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Review - from 'Labour History' by Phillip Deery

FILM REVIEW from 'Labour History' by Phillip Deery (Victoria University)

Persons of Interest – The ASIO Files. Director: Haydn Keenan; producer: Gai Steele. Smart Street films, 2013.

‘I don't think anything I passed on [to ASIO] was of importance’, commented a wistful Tom Shepherd, an ASIO informant who spied on the Communist Party for twenty-four years. But, he continued, ‘it is distressing to think of the harm that I may have done’.  Shepherd was interviewed for Haydn Keenan’s remarkable four-part documentary, Persons of Interest, which premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2013. His remarks underlie two of the many themes of the film. First, many ASIO files epitomise bureaucratic banality with verbatim transcripts of bugged, yet innocuous, telephone conversations; others contain innuendo, rumour and unfounded allegations; still more record intimate, private details that had no security implications. Second, not only were many lives damaged but lasting ‘harm’ was also inflicted on the careers of innumerable individuals when applying for a range of jobs. As the film emphasises, they were ‘vetted’ and, on the basis of their ASIO dossiers, denied employment usually because of the dissenting opinions they held, not ‘subversive’ deeds they had committed.

The film opens, compellingly, with ‘The Case’: ASIO’s hunt for Wally Clayton and other members of the ‘Klod’ network within the Department of External Affairs (DEA), which transmitted secrets to the Soviet Union. The common misconception that ASIO was established by the Chifley government in 1949 because of ‘anti-communist paranoia’ is corrected; the actual reason was diplomatic pressure from the United States on the Attlee Labour government after the Venona cables revealed the DEA leaks. The price of access to embargoed classified information was the creation of a new security service, ASIO, modelled on MI5. The film closes with Wally Clayton, unaware he was being tape-recorded by Laurie Aarons, confirming his complicity in Soviet espionage. 

Between these bookends, Persons of Interest providesintellectually engaging portraits of four political activists, primarily through their ASIO informants’ reports:  Roger Millis, a journalist and author; Michael Hyde, a Maoist student radical at Monash University; Gary Foley, a leading Indigenous activist; and Frank Hardy, the communist writer. Throughout each story, compelling collateral ‘sub-plots’ were told. For me, three were particularly poignant: the bitter long-term breach between Roger Millis and his father, Bruce, whose hard-line Stalinism in the 1950s deepened with his embrace of Ted Hill’s doctrinaire CPA (M-L); the disillusioned former ASIO agent, Phil Geri, whose life was disfigured and whose remorse and tears are captured by the camera; and the heartfelt reconciliation between Barrie Dexter, secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and Gary Foley, whom Dexter sacked forty years earlier.

Five years in the making, Persons of Interest is engrossing viewing, even (or especially) to those already familiar with Cold War surveillance and its consequences. For the film’s director, the breakthrough was his discovery, assisted by a ‘mole’ at the National Archives, of 150 hours of ASIO surveillance footage. A fraction of this footage forms the centrepiece of the film and drives the narrative. For a few minutes we even see the KGB agent, Ivan Skripov, meeting a contact in Manly; the contact, unbeknown to Skripov, was a double agent. Notwithstanding a few minor blemishes, Persons of Interest exemplifies the best of Australian documentary film. The archival footage is wide-ranging and judiciously used, the narration is measured and stripped of hyperbole, the political and historical contexts are carefully sketched in and, most important, the editing is outstanding. The film will be screened, probably in four parts, on SBS television in late 2013.

Victoria University                                                                                                 PHILLIP DEERY