A man of many talents, Ron Maslyn Williams was a renowned cultural innovator of the 20th century, particularly in the post-Second World War period. Throughout his career, which spanned over 60 years, he was internationally acclaimed and awarded for his work in film, photography, music, theatre, journalism, literature and radio.

With a career of this size and diversity to explore, 2023 National Library Fellow Deane Williams set his sights on examining how the contexts of Maslyn Williams’ work shaped his career, artistic vision and how he saw the world around him.

A man wearing a black and grey checkered shirt sitting at a desk with a computer and several books resting on it. He is leaning on the desk, facing forward and giving the camera a small smile

Building a cultural biography

The Library was the perfect place for Deane to do this, as it is the home of a large collection of papers by Maslyn Williams and many of his colleagues. Firsthand information from Williams and those relevant to Deane’s research can also be found in various oral history interviews, some of which were recorded in the Library itself.

‘The extensive archive held at the NLA demands a thoroughgoing, concerted research project,’ Dean explained. ‘Despite the scale of his experience, influence and numerous film festival and literary awards, Williams remains a largely overlooked figure. In this regard, this cultural biography of Maslyn Williams will attend to the ways in which he was able to divine and attend to the emerging seismic shifts in the then contemporary post war global culture.’

Rowan Henderson: Good afternoon, everybody, and welcome to the National Library of Australia. I'm Rowan Henderson, assistant director in the curatorial and collection research section here at the library. Thank you for attending this event, coming to you from Ngunnawal and Ngambri country. I'd like to begin by acknowledging Australia's First Nations peoples as the traditional owners and custodians of this land, and give my respect to their elders, past and present, and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This afternoon's presentation, A Cultural Biography of Ron Maslyn Williams is presented by Associate Professor, Deane Williams, no relation I'm told, a 2023 National Library of Australia Fellow. The National Library's fellowships programme supports experienced researchers to make intensive use of the library's rich and unique collections through 12 week residencies. These fellowships are made possible by philanthropic donations and we thank all of our donors for their generous support.

Deane Williams is associate professor in film and screen studies at Monash University, specialising in cultural networks, documentary film history, and Australian documentary. In today's presentation, Deane will present his research on Ron Maslyn Williams, a prodigiously talented Australian filmmaker, and one of the most important cultural figures of the post-war years in Australia. So please join me in welcoming Deane Williams.

Deane Williams: Thank you. Thanks, Rowan, thanks very much. I'd also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples as the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and pay respect to their elders, past and present, and to the Dja Dja Wurrung people, the traditional owners of the country upon which I live, and also to all Australia's indigenous peoples.

I'd also like to thank so much the library for the wonderful staff. Yeah, in particular, Sharyn O'Brien and her team, Simone and everybody else who's been incredibly, incredibly helpful, giving us wonderful access to the fabulous collections. And to my fellow fellows, I've been here kind of over two periods, so I have two groups, who've helped create such a fabulous, collegiate, innovating, scholarly atmosphere. It's been one of the highlights of my scholarly career to come here.

Now, Robert Ronald Maslyn Williams was an Australian filmmaker, writer, photographer, musician, journalist, radio playwright, who by my current count had more than 70 films to his name, I keep uncovering more and more, 15 books, including what we might term travel logs, nonfiction and novels, innumerable articles, reviews, opinion pieces, and reports. In these endeavours, his film "Down in the Forest" won a diploma in the International Children's Film Exhibition at the 1954 Venice Film Festival. His "New Guinea Patrol" won the Senate Gold medal at the Festival dei Popoli film festival in Florence, Italy, in 1960, while the singular "Mike and Stefani" from '48, a film about displaced Ukrainians seeking passage to Australia in the immediate post-war years filmed in a neorealist style is one of the great achievements of the Films Division - Department of Information, and I think one of the greatest films ever made in this country. The autobiographical, "His Mother's Country," won the Fellowship of Australian Writers Christina Stead Award in 1988 and the Douglas Stewart Prize for nonfiction in the 1989 New South Wales Literary Awards. In 1993, he became an Emeritus Fellow of the Literature Board of the Australia Council.

His body of work is enormous and diverse across more than 60 years. I won't attempt to cover his entire career here. It would be impossible. Suffice it to say that an appropriate response to the enormity, diversity and temporal span of Williams' work and life might be what I'm calling a cultural biography. By this I mean a biography that examines the contexts in which Williams' worked and in response, and sometimes in spite of these contexts, he was able to divine and pursue a distinct vision for himself. Through Williams' life and work, it's possible to learn much about the cultures in which he found himself.

