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.