Scheduled maintenance: requesting in the catalogue will be unavailable on Sunday 3 March between 3am and 4am AEDT. We apologise for any inconvenience.

In the movie-theatre light of the Australian War Memorial exhibition, Action! Film & War, a short documentary called Behind the Camera plays on a loop. Australian combat cinematographer Andy Taylor tells an unseen interviewer, ‘When you start your career, you have a little checklist in your mind of the things you want to do and achieve.’ Taylor appears surprised as he recounts the various dramatic events that have punctuated his working life. ‘I’ve been kidnapped, arrested by the KGB, stoned, punched, attacked, shot at,’ he says, almost as if he was crossing items off his wish list. 

Behind the Camera includes contributions from 11 Australian cinematographers who have reported from war zones. Among them is David Brill, who has covered various wars in which Australia has been involved, from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Brill says that when he is filming through the lens of his camera, he feels as if he is watching television while he is making television. At some level, he believes that nothing bad can happen to him because he is not really there. 

Other cinematographers speak of a similar sense of separation. Their equipment insulates rather than involves them. Most of the time, they don’t consider themselves to be a part of the scene, they are simply trying to fit it into a frame. 

Traditionally, cinematographers are storytellers: in Action!, they are the story. Or, at least, they are a part of it. 

Action! is an ambitious exhibition, curated by Daniel Eisenberg and Jen Selby of the AWM, which seeks to cover a lot of ground. It shows Australian cinematographers as journalists, historians, propagandists and fabulists — the divide is often not as stark as you might think. 

Each of Australia’s wars since Federation has been filmed, using successive generations of rapidly evolving equipment, examples of which are lined up for inspection at the start of the exhibition. In this peculiar context, the cameras themselves take on a martial aspect. Eisenberg says this is deliberate. 

‘The camera is very much a weapon,’ he explains. ‘What you record, what you distribute, what you show, does have power and can change how things play out. And it’s been used like that, passively or actively, over history.’ 

The exhibition, which involves several screens showing discrete presentations simultaneously (although visitors should have little difficulty hearing one over another), refers to film that has often been used by the media as footage of the Gallipoli landings in 1915. In flickering, faltering, blurry black and white, hordes of diggers pour from landing crafts under enemy fire, rushing for the hills, while all around their comrades fall wounded and dead in the sand. 

‘It’s the best bit of imagery we’ve got of men in uniform running up a beach,’ says Eisenberg. However, the beach is not Gallipoli but Tamarama, in Sydney. And the sequence is not documentary footage, it is excerpted from the hugely popular 1915 feature film, The Hero of the Dardanelles

 Private David McErlane filming the players at Beirut football ground in Lebanon in 1940. Photo by Damien Parer AWM 009382

‘That went into archives,’ says Eisenberg, ‘and, because there’s no footage of the landing, it became representative of the landing. But when it becomes replicated and replicated enough, it ends up entering the popular lexicon as the real thing.’ 

But The Hero of the Dardanelles was filmed only weeks after the events in Turkey, using AIF recruits from the army training camp at Liverpool — footage of their training is genuine. Nor was it unalloyed theatrical entertainment: it was used as a recruitment tool by the Australian Army, which toured the movie around the country to encourage young men to sign up. 

And it is far from unique in its ambiguity. ‘There’s a great shot in the Memorial’s collection of troops running into a fog,’ says Eisenberg. ‘It has a real “going-over-the-top” feel to it. That bit of footage is from a training film: the shot that comes afterwards is them walking back out. 

‘Sometimes the action is faked but all the elements are true. In some cases, it’s as close as we get to a truthful record.’ The troops in training were bound for the front. ‘I’m sure a lot of them fought and died sometime later,’ he says. 

First World War footage, in particular, tends to be staged, as it was logistically difficult to film from the trenches. ‘You can’t set up a big wooden tripod camera over the top,’ says Eisenberg. ‘For a start, a large object on a tripod, that has a lens that reflects the light, from a distance, looks like a weapon.’ Even ‘true’ documentary footage is not created in a vacuum. ‘You still choose when to roll,’ says Eisenberg, ‘when to stop filming, where to point the camera; there’s always a certain element of interpretation.’ 

In Action! the Second World War is represented by the work of men such as Frank Hurley and Damien Parer. In the First World War, Hurley was notorious for creating composite still images, and his movie work as an official photographer in the Middle East may not be a straightforward representation of events at Bardia and Tobruk, either. ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if there were sequences that were more directed than not,’ says Eisenberg. 

Parer was the official movie photographer to the 2nd AIF, and his patriotic documentary Kokoda Front Line! won Australia’s first Academy Award. He was killed in action in Palau in September 1944, one of several cinematographers featured in the exhibition who met a similar fate. Parer’s papers are held at the State Library of NSW, along with a gunmetal copy of the Oscar plaque. 

Most of the footage of fighting during the two World Wars is monochrome, heightening the feeling that mechanised destruction ought to be in black and white. In colour, it should be intolerable to watch. 

Like any other able-bodied young man, a career cinematographer might be a civilian one day and a soldier the next: a handful of conscript camera operators were posted to the Australian Army in Vietnam during the national service scheme of 1964–1972. 

