By KIERAN FINNANE
“You’ve read the book, now see the movie.”
True story: A beautiful half-hour documentary, called Peace Pilgrims, based on my 2020 book Peace Crimes, will go to air on the ABC’s Compass program this month.
It’s the work of John Hughes, a multi-award-winning Melbourne-based filmmaker who has a 50 year career behind him in making drama and documentary for cinema, television and on-line. His films range over subjects in Australian art, politics and history, along with a number of works on radical Australian film.
When he read Peace Crimes – centred on the story of six non-violent activists who walked onto the Pine Gap military base in 2016 – his interest in the issues was already primed.
Since early 2018 he has been working on a project called Twilight Time, a feature-length documentary about the life and work of Desmond Ball.
He became aware of Ball’s work through Richard Tanter (left), a Melbourne friend and colleague – and a key contributor to Peace Crimes – who with Ball and others has done so much to expose the inner workings of the Pine Gap base to the public. Their research, complex yet accessible, is gathered on the California-based Nautilus Institute site here.
“Admiring Richard’s stamina and erudition over many years, I felt that I wanted to contribute something and a film around the work and life of Des Ball could be a vehicle for this,” says Hughes.
“Sadly he’s no longer with us and I hadn’t managed to film with him before he became ill. He died in October 2016 – shortly after the Peace Pilgrims’s visit to Pine Gap as it happens.
“He was a fascinating man. He wrote the groundbreaking book on Pine Gap, A Suitable Piece of Real Estate published in 1981, and maintained an interest in keeping on top of what was being done there, along with Richard and others, right up until the time of his death.
“He was not a pacifist. He defended the base for many years on the grounds that it was essential for monitoring arms agreement compliance, but then as the functions of the base shifted dramatically he revised that view.
Peace Pilgrim Jim Dowling
“Twilight Time will attend to a number of other research projects Des took on over the course of an extraordinary career. He published an enormous amount, in diverse fields.
“As an Australian ‘insurgent intellectual’, I felt he was well and truly a worthy figure to honour – just as we admire Nugget Coombs and Judith Wright, about whom I made a film in 2013, called Love & Fury.”
So Pine Gap was definitely on Hughes’s radar, but what drew him to pause and make this film, about a tiny group of activists, when there have been so many over the years?
“Well I was persuaded and inspired by your book – and intrigued to learn more about the theology and practice of the Catholic Worker movement.”
It was the same for me: I was persuaded and inspired by the Pilgrims’s conduct of the case brought against them in the Supreme Court for what was really a simple trespass offence but prosecuted under draconian Defence legislation.
They got the ‘sledge-hammer to crack a walnut’ treatment and handled it with grace under fire, taking the opportunity to focus attention on the troubling role of Pine Gap – our friendly neighbourhood ‘Space Base’ – in deadly drone attacks launched in countries Australia is not at war with.
Like Hughes, I wanted to understand more: what drove their persistent dedication, their readiness to take risks, to face the consequences, including the possibility of serious time behind bars. I had 200+ pages to tell the story. Hughes has managed it with eloquence in a half-hour, though of course, as he says, the film and book are “such different beasts”.
“I wish that there was more time to develop other aspects of the Pilgrims’ life choices and commitments – Franz’s community work in Brisbane, Jim and Anne’s very energy-efficient modest approach to life in Southern Queensland, Margaret’s energetic activism around the burgeoning weapons industries here in Australia and so on.
“I would have loved to have been able to say much more about the Catholic Worker tradition, and the New Zealand Ploughshares group and such.”
With more space, my book touches on some of all this.
So, will the Pilgrims’s story become part of the bigger Twilight Time story? I ask.
Although Twilight Time is a separate project, Hughes sees an opportunity in the sequences around the American bases (Pine Gap is the biggest but not the only one in Australia to interest Ball) to offer a more comprehensive treatment of the responses to them, the scholarship, the strategic analysis and the resistance, the latter including the North West Cape actions of the early 1970s, the Women’s Peace Camp at Pine Gap in 1983, and on through the ensuing decades.
Some fascinating archival footage of these events is woven into Peace Pilgrims.
Some of the fresh footage was filmed in Alice Springs where Hughes visits “at any opportunity” and he was pleased to draw on the help and skills of local filmmakers like Shane Mulcahy and Fiona Walsh, as well as Suzanne Bryce.
He made a special effort to hear from Arrernte custodians about their thoughts on the base, interviewing Peter ‘Coco’ Wallace Peltharre and Felicity Hayes on their country in the vicinity of the base. Why did he feel this was important?
Peter ‘Coco’ Wallace Peltharre and Felicity Hayes
“Well, it’s Aboriginal land,” is the obvious answer, as it was for the Pilgrims. When they were asked whether they had permission to enter the base, they said they did – “from the people who really matter.”
Hughes was also keen to learn about how relations were managed between Traditional Owners and Custodians and the authorities. Viewers will probably not be surprised to hear Peltharre say, “Nobody explained this to the Elders. Still no explanation, we got nothing. We didn’t know about this.”
Says Hughes: “I think this has a complicated history that we haven’t fully unravelled yet. And you think of this pattern – the Maralinga Tjarutja people and others impacted by the British missile tests out of Woomera in the 1960s, the atomic bomb tests at Emu Field and Maralinga.
“These ghastly oppressive and continuing colonial practices of ‘great powers’ toward Indigenous peoples is emblematic in a way of the situation all Australians might come to recognise more forcefully, as we find ourselves herded into whatever schemes our ‘dangerous allies’ are planning after such ‘marvellous’ work in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.”
I make an appearance in the film too, as does Richard Tanter and the photographer Kristian Laemmle-Ruff (above right), whose iconic image of the base was my wake-up call in 2016, provoking my interest in the Pilgrims’s action, their subsequent legal battles and the broader issues.
For us here in Alice Springs – host to the base, its beneficiaries in some respects, its potential sacrificial lambs also – the issues come, or should come, into sharp relief, compelling us to ask what are our responsibilities to one another, locally and globally, and to country, to the planet.
Prodding us to answer those questions was the task the Pilgrims gave themselves, that I gave myself. Now Hughes’s engrossing documentary takes up the challenge.
Peace Pilgrims premieres on Compass this Sunday, 8 August, ABC Plus (formerly ABC Comedy) at 8pm. It goes to air again on the ABC (main channel) on August 15, 6.30pm, and August 22, 11am.
Photos are stills from the film, courtesy John Hughes, except for the photo at top, courtesy the Pilgrims. It shows them outside the Alice Springs local court, after their first appearance, on the day of the trespass in 2016. From left, Margaret Pestorius, Franz Dowling, Andy Paine, Timothy Webb, and Jim Dowling. Hughes’s film focusses on the Dowlings, father and son, and Margaret Pestorius.
Below: A graphic from the film showing the adaptation of Laemmle-Ruff’s photograph to become the cover of my book.