One day, in the year 1974, a turtle mysteriously appeared on the window of a shop in Pier Street Altona. The last shop before the ocean. It made its home there. It was no ordinary turtle: flashing pictures appeared on a screen on its shell! Why had it come? Why here? Why now?
Turtle people would come out of the shop carrying video recorders. Later, they were seen to return. Excitedly, they talked of stories they had captured with their cameras and of people to whom they wanted to show them.
There was an explosion of videomaking in Altona and nearby places. Nothing that happened was too big or too small to be caught on a Turtle camera and shown around the district.
Turtle people were prepared to share their videomaking skills with anyone. If you had a story to tell and video was a good way to tell it - they were there for you.
A group of younger turtles got together with a local schoolteacher. They began making regular video news bulletins about the neighbourhood. You could watch these in the local library.
Turtle people, optimists that they were, hoped that, before long the news bulletins and other programs, would be able to be viewed on a western suburbs community TV channel.
The shop with the turtle on the window was
TURTLE VIDEO . . . .
an unusual name that linked something very old with something very new.
For exchanging ideas, experiences, news, at a community level, 'Portapaks'
ushered in a new era of possibilities.
COMMUNITIES AND CHANGE
The turtle on the window of that shop in Altona knows many stories.
It can tell the story behind the opening of Turtle Video in Pier Street.
"Join me" says the turtle, "and read on."
"The story" began the turtle, "is embedded in the life and times of Melbourne, in the 1960's and the 1970's.
Changes were re-shaping the things that gathered people together as communities."
"Your community used to be the place where you lived."
You developed a strong bond with the people, the customs, the streets of your neighbourhood.
Two decades after the Second World War, fewer people were spending a lifetime living and working in the same suburb. The sense of community shared by the people of a tightly-knit neighbourhood still existed - but in fewer places.
Freeways that would cut through neighbourhoods were on the drawing board.
Homes, factories, flats were being demolished to make room for high-rise
In Flemington, a swampy area known locally as Debney's Paddock,
became, almost overnight, home for hundreds in twenty-storey blocks.
There was a growing sense of disquiet. It erupted into a major debate.
"Building flats on Debney's Paddock is one thing.
Bulldozing entire neighbourhoods is another thing entirely!"
"In the rush to tear down and rebuild, isn't something being lost? "
"We can do better than this.
People should have a say in what's going to happen and not just at the end,
when the insiders have already tied everything up."
Turtle Video opened during this ferment of ideas about community life in a modern city.
Melbourne's population was not only growing, it was becoming
Shopping strips became cultural meccas for new citizens.
Italians crossed town to visit Carlton's Lygon Street. Vietnamese businesses lined Victoria Street Richmond. Turks made tracks to Sydney Road Brunswick and Greeks to a special part of Lonsdale Street in central Melbourne.
The Hawthorn Football Club moved from its cramped Glenferrie Oval to share the more spacious Princes Park in Carlton and the hearts and minds of Hawthorn
You gathered to a place
that was the focal point for your community.
But you didn't live there.
The changing landscape and increased mobility were both a threat and an
Local artists and community activists set up the Footscray Community Arts Centre. Lawyers opened Community Legal Centres. Parents spearheaded a movement for Community Schools and community controlled Child Care, Health workers
campaigned for Community Health Centres. Communes dotted the inner suburbs.
People interested in adult learning and education formed the Learning Exchange in suburban East Malvern."
THE LEARNING EXCHANGE
"At its simplest," continues the turtle, "the Learning Exchange was about people sharing and gaining access to what they could teach and what they wanted to learn.
The Learning Exchange supported partnerships between individuals, community groups, companies and government.
The Learning Exchange published its own newspaper.
It was a different sort of newspaper
in its content,
in its production and
in its distribution
In it you found stories of grassroots community activities in: education, health, media, childcare, employment and environment.
Each edition of the paper was prepared in a different location. Each time, a different community group learned how to be publishers.
Commercial distributors were bypassed. The paper was delivered by volunteers and sold through milk bars, health food shops and bookshops.
The Learning Exchange newspaper is one of the best known examples in Melbourne of how a popular communications medium was used to foster community development.
Other community-based papers sprang up around this time in Collingwood, Richmond and the Carlton Housing Estate.
They were proper tabloid size newspapers. Printed on newsprint — professional-looking but not produced by newspaper professionals.
The people involved didn't set out to be career journalists. They adopted a new, inexpensive technology - offset printing - and used it as a force for community storytelling.
The community papers were to prove a model for community video
In the early 1970's a new medium for communication appeared in Melbourne -
portable video cameras and recorders ('portapaks').
Before 'portapaks', video recording had meant a studio and cumbersome, costly, fixed equipment.
The offset-printing breakthrough had freed storytellers from needing bulky,
expensive machinery and to employ highly skilled staff in order to publish a
newspaper. Portable video recorders offered a similar breakthrough.
8mm movie cameras were small and portable but getting the film
processed was expensive and took ages. In comparison, videotapes were cheap. You could record an event, play it back immediately for discussion
or evaluation and record over it when you no longer needed it.
The Sony Corporation introduced their portable video recorders to Australia in 1972. Video recording quickly found a place in media courses at schools. Media departments in universities and colleges began to build up bodies of equipment and expertise.
From January 1973, the Learning Exchange newspaper published articles on community media - particularly film and video - being used to support community-building projects. It ran stories from North America and accounts of experiments in Melbourne."
