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'Persons of Interest' in Melbourne

From journalists and activists to academics and their students, ASIO filmed and catalogued a wide range of "suspicious" Australians and many who simply wandered into the view of their cameras.Persons Of Interest - Tuesday 7th January at 8.30pm on SBS.

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A young David Stratton visits the Soviet embassy in Canberra, blissfully unaware that Australia's spy service is watching and snapping a photo.

Stratton is not and never has been an enemy of the state. Today he is the 74-year-old acclaimed film critic who co-hosts the ABC's At The Movies with Margaret Pomeranz.

Persons Of Interest ASIO Surveillance - David STRATTON 
Director of the Sydney Film Festival David Stratton outside the Soviet Embassy in Canberra 1969. By the mid 1950s ASIO became concerned that culture itself could be a front for communism.  The Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals screened Soviet films and therefore became targets for ASIO
Photo supplied by Smart Street Films

How David Stratton was captured by an ASIO camera in 1969.

But on May 7, 1969, when the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation took its surveillance photo, he was a 29-year-old visiting the embassy for a visa to attend the Moscow Film Festival. He was director of the Sydney Film Festival, and that was reason enough for ASIO to open a file on him because the festival ran movies from the USSR and other exotic sources.

''But then, we also showed films from capitalist countries - from America and France and England and Japan,'' Stratton recalls. ASIO's interest in him, he suggests, was a ''staggering waste of time and money''.

He is but one of many Australian ''persons of interest'' to ASIO in the 1950s, '60s and '70s who have since risen to prominence. Michael Kirby, future High Court judge, and Jim Bacon, future premier of Tasmania, were in its sights. So were the Reverend Ted Noffs, Dr Fred Hollows, writers Christina Stead and Christopher Koch, actors Peter Finch and Leonard Teale, poet Kenneth Slessor and painter Lloyd Rees.

Filmmaker Haydn Keenan has collected more than 100 hours of formerly secret ASIO surveillance footage, hundreds of its photos and thousands of documents during the production of a four-part documentary, Persons of Interest, which begins on SBS on Tuesday night.

So rich is this ''treasure chest'', he says, that the Stratton image is among many that did not make the final cut for the series, which focuses on four ASIO targets: novelist and outspoken communist Frank Hardy (a camera hidden in a briefcase snaps him greeting a Soviet poet at Sydney Airport); journalist Roger Milliss (whose father, Bruce, was secretly a Communist Party member while he was election manager for Labor PM Ben Chifley); 1960s Monash University activist Michael Hyde (who confirms students' violent plots); and Aboriginal activist Gary Foley (who is alarmed to discover that he might have been suspected of plotting the assassination of a federal minister at the Channel Seven recording of Frost Over Australia).

 

The Stratton image will feature instead in an exhibition Keenan has assembled of the ASIO gems at the Damien Minton Gallery in Sydney.

So will a surveillance shot taken in Balmain of a young intellectual called Paddy McGuinness. When he applied for a job with a federal Labor minister, ASIO became interested in his previous work for the London branch of the Moscow Narodny Bank. Padraic McGuinness will be better remembered for his later head-kicking, right-wing newspaper columns that derided chardonnay socialists.

A more fruitful ASIO operation, retold in the documentary, includes 1962 surveillance images of Ivan Skripov, first secretary of the Soviet embassy, attempting to recruit a "Sylvia" as an agent. But Sylvia had contacted ASIO and agreed to act as a double agent. Skripov would be declared persona non grata and expelled.

"It took me about three years to uncover the ASIO surveillance movies,'' Keenan says. He realised they were precious not only for what they revealed about ASIO and its targets, but as documents of social and political history. ''Braces go out, skirts go up, long hair comes in, feminism arrives. The films are a unique insight into the changing face of Australia."

Keenan was horrified to discover ASIO had sold some of its films - deemed to have no further security value - for the silver content.

David Stratton remembers he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Moscow Film Festival. He had no idea at the time of ASIO's interest in him.

''I was raised a very good Conservative in England,'' he adds. ''The last thing I did before leaving for Australia was attend a fund-raiser for Harold Macmillan, the Conservative prime minister at the time.''

■ Persons of Interest starts on Tuesday at 8.30pm on SBS. Visit http://www.smartstreetfilms.com.au/ to watch more ASIO recorded footage.

■ ASIO through the looking glass: Treasures from the vaults, Damien Minton Gallery, Redfern, Sydney, from January 21 to February 1.