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NFSA Stories: Outback geologist

Canadian geologist in Australian government documentary

Seeing himself on screen, 45 years later
 Amanda Diaz

As an archive, the NFSA is not just the guardian of our nation’s film and sound treasures – we’re also the keeper of many personal memories too.  

Our Collections Reference team assisted geologist Dr Charles Gower in locating a film shot 45 years ago. Charles knew he had appeared briefly in a documentary shot by a federal government agency and wondered if the NFSA might be able to track it down.

'The main scene in which I was involved had me walking up to an outcrop in my field clothes carrying a geological pick', he said when he first contacted us. 'I was also filmed taking a measurement with my compass.'

Memories of Australia

With this clue, Senior Collection Reference Officer Naomi Wanner was able to identify the moments Charles described as being part of Australian Report (1973). Produced by the Commonwealth Film Unit, the 19-minute film was commissioned to depict how the country was progressing less than 200 years after European settlement.

It includes cinematography by the legendary Don McAlpine ACS, who went on to work as the Director of Photography for many successful films including Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, Australia, 2001) and The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse, Australia, 2015).

Australian Report, Australian Commonwealth Film Unit, 1973. NFSA title: 27434.

Charles appears in approximately 20 seconds of footage from the 4:40 mark. The camera shows a car pulling up at an outback location, before cutting to him standing underneath a rock face and taking a measurement with his compass – just as he remembered. 

We asked Charles about the experience of filming, his decision to contact the NFSA and how it felt to see himself on screen more than 40 years later. He says he’s not sure what prompted him to seek the documentary after all this time.

'Every now and then I had wondered about the film, but for the most part, never got beyond that', he says. 'It was the option on the NFSA website to make a direct enquiry that turned out to be the key.'

Young and seeking adventure

At the time of filming, Charles was working in the field of reconnaissance geological mapping, which involves covering large areas in a short period of time in order to get a first impression of the geology of a region.

He was conducting fieldwork in and around Laverton, WA, when he was approached by Joe Lord, the Director of the Geological Survey of Western Australia.

'He said he had been contacted by a film unit for the Australian government that wanted to get some footage of a geologist at work in a remote area, as one element of a more general film on Australia', Charles recalls. 'The catch was that the remote location had to be close to a town, so that the film crew could get there without consuming too much time.'

The same year Charles was filmed for Australian Report, he left Australia to start a PhD at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. He then took another job in reconnaissance geological mapping in eastern Canada, where he resides to this day.

He says that watching the film for the first time brought back some wonderful memories.

'I really enjoyed working in the Australian outback – being young, unattached and seeking adventure. I loved the open spaces and arid climate, and met many wonderful people.'

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