Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit 

12:30 PM, Saturday APR 30
Introduced by Margot Nash and John Hughes

Randwick Ritz

Filmmakers: Norma Disher, Keith Gow, Jock Levy
Country: Australia
Year: 1953-1958
Runtime: 101 minutes
Rating: U/C +15
Language: English


Wharfies Keith Gow and Jock Levy were both members of Sydney’s New Theatre along with Norma Disher. In 1953 they formed the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit to counter what the union saw as misinformation and anti-worker propaganda in the mainstream press.

The films they made included a campaign for a pension for wharfie veterans, the 1954 waterfront strike, workers’ rights, housing shortages and health and safety. Using a customized Kombi van with rear projection as both a production vehicle and for distribution/exhibition, they showed their films at work sites, union and community halls and clubs, private homes and in the streets.

“As films which passionately cared about their subjects, and as works of cinema, the Unit’s projects show a consistency of vision that no other documentary producers of the period were able to match.”– Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema the First Eighty Years

The films have been remastered from best quality original materials by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Introduced by film-makers Norma Disher, Margot Nash and John Hughes. 


FILM-WORK (1981)

A 43-minute documentary by John Hughes on the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit (WWFFU), dissecting scenes from four of their films and examining their cultural and historical importance and the relationship between politics and history.

“[Hughes] recognized the WWF and Realist Film Units as mainstays of oppositional independent filmmaking in postwar Australia.” –  John Cumming, Senses of Cinema

Film Work has been restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Country: Australia
Year: 1981
Runtime: 43minutes
Rating: E
Language: English

By Margot Nash

The Films:
The Hungry Miles 1954 (25 minutes)

Using dramatic recreations of the 1930s Depression along with observational footage from the 1950s, The Hungry Miles chronicles the historical experiences and industrial struggles of Sydney waterside workers under the leadership of a powerful union. Cinematic and often poetic, the film offers an eloquent response to the demonising of workers and their unions common to the mainstream press in the Cold War years.

Pensions for Veterans 1953 (19 minutes) 
The Unit’s first film for the NSW Branch of the Waterside Workers Federation, Pensions for Veterans advocates the unions’ campaign to establish a fund to support retiring waterside workers. It’s powerful visual style was inspired by the great Russian filmmakers, Eisenstein and Pudovkin who employed montage techniques and extreme camera angles to depict workers as heroic in their struggles for justice and improved conditions. The film sought endorsement for the policy from union members and sympathy for the program from a wider public.

Four’s a Crowd 1957 (14 minutes)

A light-hearted approach to the serious topics of health and safety, and discipline at work. This short comedy gives Unit member Jock Levy an opportunity to showcase his skills as a comic performer. He plays four different characters in a series of skits that send up stereotypes used in the mainstream press to denigrate working people on the Sydney wharfs.

Film-Work 1981 (43 minutes)

During the 1970s when the ‘art & working life’ movement was fostering collaborations between artists and the trade union movement, Film-Work was made to remind independent filmmakers, and the labour movement, of the achievements of the ‘wharfies’ films’. Made in collaboration with the filmmakers Norma Disher, Keith Gow and Jock Levy, Film-Work explores how and why the films were made. It examines scenes from four of the films and examines their cultural and historical importance.

Director/Producer/Writer: John Hughes; Director of Photography: Margot Nash; Camera Assistant: Glenys Page; Editor/Sound: John Whitteron; Original Music: Andrew Duffield; Animation: Lisa Parish, Ray Argall. English;  Classification E, Australia, 1981: 43 mins. Col and B&W

Waterside Workers’ Federation Film Unit:
In the 1950s the Sydney branch of the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) had a flourishing cultural program under an enlightened leadership. Sixteen different groups were active, including a choir, art classes, children’s groups and sports carnivals. The union held the view that ‘Man does not work for bread alone’ and that ‘social and educational activities should be a normal part of every person’s life.’ The WWF hall in Sussex Street was close to the wharf and to where many wharfies and their families lived. At lunchtime waterside workers would walk up to the canteen and sit down in the hall to watch a concert, a recital, a dance performance or hear a talk. There was a reading room and a Screening Unit who showed 16mm documentary and drama films, often international titles from Quality Films or the Realist Film Association.

