TUTA: Making the Training Films and the Legacy of Keith Gow

TUTA: Making the Training Films
and the Legacy of Keith Gow

Des Hanlon and Warwick McDonald

Making the TUTA Films

In a related article we outline the early history of trade union training, its learning methodologies and pedagogy and describe how the TUTA training aid films made by Film Australia were so critical to its success. In this article, Des Hanlon describes the filmmaking process in detail and we also pay tribute to Director Keith Gow, whose films covered social, industrial and working-class issues over a 40-year career.

Firstly, Des Hanlon takes up the story of the development and expansion of TUTA’s educational program through these films from a personal point of view:

The first time I met the team selected by Film Australia to undertake the production of the films proposed by TUTA, neither of the two gentlemen who had flown from Sydney to Melbourne looked like my preconceptions of filmmakers. As they were about to depart the meeting held at the then TUTA headquarters in Drummond Street, Carlton, I asked could they organise for us to see some films they had made. No problem, they said. I was direct in my request not because I thought it was an unreasonable request, but because in my opinion they didn’t look like filmmakers based on some preconceived Hollywood myth I may have believed – plus one of them looked like my Dad!

Some days later a box arrived with 20 reels of film. One of the first films I looked at had won an Oscar! It was Bruce Petty’s ‘Leisure’ that won Best Animated Short Film at the 1976 Academy Awards. (‘Leisure’ was widely used in TUTA courses to illustrate how sophisticated technology could supposedly create more leisure time and facilitate a shorter working week).  Another was a film called ‘Tempo – Australia in the Seventies’ covering the social changes sweeping Australia. Directed by Keith Gow and jointly scripted by him and Peter Weir (who was later also to be a six-time Oscar Nominee and winner of two BAFTA Best Director Awards for ‘The Truman Show’ (1998) and ‘Master and Commander’ (2003)). ‘Tempo’ was a very progressive film using very contemporary techniques. I realised how I had been unaware of their talent. By the time we had watched all they sent, it was more than obvious these gentlemen, Keith Gow and Don Murray, were very accomplished in their field. Keith Gow, the script writer and director of the films, had been part of the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) Film Unit in the 1950s and had made a series of films for the WWF on various industrial issues of the day. These earlier films are now a key historical heritage source.

I was tasked with liaising with Film Australia to oversee the production of the films. The process involved identifying the key points each film was to illustrate. Keith Gow would produce a draft script, it would be circulated amongst TUTA staff and final drafts approved by the Interim Committee. At Film Australia’s insistence, during production I would attend the film sets to ensure the scenes were technically correct and nothing occurred to compromise TUTA’s objectives as the client. To see Keith take an actor who was striving but somewhat off-balance in their performance, and with compassion, respect and humility cajole them without rancour or loss of dignity into an appropriate performance was something special, as it was all done right in front of fellow actors and crew. Keith controlled the day’s shoot without shouting or theatrics and he looked like an extra whilst his assistant appeared to run proceedings. When Keith needed to take control he would simply step forward and seemingly grow taller as you watched him establish direction and control by his mere presence. It was a great experience watching a director of Keith’s calibre in action. This particular film was being shot over a weekend in a government office in Sydney’s CBD. With the location available for only two days, combined with the vagaries of daylight and sometimes underperforming actors, to shoot three minutes of film in a day was considered very hard. Keith was regarded as a top exponent of such filming.

Now I know you are dying to know who acted in some of these films. In the trigger film ‘Changes at the Office’, Jacki Weaver played an office worker. Jacki was a talent then and a star now. InThe Claim’, Henri Szeps of ‘Mother and Son’ fame played a union official. The scenes were shot in the NSW Labour Council boardroom. You may well ask why working actors act in documentaries. If they were good, why wouldn’t they have been on TV or in films? Being in the entertainment industry is not like regular work. One has to find work for 365 days of the year. Film industry professionals are offered work by the hour, a session, half a day or, if lucky, a season. You can’t say no to an additional couple of hours work earlier in the day if you are performing elsewhere at night, as was Henri.

