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Issue #1483      1 December 2010

Culture & Life

Indonesia Calling

Joris Ivens was already a renowned left-wing documentary film-maker when he came to Australia in 1945. A Communist and anti-fascist, he had made Spanish Earth with Ernest Hemingway in defence of Republican Spain. His The 400 Million celebrated China’s struggle (ultimately victorious) against both Japanese and Western imperialism.

A still from Indonesia Calling.

In the euphoria and uplifted hopes of the victory over Nazi Germany of the war-time anti-fascist alliance, Ivens was appointed by the Dutch government to the position of Film Commissioner for the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia). His brief was to make films about the liberation of the region from the Japanese and then to make follow-up films about the region achieving independence.

Capitalism, however, had no intention of letting such a populous, resource-rich area as Indonesia gain independence except on its own terms. The achievements and stated goals of the Chinese and Soviet Red Armies had sparked an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial up-swell from Europe to Africa, Asia and South America.

Imperialism’s puppet Chiang Kai-Chek was in retreat in China while attempts to reinstall colonial regimes in South-East Asia were being met with armed resistance – against the British in Malaya and against the USA in the Philippines. Ho Chi Minh was leading the people of Indo China in opposing the return of the French and in Indonesia Dr Soekarno unilaterally declared his nation’s independence from the Netherlands.

The reaction of the Netherlands government was the same as that of the other imperialist governments: they resorted to military intervention. Or, to put it another way, they did as they always had: they went to war.

The imperialist governments were acutely aware that their people had just celebrated the end of the world war and were not keen on seeing another one start. So the British and the Dutch insisted on calling their wars of neo-colonial re-conquest in Malaya and Indonesia not wars but “police actions”. Imperialism persisted with this euphemism after 1945 for virtually all conflicts up to and including the Korean War.

Australian maritime unions had strong links to the Indian and Chinese seamen’s unions that covered the men who crewed the ships carrying “medical supplies” from Australia to the Netherlands East Indies. They soon learned that the supposed medical supplies were in fact munitions for the Dutch “police action”.

The Australian maritime unions declared the Dutch ships black. The capitalist press was solid in its support for the Dutch colonialists, but the labour movement was just as solid in its support for the Indonesian people’s struggle for independence.

Joris Ivens resigned as film commissioner for the Netherlands’ East Indies. Even before his resignation took effect he was busy making a film about the Australian waterfront solidarity actions for Indonesia.

His new film was called Indonesia Calling, from the call-sign of the independence broadcasts from the Indonesian anti-colonialists. A number of Communist Party members and supporters worked on the film, some officially, some otherwise. Actress and radio-playwright Katie Duncan wrote the script, and Leonard Teal narrated it.

My former colleague, Edmund Allison, an actor/regisseur and scenery builder with New Theatre, joined the production crew whenever he could get leave from the Air Force. As soon as he was demobbed, he was taken on board full time, becoming production manager.

Eddie told me later, that at this time when Ivens was nominally still under contract to the Netherlands East Indies administration, he had to direct the film from “around the corner”, so that he would not be seen to be there.

A year after Indonesia Calling was finished , Eddie directed his own documentary Coal Dust, about the struggle of the NSW South Coast miners against government inaction over the dangers of “dusting” to the lungs of coalminers. That film’s script was also by Katie Duncan.

Several left-wingers from the British film industry also became involved in Ivens’ production. Harry Watt was out here directing his feature film The Overlanders. He insisted on being allowed to shoot a sequence.

Another leftie from the British documentary scene, Stanley Hawes, had just been appointed to head up the Department of Information’s film unit, that would before too long become the Commonwealth Film Unit. Hawes was very aware that his political reputation from England had followed him and that his position as a public servant made him vulnerable, so he proceeded with extreme caution.

Nevertheless, he did assist the production of Indonesia Calling – under the lap and off the record – with the loan of equipment, facilities and even personnel.

Stanley Hawes, like Ivens, knew when he arrived that he already featured in intelligence dossiers in London and Washington (and in Ivens’ case also in The Hague). Everyone else who worked on the film, if they did not already have a Police Special Branch file, quickly acquired one with the newly formed Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), although in those days it was known simply as “Security”.

That a Labor government would authorise the keeping of dossiers on everyone who worked on a film about trade union support for the struggle against colonialism in our region says much about the true attitude of social democracy towards the working class movement.

After the film was finished, Ivens left Australia to work on his next project, filming the development of the new socialist countries in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Indonesia Calling was banned for export on the grounds that it was hostile to a friendly country (The Netherlands).

Jim Healy, the national secretary of the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF), announced that he was taking a copy of the film with him to a conference in New Zealand. Faced with the prospect of the total disruption of the waterfront, the government caved in. Cabinet decided on a face-saving formula (lifting the ban for other, more innocuous, reasons).

The WWF, which had played a major part in the union action, had nevertheless declined to contribute any money to the production of the film. Once it was finished, however, and had become something of a cause célèbre, they became justifiably proud of its depiction of their role in the dispute.

A few years later, and partially under the influence of the success of Ivens’ film, the WWF set up its own film unit.  

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