A u s t r a l i a n    H u m a n i t i e s
R e v i e w

Cutting ordinary: An ABC True Story

Jennifer Rutherford

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into parts I & II


The question that I kept asking myself, as the film was being made, was how to create a text that wouldn't fall into a repetition of this discursive and critical failure. What was so extraordinary about the story that the editor Kit Guyatt and I were capturing on camera was not only that this duality was held in frame -- the goodness of ordinary Australian people and their rampant aggression to others  -- but that this same group of people, in kicking down, were experiencing suddenly what it is like to be kicked. People who joined One Nation thinking Hanson would re-stabilise their social world, restore moral codes and re-integrate and re-unify the nation found themselves suddenly in that category of people outside their imagined community. The very people who had sought to establish One Nation through banishing foreign elements became themselves the detritus of the One Nation community. Here in essence was the logic of totalitarianism. As Lefort points out, the logic of purging is inherent to the totalitarian fantasy of a harmonious community.  In totalitarianism, individuals are incorporated into the space of the collectivity and any independent or divergent thought becomes a target for purging. The need to continuously reaffirm group identity sets in train the logic of purging, and enemies proliferate, the enemy providing the image of the group.8 In One Nation, 'white ants' such as Colene, joined the original enemies -- migrants, refugees, the press, intellectuals -- as Ettridge urged branch members: 'look for these people in your branches, hunt them out and report them to head office'.

As the film evolved, Colene in her new structural position as dissident and white ant began to take on mythical dimensions. Transplanting Hanson as the pretender, she emerged as the Australian battler. As she says of Hanson: 'I think she's got very used to a lot of people a la salaaming' and I come in and say G'day, how are ya?' and I mean G'day' and how are ya?''. She was a figure that was going to call forth enormous identification and national jouissance, a figure that a white Australian audience would claim as its own as she made her painful journey into recognition of what she was participating in. My fear was always that Colene would have too much éclat and incite too much identification, particularly in those last moments of the film when her battered face is so beautifully poignant as she speaks of how much the One Nation odyssey has cost her. Those moments scared me -- they were invitations to an identification -- but as Kit Guyatt and I reasoned, in the long months of cutting, what mattered was the way we used the cut to cut identification. The way we jumped from identification to recoil, because the truth of all our characters was that they both invited identification and subjective recoil. This was the point of the film. But then it came to the last weeks of cutting. Enter Film Australia and the ABC.

By 2001 I'd been working on the film for four years without any wages at all. I'd spent a lot of my own money and I was cash-strapped and exhausted. The producer and particularly the editor and camera operator, Kit Guyatt, had been working for two years with minimal wages with all of us trying to hold down other jobs. When Film Australia offered to inject a very large sum of money into the film -- an offer backed by a pre-sale with the ABC -- it was not the kind of offer one would turn down. There were misgivings. I was warned they would have ultimate editorial control, but in discussions Film Australia's executive producer assured me, 'We're not going to walk over you', and we were in the last stages of post-production with a rough cut just a few minutes over length. What I didn't have was a discussion with the commissioning editor of the ABC. I was told she didn't talk to directors only producers, so negotiations with the ABC went on behind closed doors.

What I did know was that a deal had been struck in which funding was conditional on me giving up the first person narration. Discussion of the rough cut had focused first of all on my presence. There was something about my voice that rubbed and it had to go. It was hard to tell the story of the film without me in it, because so many of the key sequences relied on the intimacy that had developed between Colene and I, and on my presence, to make sense of the dramatic action. But I had to go. A first person, it was decided, wasn't going to work, and without a first person my presence was superfluous to the story. I didn't like it but I agreed to it. I could see how a third person narration could still make the central points that had to be made, although the loss of the first person meant losing a lot of the subtlety of the film's conception.

Anxiety is recognised in psychoanalysis as the one emotion that doesn't lie, and I think the anxiety caused by my presence in the film and in affinity with Colene testifies to the centrality of a discursive camouflage. One of the essential functions of my presence in the film had been to tie an urban audience into an encounter with Colene and thus to cut the discursive camouflage so frequently deployed in the media's representations of One Nation, in which One Nation members were structurally positioned as primitive relics of an old Australia, separate from the real community of modern, urbane and tolerant Australians. The truth is that with a few privileged exceptions, the values and moral codes of One Nation are overly familiar to all white Australians. We hear them, if not at our parents' table then at our uncles' or our grandparents' table, or out of the mouths of our friends or the friends of our friends. There was something very confronting about simply having me there and having my presence as the support both of a critical narration and at the same time embodying an intimate relationship with a One Nation member. Losing me meant losing this stitching device that held different constituencies in rapport and in dialogue.