Robert Ronald Williams was born on the 20th of February, 1911, in Woolwich, London. Eldest child of Irish-born parents, Albert Robert Williams, soldier, and his wife, Florence Charlotte Nee Maslyn. Robert would later adopt his mother's family name in his creative pursuits. Arriving in Australia in the 1930s, Williams' youth was spent in the New England and Southern Highlands districts of New South Wales, and attended the Sydney Conservatorium of Music while also dabbling in journalism and radio script writing before becoming an assistant on Charles Chauvel's "Uncivilised" at the National Studios in Pagewood, Sydney. As Williams told Andrew Pike and Marilyn Fitzpatrick, he was a general factotum at the studios. He also worked on the British-Gaumont production of Miles Mander's "The Flying Doctor" and Clarence Badger's "Rangle River," all from 1936.

Williams' training in music enabled him to quickly pick up on ideas of editing and continuity, and the experience on being on the studio lot proved invaluable. It was during this period that Williams befriended Damien Parer. Williams and Parer's friendship was to characterise Williams' work for the rest of his life, a relationship I'll come back to.

My first encounter with Williams was through my research into "Mike and Stefani," a film that I came to understand through writings about Italian neorealism, in particular, to left-wing, French wartime and post-war Catholic philosophical movements, particularly from the ethical-philosophical movement of personalism and the writings of Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mounier and Teilhard de Chardin amongst others. And the variations of this which emerged in Vatican too. Such a perspective helped explain how Williams' "Mike and Stefani" became a quietly ecstatic variant of Italian neorealism, an Australian version, despite its bureaucratic derivations as an Australian department of information film.

It is possible to see across Williams' career to see a careful observation of places in which he finds himself and of the people with which he worked invariably, seeking to understand himself as a person in relation to what he saw as particular worldviews. For this reason, Williams was often called upon for commentary on others, but also made him such an astute documentary filmmaker and writer of travel books.

As the research continued with this fellowship, I discovered more of an inveterate traveller and man of influence in many artistic and diplomatic spheres around the world. Williams became a leading Catholic figure, figuring in Edmund Campion's book, "Great Australian Catholics" for his distant vision, the title of the chapter that Campion wrote. A kind of cultural ambassador and perceptive commentator promoting an expansive worldview that reached far beyond the constraints, that figure prominently in the accounts of government filmmaking and broader cultural work in Australia, the post-war period.

In the interview with Hazel de Berg held in the National Library, Williams talks about a break between his earliest days at the age of five when he began writing, when he dreamed of being a writer or a musician, and of this idea being interrupted by a career in government filmmaking. He says, "Prior to this I had, as I say, had my mindset on writing without quite knowing why. Just to be a writer, I thought that this was enough in itself. Working in films, I began to see that there were things to be said that were relevant to the age in which we lived, and for that matter, relevant to people as individuals, people as a continuing miracle of existence."

In order to address Williams' personal style, his worldview, astute commentary and intuitive articulation, his work in things to be said that were relevant to the age in which we lived, I would like to turn to what I think it's his, sorry, its emergence in his writing in the early 1940s, in relation to the work of Frank Hurley and Damien Parer. I'd just like to introduce these two briefly.

By the 1940s, Frank Hurley was a legendary Australian photographer, filmmaker, and adventurer, renowned for his photographs and footage taken while official photographer on the Australian Antarctic expedition in the 1910s and later with Ernest Shackleton's Antarctic journey and his film, "In the Grip of the Polar Ice," 1917. Hurley's extraordinary career continued in World War I when he photographed in France and Belgium before being sent to the Middle East, including the Light Horse. In the 1920s, Hurley made films and photographed in Papua and the Torres Strait, including "Pearls and Savages" from 1921.

One of the enduring figures of Catholic life in Australia in the post-war period was the department, well, the wartime period, was the Department of Information, and later, newsreels still and moving image photographer, Damien Parer. Partly because of his purported, naive, renegade attitude to obtaining footage in the war zones with little regard for his own safety, and mostly because of his footage for the Cinesound newsreel "Kokoda Front Line!" Which received a citation for distinctive achievement in documentary production announced at the American Academy Award ceremonies in 1943 alongside John Ford's "Battle of Midway." Parer, by this time, was a sizable figure in Australian culture.

In 1940, the Australian Government sent Williams along with cameraman Parer, who were at that time both employed at Melbourne Cinema Branch. They sent Sound Recordist, Alan Anderson, New Zealand still photographer, George Silk, and Frank Hurley, who assumed the role of leader of this group to form the Australian Cinematographic and Photographic Unit, which was stationed in Cairo and worked across Greece, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, and Libya to record footage of the war to be used in the Cinesound and Movietone newsreel companies and for the Australian War Memorial, and to contribute to British Empire newsreels around the world. The title, the “Australian Cinematographic and-’, God, I can't say this, ‘Australian Cinematographic and Photographic Unit’, suggests a cohesive group of technicians working together to produce a body of work for the war effort. In the interviews that David Miller undertook with Williams and Anderson held in the pape, the unit is portrayed as a much looser arrangement that relied on individual endeavour and a variety of experience brought to bear on what were understandably chaotic and unmanageable circumstances.