I have Keith Gow’s story book for the shooting of ‘The Claim’. A story book contains the outline of the film, the dialogue interposed with instructions for camera angles, head shots, alterations, potential alternatives, sketches – every detail of the script’s 80 minutes as the film is being made.

TUTA films were bought by companies/employers and were regarded as very effective training films. TUTA films also had an impact in educational circles both in NSW and in the Tasmanian Film Corporation that made films about unions and work. The NSW Education Department asked Film Australia to produce six training films for use in schools. At the first meeting the Department’s Director-General directed Keith Gow and Don Murray that they should go and look at the films that Film Australia had made for TUTA because that is what he wanted! He was unaware that his visitors were indeed the Director/Scriptwriter and Producer of the TUTA films.

‘The Claim’ also had an unexpected impact from a more international perspective. The script had been finalised, the film about to go into production, when a call came from Don Murray, the Producer, to say Film Australia wanted TUTA to come to a meeting in Sydney to discuss the viability of the proposed film in relation to its direction and aims. The reason for Murray’s request was Film Australia had shown the proposal to a couple of Canadian film experts, and the visiting experts were of the opinion it was a potential lemon. The experts/critics were the head of the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada and his wife, the Professor of Industrial Relations at a leading Canadian university. The NFB had made the film called ‘Do Not Fold, Staple, Spindle or Mutilate,’ in 1967. The title was taken from words written across cardboard punch cards, the cards system that was the forerunner of computerisation in the 1950s. The Professor had been the technical advisor for this film. TUTA had bought several NFB films including ‘Do Not Fold, Staple, Spindle or Mutilate’. The Dave Brubeck classic tune ‘Take Five’ was used as the music which matched the paper-making machinery to the noise and rhythm of the production line. (Brubeck had only charged the NFB the union rate). The irony was that I was an avid promoter of the NFB film, ‘Do Not Fold …’ both as an educational tool but also as an example of machinery and music in harmony. TUTA’s response to Film Australia’s request regarding the expert critics’ criticism was that Film Australia had produced six short training films – the triggers – all of them perceived to be successful training films and various parties thought TUTA and Film Australia were proceeding in the right direction. In my view TUTA’s and Film Australia’s experience with Keith Gow as its Director/Scriptwriter did not need to be questioned by anyone. It was surprising that Film Australia were listening to international critics of a project where they knew nothing about the client, the customer’s needs, nor had any known expertise in industrial relations in Australia. With the approval of my superiors, I declined to travel to Sydney to attend the proposed meeting. Our view was that if Film Australia were happy to meet with the critics, that was OK, but we were happy with the project and Film Australia’s expertise to date. (I should say I would have liked to meet both of the critics, as Canadian documentaries were world class.)

Keith Gow and Film Australia were not happy that I did not agree to have my name on the title of the films as technical advisor as I preferred at the time to see the College named instead. Hindsight of course would have me reversing my decision.

Keith Gow and Norma Disher of the
Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit at work
(National Film and Sound Archive Title No: 358539).
Reproduced with the permission of the Maritime Union of Australia.

The Film Legacy of Keith Gow

The following comments have been drawn from the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit, the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and Film Australia. We have also drawn from the book Fighting Films – A History of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit by Dr Lisa Milner published by Pluto Press in 2003.

Keith Gow had begun work on the Sydney waterfront in 1950.[1] Gow’s extensive catalogue began in the early-1950s with work on a number of feature films, but more critically important work was to begin with the establishment of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit (WWFFU) in 1953. 20th Century Fox filmed a number of productions in Australia with Australian themes. Kangaroo starred the Australian actor Chips Rafferty, alongside the American star Maureen O’Hara. Keith Gow was the cinematographer with the second film unit.

       Other films directed by and/or involving Keith Gow are listed by the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and include many documentaries and several features.

The WWF Film Unit Films

In 1953 the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF), forerunner of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), established a Film Unit consisting of only three people, Keith Gow, Jerome (Jock) Levy and Norma Disher. Keith and Jock worked as wharfies on Sydney’s Darling Harbour in Gang 364.

