Friday, 17 March 2017

La Trobe University turns 50 (2) - Film-maker Rod Bishop recalls 1970, The Army Medical, BEGINNINGS, the Waterdale Road Massacre.

Editor's Note. This is the second post sent in by Rod Bishop which recalls the early days of La Trobe University in Melbourne. The posts are drawn from notes for a speech given by Rod at an event celebrating the University's 50th anniversary. The first post can be found if you click here. Rod became a prominent critic, writer and educator. He was the Director of the Australian Film Television and Radio School from 1996 to 2003.  Now read on....

By 1970 there were estimated to be more than 1,500 draft resisters and conscientious objectors. I’ve never seen a figure for the numbers who ended up in jail, but I seem to remember the conscientious objectors were among the first targeted. La Trobe student Scott Murray, with whom I am still good friends, was a conscientious objector and was asked in court: “what would you do if a negro was attacking your mother?”

The government even jailed women from the Save Our Sons organization. Their crime: distributing anti-conscription pamphlets on government property.

From Student Protest, Barry York’s history of La Trobe: “In September 1970, the Department of Labour and National Service began its ‘law and order’ drive by issuing 50 summonses against carefully selected non-compliers. Four La Trobe students – Ian MacDonald, Shane Breen, David Loh and Rod Bishop – were victims, receiving notices to attend medical examinations”.

Two former editors of Rabelais in that group. I can’t remember who provided all the help – the Draft Resisters Union, Youth Campaign Against Conscription or someone else – but their intelligence was exemplary. They were able to accurately inform draft resisters and conscientious objectors of the hours of the day when they were most vulnerable to be picked up. That meant going to a safe house before returning to campus. The information had to be coming from someone inside the Department of Labour and National Service and/or the police.

Arlo Guthrie (l), Alice's Restaurant
Eventually, we were offered “the Alice’s Restaurant option”. In Arthur Penn’s film from 1969, Arlo Guthrie attends his medical for the draft and through a variety of measures disrupts the process as much as possible. The tactic in Australia was based on draft resisters clogging up the medicals. If you ticked every box for every medical condition you were asked about, the doctor had to write down your case history (which you made up on the spot) for every single condition. It would take more than an hour, maybe two and disrupt the entire process. You ran the risk of being prosecuted for giving false information, but the advice coming back was the doctors would declare you medically unfit and move on to more co-operative conscripts.

My medical was held opposite the Hawthorn Football Ground in Glenferrie. Quite odd, as I am a lifelong Hawthorn supporter. Even stranger, my doctor was to be Doc Ferguson, the immediate past-President of the Club. In the waiting room (in our jocks), the bloke sitting opposite me looked exactly like Arlo Guthrie and had a National Liberation Front badge pinned over his crown jewels. The clipboard we were given contained dozens and dozens of medical conditions – TB, polio, VD, asthma, cancer, diabetes – the list went on and on. I ticked them all and watched “Arlo Guthrie” tick all his. He went in before me and didn’t come out for more than an hour and a half.
Review by Demos Krouskos (click to enlarge)
By that stage, I was the only one left in the waiting room and Doc Ferguson emerged saying “What are you doing here?” “I’m next in line” I replied. “I suppose you’ve got a lot wrong with you as well?” he said. “Yes”, I replied “in fact I’ve got all…” “Just get out of here” he said. I never heard from the Department of Labour and National Service again, except for one letter informing me my medical history made me unsuitable for the army.

Alice’s Restaurant was not universally liked. In fact, the flippant hippie/yippie humour was despised by some. See the review above from La Trobe student radical and one-time Cinema Papers editor Demos Krouskos in the national student newspaper National U.

Beginnings premiere screening
(L-R) Gordon Glenn, Rod Bishop, Scott Murray,
Andrew Pecze (front)
In the months before these shenanigans, with Scott Murray, Andrew Pecze and former student Gordon Glenn we set about making the 50-minute student protest film Beginnings. None of us had made a film before, but Gordon had experience as a camera assistant on Homicide and Hunter at Crawford Productions. Scott’s father John was a filmmaker, helping us with contacts including Phillip Adams who lent us his Steenbeck to edit the film at his advertising agency Moynihan Dayman and Adams.

