“Check this”, he said, handing me a ratty file with a few hundred photocopied pages in it. A warm Saturday afternoon, an anonymous suburban backyard five years ago. We’d been plotting the takeover of the world, the next film project, political revolt. The usual. I opened the file and nothing happened. No particular sense, bureaucracy, possibly a government department, formal syntax and my mate’s name mentioned on every page. Height, eye colour, parents’ names, then – hello? A terrorist plot, gelignite, and on the top of the page – ASIO – top secret.
“What is this?” “It’s my ASIO file.” “You’re kidding.” “Narr a mate of mine discovered you can get these things once they’re thirty years old. They come out every year just like Cabinet papers – they just don’t advertise it.” I read on. There were flight details, hotel room numbers, meetings attended and what happened, précis of phone conversations, hilarious suppositions that everything related to a communist plot for world domination. “Mate when I write my memoirs this is going to be so useful. I owe ASIO a big one for recording all this. I was so stoned in the seventies I can’t remember half of it.”
Suddenly the file was riveting, Vietnam, black power, feminism, the counter culture and revolting students. Pages turned, the sixties came back to life and became the seventies. Whitlam’s Labour Government arrives and ASIO’s Coalition bosses of 23 years are thrown out. Now there’s a Government made up of politicians ASIO has been spying on. I turn the pages more quickly to see what happens next. And then in December 1976 it just stops. Thirty years ago. At the back of the file there was a pile of photographs. Surveillance pictures taken of my mate by ASIO. All hair, bad fashion and skinny. A great laugh.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote a story called The Descent Into The Maelstrom. It’s the story of a sailor whose boat is caught on what started as the gentle turning of the tide and over hours is gradually and inexorably drawn into the maw of a gigantic maelstrom. I didn’t know it five years ago but the tide had turned for me and I was about to descend into the maelstrom.
Months pass and in the desperation of the search for a film project I realised that I’d seen one and not noticed it. What if I got a number of people and presented them with their files and asked them to explain the contents to us. Choose the people correctly and you’ll get a cross-section of Melbourne/Sydney, old/young, communists and non-communists. It was the easiest sell I’ve ever made to a TV station. Secret intelligence files. The story of how history really happened. People love it. It’s secret, salacious, and threatening – they can’t get enough of it.
Next thing I know I’m in the reading room of the National Archives of Australia (NAA) checking ASIO files. Look through the NAA database, see who’s got files that are available and request them. Before you know it you’re in a YouTube world where a name mentioned in one person’s file leads you onto to a second person and then a third. You start out reading feminist Anne Summers’ file and eight hours later you’re reading Nazi Ross May’s and staff are asking you to pack up as it’s closing time. The banality of the files is mind-blowing and yet you pass through the boredom and start to get to know the people in question. You start to experience their lives through someone else’s eyes. A someone who neither likes nor trusts the Person Of Interest.
And then the strangest thing happens. You start to hear a voice. It’s off in the distance and you can’t make out what it’s saying but gradually it draws near and it speaks to you clearly. It’s the voice of the files – the voice of ASIO itself. It’s a dark narration of a person’s life, suspicion of everything they do and interpretation of all their actions as proof of guilt. Guilty of charges that remain unstated. If hagiographies are fanciful praise of a person these are the opposite. These are dark biographies ascribing malice aforethought to everything they do.
In the course of research we start to check what’s available in terms of photographic records. It’s a gold mine. There are thousands of photographs and we discover a spectacular trove of movie film that no one’s ever seen before. For a filmmaker it’s lifeblood. I’m not one for historical recreation in documentaries and now I don’t need it. I’ve got the real thing. Images of events, of organisations, of targeted people.
What’s the purpose of surveillance? ASIO’s first intention is to positively identify a person of interest. A photo team will be sent to record a good likeness. This is shown to volunteer agents/informers who are attending meetings and befriending the POI and then reporting back to their agent handler in ASIO. What’s needed is a concrete identification that everyone agrees on. This photo becomes the master and is placed on the ID book. So if there’s any doubt about an observation in the future this is the picture that they refer to. The second purpose of surveillance is to make connections. To connect one person with another suspect or place. In this way a network of connections starts to build a grand picture of who knows who.
Surveillance secretly records an image of someone so that the recorder can have advantage over the subject. Sometimes it’s political, sometimes social, but the very essence of surveillance is the secret theft of the image. It’s this secret element that adds a thrill for the viewer. There’s an element of voyeurism especially as one gets to know the person of interest without them ever knowing you. Many of the ASIO officers we met in the course of our production still knew the personal details, addresses, parents’ names and ASIO file numbers of their targets decades after they’d last seen them. Everyone says, “is it like that film The Lives Of Others?” Yes it’s exactly like that film.
Sometimes the films and stills feel like a Warhol movie where ASIO records a doorway, the entrance to Communist Party HQ, for twelve hours. It’s so boring that it becomes mesmerising as you watch the comings and goings and the only thing that really changes is the angle of the shadows. The door stays the same but everyone who passes through it looks suspicious. That’s the Communist Party HQ – they must be suspicious. If this is intelligence surveillance then they must all be spies. A man exits, looks left, looks right, flicks his cigarette into the gutter and walks off. He’s suss. That woman carrying a parcel hurrying in to the doorway she’s suss. By being recorded they are suspect. Sometimes ASIO records a soundtrack on the film of an officer who says the name and Communist Party branch of which the person of interest is a member. Every now and then the camera photographs a clock. Now it’s 10.56, now 12.08. It’s like High Noon, time passing as recorded by an amateur. I asked an officer what they would do with these little gems. “They show them to staff every Monday. Over and over so that when you pass that person in the street you will know who they are.” Identify, connect – that’s what it’s all about.