       As noted by Lisa Milner, the WWF leadership promoted education, arts and cultural activities especially in the Federation’s Sussex Street building. “The busy curriculum was encouraged by the actors, musicians and artists who, returning from World War II, could not find employment in their preferred occupation and went onto the wharves, where casual employment was the norm. Gang 364, filled with these activists, was dubbed ‘the Brains Trust”.[2]

       Norma Disher was active in the New Theatre in Sydney’s Newtown, working there in a variety of roles including costume design, with both Gow and Levy. Disher later worked for the WWF and the Federated Miscellaneous Worker’s Union (FMWU – now United Voice).

       The three shared tasks and credits for each of their films. At first the films were distributed around work sites using Keith Gow’s Indian motorcycle with sidecar.[3] This motorcycle appears in Bones of Building, made for the Building Workers’ Industrial Union (BWIU). Later the WWF bought the Unit a VW Kombi van for transport, distribution and screenings. Initially they were tasked by the WWF with making a film about a then-current WWF campaign – an attempt to obtain pensions for veteran waterside workers. It was to be the first of 13 WWF Film Unit productions over the next five years. Five films were made directly for the WWF, one for the BWIU, one for the Miners’ Federation, one for the Boiler Makers’ Society and another for the NSW Labour Council’s Sydney May Day Committee. Additionally, two films were made highlighting socio-political issues – one on Sydney’s inner-city housing needs and the other on public health issues in then-unsewered, working-class Bankstown (made to support the candidature of WWF official Ted Roach in a Bankstown Council election). The WWFFU also made two short animated films in conjunction with Link Films, showcasing Aboriginal art and Australian folk music.

WWFFU Films – 13 in chronological order:

Pensions for Veterans (1953, B&W 18 minutes) about the campaign for retirement pensions for veteran waterside workers – finally won in 1967. (More than 30 years on, the ACTU, through its Accords with the Hawke/Keating Governments, finally achieved industry-wide superannuation entitlements for all Australian workers);

The Hungry Miles (1954, B&W 25 minutes) documents the ‘bull’ system of casual labour hire and the harsh industrial conflicts faced by the WWF. It emphasises the need for solidarity and unity over individualism. In 1955 it became the first WWFFU film screened at a film festival when it screened at the Sydney Film Festival that year. It also won First Prize and a Gold Medal at the 1957 Warsaw Youth Festival;

November Victory (1955, B&W 14 minutes) describes the successful WWF struggle to maintain the crucial union right of hire for waterside workers;

WWF Newsreel No.1 (1956, B&W 11 minutes) – as an alternative to popular commercial newsreels the Unit made a newsreel on the wharves giving a worker point of view on a then-current industrial issue – the ‘Margins’ Dispute. The voice-over proclaims it was “a campaign to put the real facts before the people”. When showing this film, the Unit developed its signature slogan – ‘We Film the Facts’.

The Bones of Building (1956, B&W 24 minutes)wasthe first film made by the WWF Film Unit for another union, the BWIU. It highlights poor industrial safety in the building and construction industry and was shown at the 1956 Melbourne Film Festival. Like the films made for WWF members, this film proved popular when shown to BWIU members. Tom McDonald (later Federal Secretary of the BWIU and CFMEU) reported that, when first shown at a George Street Sydney construction site it “was popularly received with applause as it ended”, adding “it found a particularly receptive audience that day because an apprentice had been badly injured during the morning by a steel girder that was being unloaded”.[4] https://aso.gov.au/titles/sponsored-films/the-bones-of…/notes;

Banners Held High (1956, Colour 9 minutes) was made for the May Day Committee of the Trades and Labour Council of NSW and celebrates the spirit of May Day through union banners;

A Question of Health (1956, B&W 4 minutes) was made to support WWF official Ted Roach’s local government election campaign; it highlights health issues and links infectious diseases with the lack of sewerage in the rapidly growing Bankstown Council area of South Western Sydney;

