Australian Workers Film Guide


The film that established Tom Zubrycki’s credentials as a notable Australian filmmaker, Waterloo charts the battle to save a traditional working class area of inner Sydney from wholesale demolition and redevelopment in the form of socially alienating high rise apartments. Told through the eyes of Margaret Barry, the film pits a grassroots resident activist group against the statist planning actions of the New South Wales Housing Commission. One of Zubrycki’s earliest films, there is a strong identification with the ordinary citizen in their struggle against tyranny and oppression, expressed through the experiences of residents on the ground. 

An area steeped in working class history, the film opens with a ballad of struggle accompanied with images of Waterloo and its residents. There is a beautiful juxtaposition between humanistic single level dwellings and impersonal high rise commission flats in other redeveloped areas. The film’s lyrical style is augmented by effective archive footage depicting the hard times of the 1890s and particularly the Great Depression, which in the wake of the Harbour Bridge construction, saw mass unemployment, poverty and homelessness. In response to eviction resistance by the Unemployed Workers Union, there is an emotive recounting of violent police raids in which activists where shot.  

Zubrycki’s trademark style is evident in the wonderful juxtaposition of opposing worlds – the honest and community-minded world of working class struggle town on one side, the rarified and detached world of privilege on the other. This is wonderfully highlighted when former Labor Party State Premier and former Governor General Sir William McKell arrive at a housing commission site in a Rolls Royce. Hilariously, speaking to camera he takes credit for creating these high rise apartments. There is a sense of working class betrayal here as previous labour movement leaders forget their roots and instead seek to enrich themselves.

This is followed by a ludicrous Housing Commission film lauding the joys of high rise living. In another scene, Queen Elizabeth inspects a high rise apartment, while Barry informs us that the occupants had their furniture momentarily replaced for the royal visit. Meanwhile, more houses are bulldozed, residents banished to far flung suburbs and lonely high rises, and working class communities are destroyed. The film ends by covering successful resident action campaigns and BLF Green Bans to save other parts of inner Sydney, culminating in a successful Save Waterloo house vigil.

Special Notes/Achievements

Produced with assistance of Australian Film Commission’s Creative Development Fund.

  • First Prize, Documentary Section, Greater Union Awards, Sydney Film Festival (Aust), 1981 [1]

[1] Zubrycki T (n.d.), “Waterloo” [flyer], viewed Jan 23, 2023 <https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5ec760ea17d41a6e9c2ba801/t/5f02e2a82535ee0273ed77f7/1594024648605/Waterloo+-+flyer.pdf>

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 45 mins 48 secs

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