The film had been conceived as an attempt to find a dialogic and representational possibility beyond the easy polarities of the media, and to open up a representational space that held the audience in an encounter with their affinity and belonging to white Australia's uncomfortable history. In the final film the barely glimpsed presence that asks questions and elicits answers is situated by the narration simply as 'the media'. There is no longer any third possibility.  In the dinner dance sequence, the narration explicitly situates the invisible interlocutor as aggressive media with the words: 'But media attacks on One Nation have fuelled suspicion and anger' -- words used to introduce and explain One Nation MP Jack Paff's violent attack on the invisible subject behind the camera. I have become the media. A device that makes sense given the third person narration but that also ultimately closes the possibility of a kind of encounter irreducible to the polarities of them and us that the media had perpetuated.  The irony, of course, is that the film set out to question these polarities, so an invisible colonisation has occurred simply through the move from first to third person.

The function of the narration had been conceived as a third voice outside that of Colene and Pauline's. It was an unapologetically intelligent voice that provided a critical commentary on what was going on. It wasn't critical in an academic sense. It was a poetic voice but it made points, stood outside the drama, and cut identification with the characters at key moments. I set about writing a third person narration that I hoped would achieve the same effect, a narration that allowed the film to be what I had set out to make: an anti-fascist film that explored how a totalitarian party had gained popular support in Australia, and that explored the logic of the ideology of One -- of One Nation, One Party and One People. It was this idea that had been enforced within One Nation. As Lefort argues in his analysis of totalitarianism, the logic of one involves relentless policing of all divergent views. One cannot tolerate two, and Colene and her supporters had found themselves in the position of two -- hunted down as white ants and enemies of the party. The original narration made this point and anchored the drama unfolding on the screen within the broader frame of Australia's history of intolerance of the idea of two.

Once I was edited from the film, however, the discussion focused on particular kinds of sentence. The first one to go was a sentence I loved. Initially there was a long shot of me driving into Ipswich with the voice-over: 'Ipswich was like my own home town. An industrial has-been left off the list of the invitation-only global party'. I showed it to Colene and she laughed. 'That's right,' she said, 'nobody asked us to the party.' But the sentence was deemed too complex in structure to be understood by ordinary people. And then there were all the references to globalisation. 'Do you think people know what that word means?' I was asked.'Yes,' I said, 'I've just recorded one hundred hours of footage of them talking about it'. But globalisation had to go. It was too complex to get into the story. One by one, sentences and ideas were hunted out, until at last it became clear that the only function the narration would be allowed was the imparting of information. The narration was to help the story along and nothing more. As Film Australia's executive producer explained, 'This is just journalism. Pure journalism'.

I'll give you an example of the kind of transformation the narration underwent. The following are three versions of the sequence of me driving into Ipswich, which initially introduced the audience to Ipswich and the narrator.

The first draft:

'So I packed my bags and headed for Ipswich. I didn't know much about holding a camera but that was OK. In One Nation being an amateur was what it was all about. And Ipswich was like my own home town. An industrial has-been left off the list of the invitation only global party. Or as Pauline would say, Ipswich was a has-been that's a wannabe that never can be. But back then she was telling them that they could be. And it was only Us -- the academics, the politicians, the pointy heads and cappuccino-drinking chardonnay socialists -- that stood in their way.'

I rewrote this in the third person and in response to the no doubt correct criticism that the initial narration was too wordy:

'In Ipswich they said: She speaks the truth that the politicians and pointy heads in the city won't hear'. The truth of what had happened to them -- of how globalisation's mad dance had danced the town right off its feet.'

But in the last days of cutting the film: Film Australia hired a narrator who came up with this, their preferred version:

'Ipswich, once a prosperous industrial centre, is now a welfare town. Over the past 20 years its mines have shut down, its industry moved offshore and unemployment risen to over 10%.'

In the interests of telling a good story that 'ordinary people' can understand, a certain view of ordinariness has been mobilised in which ordinary Australians can't understand concepts about their economic reality, or metaphors which aren't readily grasped as clichés, or language that involves any poetic quality. This construction of the film's audience betrays a great uneasiness and ignorance of the florid poetic language one finds in Australia outside the cities and of the long tradition of political dialogue in Australian homes. This kind of uneasiness initially fuelled the media's attempts to negate Hanson's influence by simply depicting her constituents as rednecks. These rednecks, for whom the film was now being made, had to be protected from ideas too complex for them to grasp, and in this context my voice -- a voice of critique -- was deemed elitist.

In making the film I had the German film Profession: Neo-Nazi9 in mind -- another film about the far right in which the director had come under extreme fire because of his failure to create a third position between his audience and the neo-nazis on screen. To me a third position was absolutely essential, but the funding bodies insisted that such a voice would interrupt the telling of the story, its drama. Because I kept remonstrating, in the final week a new narrator,  whom I wasn't allowed to meet, and who in one day produced the journalistic voice you hear on the film, was brought in.

