Down the track

A stun­ning doc­u­men­tary de­tails the sav­agery in New Guinea dur­ing World War II, as told by sol­diers on both sides, writes Graeme Blundell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

WHAT if the Ja­panese had oc­cu­pied Aus­tralia? Would our de­feated na­tion be in­fused with Ja­panese stan­dards of po­lite­ness and busi­ness cul­ture and with a dif­fer­ent form of mys­ti­cism and ori­en­tal ac­cep­tance, sim­i­lar to the US in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Cas­tle? ( This is a trail­blaz­ing novel set in a par­ti­tioned Amer­ica in the 1960s with Nazi- run east­ern and Ja­panese- run west­ern por­tions and a no­tion­ally non- aligned buffer­zone along the Rock­ies.)

The idea of a Bat­tle for Aus­tralia is at­trac­tive, su­per­fi­cially plau­si­ble and al­most cer­tain to ap­pear as a nar­ra­tive thread in fu­ture al­ter­na­tive­his­tory sci­ence- fic­tion thrillers.

In­deed, in re­cent years myths and mis­un­der­stand­ings — lead­ing to a re­vised read­ing of his­tory — have ac­cu­mu­lated around the bat­tle for the Kokoda Track in New Guinea, where the Ja­panese ad­vance was stopped hero­ically in the Pa­cific War. The His­tory Chan­nel’s exclusive two- hour doc­u­men­tary Be­yond Kokoda ex­plores this defin­ing mo­ment in Aus­tralian mil­i­tary his­tory and at­tempts to set the record straight about this al­most pri­mor­dial bat­tle­ground.

The track was a tor­tu­ous 160km switch­back of steep as­cents and treach­er­ous drop- offs, swollen rivers, huge rocks and tan­gled roots through the Owen Stan­ley Range from Buna in the north to Port Moresby in the south.

Wa­ter poured over the for­est, the steps broke with a con­tin­ual yel­low stream flow­ing down­wards, and the few level ar­eas be­came pools and pud­dles of pu­trid mud. In the high ridges the wa­ter softly dripped day and night over the track, through a fetid for­est grotesque with moss and grow­ing phos­pho­res­cent fungi.

Aus­tralians, even­tu­ally out­num­bered five to one, fight­ing against bet­ter armed and ex­pe­ri­enced jun­gle troops, fi­nally sapped the strength of the Ja­panese, bring­ing their ad­vance to a halt, then drove them out of New Guinea.

Struc­tured around can­did in­ter­views with sad­dened Aus­tralian vet­er­ans, this be­guil­ing piece of film­mak­ing by two young di­rec­tor- pro­duc­ers, Stig Sch­nell and Shaun Gib­bons, also speaks pub­licly for the first time with still- shocked Ja­panese war­riors. With a pro­duc­tion team made up of both na­tion­al­i­ties, Be­yond Kokoda pro­vides a deeply per­sonal ac­count of the thoughts, feel­ings and ex­pe­ri­ences of those di­rectly in­volved in the aw­ful bat­tle that lasted from July 1942 to Fe­bru­ary 1943.

Of course, the film re­vives the sim­mer­ing de­bate over whether the Kokoda cam­paign was not just a decisive Aus­tralian victory but one that de­liv­ered Aus­tralia from Ja­panese en­cir­clement and pos­si­ble oc­cu­pa­tion.

But the pro­duc­ers wisely es­chew any crude na­tion­al­is­tic cliches and refuse to can­vass sim­plis­tic no­tions that the Ja­panese sup­pos­edly had for the sub­ju­ga­tion of Aus­tralia, and the de­struc­tion of our then Euro­pean civil­i­sa­tion.

‘‘ This film doesn’t at­tack the na­tional char­ac­ter; we just want to raise ques­tions about what we have been told about Kokoda,’’ Sch­nell says. ‘‘ So many books are about beat­ing Aus­tralian na­tion­al­is­tic drums, and the jin­go­ism takes us away from what re­ally hap­pened.’’

The pro­duc­ers do this by set­ting the sur­vivors’ ac­counts against the some­times flawed strate­gic de­ci­sions of key com­man­ders and politi­cians, Aus­tralian and Ja­panese, and the broader con­text of the war in the Pa­cific. The idea that there was a Bat­tle for Aus­tralia cap­tured the pop­u­lar imagination at the time, the phrase it­self as­sum­ing a grow­ing sig­nif­i­cance in the ways Aus­tralians now re­mem­ber World War II. Though few his­to­ri­ans com­pletely en­dorse the idea, thou­sands of Aus­tralians have em­braced it as an in­spir­ing na­tional nar­ra­tive, some­times vil­i­fy­ing the scep­tics and doubters.

But Sch­nell says he and Gib­bons wanted to strate­gi­cally pin­point the cor­ro­sive and in­creas­ingly per­va­sive Kokoda myths, not only the no­tion that the Ja­panese were poised to sweep into Aus­tralia but also the feel- good mythol­ogy of the so- called ‘‘ fuzzy- wuzzy angels’’, who helped trans­port Aus­tralian wounded.

