Long before the internet, hashtags and cat videos were invented, anti-poverty fighters were tapping into the power of film.
In the 1940s the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s founder, Father Gerard Tucker, created some powerful images in the struggle against poverty. In the spirit of Charlie Chaplin, the maverick Anglican priest commissioned three short, silent films which were screened to audiences in the affluent suburbs of Melbourne and rural Victoria .
For Anti-Poverty Week (October 16-22), the Brotherhood has remastered the films as a short video for the digital age.
The Brotherhood’s original films were ground-breaking activism for their times. They offered some of the first social realist documentation of Australia’s inner city slums – in particular Melbourne’s oldest suburb, Fitzroy – and exposed the hardship endured by families after the vicissitudes of the Great Depression and Second World War.
When then Victorian Premier Thomas Hollway declared he was too busy to see the films, Tucker promoted the screenings as “The Films the Premier Does Not Dare See”.
The trilogy of films were called Beautiful Melbourne, Gaol Does Not Cure and These Are Our Children. All were made on a shoestring budget between in 1946-47 and ran for just over an hour in total.
Each instalment showed the stark poverty of the day using both real-life footage and actors. The films were made by Ken Coldicutt and Jack Fitzsimmons, two well-known progressive film makers of the 1940s who were connected with the leftist Realist Film Unit, an association that documented working class life.
At screenings a presenter would provide the audience anecdotes and stark statistics, demonstrating how much higher rates of death, sickness and infant mortality were among those who lived in the slums of Fitzroy than among those who lived in the middle-class suburbs where most of the viewing audience lived.
Beautiful Melbourne with its raw scenes of the pre-gentrified Fitzroy exposed the living conditions of a family living in overcrowded, dilapidated and vermin-infested housing.
These Are Our Children told the story of a teenage boy and girl – actually child actors – who have little to occupy their time, and end up in the Children’s Court.
Gaol Does Not Cure, also filmed in Fitzroy, showed the effects of chronic alcoholism and the frequent consumption of methylated sprits as a cheap alternative to alcohol. Rather than criminalising addiction, as was the dominant approach, the film depicted alcoholism as a sickness as it is now regarded by health professionals.
Poverty in Australia looks different than it did in the 1940s but welfare groups tell us it’s often more invisible – but it is growing – and can be defined as far more than people lacking income.
Poverty can also mean being shut out from many other aspects of mainstream social and economic life that people commonly take for granted: a job, a home, being connected to community, even having access to reliable public transport.
You can read the Brotherhood’s latest ‘Social Exclusion Monitor’ which offers a nuanced picture of what hardship means in modern Australia here.
Watch the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s cat video (yes, they’ve done one of those too).