Australian National Film Board

Although the Federal Government in Canberra had established a wartime Information Department to service the press and radio, it took several months before they were convinced that something more than photographs and newsreels was needed. Being a member of both the New South Wales Government Film Committee and the Prime Minister’s Propaganda Committee, John took every opportunity to enthuse fellow committee members and the Minister about the need for a National Film Board along the lines of the board that documentary maker John Grierson had established in Canada, with a professional film production unit capable of producing dramatic films such as the British and Americans were making, films like London Can Take It and To The Shores of Iwa Jima.

In 1945 when the Minister for Postwar Reconstruction asked these committees for postwar recommendations they were well primed to put forward a case for a National Film Board. Fortunately these committees had some significant thinkers who were either professors or heads of national institutions such as the National Library – especially Alan Stout, Harold White and D.W.K. Duncan. Their status gave the Film Board campaign rather more leverage than John felt he had.

 

When the National Film Board was finally created, applicants were invited for the role of executive producer.  John applied and got the job.  At this stage, the Film Board did not have a production budget but it had the power to request the existing Department of Information to engage the producers, directors and technicians needed for the production of films financed by any department requesting a film. One of its first moves was to request the DOI to engage John permanently to produce and direct nominated films.

The Film Board’s first client was the Department of External Territories whose Minister (The Hon E. J. Ward) recognised the value of a film for public release at home and abroad to put the case for Australia’s claim for trusteeship of New Guinea – which was soon to become a major item on the agenda of the newly formed United Nations at Lake Placid, the UN’s first home before moving to permanent quarters in New York.

John Heyer editing Native Earth

This led to Native Earth in 1946 which John wrote, directed and produced in New Guinea and which was purchased by MGM for national release.  It won ‘Film of the Week’ Notices in the National Press and was nominated for an Academy award. After it was screened to the UN, the Minister phoned John from Lake Placid to tell him that, in his opinion, it did more to win the Trusteeship of New Guinea for Australia than any of the other material and arguments he presented.

That same year, Janet became pregnant again and gave birth to a son in April. They christened him Frederick George – the family’s names for several generations of males on the Heyer side. Unfortunately, the doctor’s prediction that Janet would be unlikely to experience the same difficulties as she had with Elizabeth proved wrong; although while her post-natal illness was distressing, it certainly was not as severe as after Elizabeth. The doctors named it ‘puerperal disease’ – an infliction with which girls in the 17th and even 18th century were sometimes identified as witches and burnt at the stake!

In 1947, John produced and directed Journey of a Nation for the Department of Transport which aimed to convince the Australian Parliament and public of the importance of upgrading the railway gauge system and converting the three different state railway gauges to one standard gauge right across the continent from east to west.  At that time, trains had to unload and reload passengers and freight at each break of gauge between the states.

A clipping from To-day's Cinema from July 5, 1949

Journey of a Nation was followed by films for the Department of Commerce - Men and Mobs that year, and Turn the Soil, The Cane Cutters and Born In the Sun in 1948.  

 

John reveals that being salaried by the Film Board but engaged by the Department of Information was not all plain sailing. The DOI was staffed mainly by public servants suddenly moved to wartime activities far from their normal information services about routine government business for press and radio.  They regarded the film makers rather as an elite, from playboys to communists, who had to be suffered rather than assisted. John recalls the type of objections he encountered: “The cameramen needed tripods!; the music had to be specially written; a week on location to film a mob of sheep; what next?”  This may all sound trivial.  It was, but it was also very time consuming and irritating.  

 

John began to get sick of it and bemoan the inability of the Board to create the wholesome atmosphere that film making needed. However, the unpleasant current which permeated their first months considerably softened when their films began continually to receive wide distribution, and national and international accolades.

In 1948 John made his last film for The National Film Board, The Valley Is Ours, a documentary about the Murray River Valley, its significance to the Australian economy and the challenges of those living and working around it.  UNESCO named it ‘One of the most significant films of the year.’