In this regard, it's possible to see a stark division between the figure of Frank Hurley and that of Damien Parer supported by Williams and Anderson. While George Silk's role sits as a kind of a tangent to the mainly moving image workers. That Hurley and Parer had significantly different backgrounds and working methods conditioned their legacy, and that of the wartime image archive in the main, because they operated independently across the theatre of war. Alan Anderson recalls to David Miller only two moments in the whole two years in which they were stationed in the Middle East when the so-called unit were together in the flat, at Number 13, Maydan Ismailia, now Tahrir Square in Cairo.

Hurley's experiences in the First World War and his ongoing commercial film and photography career included extracurricular sojourns undertaken to capture travel log footage, a kind of distinct component of the work Hurley made in the Middle East.

In the interview with David Miller, Maslyn Williams tells us that there was an enormous contrast between the two people's personalities, providing a compelling comparison. William says, "Frank, for instance, would take pictures. Whether he was taking pictures of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which was one of his favourite subjects. And he knew the spots. He could take you to exactly which spot at which time of the day and which time of the year, where the light would be best at any given week with a given year. He would know where the light was best and what time of the day for a certain effect. He knew exactly where to go. He'd have a whole collection of these photographs. He'd have subsequent photographs of cloud effects, of things like this, and that he'd carefully select one. And in the developing process and the printing process, which he did himself, he would carefully develop them in such a way that he'd highlight and print them in the same way, and then superimposed clouds on whatever. It was itself a work of art in its own way, a technical kind of art."

Parer, on the other hand, according to Williams, was a very passionate man and he fell in love at the drop of a hat, or he became enamoured at the drop of a hat. And he would see a beautiful girl and he would simply go up to her and say, "You're so wonderful, you're so beautiful. May I take your picture?" And more often not, his nature was such that they wouldn't take offence. And he'd take occasionally of men, but mainly of girls, 'cause he was a young, virile man. And he'd sit them down and take 50 pictures within a matter of 5 to 10 minutes, and all around like a bee buzzing, taking them then back home again, and he'd throw away the negatives one after the other until he got to about four and he'd print them off.

This distinction between Hurley and Parer, in some ways, is derived from their particular technologies. But Williams understands these technologies in spiritual, personalist ways. Hurley brought to the Middle East his prized French-made Debrie Parvo 35-millimeter camera fitted with a 21-inch lens, a setup he used in the First World War, which, according to Williams, Frank treasured the camera much more than a mother would treasure a child. Adapted for the Middle East with a sound recording system, which had, according to Williams, another enormous middle box on top of it and then some kind of homemade blimp to prevent the noise of the sound of the camera getting on the film. So it was totally immobile once he put the sound thing on. It was a cumbersome device requiring enormous strength, necessitating a sedentary method of filming. Williams says, "The whole thing took two strong men to carry, so once you put it into position, you didn't fool around moving it to catch quick action. When you actually went into battle situations or situations where there was a requirement for action, Frank simply carried the camera on a heavy tripod, on his shoulder everywhere across battlefields and uphills, far more energetic and far more competent to do that than anyone of the younger people. Incredible strength and incredible endurance and determination." So there was the picture of Frank in a wartime situation of a man struggling uphills with this enormous amount of equipment, much more than a soldier carried in his back.

So the efforts of the 55-year-old, Hurley, lugging his equipment, adapted from his First World War experiences contrasted remarkably with Parer's more mobile, improvised way of working, utilising a Bell & Howell Eyemo Turret 35-millimeter camera. In Parer, according to Williams, you had a man with a hand camera. He used it as he used his eye, just as they do today, the modern way of filming. Hurley's unwieldy technical setup was also a relic appropriate to the earlier form of warfare, structured around the kind of plodding trench warfare, redolent of the early conflict.

As I suggested earlier, Williams in subsequent years has become a chronicler of the World War II unit, describing Hurley to Andrew Pike and Marilyn Fitzpatrick as a born adventurer. He was one of these tremendously, not egotistical, not a showman, something better than that. He was a man who had to be his full self. He pushed himself to the uttermost limits of his capacity, physically, and in terms of his own techniques, and in terms of being a person for what he was. "But I'd always had reservations about his work, because, the man, he seemed to be too adaptable, that he seemed at times in his later work to be at a compromise and never to get to the guts of what he was doing. But when you looked at his stuff analytically, you saw that although the stuff was beautiful, you saw it was never of the extremes of putting yourself into danger, for instance. It was never really going right inside the heart of the dangerous situation. It tended to stand back a bit from it. In other words, I gradually came to the conclusion that Hurley was a long-shot cameraman, but a beautiful technician without any question, a man who knew the mechanics and the chemical aspects of film perfectly.”

