20 May 2024

Uncover the real story behind Rats in the Ranks - for one night only at the NFSA

| Sally Hopman
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Two men and a woman

Film-makers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson with the then Mayor of Leichardt, Larry Hand, during the filming of Rats in the Ranks. Photo: Madman Entertainment.

The fly-on-the-wall documentary, Rats in the Ranks, which won gongs ranging from a Logie to an Academy Award nomination, happened by accident, according to its creator Bob Connolly.

Mr Connolly wrote, shot, produced and directed the documentary almost 30 years ago with his late partner Robin Anderson. Already a well-known documentary maker after the release of Black Harvest in 1992, Mr Connolly was looking for a new project after another shoot fell through.

“We were living in Glebe at the time,” he said, “and this inner-city dispute flared up. Things got a bit nasty, so we called on the mayor at the time Larry Hand.

“He was very impressive and charismatic, and calmed everyone down and decided we had justice on our side.”

Mr Connolly said the situation made him realise that councils did more than just empty garbage bins – that their fundamental job, often, was dispute resolution.

It was coming up to the 1994 council election time and, because he had forged a relationship with Mr Hand and Leichardt Council, he realised he was in a rare position to see exactly how politicians snared their numbers.

“I spoke to Larry and proposed we do a documentary. He said yes, but told me not to tell the other councillors. I asked why, and he replied, ‘you’ll find out’.

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“But the others decided we were kosher and we set up camp at the council chambers from December 1993 to September of 1994.”

Rats in the Ranks tells the story of how Sydney’s Leichhardt Council elected its mayor. It shows the bruising business that is politics, even at the local level – and that you can have the best policies in the world but if you don’t have the numbers, you don’t win.

“There’s no way we could have made the film before gaining their trust. After a while we just became part of the furniture.”

As “part of the furniture”, Mr Connolly and Ms Anderson captured a remarkable piece of Australian history

“Larry’s only chance for survival was to split four ALP people down the middle, ” he said. “Two of them hated the other two so we ended up filming a Caucus meeting where two launched a coup against the sitting mayor – then they drew the Labor candidate from a hat. Anthony Albanese was the assistant secretary of the ALP at the time – and he was the one who decided that it should be drawn from a hat.”

Mr Connolly said, despite the accolades received around the world for his documentary, “there was no genius in it”.

“It was sheer accident that we managed to be there, but I’m glad we were.”

The full story of how Rats in the Ranks was conceived, filmed and became such an iconic Australian documentary will be told at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA), next Thursday, 23 May.

Man and woman filming

Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson shoot a scene for Rats in the Ranks in 1996. Photo: Madman Entertainment.

The screening celebrates the NFSA’s partnership with DocPlay and Madman Entertainment and will be followed by a Q&A with Bob Connolly.

DocPlay, the streaming home of documentaries in Australia and New Zealand, is increasing its collection with the addition of 13 titles from the NFSA.

NFSA Chief Executive Officer Patrick McIntrye said the NFSA’s mission was to ensure that the stories held in the national audiovisual collection were as accessible as possible to all Australians.

“This partnership with DocPlay will help us reach new audiences and promote the achievements of Australian documentary makers,” he said.

Bookings are essential for the Rats in the Ranks screening on 23 May at the NFSA’s Arc Cinema at 6:30 pm, followed by the Q&A with Bob Connolly and the NFSA’s Chief Curator Gayle Lake. Tickets are $20, $17 concession.

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HiddenDragon7:22 pm 21 May 24

An outstanding documentary which, some years later, inspired an equally excellent ABC series – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grass_Roots_(TV_series)

Rats in the Ranks also, as noted above, introduced a wider audience to the name of an almost comically camera-shy official – a sort of Pink Panther of apparatchiks, but without the slinky theme music.

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