Play it Sam – Political Film Stories

The power of film as a shaper of political lives and as a way of revealing political characters is central to a two-hour feature film I recently made about the extraordinary Australian polymath politician Barry Jones. Jones’s many hats and attributes as a big brain straddling multiple fields (Australia’s longest-serving Science Minister and the only Australian to be a member of all four learned academies) make him worthy of international attention.

Barry Jones In Search of Lost Time – A Film Story.Barry Jones narrating to camera against an excerpt from the film The Stranger (1946). There are more than 60 such excerpts.

But my film Barry Jones In Search of Lost Time – A Film Story has two-fold local interest. First is the film’s special screening on the 31 December 2018 at 7pm at Jerusalem’s iconic Lev Smadar Cinema. Beyond that, though, is film’s universal relevance to revealing the political being. For all politicians are hatched against an index of film culture and are also potential subjects of film biography.

My special interest in the influence of films in the formation of political character and as a medium for political biography had several triggers. I had a chance  meeting with Robert McNamara in Washington in the late 1980s without any real appreciation of his significance as President Kennedy’s and, later, Johnson’s  Defence Secretary during the Vietnam war. Nor was I particularly aware of his subsequent history of second guessing and regret.

Then when I saw Errol Morris’s remarkable Oscar-winning  The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), I was enveloped by burning recollection of that earlier meeting and also by the power of film to make people sit up and pay attention. For there is no doubting the impact of cinema to emphasise and make clear points often buried in other media. Film can work to crystallise and encapsulate the short story of a copious life often too sprawling to effectively communicate. It encourages a discipline and an economy of treatment that makes it graspable by a mass audience.

Films also play a role in contextualising political lives. John Bews 2016 prize-winning biography Citizen Clem about the British Prime Minister Clement Attlee sought to sculpt Attlee’s mental world by reference to his reading. Says Bews,“To begin to come to a truer understanding of Attlee is to rediscover a sense of the mental world in which he was made.” He does this by using books and the vast reaches of Attlee’s library.

The films that politicians see through the formative years of their growing up no doubt sketch and begin to fill in this mental world even more powerfully than books. The results are not always edifying with some examples too frightening to recount, starting perhaps with Hitler and Stalin, but even they, perhaps with too great a force, underline the significance of film and films as an influential shaping force. There is a mass of psychological literature on the elements to this, generally swirling around film’s ability to develop a deep emotional connection and visceral response on the part of the viewer and, indeed, the prospective politician.

Regarding Barry Jones, it is hard to overlook film as central to his story and as a medium for telling it, when film is so glaring in his estimation of the influences upon him. Growing up Jones was an avaricious reader, an avid radio listener, a music lover, a museum goer, a person who had written a history of the world at the age of 11. Nonetheless, listen to his own account from his memoir A Thinking Reed:

“My exposure to the outside world had come with a rush and between the ages of 5 and 9, film had the greatest impact, even more than radio, newspapers and books. I can name more than 50 memorable films that I saw in a short period as a child. My emotions, understanding processes, characterisation and visual imagery, including recognising places, taking me out of the familiar and immediate, were largely shaped by film.”

So, using a measure of those 50 films, a further list of his favourite films, others with pertinent subject or historical reference and some of my own favourites for good measure,  Barry Jones In Search of Lost Time – A Film Story sets out to tell something of the formative building blocks to the creation of an unusual political figure – an engine of ideas pumped over five decades and, at 86, drumming still with a loud beat.

Indeed, just last month, Jones published a speculative piece on what Lincoln might have said in his famous 272-word-long Gettysburg Address should he have  delivered it not in November 1863 but in November 2018. It is an inspired awakening of a kind (and with due acknowledgement to Lincoln and others) with so much inspiration sown by Jones down the years. Perhaps one could start here with Jones’s much read and much translated Sleepers Wake! Technology And The Future Of Work published in 1982 and which uncannily predicted much of the path to 2018.

But back to Barry Jones In Search of Lost Time and the use of film in political biography. Here excerpts from more than 60 great films are used to watermark and time stamp Jones’s formative years, progress his story, re-enact his character and the characters of his world, map his social milieu, depict events, sculpt his emotional landscape and parody some of his predicaments. And, as added insight, the film also uses Jones as film critic and cultural commentator.

As I’ve done with Jones, one imagines the application of this approach to other political figures in Israel as elsewhere both as highlighting the power of film in influencing generations of movie goers, with nascent politicians among them, and as a means and a channel devoted to bringing a better understanding to the shape and shaping of political lives. You can see if it meets any of these possibilities by viewing Barry Jones In Search of Lost Time- A Film Story at the special showing of the film on 31 Dec. 2018 -7pm at Lev Smadar Cinema, Jerusalem.

There will also be a Q and A after the screening between Garry Sturgess and his wife Kim Rubenstein (who is currently a Lady Davis Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Law School). For bookings follow this link.

About the Author
Garry Sturgess is an Australian lawyer, broadcaster, publisher and film maker. He worked as a legal correspondent in Australia and America and in television - Labor In Power (senior researcher) and Liberal Rule (as originator and co-writer). Since 2010, Garry has been an an oral history interviewer for the National Library of Australia. He recently directed and edited a feature film on the Australian polymath and politician Barry Jones.