“On the other hand, Parer was a man to whom motion picture was a way of not only expressing himself, but of expressing, and I put it frankly in the words that he would've used, expressing the glory of God, and of expressing his own devotion to the idea of God, particularly to the Virgin Mary, because he was one of those fanatical, not fanatical, but absolutely, tremendously romantic Spanish Catholics, and this was in his work. So his work was a dedication to the subject, to everything that he did."

Between these two in the Middle East, Hurley and Parer, was Williams, whose role was as a producer, a kind of a loose term in this instance, and writer in the unit. Principally, Williams' role was to facilitate the collection of footage shot by Hurley and Parer for which Williams would write the dope sheets with some added description of the footage and associated sound obtained by Anderson. And a kind of suggested shot order or written commentary to accompany the footage, which was then sent back to Australia or elsewhere to be put together into newsreels for screening.

In this long-shot scenic versus dedicated action dichotomy, Williams describes his role. "Hurley would speak to me or read me the list. One, two, three, four, five of the shot list. I sat down and wrote the background story, give the place, the date, the time, the drama of it. What was the significance of it?" Now it's this drama of it, the significance of it that I'd like to turn to now using a couple of examples of Hurley's footage and William's interpretation of it. In many cases, the newsreels were ordinarily formulaic, attending to shots of soldiers marching, long shots of bombardments, of military transport, moving across landscapes, troops disembarking ships, speeches given by dignitaries, and so on. This was reflected in these dope sheets that accompanied them back to Australia. But the two examples I'd like to show are marked departures in different ways. We need to remember that these films were shot as material to be used and re-edited subsequently by newsreels, no matter how much the photographers wanted to impart suggestions of short order music, sound, et cetera.

I'd like to screen this first sequence, which is from a collection of scenes entitled "Cedars, Valleys, Roman Bridge, Syria" from 1941 with special thanks to the Australian War Memorial for providing the footage. And this is without sound.

Okay, so Williams writes a dope sheet for this footage. A suggested editing sequence for the material. Yeah, a standards list to which he appends a descriptive prose section. He says, "In olden times, the Cedars of Lebanon," which are featured, "provide a subject matter for many of the prophets and writers of lyric prose. Being among the mountains has always seemed to produce a deeper religious feeling and consciousness of the infinite than living on the flat country. One invariably imagines the prophets of old coming down from their mountain fastnesses to verbally chastises the sluggered dwellers of the plains. Sunday in the Lebanon seems to produce a semblance of this atmosphere and the normal church parade is pervaded with a new and refreshing spirit that is reflected in the attitude of both chaplain and men."

It's possible to see Williams account of this site in a couple of ways. First, Hurley's footage was kind of scenic or panoramic belonging to a long tradition of holy land painting and photography, which Williams follows, revelling in the detailed holy land mythology and place naming. Second, Williams wants to make much more of this footage. This is Williams' first adventure into the kind of travel log writing that he sets out on after he finishes his filmmaking career later in the early 1960s. Williams is a peculiarly romantic vision of the world born of this spiritualist, personalist worldview. It's unclear what the folk back at the war memorial or the newsreel companies would've made of these descriptions, but it can be seen as an attempt by Williams to make apparent what is important in these shots for these men, if not to himself, to kind of see the unseen.

Another, perhaps, I think, a more startling example is in a cross country race in Gaza, captured by Hurley, extraordinary because of the disjunction between the images and the words to accompany them. It's not of great interest in filmic terms, apart from lots of shots of runners taken from the rear of a truck compared to the commentary provided in the dope sheets. This footage was given unusual censorship requirements by the censorship officer, because Gaza is the centre of the Australian infantry forces base and training area at the time, which is kind of extraordinary. I'd like to screen this second sequence again with special thanks to the Australian War Memorial for providing the footage. Again, this is silent.

I think this is kind of a interesting footage because you can see Hurley a number of times trying to sneaking off the subject of the cross country race, trying to take images of a burial ground or kind of a farmer working in the field, but then he realises he has to focus again on the cross country race. Hurley did get in quite a lot of trouble for not remaining true to his role as a war reporter. So the dope sheet for this footage includes the standard list of shots, details of the officials pictured. What is remarkable here is Williams' account, the location in what is a kind of a postscript. Williams tells us about how Gaza is an administrative centre for the surrounding district of its population of about 18,000, mostly Muslims, whose principle industry is the making of pottery and the weaving of wool. And in the immediate neighbourhood there are groves of olive and orange trees and of being a trade route between the Levant and Egypt. He concludes his description invoking a few religions. He says, "Highlights in its ancient history produced the memory of Samson, who allegedly performed his famous act of pulling down the pillars of the temple here. And his tomb is still an object." Sorry, "and his tomb is still an object of veneration among the inhabitants to whom he is known as the father of might. Another celebrity who is buried in the town is Hashem, uncle of the Prophet Muhammad." It is possible to hear in these words as kind of supplements to the actuality footage, to hear Williams invoking his own worldview against the strictures of wartime reportage and in relation to Hurley's long-shot landscape construction.