A group of people in army fatigues with cameras in a desert area

Members of 1st Joint Public Affairs Unit Deployed Field Team. Lt Kris Gardiner and ABPH Paul Berry, working on the gunline at FOB Armadillo, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2008. Photo courtesy of Department of Defence, Corporal Andrew Hetherington

I have written a book on the ‘nasho’ experience, but I found there was much I didn’t know in the exhibition’s short section about nasho cinematographers, who went to the Vietnam War as publicists and propagandists. 

More familiar were the stories of war correspondents such as Neil Davis, who once travelled with the Viet Cong (and was later killed filming a coup attempt in Bangkok). Despite misleading stories spread by Australian Army officers about journalists covering the war from the balconies of their Saigon hotels, a cinematographer such as Davis would have seen more fighting — and been exposed to greater danger — than almost any digger in Vietnam. 

As the exhibition moves into more recent times, it touches on the problems faced by correspondents who cannot hope to reach Davis’ ideal of neutrality — cinematographers ‘embedded’ with the military in the Middle East, for example, whose host units both transport and protect them. However, the work of war correspondents is not the only film to come back home from Afghanistan. 'Home movies' shot by ordinary soldiers have been common since the Vietnam War, but Australian veterans of the war in Afghanistan often kept — and shared — helmet-cam footage of house-to-house operations that make war look like a frenzied, frenetic video game. Returned servicepeople watch themselves and their mates on laptops, tablets and smartphones, the stars of their own war movies. 

I’ve been shown footage like this before, on desktop computers in veterans’ homes, and it can be dizzyingly confronting. ‘There is an immediacy,’ explains Eisenberg. ‘The camera is at eye level. Both hands are free, which means things — like a weapon — can come into shot.’ 

Just as every declared war has been filmed, most have also been dramatised too, from the Boer War, in director Bruce Beresford’s myth-making Breaker Morant, to the so-called ‘War on Terror’ in my friend Benjamin Gilmour’s ultra-low-budget Jirga

Action! displays movie props, including a sparkling dress worn in the musical The Sapphires and the traditional Afghan perahan tunban adopted by Gilmour when he filmed his drama in Afghanistan. 

Black and white photograph of man with moving picture camera and another man with a microphone

411358 Sergeant Christopher John Bellis (left), a Department of Public Relations (DPR) Cinematographer, filming in a crowded street in a village in Vietnam. Standing next to him holding a microphone is 2784120 Lieutenant David Walter Brown, also a DPR Photographer. Australian War Memorial PO3283.002

At first, it’s a bit disturbing to see artefacts from works of fiction alongside the relics of war. However, Eisenberg says the curators had always planned to include the dress from The Sapphires. ‘Being a film historian, I want to tell the historical story,’ he says. ‘But when you say to people, “We’re doing an exhibition on war and film,” almost inevitably, someone says, “Oh, like Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.” And I think it’s part of the story about how the moving image has informed how we understand conflict.’ 

But what is a ‘war film’? The definition adopted by the AWM’s exhibition seems uncommonly broad. ‘Sapphires is a musical comedy,’ says Eisenberg. ‘And, more than anything, it’s about the Stolen Generation, but a key element is also about them going to Vietnam. And people identify that as a war film.’ 

Eisenberg says the movies are positioned ‘not in competition with the archive, but in contrast’. Such juxtaposition raises complex questions. A caption beside Gilmour’s notebooks and costumes quotes the filmmaker as saying, ‘I love making the audience feel as though they’re not quite sure whether they’re watching a documentary or a drama.’ 

I call Gilmour to ask him why. He says that he believes that realism has more emotional impact, but that what he most hoped to achieve with Jirga was to ‘propose an idea to the audience about what was possible around post-conflict restorative justice — this possibility of healing a relationship between the occupiers and the enemy’. 

Therefore, he says, he was initially puzzled to be approached about being included in the exhibition. ‘I saw the film as an anti-war film that explored the negative impact of war on both civilians and combatants. You have a traumatised veteran returning to find some peace for himself, and traumatised Afghans sharing their story and their perspective with him. So I was surprised that the AWM wanted to include that, and I think it says a lot about the nuances that they’re aware of around war.’ 

The nuances in Gilmour’s working practices are rare in Australian filmmaking. While the exhibition’s captions note that Gilmour and his crew in Kandahar Province were protected from the Taliban by the Afghan National Army, Gilmour says that he later discovered that he was also being protected by the Taliban from local Daesh (ISIS) forces. 

In their different ways, Gilmour’s style of guerilla filmmaking (if that is not too tasteless a construction) and the veterans’ helmet-cam footage point to the future of combat cinematography. Big budgets and expensive equipment are no longer necessary. Today, anyone with an iPhone can make a war movie. 

While there may not be another generation of the likes of Neil Davis, David Brill or Ginny Stein — one of relatively few female correspondents in Behind the Camera — we can be sure of one thing: there will still be plenty of wars to film. 

Mark Dapin, a regular Openbook contributor, is a novelist, historian, true crime writer, journalist and screenwriter. Among his books are The Nasho’s War: Australia’s national servicemen and Vietnam (2017) and Australia’s Vietnam War: Myth vs History (2019). 

This story appears in Openbook summer 2023.