We first launched The Fringe Dwellers at the 2014 Surry Hills Festival. The project takes its name from a controversial ABC documentary the featured the slums of Surry Hills and Redfern, elements of which we used in street projections in the laneways and shopfronts of Crown St.

Surry Hills is gentrified now, but in the 1960s it was still slum land. An ABC documentary called Living on the Fringe released in 1963 took a close look at the lives of those living in this down and out part of inner city Sydney.

Produced by Allan Ashbolt and Gian Carlo Manara, the doco was one of a series produced in-house by ABC journalists and film makers intent on radicalising television in Australia. They were inspired by the potential of the medium to become a vehicle for raising awareness about issues of social dislocation and inequality. Australia had just passed through the decade of the ‘long 1950s’, with its embrace of middle-class suburbia as an Australian ideal, against which documentary makers like Ashbolt railed, as they shone a light on those inner city residents struggling to take their share of the spoils of post-war affluence.

Living on the Fringe focused on the slum-like living conditions of poor people in inner city Sydney, in suburbs like Surry Hills, Chippendale and nearby Redfern. Initially broadcast on the ABC on October 11 1963, the documentary sparked great controversy and shocked city aldermen at the City of Sydney, who immediately sought to have it banned.

Sydney at this time was striving to be seen as a modern city of international standing, and a documentary which depicted areas of the inner city as slums on national television was very bad news indeed.

Despite repeated attempts to ban the film, the City was unsuccessful and the ABC, in a then-typical firebrand style, elected to rebroadcast the documentary later that year.

There is much about the film that might prompt a twenty-first century viewer to wince. Ashbolt’s narration is overbearing, and works a bit too hard to render its subjects pitiless and dejected. Today we’d say it’s demeaning. Gritty social realism slips into racism at times, when Ashbolt speaks of Redfern’s indigenous poor.

Unfortunately, its this narrative voice that has ultimately meant Living on the Fringe has been shelved and mostly hidden from the historical record. This reputation has underplayed the strength of the documentary’s cinematography, which dwells honestly on the streets.

Manara’s camera feels at home here, and lets its subjects emerge from anonymous crowds to speak directly to us as viewers. These people are proud of the communities in which they live. In fact they’d prefer not to live anywhere else, they say. The disjuncture between the intimacy of the camera’s gaze, and the distance wrought by Ashbolt’s over-wrought narrative is most likely a consequence of the how the film was made. 

Gian Carlo Manara, the film’s cinematographer, was an Italian immigrant who had worked as a cinematographer purportedly under the great Italian film director Visconti, and was trained in the school of Italian neo-realism. He shot the footage over the course of three days, and then sent it to Ashbolt for the narration. They’d collaborated on the script, but one can expect that Ashbolt – Executive Producer with a strong reputation inside the ABC, having been head of ABC Talks for a decade – exerted creative authority over the newly-arrived Italian cameraman.

All that seems a very long time ago, in a suburb that today boasts some of the highest rents in the land. But while its residents are, in the main, anything but deprived of material comfort, the laneways that featured so prominently in the documentary as the cramped playgrounds of destitute young children, are still in place today. So are the kids, playing just as merrily as they ever did, shoes or no.

Children will tend always to live much of their lives in a world of their own imaginations, whether they live in material comfort or in barefoot squalor.  Some ten years before Living on the Fringe was filmed, children were filmed for the Movietone newsreel performing a backyard version of Romeo & Juliet. And so, connecting today’s laneways of Surry Hills with those captured so clearly in the days of 1964, we used digital projection to re-inscribe this footage back into Surry Hills, through a series of eye-level projections in laneways and shopfronts.

In one lane way, right opposite our friends at Collector Store, a gaggle of children played with the large scale projections of men filmed squatting on the street, and reached out to the children through time. It’s a priceless image, and affirmed our love of this medium in connecting people with the past stories and times of their communities.

Esem Projects also installed projections for artists and photographers along shop fronts including The Standard Store, Gnome, Collector Store and Sly Cafe on Devonshire St. We loved the chance to curate and produce installations with shop owners – a little like the Gertrude St Projection Festival, which occupies the other end of the projection media spectrum to block buster events like Vivid, not only in the scale of installations but also allowing for more storytelling and local context.

A win for open access 

In case you’re wondering how we happened to lay our hands on Living on the Fringe? As an ABC producer & strategist Sarah led the work of the ABC to open up access to its archival TV and Radio archives. Living on the Fringe was one of the first ABC documentaries to be approved for re-use under a Creative Commons licence. This Open Archives program was further developed by others at the ABC and now makes available hundreds of ABC documentaries for creative re-use, without copyright restriction. Sarah’s Q&A with the cinematographer can be viewed over at Sites&Sounds.