The union was strong having overturned the notorious bull labour system of the 1930s, where workers had to walk the waterfront’s ‘Hungry Mile’ each day to get work, only to be pitted against each other in a system that favoured the strongest workers or ‘bulls’. Having won the right to hire labour the union set up a roster system that gave everyone an even chance. It meant that in post-war Sydney the waterfront became a place where unemployed artists, actors, musicians and writers could pick up a shift and participate in cultural activities. Two young wharfies, Keith Gow and Jock Levy, came to the attention of the union secretary, Tom Nelson. They were both active in Sydney’s New Theatre, and had set up a drama group on the waterfront – a Maritime Industries Theatre. Their first production was an anti-war play by Ewan McColl The Travellers (1953). Jock directed wharfie actors and volunteer actors from New Theatre, Keith designed and built the sets and Norma Disher, who was also a member of New Theatre, did costumes and music. To advertise the play, Keith, who had experience in film, shot a trailer on a 16mm Bolex borrowed from Bob Matthews from the Realist Film Group. It was screened in the Sussex Street hall at lunchtimes and Tom Nelson heard about it. The union leadership were in the middle of a campaign to set up a pension fund for aging waterside workers and Nelson saw an opportunity and asked Keith and Jock if they would make a film to support the campaign. It was the end of the Maritime Workers Theatre Group and the beginning of the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit (WWFFU).

Pensions for Veterans (1953) employed a visual style inspired by the great Russian filmmakers, Eisenstein and Pudovkin, whose films Keith had studied closely. Soviet montage techniques of fast cutting, dynamic editing and the use of extreme camera angles depicted workers as heroic in their struggles for justice and improved conditions. The filmmakers had no equipment of their own at this stage, so they borrowed Matthews’ Bolex again and made do. They had no synchronous sound and had to build the soundtrack in the editing room. Norma had been the music librarian at Radio 2SM from 1941-1948 and music was her great love. At this time Norma was working as a clerk at the Trade Union Club and she jumped at the chance to work with the Unit. They wrote the narration together and Norma sourced music to support the images.

In order to raise money to complete the film, they had to show it to the executive committee. They screened the edited work print on a projector, but had to record a rough sound mix on a reel-to-reel tape recorder to play with it. They worked all night with Keith directing as Jock recorded the narration live to picture, watching for cues marked on the work print. Norma brought the music on waxed disks and juggled the music cues, switching between two turntables. If anyone made a mistake, they had to stop and go back to the beginning.  It was primitive, but it worked and the screening was a great success. A new sound mix was done at the lab and prints were made. The film premiered at Sydney’s Leichardt Boxing Stadium in November 1953 to an audience of thousands of wharfies. Stop-work meetings were often held at the Stadium and it became a popular venue for exhibiting the WWFFU films.

Buoyed by the success of Pensions for Veterans, the WWF General Secretary Jim Healy asked the Unit to make a film about the union’s industrial conflicts on the waterfront. A Bolex camera was purchased along with a tripod and a light meter. Norma, who was making costumes at New Theatre, sewed a light-proof black bag for changing the film reels and also calico bags for the film trim bins in the editing room. Inspired by a pamphlet called The Hungry Mile by Tom Nelson, which contained recollections from wharfies of the tough days of the Great Depression, they called it The Hungry Miles. It was the Unit’s second film.

The Hungry Miles (1955) put the union’s current industrial conflicts in an historical context through dramatic reconstructions of scenes from the 1930s Great Depression. It showed workers walking the ‘Hungry Mile’ and the bull labour system, where the last few tickets were thrown up in the air and workers had to fight each other for a shift.  Hundreds of wharfies, who had never acted in a film before, put their hands up to be extras.  Many had lived through the Great Depression and knew exactly what it had been like. They not only looked the part, they had lived it. The film won a gold medal at the Warsaw Film Festival, winning praise from jury member Joris Ivens.

The Hungry Miles, with its vivid and unforgettable images, stands today as an acknowledged classic of Australian documentary. Its crisp black and white re-enactments are so visually persuasive that they have frequently been used ever since, standing in for archival actuality footage of Australia’s Depression years.

November Victory (1955) depicts the struggle against the Menzies government’s proposed amendments to the Stevedoring Act that challenged the authority of the WWFs right to hire labour. Made in a newsreel style it shows the solidarity of the women’s committee and how the trade union movement as whole came out in support of a nationwide strike that led to victory.

Four’s a Crowd (1957) is a short slapstick comedy starring Jock Levy playing four different types of ‘problem’ workers on the waterfront. It showed Jock’s considerable comic skills and is still a great favourite for many people.

From 1953 to 1958, the WWFFU produced over ten films, including campaign films for other unions, like the Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU), about the crisis in affordable housing and safety in the workplace. When they made Hewers of Coal (1958), for the Miners Federation, Jock and Keith worked in the mine while developing the script. The film uses both black and white and colour footage to show how workers experienced the transition from the black and white world below the surface to the vivid colour above ground. The film advocated nationalisation of the mines, so that coal would be in the hands of the Australian people, not big business. It was made before the dangers of burning fossil fuels were well known and was made to honour the working lives of the miners.

