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Essay - 'A Night In The Wild', research for the series Persons Of Interest

A Night In The Wild

By Haydn Keenan

March 2014

Suddenly he freezes and twitches forward in the armchair, his faced flushed and rage flashing over him.  For a moment there’s violence in his eyes and I’m thinking I may be getting myself into some trouble here. 

Nervous energy pours out as he explodes, “He’s KGB.  Don’t you see, he’s in the perfect position to cover for them?  That’s why he’s there”  I’d just mentioned the name of the person who did the censoring of ASIO intelligence files before releasing them to the public.  Without realising it I’d hit the funny bone.  I was having trouble keeping up with his storyline but didn’t want to say so for fear that we might crank the evening’s drama up another gear. 

“Don’t move.”  I wasn’t.  “Let me show you something”, he said and rushed out of the room.  From behind the chair his small dog appeared, leapt into the vacant seat and stared at me.  It was the first moment I’d been alone and now I looked around at stuff I’d only glanced at when in conversation.  The room was stacked high with books, manila folders, sheaves of loosely piled papers.  The books all concerned intelligence agencies; KGB, CIA, MI5, ASIO.  There were “the secret insight into…”, the “I was a spy for …”,  “the history of…”  and the conspiracy publications.  What have I got myself into?  I’m not a journalist, just a film maker trying to do some research and now found myself trapped in a house on the outskirts of Canberra with a very edgy man insisting on confirmation of his theories.  I’d always admired those gung ho gonzo journalists who had infiltrated their stories and got the real inside info but in these circumstances I wasn’t sure I fitted the bill.

We’d been commissioned to make a four-hour documentary series for television called “Persons Of Interest” about people and their intelligence files. I’d been in Canberra for a couple of days trawling the national archives, reading ASIO files about communists, students, nazis and feminists – finding stories for our series when I got a message from my office that someone had rung wanting to speak to me urgently.  I rang the number and the man on the other end of the phone said he had some explosive material to show me, material essential to our series. He urged me to visit that afternoon.

A weak autumn sun was fading as I pulled up in an eighties suburb of pale brick and cul-de-sacs.  Not exactly 007.  A gusty wind was starting to bend the trees and giving the scene an edge just a little removed from reality.  I knocked, a small dog barked then nothing.  Knocked again and the door opened to reveal a stocky intense man trying to contain his energy.  He ushered me into the lounge where I sat for the next four hours as he unveiled the conspiracy he said was conducted by a group of ASIO officer’s against him, a volunteer agent, after he reported his belief that the organisation had been penetrated by the KGB.  Bits of it sounded plausible while other parts had the standard elements of persecution conspiracy.  He was little interested in what I was trying to do, more in getting his story out and ploughed on relentlessly trying to establish the truth of it.  He named a bar in Sydney,

“ Go in there and ask for the manager and tell I sent you.  He’ll confirm everything.” He told his story in grabs and episodes, a mix of isolation, anger and despair.

He’s been gone for some minutes now.  The wind has picked up.  Eucalypts make a sound unlike any other tree.  Pines whisper but eucalypts rustle.  Here I was stuck in the wilds, storm developing outside surrounded by dunes of books and conspiracy, with an informant who looked close to the edge.  The dog stared at me and jumped down on hearing his master coming up the corridor.  Rifling through a folder of pages he sat down oblivious to me.  He held out a page.  Numerous references to him but plenty of black texta redacting much of the page. 

“See what they’ve done.  They’re making sure none of it comes out and the bloke who censors it is part of the plot.  It’s perfect.  And they’re all working for…” and he names a senior ASIO officer who he says is KGB.  For the next few hours I’d humour him, take a few notes, write down the name of the bar to check out his story. He talked me all the way to the car and stood shoeless on the pavement in a gale of leaves and flickering street lights.  In the rear vision mirror I see him motionless, watching me go.

I got back to Sydney. ASIO ring.  My informant in Canberra, well known to them has written to the Director General threatening to have his film crew, me, expose the whole conspiracy if ASIO didn’t take it seriously.  It took swift talking to establish we were not his crew or that we intended to tell his story of the KGB in ASIO.

A few months pass and I’m in the large and empty bar of a suburban hotel in Melbourne trying to talk a retired intelligence officer into appearing in our films.  He’s nervous about meeting and his eyes dart around the space looking for signs of trouble. 

I’m convincing him I’m not a conspiracist when he interrupts,  “I retired.…. had enough.  I wasn’t part of the dominant clique …some people said they were KGB. The main man in that group was…” and he says a name I’d heard on a desolate night on the outskirts of Canberra.

© Haydn Keenan 2014