Why Anzac with Sam Neill (2015)

Why Anzac with Sam Neill is an 86-minute collaborative feature produced by Essential Media with the participation of various partner agencies, including Screen Australia, New Zealand on Air and the New Zealand Film Commission. Neill is not the first prominent actor from the ‘Tasman world’ to explore Anzac on screen, although Russell Crowe’s approach to and star role in the 2014 fictional drama, The Water Diviner, is in striking contrast. Given the alternative title Anzac: Tides of Blood for its New Zealand audience, Why Anzac is a genuine co-production. It reflects the genealogy of this key shared tradition of both countries over the course of a century although one whose “sombre” and “poignant” tone more faithfully captures a New Zealand commemorative viewpoint. Neill’s thirty-five years’ experience of life and work criss-crossing the Tasman, his long military pedigree and the void his ancestors’ military experiences created in his own life, made him an obvious choice for writer Owen Hughes to front this critical examination of Anzac’s historical trajectory.13

Historian Christina Twomey has noted the powerful influence of emotion and affect through personal stories in the reinvigoration of Anzac since the 1980s. From an educator’s standpoint, this is a problematic phenomenon as “[a]ffective response is not the same as deep historical understanding of the causes and consequences of conflict.”14 In a similar vein, the former army officer and outspoken public commentator, James Brown, has observed the frequent use of “genealogical military credentials” and the function this serves those speaking publicly on Anzac.15 Such a strategy often prevents an audience from engaging with the subject matter at anything other than an emotional level. Why Anzac does not attempt to shut out emotion as this is so central to Neill and his family’s story, particularly at the critical moment when he discovers his grandfather’s grave in a cemetery near the town of Ypres in Belgium (Fig. 13.1).

But it is precisely this personal meditation about the impact of war and absence in Neill’s own family history interwoven with a reflective and thought-provoking exploration of the Anzac legacy that lends such force to this documentary. Indeed, early on the audience is left in no doubt as to Neill’s conflicted thinking about war and Anzac: “I hate militarism, I loathe nationalism, but I honour those who served and I’m fascinated by those who fought.”16 Neill’s critical examination of the legacy also leads him to question the manipulation of Anzac by decision makers as a means of committing young service personnel to contemporary overseas wars.17

Neill’s journey begins on a windswept Otago Peninsula where he reveals the names of two relatives on a memorial, Lieutenant Frank Williams and Second Lieutenant Guy Bridgeman, both ofwhom perished during the First World War. His role is prominent both through the lens of his ancestors and through the use of personal touches that position his own life running in a parallel trajectory with the Anzac narrative and its oscillation over time. This includes the discord with his father Dermot— who served with the British Army in the Second World War—over

Sam Neill finds his ancestor’s headstone in the 2015 documentary Why Anzac. (Photo courtesy of Essential Media and Entertainment, Frame Up Films and Sam Neill.)

Fig. 13.1 Sam Neill finds his ancestor’s headstone in the 2015 documentary Why Anzac. (Photo courtesy of Essential Media and Entertainment, Frame Up Films and Sam Neill.)

Vietnam, a moment that, in his own words, posed the “greatest challenge to the certainties of Anzac.”18 Elevation of the New Zealand narrative to centre stage in this production is a useful device in prompting audiences to think beyond the trope of Anzac as uniquely Australian. We know, for instance, from former New Zealand diplomat Denis McLean’s book, The Prickly Pair: Making Nationalism in Australia and New Zealand (2003) that around fifteen years ago a “member of the Australian parliament ... surprised New Zealand officials by not knowing that the ‘NZ’ in ANZAC stood for New Zealand or that Gallipoli was a shared story.”19 This is a less significant problem on the New Zealand side where the Anzac legend has not taken on quite such epic proportions as in Australia, but the fact that Maori Television’s continuous eighteen-hour broadcast of Anzac in 2008 could include a programme titled “Putting the ‘A’ into Anzac” tells us that the shared tradition, if not forgotten, has certainly been marginalised by nationalistic readings.

