Thursday 20 October 2022

Rod Bishop concludes his report on the production of a documentary in Papua New Guinea - MATAUNGAN (7) - THE ASIO FILES

Editor's Note: At the foot of this post are links to the six previous entries on Film Alert 101 devoted to THE MATAUNGAN FILM

The Story so far:

In January 1971, a film crew from La Trobe University went to Rabaul, Papua New Guinea to shoot a documentary on the Mataungan Association: a grass-roots Tolai movement seeking both self-determination and the return of land taken from them by German and Australian plantation owners. 

The crew had been hastily assembled, needing to be in PNG for the trial of 13 Tolais charged with the murder of the District Commissioner Jack Emanuel.

The crew were led by the La Trobe academic Heinz Schütte and consisted of Peter Beilby, Chris O’Nial and Rod Bishop. At the end of the shoot, in late February 1972, the footage and equipment were divided between Bishop and the cinematographer O’Nial for the return to Melbourne. 

The film crew never saw Chris O’Nial again. 

He disappeared, taking a substantial amount of exposed Mataungan footage, a 16mm Beaulieu camera and the proceeds of the sale of the truck used by the crew. Back in Melbourne, Schütte contacted O’Nial’s mother: “indeed she was quite off-putting, if not hostile” and decidedly evasive about her son’s whereabouts. 

The remaining footage was edited, but too much was missing and a coherent documentary could not be made. The only surviving copy of this 40-minute, unfinished double-head version of Mataungan was telecined by Rod Bishop in the late 1970s. 

Sometime during the 1980s, and without the knowledge of any of the members of the film crew, the former La Trobe academic, David Jones had all the extant materials of the film stored at La Trobe University sent to him in Pennsylvania. He claims to have destroyed them years later in “an office clean-out”.

40 Years Later

Lisa Hilli came looking for the double-head of Mataungan on behalf of A Bit Na Ta (2017), a museum installation of Tolai history, being put together by artist director David Bridie and others. The two photos below are from A Bit Na Ta. The lower photo is by Gideon Kakabin.

A young French researcher, Solenne Couppe, then requested a copy of the Mataungan double-head for the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. He asked if he could help locate the missing cameraman and perhaps uncover the fate of the missing footage. 

Schütte, Couppe and Bishop decided to request ASIO files for the crew and also for the late David Jones, the La Trobe academic who had been listed as part of the original film project, but was replaced by Rod Bishop before the shoot.

ASIO will not release the names of ASIO employees, ASIO informers or anything that reveals ASIO operations. Such material is redacted before the files are released or simply not released as all. 

“Smoking gun” information was not expected, but it was thought the released files might contain other indications of malfeasance by the Australian security services.

The ASIO Files

The files for the members of the Mataungan crew were eventually released, although sections were redacted and some pages withheld entirely. The released material is now accessible as “open access” through the National Archives of Australia website.


Rod Bishop ASIO file

The first to be released, it consisted of four surveillance photographs of Bishop departing Jacksons Airport in Rabaul in February 1972 and a further two of Bishop during a Mataungan Association march.

Rod Bishop (r) at Jacksons Airport, Port Moresby, 1972,
(Ph: ASIO file)

An accompanying letter said the rest of the file had been “destroyed on the 26 November 2003…as it was a testing file”. No explanation of what a “testing file” might be was forthcoming. 

It was interesting, however, to see the inconsistency of Chris O’Nial’s name on the ASIO surveillance photos. When typed it was identical to his passport name “Christopher O’Nial”, but when handwritten on the photos by the ASIO photographer, it was “Chris”.

Even more valuable was confirmation of the correct spelling of O’Nial’s last name. Most of the crew thought it might have been O’Neal or O’Nile or O’Neill. The photo below identifies and marks an Unknown person, Rod Bishop, Peter Beilby, Chris O'Nial and  Heinz Schutte (partly hidden at rear).

Finding Chris O’Nial

Waiting for the remaining ASIO files – they take up to 12 months to be processed – and with the correct spelling of O’Nial’s name, Bishop and Couppe took to social media in search of the missing cameraman, and perhaps the stolen footage. 

On a blogspot called “rbsailing”, Bishop located a photograph of O’Nial sailing in competition in Mikrolimano, Greece in 1982. O’Nial’s name also cropped up in a few European yachting magazines as a Greece-based naval architect and sailor. Luckily, O’Nial is not a common name and Couppe’s further Facebook searches located O’Nial’s now adult son and daughter.

