The producer behind the award-winning WWI documentary is struggling to secure an adequate print to remaster.
Andrew Colley

18 Nov 2013 - 5:18 PM  UPDATED 18 Nov 2013 - 5:18 PM

The camera's focus tightens on the digger's face as he responds to the question: “Did you shoot them all?”

Strikingly, it's one of the extremely rare occasions the makers of Mutiny on the Western Front allows the inclusion of any voice aside from those of its subjects.

“Yes,” he responds, confronted but apparently surprised anyone would ask. “I should say something,” the digger says pausing briefly then continuing seemingly unable to help himself, “I don't think I will, but there was one chap…” he searches for words again, “I had to pump five of 'em into him before he (sic) dead. Every time he sang I gave him another one 'cause that's how I felt. It wasn't me, it was the revenge or payment – putting down a payment for my brother, which I only had one of.”

The response is as jarring as it is unsettling. Its delivery in a broad Australian strine challenges our beloved, self-perceived national character as a pack of larrikins that would much prefer to see our fellow humans subversively filled with beer than bullets.

However, as an account of the 119 Australian soldiers jailed by the British Military for desertion in 1918 (they later received a royal pardon), the film's producer Brian Morris says that gritty and honest first-hand accounts like this are what made the film.

Even though it was Morris's first attempt at producing a doco, with writer and director Dick Dennison on board Mutiny on the Western Front won not only international acclaim in local and international press but also a Gold Logie and a UN media peace prize. It also pioneered a documentary style that let stories unfold organically through the mouths of witnesses with only the sparsest of narration and editorial glue.

Public reaction to the film after its first airing on Channel 7 all but fried talkback radio lines. At the time, the Fraser government was considering canning the ANZAC day public holiday due to poor turnout at events. Morris says the film “did a lot of good”.

However, it is among thousands of hours worth of important Australian made film content in dire need of conservation and remastering.

With the centenary of World War I so close, Morris is trying to restore and remaster Mutiny on the Western Front but he says he's had trouble finding a copy of the film that has been kept in adequate condition for the process.

Knowing what he had on his hands, Morris took pains to make sure that he stored proofs of the film with the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA). It wouldn't be appropriate to repeat here everything Morris said to describe his feelings about what happened when he tried to retrieve it for digital mastering.

“They hadn't stored them right. It's just criminal,” Morris says.

(Ironically, the documentary itself liberally drew on World War I archive footage thought lost until Morris uncovered it.)

NFSA chief executive Michael Loebenstein is highly sympathetic to the plight of the likes of Morris. When asked whether Australia is currently at risk of losing its most important cinematic artefacts, he is emphatic.

“Yes, that's a clear and resounding yes and I'd even say it's happening at a daily pace,” Loebenstein says.

He says the situation is being driven by commercial shortcomings that have become embedded in the film industry and flaws in local archiving regulations.

Unlike important material in print and other mediums, Loebenstein says, film archiving is a relatively new discipline that started in the 1930s and it was, and has largely remained, the domain of enthusiasts and benevolent groups.

Film, he argues, has primarily come to be perceived as ephemeral matter for commercial exploitation rather than something essential to the public memory.

To make matters worse, rapid changes in media ownership are hastening the speed at which audio-visual archives are losing their respective shelters.

“It's the sector's original sin. We're still recovering from the early habit of thinking of film as a disposable asset and copyright owners in particular sometimes see more value in destroying their efforts because of their fear of piracy than actually keeping them,” he says.

The second major challenge, he says, is that successive Australian governments have not seen fit to establish a central register of official film works or to place any legal obligation on film producers to deposit copies of important works with the NFSA.

“It leaves everything in a bit of a grey area,” says Loebenstein.

Landfill is steadily replacing the grey area and it's not just films that are in danger. Morris recalls the case of a library that had been storing footage he and some colleagues collected from around Australia over two years for a 1988 bicentennial project. When a US company acquired the library its new management discarded it (where, Morris doesn't know) without hesitation.

“That was to be a snapshot of Australia in the '80s for generations to come. Then the [Americans] bought the library and tossed it all out. It's all gone,” he laments.

One the most famous and egregious examples of the calibre of films facing extinction is that of the '70s Australian classic Wake in Fright. Its DVD liner notes boast that it was painstakingly restored from the last celluloid copy of the film known to exist and, narrowly evading oblivion, that it was rescued from a rubbish dump.

Still, the NFSA has not thrown up its hands in defeat. It keeps what Loebenstein describes as a “wanted list” of films marked high-priority for recovery and restoration. It has also conducted so-called “last film searches”; projects that have seen it collect film archives from everywhere from abandoned sheds to country cinemas on their last commercial legs.

The problem, Loebenstein says, is that there is not enough awareness of the extent and importance of the film heritage at risk, and of the enormous task the NFSA has on its hands.

“There are enough filmmakers and producers that actively contribute to the archive but, again, often it's in a bad state when it arrives and it's just too much material to even consider digitising it all. That leads to a perception there is nothing there to preserve.

“If you Google it or go to iTunes or go to JB Hi-Fi, you won't find the history of Australian cinema,” he says.

For now, Loebenstein says that all he can do is watch and wait to see if the new federal government is willing to adopt a different attitude to its predecessors.

Photo Credits: Dave Snelgrove for stills with permission from Brian Morris.

EDITOR'S NOTE: After this story was published, producer Brian Morris requested to add further comment regarding his efforts to restore Mutiny on the Western Front:

Andrew Colley covered this story well and I thank him for his effort. In stories of this nature, it is difficult to include all the detail so I would like to add a couple of points. The reason that this film is so important is that it's the only film ever made which included frank and honest interviews with our WWI diggers. We took them back to the trenches on the Western Front which enabled them to recall 60-year-old memories. They were all in their 80s and in their twilight years. They wanted future generations to know what they endured to make a better future for each and every one of us. After going to great lengths to lodge copies of the 16mm film in the NFSA, I was devastated to learn that through incorrect storage, the prints contracted vinegar syndrome, which faded the colour. The original master black-and-white and colour negatives are apparently okay, but it is estimated that it would cost around $30,000 to make a digital master – a small amount compared to the human cost of that dreadful war. This film cannot ever be repeated and unless the money can be raised, a very important part of our history will be lost forever.