Following the war, Hurley published several books of still photography, including "The Holy City: A Camera Study of Jerusalem And Its Surroundings," from '49, which belongs to a long history of photography of the Middle East. I think it's possible to understand the footage, such as the Cedars of Lebanon in this tradition. In the introduction to the book, "The Bible and the Image: The History of Photography in the Holy Land," Yeshayahu Nir writes that this tradition of holy land imagery also belongs to a tradition of romanticism, which includes an awareness of history, a heightened feeling for nature, a fascination-, a fascination with exotic lands and ruins, a fondness for church and monarchy. These are all hallmarks of romanticism. Many of the photographs reproduced in the volume, this is Nir's own collection of holy land photography, portray that very romantic mood and mode of 19th century holy land photography. For Williams, these images are more than this. They are pretext for him to project his own vision, to extend their meaning, in the same way he saw Parer's dedication of his work.

It is possible, in William's words, to see the divination of the idea of God, a method he was to refine throughout his writing. In this sense, William's words are related to the holy land templates of new world travellers, which we might characterise these images from Hurley. But they're also much more than that. They also transcend the images of war that the unit collected as a record to be sent back to Australia, as fodder for the newsreel companies. They are, I think, the first emergence of William's spiritual, personalist accounting for the world, that he would continue in his filmmaking and writing.

Following his filmmaking career from the 1930s until 1964, including his remarkable filmmaking in Papua New Guinea, Williams became a full-time writer, not so much returning to writing, because he continued to write as we've seen throughout his life, but he did leave filmmaking behind. Williams' "Stone Age Island," "Five Journeys from Jakarta," and the singular, "The East is Red," and others mark a major contribution to the opening up of Australian cultural life in the context of initiatives, such as the marshall plan beyond the confines of Britain and Europe.

The first of the "Stone Age Island: Seven Years in New Guinea" from 1964, came about when Morris West, a close friend, who had a contract for a book on New Guinea, found his career taking off and unable to devote the time he would like to. So he managed to have the contract transferred to Williams, who was able to draw on his enormous experience in the region during his filmmaking years.

But for Williams, his filmmaking, although it provided some advantages for this writing, it also delimited his ability to express himself fully. He told Hazel de Berg, "Although the book got pretty good reviews all over the world, Morrison, myself were disappointed in it, because I'd not shaken off this long training in seeing things from a certain point of view, an Australian point of view, not an official point of view. I'd still not identified with the people I was writing about. I was writing about them as curiosities or problems rather than as people. I was still writing as it were from the point of view of a slightly superior person."

Following "Stone Age Island," Williams travelled in 1963 throughout Indonesia for "Five Journeys from Jakarta," extraordinary in the circumstances of the looming attempted coup at subsequent events that led to the presidency of Suharto. In this book, it's possible to see the simmering tensions underneath the writing, while the focus is mostly on the everyday lives of Indonesians. Williams talks about how he didn't really know that much about Indonesians prior to the research for the book, and even upon his return, and had doubts about his authority to write such a book until he commenced the writing.

When he found himself, he told De Berg, "Then I began to realise their outlines, their fullness as human beings. Their relationship to me in terms of being superior or different, realising that I couldn't say this about them, because I wasn't sure and so on. And I began then to have to analyse myself more thoroughly and my work more thoroughly and to say, why did I want to do it? And was it worth doing that what I'd written was true, that what I'd written was real. I was writing about me, and the people who had read the book were pleased to meet me and my book, because they thought here was a simple Australian trying to understand other people honestly. This wasn't someone trying to put a line or to take an attitude, or to write from the standpoint of an official or a government, or a traveller. In other words, I felt, thank God that I've got back to being a human being who can love people and want to love people, and who can find a response and a reason for being alive and for working."

His next book, sorry, "The East is Red," the Chinese, a new viewpoint is a book remarkable, again, for its context. Williams travelled in China at the beginning of the cultural revolution publishing the book in 1967. Williams recalls the correspondence with the publisher Collins, who principally asked him what he would like to write on. And he proposed China. Collins would pay his expenses and honorarium. Williams also mentions that following his overwhelming positive experience in researching the book, that he thought that people wondered if he'd become a communist. But he had a very different approach to either that of a communist, and we need to remember this is the height of the Cold War, or of being an expert on Chinese politics, economy, and culture.

William says to Hazel de Berg, "Then I thought, my God, the importance of this fellow." Williams wanting to go to China when for years and even today, hundreds of real experts trying to say what's going on in China, and to elucidate what we regard as the great mystery of China. And I thought, ‘Well, I'm not going to try to do anything of the kind. I'm just going to prove to myself that whether you're a Muslim, Indonesian, or a primitive new Guinean or a Communist Chinese, or an Australian Catholic, you're people’. And basically, you want to do the same kind of thing. What we do have to do as people is to try and get this through to the ordinary people, to the point where they'll begin to stand up and tell the leaders what they want instead of being pushed around into a situation which leads, as we all know, inevitably to physical chaos in this world."