We set out to film the aftermath of the first student occupation of La Trobe’s Administration Building, prompted by charges being laid against a handful of students who ran two Defense Department officials off the campus and damaged their Mercedes-Benz. We used Phillip Taylor’s excellent photographs of the occupation and raised the production finance from clubs and societies at La Trobe and NUAUS (the National Union of Australian University Students). Once the charges against the students were dismissed, we decided to follow the principal La Trobe students through the coming July 3 and July 4 demonstrations in Melbourne’s CBD - Fitzroy Gardens, Bourke Street, Flinders Street Station and St Kilda Road. The film was shot in nine days.

(L-R) Peter Beilby, Keith Robertson, Scott Murray,
Gordon Glenn, Rod Bishop
Our great advantage was being known and trusted by all the La Trobe players. Demos Krouskos happily demonstrated how to make a Molotov cocktail, Martin Munz knew exactly how to pitch his two monologues (from one ten-minute take) and the La Trobe demonstrators allowed Gordon into the middle of marches where he shot dynamic footage. Most television stations were content to shoot from the pavements or take high angles from tops of buildings.

Beginnings was an instant success at La Trobe, at universities around the country and at anti-War and peace rallies. It was strident, righteous and in-your-face. The power of the montages of the marches with its combined effect of image, editing and song is remarkable. I’ve not seen anything to equal it since.

We were in a cocoon, however, helped out by everyone from Phillip Adams to the Maoists and the bomb-throwers, but we quickly wised up when the ABC stole the film. Having granted ABC-TV a one-off screening of excerpts for a Cyril Pearl program, we were amazed to see our footage turning up in other ABC programs. Seems Beginnings (or at least our demonstration footage) had been filed with other ABC demonstration footage and nobody in that venerable institution could tell their footage from ours. We quickly learnt about intellectual property and footage sales and the makers of Beginnings have been literally dining out on the proceeds ever since.   

1970 Badge
September 1970 and Beginnings premiered at La Trobe; the Department of Labour and National Service targeted me with a summons; and The Waterdale Road Massacres took place. The first occurred on 11 September when 70 students intending to march down Waterdale to Ivanhoe to hand out anti-War pamphlets were beaten with batons by police in a clearly premediated ambush. Undaunted, 400 students marched on 16 September, were beaten up again and chased back on to campus. Nineteen students were arrested. Barry York quotes C.D. Starrs, the Post-Graduate representative on the La Trobe University Council at the time, who describes what happened when the marchers were driven back to the campus: “Students were now scattering farther into the campus…armed police leapt out of cars and chased students, bashing any they could; some policemen, unable to catch the students, drew their guns and threatened to shoot. At least one student was arrested at gunpoint. This student was threatened with being shot so that the policeman could make an arrest for the heinous crime of ‘offensive behaviour’ “.

Only four months before this, at Kent State University in Ohio, the National Guard fired 67 rounds into an anti-Vietnam demonstration murdering four students and wounding nine, one of whom was permanently paralyzed. How close did we come?

No event politicized the general student body like this one. "In tutorials, I gazed in wonder at
students I had known all year, who had never uttered a political remark, let alone anything controversial, who I'd seen among the 800 that turned out to march in defiance down Waterdale Road on 23 September. These students were now proudly wearing "You Can't Beat La Trobe" badges. In that final march, perhaps deterred by the adverse press publicity, the massive police presence was benign"

This event in La Trobe’s history may have been almost forgotten, but the organizers of the 50th Year Celebrations produced a great memento of The Waterdale Road Massacre – handed out to all those attending the celebrations on 5 March this year.

These events are celebrated in the small printed bookmark published below (back and front).

The editor of this blog summed it all up: "the little suburban campus that turned red"

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