Petrofilm and the Shell Film Unit

The 1940s was a crucial time for Australian documentary. In 1940, John Grierson, the reputed “father of British documentary” visited Australia and extolled the importance of the genre for nation building. Government sponsored documentary was a key media form. It was supported by institutions such as the Film Division of the Department of Information and later the Australian National Film Board. Far from simple propaganda or educational films, the film units of the time created a vibrant documentary culture in Australia.

Documentary was also part of the geopolitics of imperialism. It contributed to a broader context in which, from the 1920s, cinema was deployed by corporate entities and governments (and partnerships between the two) in order to further global capitalism in a range of locations and modalities. This contributed to the consistent take up of documentary by oil companies in the 20th century. The public relations agenda of oil companies has recognised the potential of moving image culture in sophisticated ways, going beyond predictable advertising forms to more comprehensively, as Mona Damluji observes, “seamlessly equate the story of oil with the experience of modernity”.

This study explores the work of Royal Dutch Shell in the postwar era, especially the operation of the Shell Film Unit Australia (SFUA), exploring how petrofilm connected petroleum culture, documentary film culture and ways of perceiving the nonhuman environment.

The Back of Beyond. (1954), produced and directed by John Heyer


Smaill, Belinda. “Petromodernity, the Environment and Historical Film Culture.” Screen. 62.1 (2021): 59-77.   

This article investigates the history of production, distribution and documentary representation within the sphere of the Shell Film Unit Australia. It examines how the mobile film units deployed in the Australian outback offer a way of considering the conjunction of environment and film practice. It also attends to the SFUA’s production schedule with close analysis of both prestige documentary and explicitly promotional, utilitarian film. The analysis focuses on two very different films, The Forerunner (John Heyer, 1958) and Let’s Go (John Heyer, 1956) , examples that are compelling because they provide two distinct ways of understanding the natural environment. As popular cultural artefacts, these films were produced and circulated to both fulfil the SFUA agenda and appeal to audiences of the period. They show us the cultural imagination of the time and how it was shaped in ways that histories of science and policy pertaining to the environment cannot.


“While there have been important studies of the film practices of, in particular, Shell and British Petroleum, almost none have undertaken detailed critical studies of the relationship between popular knowledge about the natural environment and what I refer to as petrofilm culture (or the institutions, films, personnel and distribution of film produced by oil companies).”

“The moment before the environment takes hold as an idea is also a moment when companies such as Shell were willing to provide film units both with funds and creative freedom. In the two film examples I have discussed, it is possible to perceive how film practitioners in Australia interpreted Shell’s agenda in ways that also aligned with their own cinematic aspirations”

“The SFUA films, beyond a preoccupation with a generic outback vista, do not provide a consistent catalogue of iconography, whether species or landscapes. This may be because the primary audience was a domestic one who needed to be convinced that Shell was “with them,” rather than an international audience who likely would have been appeased by familiar tropes.”

Key Films:

The Forerunner (1957)

Let’s Go (1956)

The Back of Beyond (1954)

Women and the Rise of Environmental Documentary

As the crisis facing the planet becomes more pressing, documentary filmmaking that seeks to raise awareness and trigger the social and political change that is needed to confront environmental problems is growing in momentum. The release of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 was a watershed moment, demonstrating the impact that documentary could achieve, and documentary is now a key arena for understating the work of environmental media. The production of environmental documentary in Australia has intensified over the last 6-7 years. This has occurred in tandem with the increasing opportunities for funding “social issue” filmmaking through philanthropy. In recent years we have seen the production of documentaries such as 2040 (Damon Gameau, 2019), The Leadership (Ili Bare, 2020), Frackman (Richard Todd, 2015), Blue (Karina Holden, 2017), Wild Things (Sally Ingleton, 2020), River (Jennifer Peedom, 2022), and The Seeds of Vandana Shiva (Camilla Becket, 2021).

This study is concerned with the key role of women in the rise of environmental documentary, exploring the institutions that shape opportunities for women filmmakers and how women have come to the fore in the new wave of environmental documentary in Australia, both in front of and behind the camera.


Smaill, Belinda. “Understanding Environmentalism as a Feminist Media Concern: Documentary Filmmaking, Argumentation, Advocacy and Industry.” Feminist Media Studies (2021) (10.1080/14680777.2021.1979072)

Women consistently play key roles in environmental documentary filmmaking, whether behind or in front of the camera. This essay explores the nexus of documentary filmmaking, women and environment. It examines the Australian documentary sector, tracking changing pathways of opportunity for women working in documentary production, particularly in relation to the causal connections between the rise of philanthropic funding and environmental documentary. 

Smaill, Belinda. “Women, Feminism and New Environmental Documentary,” Docking Magazine, Dec 2020. 

This is an essay written for Docking, a South Korean documentary magazine. It discusses contemporary feminism and documentary, examining the relevance of environmental documentary in Australia for women filmmakers. It offers a discussion of Wild Things, a documentary about environmental movements that also shows the importance of female voices in activist campaigns.

