The Great Strike 1917 is a new documentary film, which retells the largely forgotten story of one of Australia’s largest industrial conflicts and the fallout it had on society at the time
In August 1917, workers in the workshops at the Eveleigh Rail Yards — today known as Carriageworks — went on strike to protest the introduction of a new timecard system designed to improve productivity. Ahead of the film’s World Premiere at Antenna Documentary Film Festival, director Amanda King shares with Screen NSW what compelled her to tell this story.
How does it feel to have your documentary premiere at the Antenna Documentary Film Festival 2019?
It was wonderful and exciting news to have the film accepted into the Festival. The film tells a significant story largely unknown to Australian audiences despite its impacts at the time. It became almost inadvertently a taboo subject. Unlike the Gallipoli campaign, which has been seared into the nation's story because of the scale of loss of life, the opposite occurred.
Your documentary tells the untold story of The Great Strike of 1917 in Sydney and the fallout it had on society at the time. Why was it so important to tell this story?
The film tells the little-known story of an outpouring of solidarity among working class people for transport workers who went on strike in 1917 in Sydney. It was Australia's largest industrial dispute proportionally for the population of the time.
It was important to tell the story because it was such a major event, it was dramatic, and had received little attention except by academics, who did fine research work unravelling the events. While the unionised workforce was much larger in those times, the same kinds of pressures and challenges continue for workers today.
You use a combination of archival footage and interview material. How did you gain access to the footage?
It was largely the research conducted by academics and more recently staff at the National Film and Sound Archive and City of Sydney history unit. They brought the archival material to light, in preparation for the 100-year centenary of the event, culminating in an exhibition which was held at Carriageworks. The interviewees are drawn from that pool of academics, 1917 Strike Committee members, people who had a direct connection through family to the strike, and artists commissioned to create work for the exhibition.
How has making this documentary helped you develop as a documentary filmmaker?
This is the first documentary I have directed where the story is entirely historical. Along with my partner, cinematographer Fabio Cavadini, we evaluated where the archival footage carried the story. Of a one-hour documentary made at the time, only 16 minutes remain, along with three newsreels. The censorship and loss of so much of the original film meant we had gaps that needed filling. During the install of the centenary exhibition we began filming – including rehearsals and the work of five young artists who contributed to the exhibition. Along with some semi-abstract re-creations, they all assisted to bring a historical event to life.
Digital Designer Miriana Marusic worked brilliantly with the still photographs and news clippings, adding greatly to their impact.
We plan to use some of these techniques in a sequel documentary about a more recent industrial dispute, the 1998 Patrick Dispute, (working title), An Unlawful Conspiracy.
What do you hope the audience will learn from watching The Great Strike 1917?
We hope audiences will reflect on the cyclical nature of history. Despite having occurred over 100 years ago, the story still has great potency. The tensions and schisms between the employed and the employers reverberate to this day. It is fascinating to gain insights into how that played out a century ago. Even to this day, Government documents have still not been released about the circumstances of the events and decisions that were made during the strike.
Sunday 20 October 2019, 4pm | Dendy Newtown
Saturday 26 October 2019, 4pm | Palace Verona
Image: Still from The Great Strike 1917 made by Arthur Charles Tinsdale and renamed following its embargo by the then NSW Govt censor, Industrial Happenings In NSW.