THE VIDEO EXCHANGE
"In April 1973," recalled the turtle, people connected with the Learning Exchange together with members of resident action groups and members of the Melbourne Film maker's Co-operative came together to form "Video Exchange".
Some had been influenced by the writings of social change thinker Paolo Freire. Others had been impressed by films about the ideas and work of American community organiser Saul Alinsky. Most knew something of the role of film and video in the Canadian venture 'Challenge for Change'.
All saw possibilities in the new medium for opening up communications within communities and between communities. It was a great new way for effective storytelling.
The Video Exchange:
• Shared intelligence on where portapaks could be borrowed.
• Responded to requests from community groups - how to use video to tell their stories.
• Reported on community-building projects being aided by video,
• Published newsletters and reading lists.
• Screened films about media as a community-building resource.
• Began forming a video-for-community-building resource network.
The growing interest in community videomaking in Melbourne
(and Sydney) became known to Canberra.
The federal government's Film and TV Board (FTVB) said:
"We want to make a contribution.
How can we help?"
The enthusiastic answer from the Video Exchange was: "We'd like you to join in a network. This is what we have in mind.
• Video equipment available at points around Melbourne (libraries, residents' groups, schools, neighbourhood houses).
• Universities and Colleges providing maintenance.
• Our teaching, videomaking and community-building experience.
• All helped by your money.
The proposal by the Video Exchange was for a decentralised,
low-key, low cost operation that could slowly build on the
strengths already present here.
"No" said the FTVB. "We can't see us financing your network project.
What we want from you is a proposal on how we can support a Video Centre.
We 'll choose the place.
We 'll provide the equipment.
We 'll employ the staff,
We 'll arrange the administration."
The Video Exchange had to choose. What was the better way to achieve long-term financial support for community-building using portable video?
1. Continue to develop its network of people and places. Look for financial backing elsewhere. Attempt to gain a number of financial partners (Councils,
University Media Centres, Trade Unions, Charitable Foundations). Not depending on any single source.
2. Adapt some of the FTVB requirements in the hope of locking-in long-term financial support.
The Video Exchange adopted the second. Over the next months its members threw most of their energies into preparing their case for federal funds to support community videomaking in Melbourne. Although financially on a shoe-string . . . .
The Video Exchange tapped into a rich resource of people interested in the interface between community development and portapak videomaking
Following a wide testing of ideas a proposal for federal government financial support was sent to the FTVB in late August 1973.
The Video Exchange agreed to compromise on one major point. It would be prepared to set up a central access point for community access to portapaks and more expensive video-editing equipment. Regarding the value of working with other bodies to build an access network, the Video Exchange proposal was uncompromising. It read in part:
We have considered the development of a centralised operation at length and believe that it is necessary to provide decentralised facilities at the earliest opportunity.This would develop relationships with other groups over a diverse base and lead to a wider range of people developing interest in and experience with the equipment and its operation.
As well as a central access point at Clifton Hill, portapaks were to be available at access points in Hawthorn, Diamond Valley and the Western Suburbs. This is probably the first public recommendation in support of community videomaking in Melbourne's West.
The FTVB again said "No!" It had other plans.
COMMUNITY ACCESS VIDEO CENTRES
The FTVB had already decided to open video centres of its own in partnership with the federal Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD).
There would be four. None of these would be in Melbourne.
The ink on the announcement was hardly dry when the number of video centres proposed began to grow. The venture in supporting community based videomaking blew out into an 'across the country' scheme. The pressure and the money came from DURD.
What was DURD's interest?
Some parts of Australia were not doing as well as others: a fact masked by the country's prosperity. They were seen as heavy with problems, light-on for resources to fix them.
Fixing them was the job the federal government had given to DURD.
DURD was setting up what it called Area Improvement Programmes.
DURD wanted to encourage the people of a 'disadvantaged' area to decide their own priorities for improvement of their areas.
Community-building can be slow work. By providing an area listed for 'improvement' with its own community communications media, DURD would
- be seen to be acting quickly and creatively
- be championing the right of communities to set their own agenda
- get feedback on its contribution to community development.
The number of proposed community access video centres soon became five, then nine. Melbourne's west was to have two: their locations decided by DURD and agreed to by the FTVB.
Footscray seems to have been decided on first, then Altona
sometime later.Finally there were ten (plus a bigger 'Resource Centre' in Cariton and an even bigger one in Sydney's Paddington).
The Video Exchange proposal of a network of people and organizations sharing skills and portapaks seemed to have missed out on a place in the community video future.
But it was to resurface again with Turtle Video.
With DURD's money and agenda of area improvement and DURD's timetable driving the scheme in Melbourne's west, Community Access Video Centres opened across mainland Australia in the second part of 1974 by FTVB.
One - in an empty shop next to Ranieri's Pizza, at the beach end of Pier Street, Altona."
"Well," said the turtle, "this has been the story so far . . . ."
COMMUNITY: 1960, 1970
These years were a time of great interest in community life,
This brought growing support for people's right to have a say in decisions affecting their communities and access to media to voice their opinions.
An exciting new medium became available in Australia. "In a world saturated with mass media the portapak video is a major social innovation."
(Fred Emery, 'Centre for Continuing Education')
The federal government decided Community Access Video Centres were its
preferred way to help finance community videomaking across Australia.
"So that's why" said the turtle
"it was in 1974 that 'Turtle Video'
(a community access video centre) came to Altona.
But why here? Why Altona? That's an intriguing question, isn't it?