In these books, it is possible to see the emergence of an increasingly self-aware, singular figure of a person seeking to understand the world around him. Not so much in his own terms, but of himself in relation to the places in which he finds himself, in terms of the places in the people who belong there and how they relate to the wider world. This Personalist Catholic essay took him into Asia and the Pacific many years before we started to use Australia in Asia as a slogan.

To conclude, I'd like to read you this quote from Williams, again, talking to Hazel de Berg in 1967, just prior to the publication of "The East is Red." He says, "I did begin to realise that western civilization has tended to eliminate individuals, and this brought me face-to-face with this tremendous problem of Christianity, communism and eastern mysticism and so on. Not that I have, sorry, the brain or the mind to be able to sit down and analyse these things philosophically or to work them out, but I have an instinct, I suppose. Since childhood I've had an instinct about abstract things like writing and music and affection and love and relationships with people. And so I set myself to be as objective as I could in writing about these things and teaching myself to see them, and to make myself the kind of person who was an individual before being an Australian, before being a writer, before being a Catholic. And in this I find now I have only, in these last five years, begun to find myself and to be some kind of fruit of the child I remembered so romantically of 55, 57 years ago." Thank you.

Rowan Henderson: Thank you, Deane. That was really, really fascinating. So we now have time for some questions. As this presentation is being recorded, please wait for the microphone that will come around to reach you before asking your question. Who wants to be first?

Audience member 1: Thanks, Deane. What a fascinating fellow not to know about. I was curious about "The East Is Red" and about his experience of travelling, or being in China and how free his movements were. Was he able to sort of, you know, I guess, I'm curious to know what he found and what he saw, or what he didn't see too, perhaps. You know, that's a big question.

Deane Williams: Yeah, oh, no, thanks, Alice. Yeah, it's an interesting book because he has a guide and he is with a party that they travel with. And he does talk about, you know, how the guide can be a bit, you know, taking them to places that he doesn't really want to go and how they can be a bit annoying, and taking the places that, you know, to eat in hotels, which are really boring, and how he wants to get out amongst the people, which he can't always do. So it's a part of the narrative, is in terms of exactly as you say. How he's not allowed to do whatever he wants, but his reflections on what he can see within the parameters of the work that he's done. Yeah, so he's very aware of the time in which he's travelling and writing. And the way that he's, yeah, conditioned, I guess. Yeah, yeah. Does that make sense?

National Library staff member: We've just got a question from YouTube. First, and then we'll come to you. Does associate professor Williams see a place for a sequel to "Mike and Stefani," especially given that around 5,000 Ukrainians have gained refuge in Australia since Russia's war in Ukraine on 24 February, 2022?

Deane Williams: Yeah, it's great question. I think whether there should be a sequel made, I don't know, but I think "Mike and Stefani" is one of the most important films ever made in this country. And it should be seen more widely. It's been a relevant film since before it was made. And it's a film that is often not seen for what it is. It's quite often seen as a little bit clunky. It's not a Roberto Rossellini film, but it's a film that was cobbled together on an extremely low budget, under incredibly difficult conditions by two people in Europe and the people reenacting their lives for the film. It's an extraordinary film and is something that I think should be seen a lot more than it has, yeah.

Audience member 2: Thank you so much, Professor Williams. My question is on how Williams' work might have transformed or changed your worldview or your work? I found it fascinating that you ended with how he saw himself as a human and how he was affected by, or in his work with looking at other people, he got to understand himself more. So in looking at Williams, how did that change or transform your understanding of yourself and your work? Thanks.

Deane Williams: Oh, thanks, Lisa, that's a great question. I'm not Catholic. My partner, Anna, is Catholic. So I have a lot to learn, but what I see is the derivation of those ideas coming out of 1930s French philosophy. The ideas about personalism and spiritual action are, I find, incredibly fascinating, particularly in its translation to the Australian setting. I've always been interested in the way that ideas have kind of moved in that kind of cultural network framework. And I think that particular side of Catholic culture is very instructive and kind of shifts the notions of Catholic life in Australia, and particularly that humanist spiritual aspect to it. Yeah, hope that makes sense.

Audience member 3: Thanks, Deane. That's absolutely fascinating. I was curious about Robert Williams as a Catholic and as someone who is deeply influenced by religious belief, and during his travel to China, maybe related at his question earlier, particular time, the cultural revolution when the worship idol was totally this demonished. During that context, how was that reflected in his writing in that book, "The East is Red," and also how was that influence this cultural shock in terms of religions, difference or cultural difference influence his later writing?

