Friday, 29 May 2015

Movie review: The Dalfram Dispute 1938, Pig Iron Bob, dir Sandra Pires (2015)

In late 1938, the South Coast Branch of the Waterside Workers Federation refused to load pig iron onto the "Dalfram", a ship due to deliver the cargo to Japan. The Port Kembla workers had decided that Japan was the aggressor in a war against a peaceful nation and their action enraged BHP, who owned the pig iron, a precursor material in the production of steel. The workers thought that the Japanese would soon be fighting against Australia and their refusal to provide Japan with the raw material for bullets brought them to the attention of the Trade Minister in the Lyons government, Robert Menzies.

Leading the workers on the dock was Ted Roach, a member of the Community Party. Menzies did everything possible to try to force the workers to go back to work and to load the Dalfram and eventually he was successful. In the end, however, Menzies ended up on the wrong side of history because the Japanese eventually did try to invade Australia and the Chinese did end up being Australia's largest trading partner.

It's hard for me to feel sorry for Menzies, although my father was a big fan of the man the Port Kembla wharf workers labelled "Pig Iron Bob". Ironically my mother's father was a card-carrying member of the Community Party. So I have in my cultural gene pool representatives from both camps: the conservative and the progressive. Where do I fit in? I have to admit that while watching this movie I felt a strong urge to cheer at times, such as when other workers in Australia decided to donate money to support the striking workers in Port Kembla. Although Menzies, who visited Nazi Germany in the late-1930s and found much to admire there, ended up leading Australia as prime minister for 18 years, he flatly fails to impress me today, in 2015, when I look back on his legacy, and I find his apologists to resemble a bunch of wispy-looking fools who cravenly rely on incongruities as they assemble the wherewithal to stake their claim to leadership in the here-and-now.

The movie was obviously produced on a shoestring. The repetitive soundtrack does it no great service. An alternative score might have saved certain scenes from appearing dull. Overall, however, the message is worthy. It's just a pity the filmmakers and their Chinese supporters were unable for the screening to invite anyone from the Japanese side. The bulk of the audience for example was made up of ethnic Chinese and the screening was organised by a Chinese economic and cultural association. The Chinese consul-general was there and made a speech as did Senator Sam Dastyari.

But if we are to avoid war in the future in the western Pacific it's not enough to celebrate the strong bonds between Australia and China, however durable they might be. We must also recognise how far Japan has come in its journey from fascism to representative democracy in the modern era. As the movie points out, however, Japan also has a responsibility: to make sure the historical record is accurate, especially in its school curriculum.

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