The legacy of a post-WWII left-wing Australian film collective is presented in the densely informative essay docu, “The Archive Project.” Written and narrated by vet Oz helmer John Hughes (who co-directs with Uri Mizrahi), pic honors Melbourne’s Realist Film Unit and surreptitiously suggests that the conservative obstacles it faced has parallels in modern Australian politics. With coin provided by government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp., docu is assured local tube play, but may also find berths at fests and sympathetic international pubcasters.
Helmer’s resume includes stylish Dion Beebe-lensed 1995 feature “What I Have Written,” and several leftist docus. Hughes counts the Realist Film Unit — which was founded in 1945 by Bob Mathews, Ken Coldicutt and Gerry Harant — among his political influences.
Proposing to show Euro and Russian films (“Grand Illusion,” “Battleship Potemkin,” etc.) to Oz auds as a counterpoint to Hollywood and Blighty product, the Communist-influenced Realists also wanted to produce their own consciousness-raising pics.
Decades later, when Mathews’ daughter discovered forgotten footage among her father’s effects, she donated it to Hughes. The newly acquired treasure trove contains mostly trims and offcuts, varying from home movies to footage of political demonstrations, but also included lost docus shot by the Realists.
To contextualize this discovery, Hughes recycles interviews with the main players from previous docus, and outlines the lives of the group’s founders from the 1930s through the Cold War difficulties of the 1950s.
Pic offers ample viewings of the group’s work. In “A Place to Live,” footage of Melbourne’s underprivileged urban districts (all fully gentrified today) unflinchingly portrays the poverty commonplace in Oz cities a few generations ago.
Hughes neatly segues to a contempo, but faithful, re-recording session as Bryan Brown and other Oz thesps re-voice “Prices and the People,” a 1948 short about inflation’s effect on the working class. Hughes briefly juxtaposes present day news footage with the 1948 film. The comparison is not mentioned again, but the pointed implication lingers on throughout pic’s remaining running time.
Using archival surveillance footage and photographs as support, narration reveals the Realists’ activities were monitored by the police and later the ASIO (Australian Security and Investigation Organization). Hughes cites “security” practices hauntingly similar to those conducted Stateside during the notorious McCarthy era.
Suspect activities included documenting the peace movement and co-establishing the forerunner to the Melbourne Film Fest.
While pic’s delving into the minutiae of Oz Cold War politics may prove too detailed for some auds, Hughes’ soothing narration over docu’s edgy cutting and Martin Friedel’s invigorating soundtrack collectively imbue the film with a hypnotic quality.
Art direction — credited as screen design and animation — by editor Mizrahi livens up talking heads. All tech credits are TV pro. While material unashamedly plays to leftist sensibilities, docu’s greatest obstacle to wider auds is its bland moniker.