Australian Workers Film Guide


Through the lens of four of their seminal films, filmmakers Norma Disher, Jock Levy and Keith Gow reflect on their motivations, aims and experiences while working on the Waterside Workers Film Unit. Exceptionally well made, this is an earthy and personal film that evokes a warm sense of the past through the use of historical locations and relevant artifacts and is an important historical record of the key participants in what was the world’s only trade union film unit.

The four films discussed, with excerpts, are Pensions for Veterans (1953), The Hungry Miles (1954), November Victory (1955) and Hewers of Coal (1953).

Filmed in Sydney in 1979, the film is driven by in situ interviews with the three filmmakers, both together and individually. Over a graphical polaroid photograph of the unit, Keith Gow states that “any film is propaganda of one sort or another, it always contains a point of view, a message of some sort, it can’t be otherwise”, thus establishing a key theme in the film about media representation, the modes of production and perceptions of truth. 

Flanked by Disher and Gow in a darkened theatre, Jock Levy talks about the motivations for Pensions for Veterans, as well as the importance of pensions to the trade union movement. This is followed by an interview where Levy is driving in which he explains how their films were intended for both trade unions and a wider public audience to get the workers point of view across. 

Over a sequence of Disher walking down King Street in Sydney’s Newtown and into the New Theatre, she explains her motivation for joining the film unit. She recounts how the theatre helped form her political philosophy and social conscience, followed by an enjoyment of working in groups and her previous association with Levy and Gow.

Keith Gow is seen riding his sidecar motorbike and entering Film Australia with film cans under his arm, while his voiceover states that for workers to get a better deal, radical social change was needed. Showing a book, Gow tells of how he was inspired by the Russian school of filmmaking and their enormous power of expression, filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Gow goes on to state how films made by newsreels and commercial organisations depicted workers in a certain way, in which “they were shown as a powerless rabble, influenced perhaps by a mob of red raggers …..Our intention was to show them as having the potential of tremendous power and strength”.  

Hunched over a Steenbeck editing table, Disher, Levy and Gow discuss notions of truth in filmmaking and acknowledge their working class point of view, which was influenced by their intimate knowledge of the issues and challenges of the Waterside Workers Federation. They had also been waterside workers themselves. They comment on the strong sense of realism in these films, which they attribute to the characters being actual dock workers with years of hardship etched on their faces.

According to Levy, November Victory is essentially about the union’s right to recruit labour and resist the weakening of unions. According to Disher, the answer to media bias is for workers to get out there themselves and tell people what their cause is about. Showing a photo, Disher introduces the film unit’s Kombi van used for production and screenings in factories and on the waterfront. Gow describes the projection system and explains the impossibility of showing local films in cinemas owned by US and UK companies, highlighted by a list of foreign owned cinemas.

This leads to a discussion on communism versus American imperialism, with the filmmakers articulating how the Communist Party provided the impetus and discipline that made the film unit’s work possible. Levy recounts how Prime Minister Robert Menzies sought to oust oppositional forces and create a Cold War atmosphere, stating “If you were branded a communist you were finished in your profession….There was a cultural control that the English and Americans had over this country.”

Introducing Hewers of Coal, Disher describes this as her most satisfying film, a big challenge as they had to delve into the history of the Miners Federation. Over extensive footage from the film, they outline how Gow and Levy went to work in a coal mine on the southern fields for research purposes, to understand what it felt like to be a miner underground. Levy describes how the miners were always at the forefront of the struggle for better conditions as well as politically. 

Disher laments how in Hewers of Coal they were just getting into their stride, before the film unit was disbanded. Levy explains how the film unit was possible because of the militant section of the trade union movement, they could see its propaganda value. He believes it should have been taken over by the ACTU and broadened out, becoming the mouthpiece of the whole trade union movement.  

Over footage of a modern dock in operation, a graphic highlights the precipitous drop in union membership since the 1950s due to mechanisation. The film concludes with Disher in the New Theatre as she sums up the contribution of the film unit, “What it showed clearly is that it was possible for a number of trade unions to be interested and to support and involve themselves in the use of film for the expression of their polices or their ideas.” Over footage of Disher handing out leaflets, a graphic indicates that in 1958 the Waterside Workers Federation ceased support for the unit and the ACTU did not take up the opportunity.

Special Notes/Achievements

Featured on Fighting Films DVD (2006).

  • Winner, ATOM Awards (Aust), 1982
  • Finalist, Greater Union Awards (Aust), 1982

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 42 mins 28 secs

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Film Key Cast: Jock Levy, Keith Gow, Norma Disher,

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Film Editor: John Whitteron, Chris Warner,

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