Lest We Forget

Art Press Release from Australia. Published by Rebecca Gabrielle Cannon on Friday 21 September 2012.

WWII women and men in uniform image A Victorian student listens to one veteran's story image WWII servicemen image

In Our Words is a digital storytelling project that began in 2009, in collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs (who initiated the project) and the Shrine of Remembrance.

Over the last four years the ACMI team have travelled across Victoria, collecting over 200 first-hand veterans’ accounts of time served in Europe, the Middle East, the Pacific, New Guinea and the home front. The captured stories were about the Vietnam and Korean Wars; the Cambodian, Malayan Borneo and East Timor conflicts; and current peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.

The catalyst for the project was to collect the stories of the few remaining WWII veterans, ensuring that these first-hand accounts of war were captured for future generations.

Avis Quarrell, an 88-year-old Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) veteran, felt that “these stories are important because there are so many facts about WWII that should be known by all generations”.

Students from schools across Victoria worked side by side with the veterans, recording and sharing a small part of each veteran’s experience, as a community learning program. This inter-generational approach demonstrated that storytelling can establish powerful links between people of different ages. Ken Cumming, who served in the Vietnam War, commented that “it is so good to find a way of speaking to young people. What a wonderful experience.”

Critical to the project was the creation of a supportive and social environment to help the veterans feel safe in reliving what were often unsettling memories. We ran a three day audio visual workshop which allowed the veterans to work together, sharing their memories in a new and fresh context. Often seeing or hearing their stories alongside those of other veterans amplified the importance and understanding of their own memories.

Evident in the veterans’ stories was Freud’s theory on the altered state of consciousness that comes with large scale war. The physical hardships of conflict and the horrific violence were all recurring themes and many of the veterans found the effects of the war still reverberated decades on.

Whether they saw active battle or supported the home front, all found it difficult to readjust to civilian life. Rex Radcliffe, a Vietnam veteran, spoke about the process of memory capture: “wartime reflections release strong emotions but it is good to know that human sacrifice is not forgotten”.

These bleak and disturbing reflections were also contrasted with stories of fun and adventure, joy and humour, and, ironically for many women and Indigenous Australians, unprecedented freedom. As Oodgeroo Noonucal, the poet, political activist and AWAS signaller said, “There was a job to be done…all of a sudden the colour line disappeared”. Unfortunately, these liberties reverted after the war.

Hear Indigenous Australian John Lovett talk about his father’s experiences of fighting in World War I and his treatment post war, in this ACMI Generator video Back to Being Black.

It was a truly humbling experience for all of us who worked to support these veterans in capturing what were often very difficult stories for them to tell. After hearing so many personal accounts of service, what I took away is that war is truly a conundrum. It is lonely, but the mateship nurtured through that shared experience is extraordinarily powerful and possibly the strongest weapon of survival.

- Helen Simondson, ACMI Screen Events Manager

To view curated packages of In Our Words, you can visit our Australian Mediatheque. There are also video resources on the ACMI Generator website, with supporting material for teachers to use in classroom teaching.