Norma, Jock and Keith were all members of New Theatre, and briefly engaged variously with the Communist Party. They saw their film work as political activism and always worked collaboratively swapping roles as required without taking individual credits. They were passionate about social justice and made the films to counter what the union saw as misinformation and anti-worker propaganda in the mainstream media. They made films about working class lives that were seen by working class audiences. Prints were sent to all the WWF branches and were screened on worksites around the country, to community groups and in private homes. The WWF bought a production Kombi van for the unit, which was later customised with rear projection so they could screen films in the streets of Woolloomooloo, Darlinghurst and Surry Hills and later interstate. The Sydney Film Festival, after some internal controversy, screened The Hungry Miles in 1955.

John Hughes’ Film-Work, (1981, 43 mins) recalled the Unit’s work for new generations. All three members of the Unit, Keith, Jock and Norma, were interviewed and the film is intercut with scenes from the films and discussions with the filmmakers about the films.

Keith Gow (1921-1987) had a distinguished career in film with credits in over 90 Australian films, Jock Levy (1916-2016) was acknowledged with an Order of Australia in 2010 for his work in the theatre and with the Unit. In 2021 the University of New South Wales honoured Norma Disher (née Hawkins) with an Honorary Fellowship in recognition of her services to the arts, to social justice and to the UNSW. The Glebe Society also planted a tree to honour her services to the community and the environment. In 1993 the WWF joined with the Seamen’s Union to form the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).

Norma, who will turn 100 in October, will introduce the program, which celebrates both the restoration of the WWFFU films by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and her birthday, acknowledging it as an important anniversary for Australian film history and culture. 2022 is also the 150th anniversary of the MUA.

Thanks and Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Patrick McIntyre (CEO of the NFSA) for his support of the Cinema Reborn screening. Special thanks to the various teams in the collection branch at the NFSA.

Special thanks also to Jamie McMechan of the Maritime Union of Australia for his and the union’s support of this restoration project and the Cinema Reborn screening.

Notes by Margot Nash: Margot Nash is a filmmaker and an Honorary Fellow in Communications at the University of Technology Sydney.
The Restoration:
The films of the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit and Film-Work have been re-mastered by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA). The NFSA drew on the best quality original materials available from the collection.  This included original A&B roll picture negatives, inter-negatives and inter-positives. Sound came from a variety of sources raging from optical prints to magnetic sound. The films are presented on 2K and the DCPs were made by the NFSA.


Australia | 1953-1958, 1984 | Total running time: 109 mins | 2K DCP (orig. 16mm) | B&W, Colour | Mono Sound | (E).

Pensions for Veteran

A Film by the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit | Australia | 1953 | 19 mins | DCP (orig. 16mm) | B&W | 1.37:1 | Mono Sound | (E).

Production Company: Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit | Producers, Script, Editors, Sound: (Norma DISHER, Jerome LEVY, Keith GOW, uncredited)|

Source: The National Film and Sound Archive.

Cast: (Jerome LEVY, Narrator uncredited).

The Hungry Miles

A Film by the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit (Norma DISHER, Jerome LEVY, Keith GOW, uncredited) | Australia | 1955 | 25 mins | 2K DCP (orig. 16mm) | B&W | 1.37:1 | Mono Sound | (E).

Production Company: Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit | Producers, Script, Editors, Sound: (Norma DISHER, Jerome LEVY, Keith GOW (uncredited).

Cast: (Leonard TEALE, Narrator uncredited).

Source: The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Four’s a Crowd

A Film by the Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit (Norma DISHER, Jerome LEVY, Keith GOW, uncredited) | Australia| 1955 | 25 mins | B&W | DCP (orig. 16mm) | Mono Sound | (E).

Production Company: Waterside Workers Federation Film Unit | Producers, Script, Editors, Sound: (Norma DISHER, Jerome LEVY, Keith GOW (uncredited) |

Cast: (Jerome LEVY, ‘Glass-arm Harry’, ‘Tiddly Pete’, ‘Nick-away Ned’, ‘Ron the Roaster’ uncredited), (Leonard TEALE, Narrator uncredited).

Source: The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.


Dir: John HUGHES | Australia | 1981 | 44 mins | 2K DCP (originally 16mm) | Colour, B&W | Mono Sound | English | (E).

Producer: HUGHES | Photography: Margot NASH, Glenys PAGE | Editors: John WHITTERON, Chris WARNER, Viv CARROLL | Sound: WHITTERON, Tony STEVENS | Music: Andrew Duffield | Animation: Lisa PARRISH, Ray ARGALL.

Source: The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

Cinema Reborn acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we live, learn and work. We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.