Australia’s War through the Lens of Centenary Documentary: Connecting Scholarly and Popular Histories

James E. Bennett

As both a touchstone of national identity and a sacred secular religion, Anzac holds considerable allure for educators as a key point of engagement with Australian history. Deceptively simple in appearance, at its core Anzac is in fact unusually complex. As historian Anna Clark has noted recently, “[t]here’s a crashing convergence on Anzac Day of collective and personal memory, of public debate and deeply individual emotions.”1 The recent memory ‘boom’ has contributed to particular interpretations that have, at times, been sharply discordant with the understandings of scholars and teachers. Developing this argument further, Frank Bongiorno has observed a “declining toleration in public critique of Anzac” in parallel with a growing inclusiveness that shows awareness of both a multicultural and an Aboriginal Australia. He continues: “[e]ven to suggest the Anzac tradition might be analysed in the classroom, rather than merely being transmitted as a received body of lore” is to court controversy.2

The dominant popular narrative of Anzac suffuses the nation’s cultural tapestry. It privileges the Gallipoli campaign over all others in Australian history, it remembers white, male combatants, and silences the divisive home front both during the course of the war and in its aftermath.

J.E. Bennett (*)

University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW, Australia e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© The Author(s) 2017

K. Ariotti, J.E. Bennett (eds.), Australians and the First World War, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-51520-5_13

Moreover, that narrative frames the war in a largely nationalist vacuum devoid of context even on the allied side except where their minor role— notably that of incompetent British generals—is usually only significant insofar as it serves the ideology of victimhood inherent in its message. This very familiar homogenous story of Anzac largely silences the more complex, subordinated narratives—the ‘shadows’—that threaten the unity of the mythology.3 The deeply entangled nature of emotion and cognition as well as the extraordinary resilience of Anzac mythology create a challenge for the tertiary History educator if professional and ethical standards are to be observed.4 And yet approaches to Anzac should not be understood as a simple binary between scholarly and popular versions as is commonly (and misleadingly) fought out in the pages of the print media. Clark’s work, which attempts to tease out intersections between formal or scholarly history and what she terms the “everyman” historians in the wider community, points to a more complex “commemorative space” that is able to accommodate uncertainty and disagreement. For her, the commemorative process is one marked by “multiple, sometimes simultaneous, historical meanings and relationships.”5 This ambiguity—the grey areas of history and memory—can serve an important function when engaging with students whose personal or family identity induces emotional over-investment with its attendant tensions in the classroom.

Media representations of Anzac are not uncommonly shallow and simplistic; however, critical documentary has the capacity to make an important pedagogical intervention. An observable trend in teaching and learning in the humanities and social sciences is the growing use of visual media texts.6 Historian Tessa Morris-Suzuki has argued that “history education should empower people to use the varied media of twenty- first century society critically and creatively to develop their own understanding of the past.”7 This chapter will explore selected recent examples as a vehicle for promoting a more nuanced and holistic understanding of Anzac and the First World War. All three exemplars—Why Anzac with Sam Neill, Lest We Forget What? and The War that Changed Us—are part of the centenary wave of productions that went to air on ABC Television in the lead-up to the epic commemorations of the centenary of the Gallipoli invasion on 25 April 2015.8 These productions, all of them critical and reflective in their positioning, encourage viewers to examine their own personal beliefs about the monolithic legend in the context of the cataclysmic First World War. Building on recent revisionist scholarship that brings to the surface previously marginalised perspectives, they do so in innovative and engaging ways that make them a valuable complementary teaching method in an educational context.

Both an institution and a genre, documentary film has evolved in some radically different ways from its foundations in the 1920s and 1930s. An art form whose co-founders—including the influential Briton John Grierson—were all committed to making truth claims, the documentarian sought to represent the observable world in an objective way that aligned their work with discourses of factuality and sobriety. The direct relationship between image and referent, built on archival footage, was a common ontological principle that conferred inherent trustworthiness on the documentary as a visual form.9 The expository mode, presenting an argument with supporting evidence as in scholarly writing, was the favoured method for representing the sociohistorical world. It was anchored around the use of interviews with talking heads (usually eyewitnesses or experts in their field) and archival or ‘found footage,’ accompanied by voiceover narration. Many examples from twentieth-century public broadcasting illustrate this form, notably Thames Television’s landmark 1970s production, The World at War and Ken Burns’ series on PBS, The Civil War. Theorist Brian Winston has noted the breakdown of the Griersonian model over the past thirty years or more.10 The new documentary is “now more likely to be constructed around such instabilities as memory, subjectivity and uncertainty.”11 A number of factors, including the rise of new technologies and changing audience demands, have all contributed to the emergence of hybrid forms of documentary that are increasingly performative, blended, and aim at least as much to engage the interests of their audiences as instruct them. The three exemplars from the centenary wave of documentary discussed in this chapter all exemplify this shift in varying ways. They also follow television historian Simon Schama’s injunction that story is the essential thread that connects scholarly work with broader publics, and that scholarly debate must serve the story.12

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