Four’s a Crowd (1957, B&W 14 minutes) – a light slapstick comedy with a serious message about the dangers to other workers posed by individual members not completing shifts, shirking or drinking before work. As Milner points out[5], wharfies often use an array of humorous nick-names, such as ‘Nick-Away Ned’ (always knocking-off early), ‘London Fog’ (never lifts), ‘Cocaine’ (a slow-working dope), ‘Singlet’ (never off his back), and ‘Tiddly Pete’ (a drinker). Some of these were used in the film which was made to discourage such negative behaviours in the membership and combat the destructive stereotypes of waterside workers the WWF regularly encountered;

Hewers of Coal (1957, Colour and B&W 26 minutes) covers the eternal struggle between mine owners and miners and calls for the nationalisation of the industry. The film is set up by Keith Gow’s cinematography, when at the beginning, Gow deliberately focuses on the coal miner’s children. To prepare for the shooting of the film, filmmakers Jock Levy and Keith Gow spent time underground meeting Wollongong miners. The film was screened at the 1957 Sydney Film Festival. Narrated by Leonard Teale, aso.gov.au/titles/sponsored-films/hewers-of-coal/notes;

Land of Australia – Aboriginal Culture (1957, Colour 9 minutes) – an animation of two Aboriginal legends made in conjunction with Link Films. It also screened at the 1957 Sydney Film Festival and the 10th Jubilee International Film Festival in Czechoslovakia that year.

Click Go the Shears (1957/58, Colour 3 minutes) – also made in conjunction with Link Films to promote Australian folk music.

Not Only the Need (1957, B&W 20 minutes) about the poverty existing in post-WW2 housing in the (then tenement) suburbs of Paddington and Surry Hills in Sydney, and calling for a radical financial alternative for public housing. With an array of longish interviews – including ACTU President Albert Monk, together with some statistics, it was a style not liked by the WWFFU members. Keith Gow quipped it was ‘boring as batshit … it doesn’t look like a film we ever made’.[6]

Think Twice (1958, Colour 20 minutes) – a preventative industrial safety film made for another union – the Boilermakers’ Society. Screened at the 1958 Melbourne Film Festival.

In addition to these 13 WWFFU films made by Norma Disher, Keith Gow and Jock Levy, a further documentary was made about the Unit:

Film Work, (1981, Colour 43 minutes) directed by John Hughes with Disher, Gow and Levy credited as Executive Producers, it features candid, extensive interviews with the three film makers.

And a film making substantial use of the WWFFU films was this one:

Wharfies (1988, B&W and Colour 51 minutes) produced, written and directed by Elizabeth Knight and Keith Gow shortly before his death in 1987 provides a history of the Waterside Workers’ Federation from 1902.

The TUTA Training Films

As outlined in a related article by the same authors, Keith Gow, Director and Don Murray, Producer, from Film Australia made eight training films for TUTA in 1975 and 1976. These consisted of six ‘trigger’ films, covered in the other article, plus The Claim and TUTA.

Briefly, the six trigger films were:

            Interview (9 minutes);

            Facts (12 minutes);

            Report (9 minutes);

            Changes at the Office (11 minutes);

            Will you Join? (10 minutes; and

            A Personal Matter? (9 minutes).

The Claim (85 minutes) is a three-part narrative of, firstly, the development of a log (or list) of claims by workers and their union; secondly the sometimes complex industrial negotiations between the union and management; and thirdly the conciliation and arbitration of outstanding differences in an industrial relations tribunal.

TUTA (10 minutes) outlines how TUTA conducted its courses for all levels of union activity and the training methodologies, or pedagogy used.

Similarities in the Stories of the WWFFU and TUTA

In relating the stories of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit and the Trade Union Training Authority, it’s hard not to notice a number of parallels between the two bodies.

