‘ ALL of my previous films revolve around what happened to Australia in the 70s; I was a teenager then and my aperture was wide open, and that’s when Australia was at its most confident and flamboyant,’’ says filmmaker Paul Clarke of his ambitious new political documentary series Whitlam: The Power & the Passion. ‘‘ I wanted to tell the Whitlam story as a grand passion: how we fell for this enigmatic stranger to Australian politics; how the country changed with him and how we came to blame him for everything that went wrong.’’
Clarke is a highly successful creator of documentary TV, unknown to the public but among the most resourceful and innovative filmmakers we have. His style is subjective and empathetic. It’s all about making our social history relatable, taking irreverent approaches to material the past presents, and Clarke always looks for passion and humour in what he discovers.
Then he underscores it with music, developing narrative sequences and giving each a song to convey the mood. The title of his two-part series is taken from the Midnight Oil song — ‘‘ Oh the power and the passion/ Oh the temper of the time’’ — and there are also songs by the Easybeats, Bryan Ferry, Ed Kuepper and Stevie Wright. The witty soundtrack by Kyls Burtland establishes context and a sense of place effortlessly. Few filmmakers appreciate so readily as Clarke that the tone of a film, its level of abstraction, is set as much by sound as by pictures. Clarke calls it ‘‘ playing music upon the collective memory’’.
After his other telling pieces of cultural anthropology — Bombora: The Story of Australian Surfing, Australian rock series Long Way to the Top and Wide Open Road, his story of the Aussie car — Clarke knows how to make TV history work. It surely is the ideal medium for presenting what British historian Simon Schama calls ‘‘ the business of representing something that’s no longer there’’. There’s no better means, surely, to find ways to persuade us to suspend our disbelief, to spend a while imagining, to paraphrase Schama, ‘‘ we are indeed in a world akin to dreams or memories, a fugitive universe’’.
And Clarke’s Gough Whitlam is almost a dream figure, hubris personified and larger than life (‘‘he stood out like a pelican in a murder of crows’’). And, when he fell, he created a fault line in our history that still divides us. Clarke says in his production notes that after the November 1975 fall from grace, his father, until then a Labor man, vowed never to vote for the party again and didn’t. And a bloke who lived a few doors down from his family carved ‘‘ Sack Kerr’’ in huge letters into his front garden with a square-mouth shovel. I’m sure he never forgot, or forgave, either.
‘‘ In describing the series and asking for people to participate on talkback radio last year, I was surprised by the emotion his name still engenders,’’ Clarke says. ‘‘ Neil Mitchell on 3AW asked me, ‘ Why would we want to see a program about the worst prime minister in Australian history?’ ’’
So Clarke and his producer Penny Robins, along with executive producer Mark Hamlyn, set out to capture the times with what Hamlyn calls ‘‘ a counter-intuitive portrait to what might be expected’’, and something so lateral — this is certainly no conventional bio-pic — that they hoped it might break open the political discourse. (Clarke describes it as ‘‘ hard-boiled journos and tough axe-grinders from the Left or Right banging heads’’.)
He and his other producers take pleasure in avoiding the expected, the serious and the worthy way political stories are often delivered on TV. Whitlam is at the centre — ‘‘ his character and his story always in our viewfinder’’, as Robins says — but the documentary tells the wider social story, too. Pinned to political markers is an encompassing narrative of one of our most turbulent eras. As Andrew Denton says, when we became conscious of Whitlam, ‘‘ it was like a Technicolor person had walked out of a black-and-white movie’’.
With brilliantly sourced archival and homemovie footage, cleverly integrated talking heads and a thumping soundtrack, Clarke wittily gives us what he calls a story that reads like Shakespeare in safari suits. Or ‘‘ Orpheus, in a bogan underworld, illuminating the suburbs with his song of change’’. Clarke is as accomplished in narrative journalism as he is at filmmaking, able to take complex ideas and give them life on the screen. He works with a kind of stream-of-consciousness approach, in which one image or thought evokes another, propelling us along the quixotic Whitlam journey with a kaleidoscopic sense of narrative that’s quite exhilarating.
There are 46 on-camera interviews with people who worked with or were touched by Whitlam, superbly photographed by John Biggins and Frank Flick using what Clarke calls ‘‘ a close-up-and-personal style’’. They include John Howard, Bob Carr, Graham Freudenberg, Bill Hayden, Bob Hawke, Mungo MacCallum, George Negus, Barry Jones, Ian Sinclair, Jean Kittson and Max Gillies. They hold little back, the Liberals interviewed on the whole more decent to Whitlam than those from the Labor side, though Howard rather bitterly, almost sneeringly, disavows any notion of a mythology. It’s a pity.
The first episode deals with the way the outsider Whitlam had to fight to dominate the Labor Party and eventually become prime minister, his only free ride coming when he was adopted as a hero by the counterculture. The second chapter takes us through the ‘‘ crash-through-or-crash’’ way he implemented sweeping changes at breakneck speed (‘‘policy by tantrum’’, according to Kim Beazley).
And then, as Phillip Adams says of the prime minister he once admired, ‘‘ He drove the government over the cliff.’’
Colourfully and sometimes quite poetically — Clarke has a fine turn of phrase — the first chapter sets the changing context of Australia. Whitlam, intelligent, fluent and imaginative, emerges from an Irish-Catholic Labor culture dominated by men who look ‘‘ like a gallery of William Dobell portraits’’. Things slowly began to change about 1966, the year patriarchal prime minister Robert Menzies finally retired and when opposition to the Vietnam War — to
Gough Whitlam, pictured in the documentary opening Labor’s 1972 election campaign, provoked strong passions