New book illuminates the history of Australian documentaries

Published 18 March 2011

dugald1A newly-published history of Australian documentary film reveals the extent to which documentaries have both reflected and influenced the evolution of Australian society.

Australian Documentary: History, Practices and Genres traces Australian documentaries from the dawn of cinema in the 1890s, through the advent and development of television, into the digital age.

Dugald Williamson, one of the book’s three authors, said that documentary film makers and producers in Australia had, on the whole, aimed at producing works of “real public interest and benefit”.

Dr Williamson (pictured here), an Associate Professor in the University of New England’s School of Arts, said that the book was the result of many years’ research and writing by him and his co-authors, Associate Professor Trish FitzSimons and Associate Professor Pat Laughren from Griffith University. “It had its origins when we taught together at Griffith University and developed a study unit on documentary production,” Dr Williamson said. “It was initially intended to be a recent history of documentary making in Australia, but it gradually developed into a full history going back to the 1890s.”

In talking about the influence of documentaries, he mentioned films such as The Back of Beyond (1954), which introduced local and international audiences to outback Australia and was seen in cinemas by more than 750,000 people across Australia in the year of its release; Rats in the Ranks (1997), which brought a new “anthropological” approach to the observation of political behaviour; and First Australians (2008), which brought a powerful Indigenous perspective on Australian history to a wide audience.

Published by Cambridge University Press, Australian Documentary draws on the authors’ interviews with dozens of documentary film makers and producers, and covers changes in the funding environment as well as historical, cultural and technological developments.

Australian Documentary was launched nationally and internationally at the Australian International Documentary Conference in Adelaide earlier this month. Its Sydney launch will be this Sunday, the 20th of March, at gleebooks – 49 Glebe Point Road. The event will begin at 3.30 pm, with the launch itself at 4 pm. To notify the bookshop of your intention to attend the launch, ring (02) 9660 2333.