Victor Tarhanoff

The hero of Darwin's visual history
 Graham Shirley

Above: Footage from Victor Tarhanoff’s film The Story of Port Darwin (1941) and now part of the NFSA’s Film Australia Collection

In 1938 a steel industry construction foreman called Victor Tarhanoff began filming 16mm Kodachrome amateur footage in and around Darwin, Northern Territory. First posted to Darwin in 1935 and living an itinerant life as he moved from one construction site to another, from 1938 Tarhanoff filmed footage that today contains the earliest surviving colour images of Darwin. His beautiful films offer a unique insight into Darwin life before and after the Second World War. The footage includes aspects of the city such as: the modern bank buildings on Smith Street in the CBD; diners in the elegantly grand Darwin Hotel; the local Chinatown and shopfronts, showing the multicultural nature of the city; his young son Victor Tarhanoff junior with Indigenous and Chinese children; and Governor General Lord Gowrie and Northern Territory Administrator CL Abbott, reviewing an army and naval march-past. Victor Tarhanoff’s Darwin films have not been widely screened or seen in public for over 40 years.

Victor Tarhanoff was in Darwin at that time to supervise the construction of two large oil tanks which joined a cluster of others on Stokes Hill, just above the main Darwin wharf. A fortnight before the Japanese first raided Darwin on 19 February 1942, Tarhanoff, his wife and son were evacuated on the last Burns Philp steamer to leave before the attack. On 19 February the Japanese bombed not only the wharf but also the oil tanks on Stokes Hill. Being full of fuel, the tanks blazed, then in the words of Victor Tarhanoff jnr, ‘melted as if made of wax’. (An image of the tanks after an attack is available at the National Archives of Australia’s Virtual Reading Room).

When he moved back to Darwin to set up his own business and take part in the city’s postwar reconstruction, Tarhanoff filmed the melted tanks, the bombed wharves, the multiple sunken ships, the extensively damaged CBD, graves of those killed in the first raid, and the tiny huts of temporary employees working on the rebuilding. Evidently a gregarious and generous man, Tarhanoff occasionally injected editorial comment into his films’ intertitles, for instance, ‘Darwin today remains a shanty town’, and ‘The bombed and [temporarily] repaired wharves are inadequate to meet Darwin’s requirements’.

From 1946 and until their move back to their home base in Brisbane in 1949, Victor and his wife, dressmaker Veronica Tarhanoff, became leading public figures in Darwin, with Victor co-founding and ultimately leading a very active Darwin Photographic and Amateur Cine Society, which ran screenings, lectures, competitions and excursions and still exists today as the Darwin Camera Club. A report from the Centralian Advocate of 26 July 1947 captures the flavour of one of the society’s events, a ‘cabaret ball and cine show’ at the Darwin Hotel:

After the films, dancing was enjoyed by the 360 people present. The masked dancer (Mrs Tarhanoff) skilfully danced the Strauss Waltz and the Caucasian Sword Dance. The two dresses worn for these numbers were made and designed by her and were donated for a raffle in aid of the British Flood Relief funds.

When I started to research Victor Tarhanoff for the NFSA compile Frontline Australia 1942, the NFSA had no information on who he was, let alone any context for his Darwin films. I was able to locate Victor Tarhanoff Junior in Queensland, and he gave me many valuable details about his parents – such as the fact that his mother continued her valued dressmaking into old age. On 19 February 2012, Victor Junior, or Vic, as he likes to be called, attended, with family members, the Darwin premiere of Frontline Australia 1942, which includes segments from three of his father’s films, The Story of Port Darwin – Part 1 (1941), The Story of Port Darwin – Part 2 (1946), and Out of the Ashes (1947). This public event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin was curated and managed by Jacqui North, Big Screen Coordinator. Victor Snr had accompanied his silent films with recorded music. For the screenings of these three films in 2012, music and sounds of the era were added and the material slightly reduced in length.

Visit the ABC Radio National website to listen to an interview with NFSA Historian Graham Shirley.

Visit the Film Australia Collection YouTube channel to view The Story of Port Darwin and Darwin: Doorway to Australia in full.