Now one of the things that is interesting about this voice is that it ties the audience securely to Colene. In the interests of telling the story, the audience is brought back again and again to an identification with Colene. We meet her first up with the words: 'In 1998, another Ipswich woman, Colene Hughes, was about to enter politics' -- so that the unfolding story becomes a drama about Colene. Our next identificatory tag is: 'Colene has a fight on her hands. Her opponent, Bob Gibbs, has been a Labor MP for 22 years.'  And the narration proceeds in this vein, tying the audience into Colene's story as she emerges as a champion of democracy within One Nation. At the end of the film we feel empathy for a woman who has emerged as a very traditionally drawn heroine. By then, Colene fits into a long seme of Australian battlers who have stood up against authority and hierarchy for what they believe is fair, democratic and morally right. She has become an iconic Australian heroine, providing a way for an Australian audience to effect a narrative retrieval of the ordinary Australians who rallied to Pauline Hanson's cause.

But it wasn't until the final days of the cut that I realised there had never been any intention on the part of the ABC to create a critical/political documentary. In the second last week, I finally got to meet the commissioning editor from the ABC, the one who didn't meet directors, only producers. I only met her once, and on that occasion I discovered what my film was about. 'This isn't a story about One Nation,' she said. 'This isn't a political film. This isn't pro-One Nation or anti-One Nation. This is a story about one woman. This is Colene's story.' Again a remonstration on my part, and I was told: 'I don't like your attitude, and I suggest you change it or remove yourself from the project.' So the final week of editing in what had been for me a four year project ended with me directed to keep out of the editing suite, and in that week the film transformed into one woman's story.

Now you don't have to make big changes to completely transform the meaning of a text. What I would say about the film now is simply that it's not true. Despite being billed by the ABC as a true story, it's not a true text. It doesn't provide us with the truth of our characters, and in lieu of this truth it creates a heroine that we are able to identify with in historically given ways. The film has moved full circle. From a film that began as a critique of the Australian mythos of ordinariness, it ends as a celebration of an Aussie battler. The title has loses its irony and becomes an appeal to those very virtues whose aggressivity I had set out to critique. It tells a story about Hansonism in which an Australian audience is invited to enjoy traditionally given Australian characteristics such as defiance of authority and plain speech. What Film Australia kept stressing was that the film had to be open text and that it had to tell its story in an unfettered way -- but telling this story involved editing out the unpalatable details that make the Australian story so difficult for us all to inhabit.

In conclusion, I would like to discuss what happened to the film after cutting. The film was originally to screen during the 2001 federal election campaign, but at the last minute someone high up in the ABC pulled it, the justification being that it was too controversial to show during the election campaign and that other political parties might want equal air time. So already at that point the ABC recognised that the film was open to the interpretation of being pro-One Nation. And how right they were. I have a letter of congratulation from the head of One Nation praising me for the film. He correctly interpreted the film as critical of the triumvirate but as essentially open to the One Nation cause.

Long after Hanson resigned and One Nation had become a spent political force, the film finally went to air as a true story, with a heavy promotional campaign that focused on Colene. One of the extraordinary aspects of this story is that the media in its interviews and articles about the film interviewed not the director, but Colene. Film Australia said the media want to talk to 'the talent'. Now it is inconceivable that in any other country in the world a film could be made about the far right and the subjects of that film be treated by the national public broadcaster as 'the talent'. And yet how redolently this speaks of Australia's incapacity to come to terms with its own history and the reverberations of that history in the present. Celebrity replaces analysis. National jouissancereplaces critique and the audience gets a feel-good film.  In one of the publicity blurbs, the film was described as being about Colene Hughes, 'dynamic One Nation candidate, and her whirl-wind adventures'. As Colene said, 'They've done to me what they did to Pauline. This wasn't about me, it was about One Nation and how they became like Hitler.' And in true Colene style, she said,'They souffléd it. That's what they did. They souffléd it.'

Return to part I of "Cutting Ordinary: an ABC True Story"

Jennifer Rutherford is a U2000 Research Fellow in the Department of English, University of Sydney. She has recently published The Gauche Intruder: Freud, Lacan and the White Australian fantasy (M.U.P) and directed the documentary Ordinary People (a Film Australian National Interest Project) She is currently writing a book on One Nation: Extimacy: An Intimate dialogue with the Australian far-right (forthcoming M.U.P). The Caroline Chisolm lecture is part of her forthcoming monograph Cutting Ordinary: An ABC True Story.

  References (part II)
8 See Lefort, C. The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism(Cambridge University Press, 1986.
9 Bonengel, W. Profession: Neo-Nazi

Return to part I of "Cutting Ordinary: an ABC True Story"

In Australian Humanities Review, see also