Smaill, Belinda. “Bodies on the Line: Sally Ingleton’s Wild Things and Australian Environmental Documentary,” Metro 207 (2021)

Key Films

Blue (2017)

Wild Things (2020)

The Leadership (2020)

Sir David Attenborough in Australia

Sir David Attenborough is the most well-known figure associated with audiovisual media and environment globally. His television work has pioneered new modes of nonfiction, particularly the “landmark” style of blockbuster series. Attenborough has, moreover, invited collective global engagement with the Australian environment in a way that no other individual has. This study sets out to examine the role that Attenborough, as a broadcaster, has played in the changing relationship between audiences and the Australian environment. He is an interesting figure not least because his onscreen associations with Australia span the 1960s to the present day, making him a prominent feature across the decades addressed by this project.  

Sir David Attenborough “in the parched deserts of Australia where flowers only bloom after brief rains”


Smaill, Belinda. “Historicising David Attenborough’s Nature: Nation, Continent, Country and Environment.” Celebrity Studies ( 2021) (10.1080/19392397.2020.1855995) 

Examining just a small portion of the television that Attenborough has produced in Australia, this article focuses on a particular style of programming– “blue chip” natural history programming and the two series that bookend Attenborough’s work as a presenter “in” and “of” Australia—Quest Under Capricorn (1963) and Life in Cold Blood (2008). It is attuned to historical and contemporary cultures of colonisation and how these are located within the values and practices of blue-chip natural history programming. Despite his standing, there remain many unanswered questions about this public figure. For the purposes of this research, the most salient demand is to understand not only Attenborough himself, but to offer equal weight to the human and nonhuman world he brings to audiences.

Key Quotes:

On Quest Under Capricorn (1963): “Not only does the focus on place emphasise continent, above nation, the singular elaboration of Attenborough’s expository narration eclipses any possibility of an understanding of country.”

“While fitting with an imperial ethos, Australia as the remote “elsewhere,” and the site of ancient indigenous culture (albeit through the lens of primitivism), offer a rupture and destabilise the premise of nation building based on “nature as resource” – that the empty continent is simply available to fuel white settler modernity.”

On Life in Cold Blood (2008): “This more mature Attenborough, again in situ in the Australian landscape, feeds into the visual imagination of a natural world uncluttered by, paradoxically, invasive species and the untidiness of human invasion and settlement, whether indigenous or non-indigenous, by taking us to a moment that never existed—a contact moment of discovery where terra nullius was a reality.”  

Key TV Series:

Quest Under Capricorn (1963)

Life In Cold Blood (2008)

Resource-extraction and the moving image in Broken Hill

Photograph by Melanie Ashe

Since the region began the industrial extraction of various minerals in the 1880s, the area surrounding Broken Hill has been profoundly entangled with moving image cultures and practices. Whether it is through the extraction and chemical processing of silver nitrate to produce celluloid, or via the use of cobalt within the batteries of most screen devices today, the physical environment in the region, and the raw materials excavated from it, informs and cultivates the moving image and its surrounding infrastructure.

Illuminating an under-examined commonality between the moving image in Australia and mining history, this PhD project investigates how the materiality and industrial-extraction of the Australian landscape is entangled in the moving image through practices of manufacture, representation, and the entanglement of other cultural industries, such as tourism. Due to the region’s relationship to both filmmaking and mining, this project expands on this inextricable interconnection through an examination of moving images connected to Broken Hill (NSW) and surrounds.

While the project aims to reveal an important material and cultural nexus between moving images and environmental histories from the region, this material relationship is not typically explicitly addressed in documentary film and more broadly, screen media from the region. Most often, neither is the settler-colonial violence and extractive relationship to the land that forms the backdrop of the resource industry in Australia.

The first stage of the project investigates historical documentary films produced about the mining and extraction process in Broken Hill. Predominantly produced by government film bodies such as the Australian Film Unit, the project interrogates the role these films have in historicising mining in relation to Australia’s narrative as a successful and modern nation. How the films frame the surrounding physical region as a means of extraction will also be scrutinised, particularly in terms of this settler-extractive relationship to the land and Indigenous peoples during and after European settlement.

The project also explores how popular film narratives and surrounding cultural tourism from the area shape the popular imaginary of the Australian Environment, particularly in relation to the mythologised ‘outback’ zones so commonly included in on-location shooting in the region.

Current questions framing this research include:

  • How has the resource industry shaped and impacted the spaces proximate to Broken Hill, and how has this been explicitly or implicitly documented through the moving image?
  • How have film cultures in Broken Hill and surrounds shaped the public imagination of the Australian environment, particularly in relation resource extraction and popularly represented geographic zones such as ‘the outback’?

Key Documentary Films:


A full list of feature films made in the area, compiled by the Broken Hill City Council

For an insight into some of the moving images documenting the region, go to the NFSA Broken Hill Time Capsule