by Rod Freedman (September 2020)

As a documentary filmmaker, I’ve been interested in life stories rather than issues. I enjoy the personal details, the strivings and dreams, the peaks and troughs of lives reflected on from the cooler distance of time.

I first encountered oral history in my early twenties. Engrossed by early recordings of blues and folk musicians, I discovered the American Library of Congress recordings by Alan and John Lomax, ethnomusicologists who recorded thousands of songs by unknown musicians and often, their oral histories.

A strong influence was Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression. I was enthralled by the first hand accounts, the memories unfiltered by ‘objective’ interpretation or analysis. It was more fragmented than reading single author overviews of the Depression but also more engaging and authentic.

So it may not be a coincidence that my first documentaries as director/cameraman in the late ‘70s was a series I initiated at Film Australia called Unemployment Is Not Working. At a time when young unemployed were being labelled ‘dole bludgers’, my colleague Susan Varga and I recorded stories of young people looking for work. We called it a Video Dialogue Series, the idea being that politicians and public servants viewing them would get a sense of what it was like being out of work when there weren’t enough jobs for everyone. (This series was recorded on cutting edge Sony B/W ½ inch reel to reel portapaks.)

My most personal oral history experience was journeying to Lithuania in 1997 to meet my 93 year old great uncle, Chatzkel Lemchen, a linguist and lexicographer who’d survived the Russian revolution, both world wars, the Holocaust and fifty years of communism.

His memory was intact and I filmed 8 hours of his recollections, recorded over a few days in his modest home in Vilnius. His recollections and perspectives became the heart of Uncle Chatzkel, a documentary screened in over 50 film festivals worldwide.

CHATZKEL LEMCHEN: Everyone from the ghetto was told to gather in a big open square. A man from the Gestapo sat there and families in groups had to walk past him. He directed some of them to the right, some of them to the left. He was approached by a very tall cellist. The ghetto representative pleaded, “He is a very famous musician.” And Rauca, the Gestapo man who said, “Right, left, right, left”, Rauca said “We don’t need cellists”. They wanted workers.

Timing is everything. When we’d first met, he’d been ready to talk and I’d been ready to listen. Three years later, when I returned to show him the completed film, he was mentally and physically diminished. If I’d arrived then to record his story, it would have been a shadow of the original.

From 2003-2007, I was privileged to produce and direct three series of Australian Biography, 21 episodes about older, significant Australians looking back on their lives. This was exemplary practice. Working with interviewer Robin Hughes  and researcher Karinn Cheung, we recorded the subjects in their own homes over three days, ending up with 10 to 14 hours of material. By the third day, each person had become deeply engrossed in their memories, reflecting not just on the chronology of their lives but the meaning of it all.

I especially enjoy the calmer perspectives of older people, able to summarise whole slabs of their lives in a paragraph or even a line. Here’s the late Anne Deveson talking about the breakdown of her marriage to broadcaster Ellis Blain :

ANNE DEVESON: I mean, fault doesn’t really come into relationships. It’s the dynamic between two people. But I think … you know, if only I love him strong enough and long enough and well enough, it will all be better. Poor man, it will all be better. And … that’s kind of condescending as well because you have to … you have to look at that interaction between two people. And then it kind of moved into cold war and then into guerrilla war and then we left, we parted … and at that stage it was probably too late to do anything about it.’

My job with the editor was to cull the material to a TV half hour for SBS, a window to the rich material underneath. The original materials are with the NFSA. Sadly, Film Australia’s demise meant that only an incomplete website exists, but full transcripts of 49 of the 76 interviews are available here and all the programs and transcripts are available through the NFSA.

As a member of AMOHG, the Australian Media Oral History Group, I’m still engaged in recording interviews and the issues involved in documenting people’s stories, from the technical and practical to the ethical and subjective. Interviews and documentation go to the NFSA as part of their Oral History Collection.

An excellent initiative from AMOHG has been Malcolm Smith’s New Media Project, recording in mid career, practitioners in a range of ‘new’ technologies. I interviewed Seb Chan, Chief Experience Officer at the Australian Centre for Moving Image. The result is a three hour journey from Seb dismantling his first Commodore 64 computer to cutting edge changes in visitor interface experiences at Sydney’s Power House Museum and groundbreaking innovations at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.

SEBASTIAN CHAN: It was a boutique museum, small visitation. Your average age of visitor just before it closed was a woman who lived within two miles of the building who is over 55. Three years later after it reopened … it was now a 27 year old. Everything about the new museum was about open access, open content. It was the idea that the museum was about experiences and the web was full of all the information about the things. You didn’t come to the museum for the information, you came for the experience. And you had the experience that made you interested in the information.

Most recently, I interviewed Chris Noonan, the Academy Award nominated director of Babe, amongst many other films and TV series. Chris and I were production assistants at Film Australia in the ‘70s so had a common foundation to our disparate careers. He was in the very first intake to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, going on to write and direct extensively with Kennedy Miller on TV mini-series (remember that term?) before directing international feature films.

CHRIS NOONAN: It’s the joy of it. Really, the collaboration is the joy of filmmaking. I have no great desires to be the dictator who has to think up every idea and has to coerce every member of the crew and cast to my vision. You know, I’m much more a person who’s open to ideas and wants to corral them towards a productive end.  

Recording oral histories has been rewarding on many levels. I’ve been enriched by researching participants and spending time with them.

It has given me a perspective on the extraordinary industry transformations that I’ve worked through, from 16mm and 35mm film to the ever changing iterations of tape and digital formats.

Finally, it gives me great satisfaction to know that these (hi)stories are preserved at the NFSA for future curious researchers to access. Long live oral history and long may it be preserved!

Rod Freedman

September 2020

ROD FREEDMAN is an independent director, producer and executive producer whose documentaries have won many Australian and international awards and screened in dozens of film festivals. Rod is particularly interested in stories about people and their life’s journeys.

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