DIVING FOR HISTORY
When the quest for HMAS Sydney was launched, there was no guarantee that the remains of the ship would be found. The search, writes Victoria Laurie, was quite an adventure in itself
THE fatigue in documentary producer Andrew Ogilvie’s voice is almost palpable as he describes the exhausting job of chasing a story whose ending was unknown almost until the final hour. Since his company Electric Pictures signed up with Film Australia last October to make a documentary about the hunt for HMAS Sydney, he has grappled with two scenarios. If the search team, led by British shipwreck hunter David Mearns, found the ill- fated fighting ship and solved a 66- year- old mystery, well and good. But what if they didn’t? The filmmakers would still need to come up with 52 minutes’ worth of credible — and watchable — television. And in either eventuality, there was an imperative to tell the story in a way that considered the feelings of relatives of the 645 crewmen who died in November 1941.
‘‘ In 20 years of making TV, it’s been one of the most challenging projects I’ve been involved in,’’ Ogilvie admits. ‘‘ Now it’s the time factor, working around the clock with three editors and two directors.’’
With only days to go before the airing of The Hunt for HMAS Sydney on the ABC next Tuesday, the crucial final images of the submerged Sydney were still being captured by a remote camera lowered 2500m below the surface. Meanwhile, the company’s Fremantlebased editing suites have operated 24 hours a day since the shipwreck was located about 10am on March 16. The momentous find came only 13 days after the search team had left the midwest port of Geraldton on their 60m search vessel SV Geosounder. It was a mere two days after Mearns’s team had located the seabed hulk of HSK Kormoran, the German raider that engaged the Sydney in the wartime clash that led to the sinking of both ships.
The Hunt for HMAS Sydney covers two dramatic events: the disappearance of the Royal Australian Navy’s most powerful fighting ship and the hunt that solved the mystery.
‘‘ We started preparing what we call the back story straight away, finding people with connections to the ship, then stories about when their men went to sea and didn’t come back,’’ Ogilvie says. ‘‘ We traced the history of the two ships and the battle itself, and we’ve made a detailed reconstruction of the battle using computer animation, which is a first. The difficulty has been how controversial this topic is, more than any I’ve worked on. There are so many conspiracy theories, some of which we acknowledge and talk about. One is that the surviving Germans didn’t tell the truth about what happened, but so far everything they claimed stacks up: the ships are more or less where they said they were.’’
As two cyclones hindered the Geosounder’s search and its return to record last- minute undersea footage, the film crew on board worked strenuously to send images back to shore.
‘‘ The discovery ship has been operating beyond the safe capabilities of the local fishing fleets, so we couldn’t use them ( to ferry digital film ashore) and had to use satellite to transmit the footage,’’ Ogilvie says.
Fifty hours of live footage was transmitted from the ship, adding to hundreds more hours of film shot on land. For five weeks, a cameraman, director and sound recordist stayed on the ship. A camera was fixed in the ship’s operations room to film nonstop, ‘‘ but our camera crew was up and about at critical times’’, Ogilvie says.
Luckily, the film crew was present to capture the excitement each time telltale blips appeared on the ship’s radar screen, first when the