Preserving the Veteran legacy at ACMI

Veteran Jan McCarthy and a local child in Vietnam

Veteran Jan McCarthy and a local child in Vietnam

“In Our Words: Stories from Victorian Veterans” is a four year Digital Storytelling partnership with the Department of Planning and Community Development (DPCD) and the Shrine of Remembrance.  It is an ambitious project which aims to capture over 200 digital stories of Victorian veterans and their families to create an important and accessible legacy.

In its second year, the program has seen the intrepid ACMI Digital Storytelling team visit Swan Hill, Bendigo, Sale and soon Horsham on a quest to collect their diverse stories of service. As well as these excursions, they’ve also hosted an amazing group of men and women in ACMI’s Studio 2 computer lab.

Alf Maskell and friends in Ban Pong, site of the World War II POW camps.

Alf Maskell and friends in Ban Pong, site of the World War II POW camps.

Each workshop has unearthed fascinating and moving revelations about the experiences these men and women have had, across a range of conflicts from World War II through to more contemporary conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

In February this year, for example, our team spent three days with a group of highly esteemed Indigenous war veterans, including members of the Lovett, Saunders and Peters families, who have contributed richly to public life in Australia. Though some of their stories told of great injustice, loss, hurt and rage at their treatment after the war, they also told of great pride in serving their country, in the bonds they had formed with their mates (both Indigenous and Caucasian), and their continuing battle to ensure Indigenous service is recognised.

We were also joined by some students from Northland Secondary College, making for a lively workshop with many opportunities for the uncles and aunties to share some of their insights with a younger generation.

Video: Ricky Morris is the 21st member of the Lovett family to see active service for Australia

Video: Eric Peters only knew his dad through the records left behind – letters that came through the censors at a POW camp – and old photos.

In April the public were invited to join us in a panel discussion in Cinema 1, featuring Paul Penno (psychologist and former Digital Storytelling workshop participant), Marina Larsson (oral historian), Liz Beattie (Parliamentary Secretary for Veterans Affairs) and Michael Veitch (author and TV personality).  Reflecting on capturing first person stories, the panel discussed the therapeutic and historical significance of a project like “In Our Words”.  Other activities included screenings of a selection of stories in Studio 1 and specially curated video programs in the Mediatheque (which is still available to view today).

Image courtesy: Frank Cox

Image courtesy: Frank Cox

In June, Eugenia Lim, Josh Burns, Nick Wightman, Shelley Matulick and I were welcomed by a convivial host, Neville Gibbons, at the Sale RSL. While we couldn’t tempt Neville into telling his own story, he provided a fascinating running commentary of everyone else’s stories throughout the workshop. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of the service history of the region, Neville was often able to identify exact model of a plane, ship or gun we were puzzling over. We were also embraced by the local media during our stay, who were keen to get the low down on the collaboration between the veterans and students from Sale College.  The students were there to practice their media and history skills,  and proved to be invaluable to the workshop.

Throughout the project we’ve gathered some cracking stories. Charlie Safstrom, a sniper during WW2, told of nearly being shot in the middle of the night by a fellow digger. Peg Osborne recounted her glory days as a parachute worker where she met and nabbed a dashing young man who went on to become her husband. John Hansen, who had sadly just been diagnosed with cancer as the workshop began, demonstrated his immense bravery by continuing to work with us for two days to help complete his fascinating story of post-war service in the Navy, transporting war brides to America, and fuel to an impoverished Europe.

Image courtesy: Frank Cox

Image courtesy: Frank Cox

It’s humbling to be in the presence of these hereos and to share their stories. The subjective nature of the Digital Storytelling process, with its high level of collaboration, only serves to make the stories more powerful. Everyone  working on these projects has developed an acutely altered appreciation for Australia’s servicemen and women, and what they’ve been through for this country, not becuase of nationalistic pride or through jingoistic ideals of war, but through having heard first hand accounts of experiences which seem unimaginable now. It’s a bit like being admitted to a secret club, where you can hear incredible, mind-blowing stories that no-one else knows about.

The best thing about this secret club, however, is that everyone can be part of it.  All the stories will be available for viewing in an online video gallery hosted by the DPCD and incorporated into exhibitions at The Shrine of Remembrance. A selection of stories already online can be viewed here and here.

Jessie Scott, ACMI Events co-ordinator.

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