       First, both TUTA and the WWFFU were established through the inspired advocacy of individual leaders. Were it not for the strong support of WWF National Secretary Jim Healey and Sydney Branch Secretary Tom Nelson, it is unlikely that the WWFFU would have been established in 1953. In the case of TUTA, it was not the whole trade union movement that agitated for its establishment, but rather it was the inspiration and drive of Clyde Cameron, adult educators like Peter Matthews and leading members of the Interim Committee that brought about the public funding of union education and the establishment of TUTA in 1975. Second, both the WWF and TUTA clearly recognised the value of film as an educational and training tool and both were prepared to devote resources to the making of their own films.

       The last similarity between the two organisations concerns how they were each wound up. By 1958 the WWF had lost members through the mechanisation of cargo handling and couldn’t afford to fund the WWFFU on its own. The Federation approached the ACTU for assistance, suggesting the Film Unit could be used as a resource to make films for the whole trade union movement, but were apparently rebuffed. In the case of TUTA, in 1996 the conservative Howard federal government ceased public funding of TUTA and later introduced its aggressive WorkChoices agenda. The ACTU did not seize the opportunity to take over the resourcing of union-wide education, or try to buy the Clyde Cameron College in Albury/Wodonga, preferring instead to encourage individual unions to conduct their own training.


Keith Gow has been described in a Judith Adamson obituary as ‘one of Australia’s major documentary makers’.[7]

       The Fifth Façade (1971) Director, Keith Gow – the title is a reference to the roof, the Sydney Opera House’s most distinctive feature.

       Architect Jørn (1979) Director, Keith Gow. An excerpt from the Film Australia Collection’s The Fifth Facade, 1971, Film Australia Collection © NFSA. https://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries

       Archival footage from feature film Eureka Stockade. B/W. Film Australia coll. (1972) (7 minutes) Producer: John Morris, Director, Keith Gow.

       Spotlight the Director (1973, 13 Minutes). This short film study goes behind the scenes to show the making of the feature film Where Dead Men Lie. Director, Keith Gow. Film Australia http://shop.nfsa.gov.au/where-dead-men-lie~5202

       And Their Ghosts May Be Heard, (1975) Film Australia, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. (002802300). Director: Keith Gow; shop.nfsa.gov.au/and-their-ghosts-may-be-heard. The story is of a group of Australian unionists who travelled to Paraguay in 1893 to set up a utopian society – the New Australia Movement. Leaving worker’s strikes, bitterdepression and unemployment behind, a group of more than 200 Australian workers go to Paraguay in South America under the charismatic leadership of trade unionist William Lane. Their dream was to set up a utopian society to be run on true communist lines and the Australian principles of mateship and equality. Through interviews with descendants of those first settlers, And Their Ghosts May Be Heard tells the story of how the dream foundered and ultimately failed. It also explores the strong Australian identity that has passed down the generations and follows the journey of the youngest grandson Peter Wood, who has returned to live in the land of his forefathers. The film was shown on Australian television on the night of 11 November 1975. History of Australian Cinema Series shop.nfsa.gov.au/history-of-Australian-cinema-series – NFSA https://faclibrary.com/Title-Details.aspx?tid=1051&titlename

       Our Asian Neighbours – Indonesia (1975). Our Asian Neighbours is a series of films that aim to convey everyday life in Asia and to promote greater understanding. shop.nfsa.gov.au/our-Asian-neighbours-Indonesia shop.nfsa.gov.au

       Mastri – A Balinese Woman (1975, 50 minutes) Director, Keith Gow, Producer Caroline Jones. This film contrasts normal village life with tourist Bali, and shows something of the religious life of the people of Tunjuk. This compelling six-part series was originally produced for the Australian Heritage Commission.

       Now You’re Talking (1979), Director Keith Gow. The third part of Film Australia’s history of Australian Film production, a history of Australian film between 1930 and 1940 when ‘talking’ pictures replaced silent films.

       Accident (1980) Director, Keith Gow. Based on a real-life story about an accident and workers’ compensation. Film produced as Instructional Accident.

