Document Type

Conference publication

Publication details

Webb, R & Milner, L 2011, 'Labour biography on screen: the case of Freda Brown', in M Nolan (ed.), Labour history and its people: papers from the twelfth National Labour History Conference, Canberra, ACT, 15-17 September, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Canberra Branch, Canberra, ACT, pp. 191-203. ISBN: 9780909944100.

The full text is made available in the SCU repository with the kind permission of the publisher, The Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.

Peer Reviewed



The written biographies and memoirs of activists and leaders have long been core components of labour history. But biography is not only a literary genre – it is also a type of audio-visual production. The popular, and rapidly expanding, industry of screening history incorporates film and television biography, and this has been acknowledged in labour history. However, whilst scholars such as Milner, Taksa, and Brigden have analysed the representation of workers in Australian films, the interpretation and the implications of screen productions as biography, for Australian labour history, have been to date relatively unexplored.

The ways in which history and politics become visualised are the ways in which history and politics becomes a part of our lives. Thus, an important area of interest for this paper is visual citizenship, that is, the representation on screen of an individual's community, citizenship, nationality, even belonging. In their critiques of modernism, sociologists Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman accord media a central role in the maintenance of public culture. Biographies on screen are a part of public space – they are shared representations, compiling our collective memory of Australian history. Additionally, as biographies produced for the screen, they may have their own truth claims that may conflict with other histories that may convey their own particular perspectives.

Our paper analyses the 1995 episode of the documentary series Australian Biography (SBS 1992-2007) which focused on communist and women's activist Freda Brown (1919-2009). The paper discusses the historical and political process of compiling a filmic biography, and explores how this particular production deals with biography, notably with the collaborative, networking aspects of Brown’s career highlights. Conventionally, the material conveyed through this documentary might also have been delivered as oral history, or as written literature. Committing it to screen offers a visual physicality not contained within the other two media, and that physicality both expands and enhances biographical insight.

Delivering the 2000 New South Wales Premier's History Awards Address, Australian political documentary filmmaker Tom Zubrycki argued that documentary filmmakers have ‘the duty of giving a vehicle to these voices and adding their own to it. To the extent that this will continue to happen, documentary will remain a permanent feature of our cultural landscape and will continue to provide crucial insights into who we are as Australians’. Similarly for labour documentary, screen biography is not only a means of conveying labour narrative and analysis, but gives critical voice and presence to labour activists and provides insight into their place and role in the historical landscape.