One interesting technique employed by the producers recalls Neill’s role as co-writer and presenter of an influential documentary on New

Zealand film called Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey by Sam Neill as part of a British Film Institute series made in the 1990s on national cinemas.20 At selected moments we see Neill seated in a theatrette watching strategically selected films that tell us much about the changing context of society and its interpretation of war and the Anzac legend. Key examples are: Alfred Rolfe’s 1915 production designed to boost recruitment, The Hero of the Dardanelles; Lewis Milestone’s 1930 anti-war classic, All Quiet on the Western Front.; Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981), and the only New Zealand feature film made about the Gallipoli campaign, Chunuk Bair, focused on the August Offensive when soldiers from New Zealand’s Wellington Battalion briefly seized the eponymous peak located on the summit of the Sari Bair range. Chunuk Bair, made in 1992, was adapted from Maurice Shadbolt’s stage play Once on Chunuk Bair, which had its premier at Auckland’s Mercury Theatre in 1982.21 Although the best-known New Zealand artistic representations of New Zealand’s First World War experience, the impact of the play—and especially the film—on the consciousness of New Zealanders was significantly overshadowed by the success of Weir’s Gallipoli across the Tasman. Shadbolt’s play and Weir’s film also “mirror strongly divergent national preoccupations with history and culture in the 1980s.”22

Selective remembering and forgetting is a recurring theme in Why Anzac. In this context, forgetting entails a deliberate strategy with attendant consequences.23 The fact that we choose to forget so much about the Gallipoli campaign gives us a very blinkered understanding of its course and wider context: the Armenian genocide (triggered, rather than caused by, the invasion on 25 April 1915); the destruction of the Anglo-French fleet on 18 March 1915 (a day commemorated by the Turks); and, as Neill informs us, the allied destruction of Turkish memorials in 1918.24 This dearth of knowledge about the Gallipoli campaign, notwithstanding its firm grip on the national imagination, has not gone without notice. In 2011 the bipartisan National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary, appointed by the Rudd Government, produced a detailed report wherein it observed “there is a perception that there is as much information as anyone could want about Gallipoli already available— but despite this actual knowledge is poor.”25 The forgetting of people of colour in the First World War either as combatants or in a variety of other service roles away from the front line, for example, is highly significant particularly given its scale. In Race, Empire and First World

War Writing (2011), an edited anthology, Santanu Das estimates four million non-European personnel were involved on a global scale.26

At a local level the audience gains insights on Aboriginal and Maori perspectives. These are delivered by First Nations talking heads: Monty Soutar, military historian with Ngati Porou and Ngati Awa tribal associations; and John Lovett, a descendant of the five Lovett brothers, Gunditjmara men from western Victoria who all served in the First World War. The trans-Tasman context of the production introduces the viewer to radically different experiences and memory of Indigenous participation in wars. On the New Zealand side, the formation and impact of the Maori Battalion in both world wars is well embedded in the popular consciousness. Soutar stresses the idea of soldier citizenship, a strategy pursued from early in the twentieth century by the Maori political elite as a key plank in the struggle for equality of their people with Pakeha.27 In Australia, on the other hand, the much more hidden nature of Aboriginal service due to their official exclusion by government (until 1917) has made the task of recovery a complex, ongoing project. At the time of writing, the Australian War Memorial’s official figure for Indigenous enlistment in the First World War is 1,000, though this number will almost certainly be revised upwards by a significant margin. The Lovett brothers exemplify the critical point that many Indigenous men found their first experience of equality in the army only to discover on their return to the home front that it was “back to being black.” The visual metaphor of Neill seeking out the tiny bush memorial to Indigenous service tucked away on Mt Ainslie in Canberra after walking the splendid halls of the Australian War Memorial is a striking one.

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