Deane Williams: Thank you, great question. One of the things that struck me about the book when I first got a hold of it, it's in three parts, and each part is prefaced with a quote from the French radical, theological figure, Teilhard de Chardin, which is kind of an extraordinary thing in itself. Until I'd learned that Teilhard de Chardin spent 20 years in China, and the book, I have to go and look more closely at Teilhard de Chardin's work, because my sense of things is that the book is modelled on the kind of accounting for Chinese culture that Teilhard de Chardin wrote in his books, "The Divine Milieu," I think it is. So it's extraordinary in that sense. And then in the writing itself, as I was saying before, you can see this accounting for communist society in terms of how individuals, persons belong to a broader kind of culture and in particular, community at each kind of moment. Does that make sense? Yeah.

Audience member 4: Hi, Deane, thanks for your presentation. I was really struck by the two clips that you had selected and then the accompanying commentary by Williams. And realised, at least within our conversation, for me, looking at these images, I see some of the things that he's talking about, but also I feel it's also slightly tangential and very much in his own kind of agenda, or not even agenda, but kind of way of pushing this kind of Catholic vision that's happening with what he's seeing. And I'm wondering what you think about that in terms of, you know, he's in this kind of war-like setting, and does that make sense for you that he's saying that? Or does that seem, yeah, what do you reckon about that? Yeah.

Deane Williams: Thanks, Wesley. Yeah, I mean, it makes perfect sense to me. I'm kind of a bit wary of the saying, you know, here's an explanation for these images. Williams does talk about how, he does point out that Hurley was a Catholic as well, but not a practising Catholic or not a Catholic like Damian Parer, for example. And so he can see, I guess, the romanticism of those images, like the cloud formations kind of sweeping up the mountains are kind of classic, kind of romantic images in a European sense. But I think my sense of things is, yeah, as that long quote of Williams commenting on Hurley's kind of practise, you know, Williams wants more from those images. And part of what Williams does is he also, throughout his life, he kind of goes about constructing himself. I'll never forget on the first day when I started here, I got the Hazel de Berg interview, and Hazel de Berg doesn't include her questions in the interviews that she does. And so the tape winds up and William goes, my name is Ronald Robert James Michael Williams. And I went, what? I've never heard James Michael before in my life. And I asked his son what that was about. And he said, "I've never heard that before in my life either." And there's this kind of ongoing thing going on, which to me, kind of, it makes sense in terms of the way that his life and his work kind of meld into each other, and the way he understands his role as kind of a maker of a persona, you know, within his career. Yeah, yeah, I guess. I hope that makes some sense.  

Audience member 5: That was fascinating. Thank you, Deane.

Deane Williams: Thanks, Alison.

Audience member 5: Just wondering, after "East is Red," or even leading up to that, did he come back to Australia and turn the gaze on his own country, particularly thinking 1967, we had an important referendum. Did he go on to write about his own country?

Deane Williams: He did, later on there's an autobiographical book to his mother's country, which is a kind of an autobiography in some ways. The main character is called the Lad. And the first image that I used is included inside the book with the Lad written down underneath it. So it is an autobiography, but maybe it's not. But it's a kind of an account of the '30s and '40s mostly in the New England area. So there isn't such a kind of a, in the book, a kind of political or cultural kind of accounting for Australia.

And I think mostly because that occurs in the films, the documentaries that he made for the Department of Information and others, which are in many ways kind of extraordinary in themselves, because they're quite different to a lot of the films that were made at that time. I think, again, because he sees himself as a part of the humanist strain of the filmmakers compared to the kind of the social, yeah, ones that were more wanting to understand things that were happening in Australia in terms of representing parts of Australia to other parts of Australia. He says, and I think to some extent this is true, he was much more interested in the people in these films. Yeah, but it's always a kind of a battle between the strictures of filmmaking and what he would like to do in the films, particularly in the films he made in New Guinea, which are films to support Australia's trusteeship of New Guinea. So they're propaganda films, but you can see in the films, he's trying to do something different formally in the, yeah. Hope that makes sense, Alison.

National Library staff member: We've got another question from YouTube, from the livestream. Did you find that there were any difficulties or challenges during your research?

Deane Williams: Thanks. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. The enormity of the research is overwhelming. You know, I know it's 70 films so far. There might be more, which are all in the film sound archive. And State Library at New South Wales has huge collection of photographs taken in the Pacific. There's a book that he wrote on Nauru with Barrie McDonald, I think, called "The Phosphateers." And he did an enormous amount of research, this enormous amount of papers in the NLA on that. Every time I turn around, I find an archive that has holdings of William's letters, photographs. And something I didn't mention is his establishment of the Australian Youth Orchestra. So, you know, it's all a bit overwhelming. Yeah, lots of difficulties.

Audience member 6: Thank you very much, really fascinating character. Are you able to say anything about the influence that Williams may have had on subsequent Australian documentary makers or even Australian writers?

