Ivan Hexter is an accomplished documentary filmmaker and his consummate skill and breadth of experience are on full display in Tunnel Vision.
This story of the community protest against a major infrastructure project in Melbourne, the East West Link, is a story of triumph told triumphantly. It’s an amazing tale. It is rare that activists successfully halt a massive project involving the State and Federal Governments and big business that is worth 18 billion dollars. The central premise of the documentary is, why did so many people come together to stop the toll road and how did they do it?
Block upon block of text over the opening frames of the film set the scene for the rest of the story. The text is mostly descriptive and, thankfully, doesn’t labour the numbers and statistics involved. It is a fine line between necessary background and information overload and Hexter treads it confidently.
Text is used occasionally through the rest of the film to fill in any gaps in the narrative. The format Hexter uses is interviews with key players backed up by footage of picket lines, rallies, and very effective use of media headlines. The story unfolds at a steady pace and is engaging throughout.
In part, it is a story of eccentric characters made personable through the interviews. An iconic image is that of Tony Murphy with billowing white hair barely contained by a bicycle helmet with his neck locked to a piece of machinery with a rigid bike lock. It’s a universal and familiar concept, a passionate, perhaps naïve activist chained in an act of defiance to big business. Yet, as we get to know Anthony we learn that, far from naïve, he is completely rational and his protest is calculated to create disquiet and uncertainty in the financiers of the tollway. His successful court action to force the Victorian Government to release the business case for the project is the real gotcha moment for the film.
The insight into the strategy behind the campaign is the great strength of the film. It’s a detailed how-to for community activist groups. Their focus on the pain points for the predator at the top of the East West Link food chain is what won the day in the end. The activists don’t focus on soft arguments like community spirit or social capital, it’s all about risk analyses and business cases. By talking the same language as government and business these community heroes have come away with a big win.
The only thing I wanted more of in the film is despair and hopelessness. What we have is a relatively constant trajectory towards success. Hexter hasn’t given us any moments of self-doubt or anguish. All of the activists are convinced of the righteousness of their cause and confident of victory. A few cracks in the veneer would have given me, even more, empathy for the people involved. To see behind the scenes when activists are arguing about the next tactic to employ or to talk to someone when the personal/financial/physical toll of the protest has almost broken them would have added another valuable angle to the story.
It’s a minor criticism. The film could have been a dog’s breakfast of footage from protests and banal statistics thrown at the viewer. Hexter has crafted a coherent and compelling narrative from one of the biggest Australian political stories of the early twenty-first century. The film illuminates and celebrates how, to borrow a phrase from Tony Murphy, “a small group of committed people can move mountains”.