There are four types of photographic surveillance. There are photographs taken by ASIO agents who are known to the person of interest. These are extraordinarily disconcerting because they are the sorts of intimate photos that you would see in a family album. Teenagers clowning, kids up close playing, groups posing for someone they know, someone who is deceiving them and passing these moments on to ASIO. The second sort is taken by an ASIO photographer not hiding themselves but openly taking photos in public. At demos, public meetings and gatherings they are photography enthusiasts. There are always hobbyists taking photos of mass events. I used to do it myself. Up close pictures of protesters passing a street corner, the crowd slowly moving from right to left, the photographic sequence replicating cinema. The third type is the most popular. This is long lens stuff. Set up an observation post and sit down for the long haul.
Surveillance guys are called ‘dogs’ by regular officers. As one said to me, ‘You’ve got to have a very high boredom threshold if you’re going to be a dog. Sitting in cars for hours, watching a window, waiting for someone to exit takes a special kind of person. Because surveillance is expensive and much sought after by other officers Dogs can afford to be quite prickly characters – especially industrially.’ They are always kept in offices separate from the rest of the ASIO staff in case they are ever set on another ASIO officer who is suspected of having turned. So this world of surveillance is one unto itself.
ASIO maintains good relations with employers especially the bigger ones. In the old days communists would be sacked once ASIO had had a quiet word with the boss. In other cases a request would be made for an observation post to be established in the company’s building. In Melbourne, a room at the Windsor Hotel was made available to record protests outside Parliament House across the road. Across Swanston Street from the City Square was another regular spot. In Sydney, buildings opposite the Town Hall were used while further down George Street opposite the BWIU headquarters where many Communist groups used meeting rooms thousands of photos were taken from the offices of Hoyts.
The last way in which photographs were taken was in what the old guys called a ‘butterbox’. This was a camera concealed inside another object like a briefcase. These were often used in public places where a photographer pointing a lens at the subject would raise suspicion. Most of the examples I have seen were taken in the customs or waiting area of airports. These often create cinematic sequences when a number of frames were exposed over a short period. There’s a sequence of Ted Hill, a member of the Communist Party central committee who split to create a Maoist-inspired group, in attendance with Norm Gallagher of the Victorian Builders Labourers Federation passing through customs at Mascot. Particularly disturbing are butterbox photographs where the enclosing object fools the subject – the suspect person – who looks right at the lens but doesn’t see it. This can produce photos in which the person of interest seems to be looking straight at the viewer.
Having trawled the ASIO archive we’ve now got films and still photographs of people and places in some cases over a period of thirty years. Very often the camera position is the same and whilst the background stays pretty much the same the subjects change as ASIO unwittingly records the social history of political dissent in Australia. They record May Day marches in Melbourne and Sydney every year. They recorded the entrance to the communist party and the BWIU for years. Put the records in chronological order and what you see is not the great Communist plots so much as braces going out of fashion, skirts getting shorter, the ubiquity of smoking. Feminism arrives, youth culture appears in the 60s, along with the issues that were perceived as a threat to Australia – anti-apartheid, Aboriginal land rights, equality for women, public education, anti-Vietnam War, wages and conditions for working people, the peace movement, anti-nuclear groups.
Many of these threats have moved from the edges of society, not just to the centre but have been so integrated into our culture that a younger generation needs careful explanation of how they could be seen to be a threat to our country. But ASIO, as the Commonwealth bureaucracy that it was and is, faithfully recorded its targets for posterity never understanding what they had – a unique record of Australian social history. To that end in the late 1990s in consultation with the National Archives of Australia in an act of criminal stupidity ASIO was advised that because its film records were no longer of security interest they could be projected one last time and copied using an amateur VHS video camera, then destroyed. So some of the films we have are the shadows of what they once were but in them are the ghosts of the secret history, still attending meetings, still walking through doorways, still inhabiting the dream world of stolen images.
It’s easy to sit and look at these movies and photographs and become entranced by the way the lights falls in dusty Market Street or on children playing with a dog outside a doorway under observation. Some of the material strikes me like de Chirico’s haunting surrealist landscapes, but what should not be forgotten is that these were the identifications used to have Persons Of Interest sacked from jobs, careers destroyed, lives turned upside down by an intelligence agency that gradually ran out of control in the late 1960s. An aesthetic divorced from the political consequences can never be what these images, at times mysterious, beautiful and tense, are solely about.
Having spent five years working on my Persons Of Interest documentary series, I know the pictures and movies so well that walking up a city street someone else’s life flashes before my eyes. I know that doorway, that corner, that bit of footpath. It’s the door, corner, footpath they shot forty years ago now made concrete. I can see spectral persons of interest passing through columns of dusty light, passing through me as I stand trying to focus. My eyes look up to windows where ‘dogs’ sat quietly recording their targets and sense the secret history that lives quietly in our streets.
Haydn Keenan has been making films since 1968. He is the youngest ever winner of the Australian Film Institute Award for best film. Heavily involved in the rebirth of the Australian film industry in the 1970s, his films have been landmarks and skid-marks of cinema ever since.