John Hughes

A motorcyclist knocked down the Australian documentary maker, John Hughes, in Paris on the last day’s shoot for One Way Street, a study of the German cultural critic, Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) Compared with the fate of the semiotician Roland Barthes, killed by a Paris laundry van in 1980, Hughes was fortunate to have only one broken leg. He spent two weeks in hospital and missed the chance to interview the French philosopher Jacques Derrida about Benjamin.

Hughes began making documentaries in 1972-73 with three short films on drug abuse, kinetic art and abortion. His next production took on McCarthyism in Australia (1976) and then the film-making efforts of the trade union movement during the 1950s (1981). Experimental art-making and radical politics persist through Hughes’s output. He integrated those elements into the structure of his next two films, both large scale, Traps (1985) and All That is Solid (1988).

For several years, Hughes hoped to expand his brief video about the 11 November 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government into a full-length film. By the time he could scrape together enough money, the focus had shifted from John Kerr to Bob Hawke as the agent of US influence. Hughes went behind the media image of Hawke, as far as the laws of libel allow. The title, Traps, referred to the regular sources of journalistic information. Hughes’s questioning style and modest direction also subverted certain left-wing prejudices.

The layers of ideas and images in Traps helped secure an Innovations Grant for Hughes from the Film Commission to make All That Is Solid (1988) – a film about the future. That title is borrowed from Marshall Berman’s 1982 book on modernism. Berman in turn had taken the phrase from a passage in Marx’s Communist Manifesto about the imperative of capitalism: “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones … All that is solid melts into air”.

That film opened with an angel repeating “A storm is blowing from Paradise”, a line from Walter Benjamin. Thus, Hughes’s films form stepping stones across which we must move with care if we are not to slip into one of the traps that Hughes knows the documentary-maker as social critic cannot always avoid.

John Hughes’s significance as a documentary-maker is best appreciated by placing his works against the ruck of that genre in Australia. In terms of content, many of our documentaries suffer from victimology and a practice aptly tagged “follow that camel’s bum”.

Victimology points a camera at a disadvantaged person – an Aboriginal woman, for example – while she tells us how hard life has been. The victims are never challenged to think beyond their reminiscences or prejudices.

The phrase “Follow that camel’s bum” derived from a 1978 hour-long episode of A Big Country that retraced the Burke and Wills expedition. The crew had been sent out with few instructions beyond “follow the camel’s bum”. The directors stayed in Sydney expecting to construct a story out of the miles of film.

The most popular Australian documentaries hold our attention because their material is novel or because their stance confirms our prejudices. Innovation in form is rare. Television executives suffer from the delusion that they are more sophisticated than their audiences, disparaged as “the punters”. Hence, visual effects that are obligatory for rock clips or commercials are ruled out as too demanding for the viewers of documentaries.

Hughes would have been delighted with the response of the friend on whose video equipment I watched One Way Street. He had not heard of Benjamin but was gripped by Hughes’s interplay of forms with ideas, and went away determined to read Benjamin, which was Hughes’s best hope.