This one’s for the big bloke with the whiskers (Dunera Boys pt1)
In September 1940, Hired Military Transport Dunera arrived in Sydney having travelled from Britain with over 2500 German, Austrian and Italian internees on board. Conditions on the Dunera were appalling – it was overcrowded and some passengers were mistreated. Many of the internees were of Jewish heritage and had escaped to Britain from Nazi Germany in the 1930s only to be interned as enemy aliens in camps in Britain in mid-1940 and then transferred to camps in rural Australia.
National Library of Australia, Press Release, 12 Feb. 2010
The Dunera Boys, written and directed by Ben Lewin (b. 1946, Poland) is a bit of a forgotten gem in Australian television film history. Made in 1985, it is, as far as I can tell, the first film where Jews are represented as central characters in Australian cinema (in the same year there was a film, Norman Loves Rose, which I haven’t seen). It explores the story of the “Dunera Boys”, Jewish refugees detained by the British as “enemy aliens” and sent to a remote internment camp in Australia.
On the whole, Australian made comedies are terrible. They are, for the most part, bland, predictable, kitchy, and usually barely recognisable as comedy. I’m pretty sure this isn’t just because I am a snob. This film, usually listed under war or drama genre, is for me first and foremost a comedy. There is something about the humour deployed in this film that I think is brilliant. Punch lines actually punch, and they often sting a little.
At one point a chorus sing, like a scratch on a record, ‘we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here’ to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. The absurdity that is invoked is perfect pitch – the film’s audience understands it perfectly, but the military bureaucrat they are singing to is entirely bewildered. Their lives are so stuck on hold, they cannot relate to days gone by and they cannot dream about a future where they can be nostalgic about the past.
When I first watched this I came to it with very low expectations. It was going to be an ‘80s made period drama, there would be an extremely low budget and everything from set design to story to directing would reflect this. The actors would be staid, the narrative would be nationalist. This would be coded in white gatekeepers maintaining a faith in something obscure, like “national character”.
To an extent I was right. It was an ‘80s made period drama, but unlike the many that cropped up at the time it made no attempts to prove some kind of historical “authenticity” through the use of tonnes of material domestic culture (think product placement, but with old tea pots). The set design and costumes were simple and effective. There were obvious limits on Lewin, but I think in the circumstances he worked everything pretty well. I felt the actors all had diverse, if sometimes shallow, characters to work with, and where this became an issue, it was masked by almost slapstick, over the top acting. And the gatekeepers, the border security were all, to a man, dunces.
There is plenty to find frustrating in this film – the “romantic” scenes, it should be said, are creepy, at best; it takes 45 minutes to build the basic premise of the story; it is long (200mins, originally aired as a four part television series). But still, there were a great many things I liked.
Such as when the HMT Dunera docked in Sydney Harbour.
On the borders, at the docks in Sydney, a newsman is commentating on the spectacle of the Dunera disembarking – British soldiers file out, followed by the “enemy aliens”. Rabbi Aaronfeld (Moshe Kedem) is the first to step out, a burly man with a bushy beard, carrying the Torah scrolls. After the camera shot pans white Australia, it pauses a moment on the Rabbi and the commentator says “who the hell is he supposed to be?” The crowd and the band start to halter in their cheers for the soldiers – confused, and falling silent, having no idea what to make of the men, looking like they have just stepped out of the Schtetl. Then a drunken yobbo takes the lead hollering “you murdering dago bastards” and hurls a bottle at the Rabbi and the shot focuses on the glass at his feet. The crowd joins in and start hurling abuse and missiles at the men who have to protect themselves as they disembark the ship.
This is a moment which illustrates the historical narrative of the film. The Australians are dunces/schmucks – they’re ignorant to the point of stupidity – don’t have all the facts and aren’t about to go looking for them; there is an obnoxious white Australian identity, but foolish in a loving kind of way, kind of like Crocodile Dundee joins the army.
This then sets up a ridiculous situation: the Rabbi is fleeing Nazis; he is shipped out of Britain for being an “enemy alien”; there is a genuine belief he could be a Nazi spy; he is slurred for being a “dago” when he gets here. But the point at which the glass shatters, invoking Kristallnacht, there is a chilling feeling: what have they walked into?
This is where we see the absurdity of the situation for the first time – it isn’t anti-Semitism, they are neither Italian nor Nazi-Spies and it isn’t just Australia’s special brand of white supremacy.
It is the problem of all these things interacting and the confusions and uncertainty in policing social borders. It is about the intersecting issues of boundaries, classification and unstable positions. Such policing is not abstract, it is not theoretical and this film shows a solid example of what the consequences could be. It is also ultimately about of thinking that everyone should be scared when people start talking about “us” and “them”.
I plan to follow this piece by looking at some historical issues confronting the establishment of the pre-Holocaust Australian Jewish community and their response to refugees on the Dunera. In the meantime, if your interested in some more information, here are some links.
- You may be able to watch it at the following links if you are prepared to fuck around with a quiz, give them your mobile number for the “scores” and probably get sucked into a scam of some sort here or here. I haven’t tried this.
- Here, Philllip Adams (who often reminds his listener that he attempted a film on the subject) talks to a gentleman who was 17 at the time of being interred at Hay and went on to enlist in the Australian Army (it is not clear in what capacity). His view was that (as a 17 year old with no family dependant on him) if he were in Churchill’s shoes he would have done the same thing, only “the mistake was to send us overseas. They simply weren’t to know who was who. Who was to know that Hitler didn’t send agents over the guise of refugees”.
- The above interview also includes someone from the National Library of Australia, who are running an exhibition on the Dunera Boys until September 2010. Their website has lots of great information here. The websites lists books and journal articles with more info.
- In 1991 Judy Menczel made a Doco for SBS called When Friends Were Enemies
- And you can watch some (really quite dull) clips here.
- Next time, I will list some books to read.
 In calling them “dagos” I think Lewin meant Italians (there are a number of instances in the film where the Australians think the internees are Italian), though, technically speaking, at the time “dago” was used as a pejorative term more or less anyone from the “wrong side” of the English Channel.