Couppe contacted the daughter in France and, in turn, she put him in contact with her brother. They were brought up in Greece, their father died in 1999 and their mother had died “ten years ago”. They knew nothing of their father’s past in Australia, knowing him only as a naval architect and sailor in Greece.

David Jones ASIO file

ASIO had no file. 

Heinz Schütte ASIO file

His first file consists of 180 pages of written surveillance material, including surveillance photos at Jacksons Airport in Port Moresby. The second file consists of surveillance photos of Schütte during the Mataungan Association march. The photo below is the best ASIO picture of Heinz. It was taken surreptitiously at Port Moresby's Jacksons Airport.

There are blacked-out redactions throughout and some pages were not released.

Schütte’s 180-page file contains a plethora of surveillance material of the academic in Papua New Guinea and in Australia.

The following comments relate only to the material surrounding the Mataungan film shoot.

A ‘reliable, delicately place source’.

Several times, the documents make direct reference to a source or sources: “Information from a reliable, though delicately placed source” (page 26); “a delicate and reliable source” (page 35); and “a delicately placed source” (page 40), pointing to someone or some persons Schütte, and perhaps the crew, knew. At one point “the delicate source” is able to access the unionist and activist Max Ogden’s diary and bank account details while he was in PNG.

John Kaputin in the Schütte file

Many Tolais had input into the film shoot, some were given ‘familiarization’ training with the film gear and the balance between the politics of the Mataungan Association and various aspects of Tolai culture was discussed at length.

Several leading figures in the Mataungan Association also provided advice to the film crew, but they are only mentioned in passing in this ASIO file. One such MA leader is John Kaputin, later Sir John Kaputin, Minister for Finance and Foreign Minister in the PNG government. In Schütte’s file, the only mention of this important figure in PNG politics relates to Kaputin’s “intimate activities”.

ASIO: [Name withheld by this writer] was born 11 March 1952 arrived in Port Moresby from Cairns…[She] came to notice in Rabaul on 1 February 1972 when she was reported to have attended a social function with John KAPUTIN and members of Heinrich Wilhelm SCHUTTE’s film team. KAPUTIN and [she] were reported to have “retired to a bedroom for intimate activity probably for the remainder of the night”.

ASIO: [Name withheld by this writer, but not the person mentioned above] had been reported to have been engaged in an intimate relationship with John KAPUTIN in Rabaul while [the film crew were] absent filming Mataungan Association activities.”

The first report of “intimate activity”, suggests the information may have come from a member of the crew, or those engaged in the aforesaid “intimate activity”. The second “intimate activity”, suggests that information came from someone else.

John Kaputin

The Mataungan film in the Schütte File

In Schütte’s ASIO file, it’s clear the intelligence “heat” was on the film project from the very beginning. Pages 144, 145 and 152 suggest ASIO had the film on its radar even before filming started. 

Those ASIO documents include copies of a funding submission to the Myer Foundation in November 1971 that lists the crew as Schütte, Beilby, David Jones (later replaced by Bishop) and Chris O’Nial. 

ASIO was still chasing the film in October 1972 (pages 45, 46).

On page 118, ASIO reports a conversation from [name withheld by this writer] in which she stated: “following a request from Dr Heinz SCHÜTTE…she had ‘smuggled’ the half-completed film back to Australia”.

Surviving members of the film crew have no recollection of this. There was never any thought the footage needed to be “smuggled” back to Australia. 

(The  ASIO photo below shows the film crew - Peter Beilby (sound), Chris O'Nial (camera) and Heinz Schutte - filming a Mataungan march 

The ‘Return to Rabaul’ in the Schütte file

Correspondence and phone calls between the ASIO Director-General and the ASIO Regional Directors in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Papua New Guinea show concern over the film crew planning to return to Rabaul in August 1972.

This intelligence information appears to have started with the ASIO Regional Director in PNG.

No such “return to Rabaul” ever occurred, and on page 52, what looks like a telex from ASIO Sydney to ASIO Headquarters states they can find no evidence of travel to PNG in August 1972 by those in the film crew.

Chris O’Nial in the Schütte file

Numerous documents suggest ASIO had trouble establishing the identities of the crew - apart from Schütte. There are references to one crew member called “Chris” and one called “Peter”. 

Bishop seems to have been the most elusive of all, probably because he was the last to join the crew and ASIO’s information didn’t include him in the crew up until, and maybe after, December 1971. They don’t seem to know of his involvement until he arrived in Rabaul.

It does seem ASIO gets it all together with the names and short biographies for Bishop, Beilby and O’Nial after the crew has left Rabaul. 

