Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Riot or Revolution

Don Parham’s Riot or Revolution is an excellent documentary on the Eureka Stockade of 1854. Narration over scenes from the period (either pictures or acted recreations) is interspersed with comments by historians (Geoffrey Blainey, Weston Bate, Anne Beggs Sunter) and writer Thomas Keneally. Which is all good, but what makes Riot or Revolution particularly effective is the use of actors to portray historical characters speaking their documented words in a series of soliloquies. This anchors the documentary in the perspectives of the people at the time – either in their words as the events were unfolding or in their reflections later on what they did and saw.

So we get the words of Governor Hotham – a naval officer who did not want the job of Governor of Victoria and who was somewhat out of his depth. Along with those of Douglas Huyghue, a retired goldfields civil servant reflecting on events; Raffaello Carboni, a miner who later wrote a history of what he had witnessed and participated in; Celeste de Chabrillan, the former courtesan who was wife of the French consul; and Peter Lalor, leader of the Stockade almost by default.

Riot or Revolution covers the lead-up to the events—including the difficult politics and fiscal problems of the colony—the immediate sequence of events leading to the storming of the Stockade and the aftermath, notably various leaders of the Stockade were charged with treason but acquitted by juries. The role of trial-by-jury as a check on overweening executive action is thereby displayed.

Riot or Revolution makes it clear that Eureka Stockade had no influence on the constitutional development of Victoria—the process of granting self-government was already underway following the fairly standard pattern for the Antipodean colonies. Indeed, given the Stockade was the only time free Australians have engaged in military-level violence over a political dispute, its lack of such resonance is something to be grateful for, as Thomas Keneally points out. (Vinegar Hill, the only other pitched battle, was a rebellion by convicts.)

Even apart from its value as a documentary on the Stockade itself, Riot or Revolution is an excellent resource for schools, since it uses both primary and secondary sources in such a vivid and mutually supporting way. It is a fine example of how to do historical documentary.

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