'We film the facts': the Waterside Workers' Federation film unit, 1953 – 1958

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Milner, L 2000, ‘We film the facts': the Waterside Workers' Federation film unit, 1953 – 1958’, PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, NSW.


This thesis explores the history of the Waterside Workers' Federation Film Unit. Comprising three filmmakers, Norma Disher, Keith Gow and Jock Levy, this union production group operated in Sydney from 1953 to 1958. Within an environment which was generally hostile towards militant labour, it produced seventeen short films on a range of topics for the Waterside Workers' Federation and other labour and left wing organisations. To date, no comprehensive history of the work of the Unit exists. The work begins by giving a history of the Unit's operation. The second chapter explores the theoretical approaches to the topic. The Unit operated at a point of intersection of film, industry and culture, and the disciplinary areas of cinema studies, labour history and cultural studies are interrogated as to their utility in presenting a critical history of this group. The following chapter provides the context for the WWFFU, and examines the industrial, cultural and cinematic spheres of activity which existed as a background for the WWFFU's existence in Sydney from 1953 to 1958. Chapter Four undertakes a close analysis of three key films, examining how these filmmakers responded to industrial and political campaigns, and how the Unit's output related to its context. The final chapter reflects upon the provision of this history and the issues raised, including the changing nature of class in Australia, and representation within the documentary. This thesis contributes to a succession of Australian cultural histories. The localised milieux in which the Film Unit operated, its economic, political and social structures, were historically specific formations. Popular culture of the 1950s has often been positioned as predictable, but this is because a specific activist working class culture has seldom been examined. Bringing a localised working class cultural formation, such as the WWFFU, to a critical analysis is a valuable way to see beyond such positionings.