       November Victory (1981). In an interview for John Hughes’ documentary on the work of the WWF Film Unit, Keith Gow talks about the influence of Soviet directors on his production company, the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit. Cast includes Leonard Teale, with the foreman on the site played by one of the film’s directors, Jock Levy.

       History of Australian Cinema Series – Film Australia, and the work of director Raymond Longford among material from 50 newsreels, 16 feature films and stills: (1983, 19 minutes) Producer: Elisabeth Knight, Director Keith Gow. Keith Gow meets and interviews a fellow former waterfront worker, now a Waterfront Watchman in his 80s – Raymond Longford who was the most assured and successful Australian filmmaker of early 20th century Australian cinema. The Raymond Longford Award is now the most prestigious award in Australian cinema.

       Women of Utopia (1984), produced by Film Australia for the National Aboriginal Development Committee and directed by Keith Gow. Women of Utopia features the work of Aboriginal women living on Utopia Station near Alice Springs that now feature in the Australian National Gallery, Canberra and sell to galleries and museums throughout the world. One of the featured artists is Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who has subsequently received world-wide recognition and many accolades since the film was produced.

       On the Job: Ticket to Ride (1984). The On the Job series consists of seven films illustrating some of the employment opportunities available to Aboriginal people. We visit people in the north and south. 19 minutes. Film Australia shop.nfsa.gov.au/on-the-job-ticket-to-ride.

       ACTU Occupational Health and Safety Films (c.1987) Director Keith Gow. The films were titled: Whose Fault? – a story about a machine operator who had an accident at work; and A Pain in the Neck – involving typing pool staff and repetitive strain injury (RSI).

Feature Films

       Kangaroo (1952) Keith Gow Property, Special Effects and in charge of Second Unit.

       Return to Paradise (shot in Samoa 1953) Keith Gow, Property

       Long John Silver (Australia’s first Cinemascope film, 1953) Keith Gow, Property.

       Smiley Gets a Gun (1958), Director Anthony Kimmins, Special Effects Keith Gow.[8]

       The Summer of the 17th Doll (1959)Director Leslie Korman, Electrics Keith Gow.

       Where Dead Men Lie (1972)Director, Keith Gow. An important historical film made by Film Australia. In 1898, in the very early years of Australian film making, Henry Lawson developed a film script/scenario entitled The Australian Cinematograph based on a poem called Where Dead Men Lie by Henry Barcroft Boake, http://www.boake.net/deadmen.html. Film Australia used the Lawson script as the basis for a film to commemorate the 50th year of Lawson’s death. The film is about a group of drovers losing their lives as a result of drought. Their neighbours come to break the news to the family in the green valleys of southern Australia. In a key scene, the search party arrives at a dry water hole, and there front and centre lies a drover’s hat in the dry bed. Des Hanlon recalls that, ‘Keith Gow used to tell the story of how his assistant was told to buy that hat from a drover in the bar of an outback pub and not to come back without it. The hat cost $30, a stunning feature in a film that cost $30,000’.

       The Cars that Ate Paris (1974, 189 minutes), https://aso.gov.au/titles/features/cars-ate-paris/credits/  Producer, Jim McElroy, Hal McElroy. Director Peter Weir. Screenplay by Peter Weir from a story by Keith Gow and Piers Davies. An Australian cinema classic.

  Dedicated to Keith Charles Gow, working class filmmaker,
born Merewether NSW, 27 March 1921, died 5 November 1987.
(See Obituary: Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 1987)


[1]      Lisa Milner, Fighting Films : a history of the Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit, Pluto Press, North Melbourne, Vic. 2003. ch. 3, p. 42.

[2]      Ibid., ch. 2, pp. 23-24.

[3]      Ibid., ch. 3, p. 64.

[4]      Tom McDonald, personal interview 16 November 1997 with Milner, Fighting Films, ch. 3, p. 62.

[5]      Ibid., ch. 4, pp. 109-110.

[6]      Ibid., ch. 4, p. 118.

[7]      Judith Adamson, quoted by Milner, Fighting Films, ch. 3, p. 59.

[8]      Ibid., ch. 3, p. 59.