Rod Bishop with camera, Mataungan March Rabaul
(Ph: ASIO file)

One of these 'biographies' is worth considerable attention:

On page 101, an ASIO document states:“CHRIS” is identical with Christopher John O’NIAL, born in Australia 3rdJuly 1945. O’NIAL entered P.N.G on the 13thJanuary 1972. He left Rabaul on the 21stFebruary 1972 and intended to visit WEWAK, LAE and KIETA before travelling to HONIARA, B.S.I.P and the New Hebrides. He plans to return to Melbourne before the 16thMarch 1972 and to visit P.N.G again after spending about eight weeks in Melbourne…”

Written on 8thMarch 1972, how did ASIO have so much more information about O’Nial’s travel movements than anyone on the film crew? No-one on the crew ever saw him again after Rabaul.

The dates for O’Nial’s return to Melbourne, length of stay in Melbourne and plans to return to PNG could only have come directly from Chris O’Nial or perhaps, someone ASIO-related who had spoken with O’Nial.

Taking valuable items of film equipment, cash and a substantial amount of original Mataungan negative with him, O’Nial relocated to Greece where he lived for the rest of his life. He died in 1999. 

Chris O’Nial ASIO file

There are two ASIO files. One is 22 pages of documents and the other is surveillance photographs in Rabaul. 

Among the background briefing letters on O’Nial are his previous conviction records, including car theft, stealing license plates and being sent by the Court to the Alexander Clinic in Melbourne for treatment.

On page 17 there is a letter from the Director of Intelligence ASIO to the Regional Director ASIO in PNG, dated 29thJune 1972, briefing the PNG office on Chris O’Nial. 

This letter is also worth considerable attention.

There are three points listed in the letter. The first two points are completely redacted. The third asks PNG to inform Headquarters if they know of O’Nial’s “whereabouts”. 

The redacted sections (example below from the ASIO files) are 75% of the letter. As previously stated, reasons for redactions in released files include the names of ASIO employees, ASIO informants and ASIO operations.

Chris O’Nial and the production funding of Mataungan

Researcher Solenne Couppe reminded us of the five-page article “MATAUNGAN A Film on ‘Development’ and the Tolai People in Niugini”written by Bishop, Schütte and D.B.Jones [Dave Jones] for the highly respected USA journal Cineaste.

The publication date is mid-1972, during the editing period of Mataungan and before the film was abandoned. In this article the authors write: 

“The crew member providing the most initiative in getting the money raised was the cameraman…who had organizationally done more than most members of the crew to get the project financially underway…It turned out the cameraman was most unsuited for a project of this sort…besides the disappointing camerawork…the unsuitability we suspected the cameraman of was not merely of insufficient competence but also of character. We suspected him of dishonesty and – alas – our suspicions proved justified. He was not only a liar but a thief”.

Although no surviving members of the crew remember O’Nial bringing production funds to the project - this all happened 50 years ago - the Cineaste article was written only months after the shoot and cannot be ignored. 

Presumably, the article was factually checked by the three members of the crew who wrote it. Another person, not associated with the shoot, but who knew all members of the crew - except O’Nial - recollects the cameraman bringing production finance to the project and thinking at the time “he was buying his way in”.

Unlike the ASIO files used in this article, there is little factual material available to retrace the production funding arrangements. We do know $4,000 came the Experimental Film and Television Fund administered by the Australian Film Institute, but where the remaining $7,000 came from has been lost in time and memory.

It does raise an interesting issue, first raised by Solenne Couppe: why would a crew member help arrange for production funding, then steal a significant amount of the exposed footage and make the film unfinishable? 

Other questions that remain:

Why is there such heavy redaction in the letter from ASIO’s Director of Intelligence providing background information to ASIO in PNG about Chris O’Nial? What has ASIO redacted here?

How did ASIO know so much more about O’Nial’s intentions to travel throughout PNG, the New Hebrides and The Solomons after he left Rabaul? No-one on the crew knew this.

Who told ASIO that O’Nial planned “to return to Melbourne before 16thMarch 1972 and visit P.N.G again after spending about eight weeks in Melbourne?” This information was also never shared with the rest of the crew.

After stealing a significant portion of the original negative and cutting off all communication with other members of the crew, what motivated O’Nial to relocate to Greece and start a new life?



You can find  the earlier posts by clicking on these links Mataungan (1)Mataungan (2)Mataungan (3), Mataungan (4)   Mataungan (5)  and Mataungan (6) 

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