‘‘ No one has told us be­fore that they were prin­ci­pally in­den­tured labour, slaves re­ally,’’ Sch­nell says.

‘‘ We even had in­ter­views with lo­cals who were on the other side and loved the Ja­panese.’’

What is re­ally ex­traor­di­nary is that this

fas­ci­nat­ing and stylish doc­u­men­tary was made by two young guys with lit­tle tele­vi­sion ex­pe­ri­ence.

Five years ago the pro­duc­ers, now both 32, formed a TV pro­duc­tion com­pany called SGSS Pro­duc­tions; Sch­nell, a for­mer pro­fes­sional sol­dier, some­what re­luc­tantly.

They de­cided ini­tially to pro­duce a com­pan­ion DVD to ac­com­pany mil­i­tary his­to­rian Clive Baker’s book Kokoda Trek , a trav­el­ogue on the his­tory of the fa­mous Kokoda Track.

They quickly moved the project into a full- scale his­tor­i­cal doc­u­men­tary when they re­alised, af­ter in­ter­view­ing their first Aus­tralian mil­i­tary vet­eran, the com­pelling na­ture of his ac­count of the war in New Guinea.

‘‘ We had noth­ing, re­ally, no skill, no ex­pe­ri­ence and no back­ground,’’ says Sch­nell, still as­ton­ished that af­ter all th­ese years, and $ 250,000 of their own cash and many knock- backs, their doc­u­men­tary is about to go to air. We had never used cam­eras be­fore, though Shaun was a Fox­tel ed­i­tor and had an eye for things.’’

In this doc­u­men­tary, the vet­er­ans from both sides sadly dis­tin­guish the Kokoda ex­pe­ri­ence as a cam­paign of ex­cep­tional sav­agery. Few pris­on­ers were taken; most were shot. War con­ven­tions were rou­tinely flouted by both sides. The troops were re­duced to a pri­mal level, such were the in­hu­man con­di­tions in which the bat­tle was waged and the im­pos­si­ble ex­pec­ta­tions made on sol­diers of both sides at the front line. Bombs, mor­tars, scream­ing, yelling, swear­ing, bay­o­nets; you name it, it was there,’’ says the dap­per sergeant Joe Daw­son, one of the most ar­tic­u­late sub­jects, a strong man who wears com­pas­sion for his en­emy eas­ily on a tired face. ‘‘ It was a shock­ing state of af­fairs; the fel­lows were go­ing down like flies.’’

The young pro­duc­ers quickly dis­cov­ered they pos­sessed won­der­ful se­quences of vet­er­ans talk­ing about their ex­pe­ri­ences but no vis­ual over­lay, as much orig­i­nal footage of the bat­tle had been de­stroyed by army cen­sors.

So they had to stage their own re- en­act­ments, which took place in stages across sev­eral years, Sch­nell req­ui­si­tion­ing many of his old army bud­dies. ‘‘ We were af­ter a raw style, vis­ceral, as if from the point of view of a com­bat cam­era­man ac­tu­ally in the trenches, chas­ing through the mud and un­der the ex­plo­sions.’’

The use of th­ese graph­i­cally shot reen­act­ments, mainly close- ups of men pulling trig­gers, bar­rels stream­ing lead, and seem­ingly im­pen­e­tra­ble jun­gle veg­e­ta­tion steam­ing around prone war­riors hurl­ing grenades, give a sober­ing sense of ac­tu­al­ity: the vi­sions, night­mares and hal­lu­ci­na­tions of ter­ri­ble hand- to- hand war.

Th­ese are in­ter­spersed with mo­ments of si­lence, the sol­diers of both sides prone in the mud and rain; the ab­sence of ex­cite­ment, fright or any emo­tion at all on their faces sur­re­ally po­etic and fright­en­ing. Th­ese were so real I had no idea that they were al­most am­a­teur re- cre­ations, staged by in­ex­pe­ri­enced direc­tors.

They are so im­me­di­ate, in fact, I was re­minded of the way Stephen Crane wrote of the way bat­tle scenes some­times seem weirdly the­atri­cal, staged and ethe­re­ally ar­ti­fi­cial. ‘‘ Scenes of in­tense gloom, blind­ing light­ning, with a cloaked devil or as­sas­sin or other ap­pro­pri­ate char­ac­ter mut­ter­ing deeply amid the aw­ful roll of the thun­der­drums,’’ Crane wrote. ‘‘ It was the­atric be­yond words: one felt like a leaf in this boom­ing chaos, this pro­longed tragedy of the night.’’

Avoids na­tion­al­is­tic cliches: Be­yond Kokoda at­tempts to set the his­tor­i­cal record straight us­ing in­ter­views with vet­er­ans of the bat­tle for New Guinea

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.