This case study contributes to knowledge about the cultural history of energy in Australia by exploring a formative moment in the production of documentary and the expansion of energy industries—the post-war reconstruction of the 1940s and 50s.
Two films, The Valley is Ours (1948) and The Back of Beyond (1954) are the focus of this study. Promoting the ongoing industrialisation of the Murray Valley, The Valley is Ours was produced by the Australian National Film Board (ANFB) and emphasises the potential of hydro development and a new system of dams for enhancing the prosperity of the valley and the nation. The Back of Beyond was produced by the Shell Film Unit in Australia (SFUA) and tells the story of the postal run across 800kms of The Birdsville Track in the hot, dry Australian outback. Its aim was to align Shell Oil with the struggles faced by the nation. These films have been thoroughly discussed by film scholars as landmarks in Australian cinema history. These are landmark films of the time and they also offer great insight into the way documentary functioned as a modality of public relations that was national in scope and facilitated the innovative promotion of energy industries. Significantly, both of these important films were directed by John Heyer.
It is not remarkable that sponsored and government film in the 40s and 50s focused on the links between nation building and primary resources—this was a pivotal combination that drove post-war reconstruction. It is also not surprising that the natural environment was rendered in sound and image—the continent’s natural resources were crucial to the prosperity of the nation as it emerged after the war. The Valley is Ours and The Back of Beyond, however, are remarkable as both highly accomplished documentaries and examples that encourage a sensory and affective engagement with the environment that recognises how people do not just use the land as a resource, but exist in community and as part of an ecology. The films fulfil their PR brief by naturalising energy regimes in nation affirming ways by engaging audiences in the experience of the natural environment.
John Heyer’s filmmaking offers an important landmark in the promotional culture of energy as it existed before the changes of the 1960s and the resurgence of the environmental movement in Australia. His work, perhaps surprisingly, shows how, at a certain point, the oil imaginary in particular, was not at odds with a respect for the environment.
Smaill, Belinda. “Hydro, Petroleum and Mid-Century Sponsored Documentary: Ecologies, Aesthetics and the ‘Australian Image.’” Energy Imaginaries: Public Relations and the Moving Image. Marina Dahlquist and Patrick Vonderau, (eds.). Berkley: University of California Press, 2024. [Forthcoming]
The Valley is Ours (1948)
The Back of Beyond (1954)