Deane Williams: I can of documentary makers. I think it's 1966, there was a round table held in Sydney on ethnographic filmmaking in the Pacific, which Williams attended, as did Jean Rouch and Cecil Holmes, Sylvia Lawson, and a bunch of American ethnographic filmmakers. So in a way, Williams becomes an expert on ethnographic filmmaking at the time when ethnographic filmmaking was kind of emerging as a thing.

But, of course, he had enormous influence on people that worked on New Guinea filmmaking. So people like Gary Kilday, Dennis O'Rourke, a whole kind of group of people that came out of that. And there was a New Guinea film unit set up just post that. And of course, he worked with a whole lot of, you know, people of, you know, cameramen, of editors, of whole range of different people as a senior producer. He worked a lot as a senior producer. So there's a whole generation of filmmakers that came through the film unit that he worked with and mentored. Yeah, in terms of writing, I'm not so sure. I don't really know that in terms of travel writing in Australia is not a well tilled field, I don't think as such. But maybe there is to learn there as well, yeah. Thank you.

Rowan Henderson: Okay, thank you, everybody. As we draw to a close today, I've got just a few quick plugs before we leave. So next week we will host lunchtime presentations by two more of our recent National Library fellows, which we hope you can join us for. On Tuesday, the 21st of November, Dr. Gwen McClelland will speak about trauma and world heritage on the Goto Islands, Japan, 1856 to 1899. This research aims to identify how religious communities understand a number of newly listed UNESCO world heritage sites in the region as spaces through which to negotiate historical trauma.

Following this, on Thursday, the 23rd of November, Dr. Alice Garner will speak about the extraordinary life of Mavis Robertson, celebrated as a pioneer in the development of compulsory superannuation, this talk will look at Robertson's larger, even more fascinating life, which included leadership in the Communist Party of Australia, anti-nuclear and anti-Vietnam War protest action, collective action in early women's liberation, and the creation of EMILYs List.

If you want to catch up on other recent talks by National Library Fellows, you can find these on the Library's website as well as on the Library's Facebook page and YouTube channel. So thank you for attending today, and also, please join me once again in thanking Deane Williams.

Understanding and observation

One particular focus of Deane’s research and presentation was Williams’ work during the Second World War as part of the Australian Cinematographic and Photographic Unit. This group of creatives travelled around Europe and northern Africa to record footage of the war, with Williams acting as a writer and producer. Later becoming somewhat of a ‘chronicler’ of the unit, Williams’ writing from this time and subsequent interviews now serve to demonstrate the differences between the work of Frank Hurley and Damien Parer and their work in this unit.

This insight into the people around Williams became a recurring theme in Deane’s research.

‘It is possible to see across Williams' career a careful observation of places in which he finds himself and of the people with which he worked, invariably seeking to understand himself as a person in relation to what he saw as particular worldviews. For this reason, Williams was often called upon for commentary on others, but also made him such an astute documentary filmmaker and writer of travel books.’

Four men of various ages in military dress around an old video camera
Photograph of Damian Parer, Maslyn Williams, Frank Hurley and George Silk from Papers of Maslyn Williams, 1850-1995, nla.cat-vn1791626

Surprises in the archives

There was certainly no shortage of material for Deane to explore as ‘every time [you] turn around, [you] find an archive that has holdings of William's letters, photographs.’ As such, there were bound to be some surprises. For Deane, these included ‘stories in oral history interviews that I hadn’t heard before, photographs I hadn’t seen and documents that I hadn’t encountered before.’

One particularly unexpected find was a 1955 article from the Australian Women’s Weekly announcing that Maslyn Williams was the progress prize winner in the magazine’s 2000-pound Cookery Contest. This made him 'not just an award-winning writer and filmmaker but an award-winning cook’ for his chicken risotto recipe.

A newspaper article titled 'Big prizes for easy entries' listing the winners and prizes of a $2000 cookery contest. The article includes an image of three children eating risotto
'Big prizes for easy entries', The Australian Women's Weekly (1933 - 1982), 7 September 1955, nla.news-article41856198


Through the cultural biography that Deane has worked to create, ‘it is possible to see the emergence of an increasingly self-aware, singular figure of a person seeking to understand the world around him. Not so much in his own terms, but of himself in relation to the places in which he finds himself, in terms of the places and the people who belong there and how they relate to the wider world.'

To share the findings of his research further, Deane plans to write a series of journal articles, and eventually a book.

Man in a grey and black checkered shirt and headphones sitting at a desk, using a computer. To his left are two open books.

'Gift to researchers'

Following his time at the Library, Deane describes the Fellowship program as ‘a gift to researchers enabling us time and space to focus on our research with the fabulous support of the engaged and experienced NLA staff and the beautiful surrounds of the Library building.’

Read more about the National Library’s Fellowship and Scholarship programs.