is useful to understanding our present,” says Murray, a senior lecturer in screen media.

“In every case the film-makers have spent 10 years or more researching in the areas depicted in their films to meaningfully draw upon the criminal and forensic, science, surveillance and news-media documents they employ.”

The other films featured in Present Traces include Unnatural Deaths by Kate Rossmanith, about the way bereaved relatives view forensic photos associated with their loved ones’ deaths, and Slasher Patrol by Peter Doyle. Doyle’s film focuses on how his uncle, the police detective Brian Doyle, cracked the case of the “Kingsgrove Slasher” in late 1950s Sydney.

This article titled "Revealed: how Australian spies filmed Indigenous activists during the cold war" was written by Paul Daley, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 13 February 2018 05.00pm

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