Stories of Our Town: Newcastle’s History Captured in Documentaries

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Have you heard about the Stories of Our Town documentaries? Produced right here by filmmakers Glenn Dormand – aka ‘Chit Chat Von-Loopin Stab’ from Australian group, Machine Gun Fellatio and Tony Whittaker of Carnivore Films, these are unique and entertaining documentaries. They cover a range of topics from the Star Hotel Riot, BHP Steelworks and the Scott Sisters.

We’ve chosen to profile them on Newy with Kids as they showcase Newcastle’s rich history. Whether you’re Newcastle born and bred or moved here later in life (like me), they make for great viewing.

Sit down and watch these short films with your kids. We reckon they’re suitable for kids 9+ (okay maybe not the Star Hotel Riot – watch that with your teenagers). The films provide great insight into the history of this region (something they don’t always learn at school).

There are currently three videos available to watch on YouTube with more to come.

Star Hotel Riot

It’s been 40 years since The Star Hotel riot that saw police clash with crowds of young people, who had gathered to mark the hotel’s then-closure. Images were beamed around the world. Sit down and learn the full story of the Star Hotel Riot with interviews from those who were there on the night and  NBN footage never seen before. 

BHP City Within a City

This city thrived because of BHP. Watching this documentary makes you realise the huge impact that BHP Newcastle had on this town. In 1959, one in ten Novacastrians were employed at BHP.  Watch the City Within a City School Version with your kids so that they learn how important steelmaking was to the city. The documentary captures the heat, the scale and the danger of steelmaking as well as the human stories within this industry. You can also take them to Newcastle Museum and watch the BHP steelmaking show.

If you want to watch a version suited for adults, click here.

Scott Sisters

Stories of Our Town Scott Sisters
Photo credit: Stories of Our Town

A little known Newcastle story is the Scott Sisters. Helena and Harriet Scott were 19th century natural illustrators who lived on Ash Island. Their work is still relevant as Many of their scientific illustrations are still used by scientists today. For some it might not seem like an interesting topic but this documentary brings it to life and is a great one to watch with kids who love nature or art.


Thanks to Chit Chat Von-Loopin Stab for taking the time to answer questions about Stories of Our Town. He provides some background about the project as well as what’s next for Stories of Our Town.

First up, can you tell us a bit more about you, your background and your connection to Newcastle?

I’m born and bred in Newcastle, I lived away for many years doing lots of fun things like music, TV, film and radio (Wikipedia entry) I’ve been back for about twelve years with my wife and young kids and we’ll never leave.

How you did you and Tony come up with the idea of producing 12 documentaries about Newcastle?

I came up with the idea reading the Facebook page Lost Newcastle, which is run by Carol Duncan. I became obsessed with the idea that the collective knowledge of elderly Novacastrians had great value and needed to be protected and preserved. Carol is now a good mate and a massive supporter of the project.

You call Stories of Our Town a gift to the city. What is the main goal of Stories of Our Town?

It’s gift to the city because we don’t want people to pay to see them. We want schools to use them, Museums to show them, tourists to watch them before they visit… We want people as excited about our history as we are. So far, we’ve been funded by Port of Newcastle via Newcastle University, Newcastle Council as well as private money from Blackburn and Assoc. NBN gives us free footage and the Herald and many others have donated their photos. It’s like a community garden in film form.

Why did you select Star Hotel Riot as the first documentary to create?

It was coming up to the 40th anniversary, it’s an incredible rock and roll story and it was shrouded in myth. I love the film because it’s funny and told in a very “Newie” way. Also, my brother was there when I was just a kid and I still remember him coming home and telling me about it, it was like he’d been to war.

As a musician yourself, what do you think when you watch the documentary and see the footage from the night?

I love how passionate people were about trying to save live music on that night. I love Cold Chisel wrote a song about it and weren’t there. I love Australian Crawl were there and didn’t write a song. I also love that Heroes wrote a song that seemed to be about the riot, a year before the riot.

As part of the Star Hotel Riot, you used previously unseen footage. How did this come 

NBN only had six minutes from the original story and had lost the rest over time. The police on the night had requested all the footage so they could view it thoroughly to make arrests. A VHS taken from the original 16mm film had been passed around for decades and I found a copy with a fan of the Heroes. As much as I love the music in our film if you check our YouTube channel Stories of Our Town, you can watch all 26 minutes of unedited Star Hotel Riot footage without music and it is chilling, far more violent and gives you a terrifying insight into the night.

Your second documentary is about BHP. It’s a great historical documentary but it also strongly features the theme of inclusion focusing on the multicultural, indigenous and female workforce. Why was it important to highlight this aspect?

When we make our films, we go where the story takes us. We don’t use voice overs, it just the people who lived it telling you how it was. When we made BHP, I expected racism and bigotry and we found the opposite and that fascinated me. The more we dug the more inclusion we found and I love it when Newcastle is the opposite of the cliché.

The BHP documentary City within a City also comes as a school version. Why did you create a separate documentary?

We covered some issues in the film that were more adult that would have watered down the story if we left them out, so we told the full story the way it was. We also felt like it was such a massive part of our history that kids needed to know something about it. We consulted a prominent principal who helped us with the edit.

You mentioned that there will be teaching notes along with the documentaries. Do you plan to encourage local teachers to screen this to their classrooms? And what age do you think these docos are suitable for?

I have a 9 and a 12 year-old, both girls. Tony, who I make the films with, has two young boys and both our wives are primary teachers. In our minds is how do we make films that will engage our kids and so far, it’s worked. Through osmosis of our kids talking to teachers and our wives doing their work, other educators have become involved and the aim is to make most of our documentaries available for all local schools (except maybe for the Star). When the teaching notes are finished, they will also be available for free from our site. This will hopefully be by the end of August.

As a parent yourself, do you think it’s important for local kids and teens to watch these documentaries? 

100%

Your latest documentary is about the Scott Sisters, a pair of sisters who were scientific illustrators on Ash Island in the 1800s. Why did you choose the Scott Sisters as the focus of a documentary? 

People are constantly recommending stories to us and the Scotts were recommended by a volunteer at the Newcastle Library. This story was remarkable and I couldn’t believe I didn’t know it. It’s a great feminist story and as a father of daughters, I wanted them to feel like anything is possible. It’s also about family, art, science and conservation. It’s another story that told the opposite of the cliché of what people expect from Newcastle. I’ve also had so many people say to me “why didn’t we learn this in school.”

After producing the Scott Sisters documentary, what do you think now when you visit Ash Island?

Stories of Our Town Ash Island
Photo credit: Stories of Our Town

I’m a mad gardener so I was blown away by the 250,000 trees that the volunteers had planted. I took the family there and we saw butterflies everywhere. Magical.

What other documentaries do you plan to produce as part of the series?

We are working slowly and respectfully on a few indigenous stories as well as one on architecture and another one on car racing. It’s important that we make them engaging but that we also jump all over the place so you never really know what to expect next.

There are a lot of people moving to Newcastle from Sydney, interstate and elsewhere. What would you like them to know about Newcastle? Should we make Stories of Our Town be mandatory watching for newcomers? 

That would be nice. I really think that Newcastle is evolving so quickly and in a very exciting way that we should take a breath to remember who we were and what made us.

We’re all now living through a historical moment with the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have to produce a future documentary, what themes would you focus on?

COVID-19 has impacted us weirdly because we received our funding during the lock down. We went from doing loads of interviews with limited funding to having funding and not being able to interview anyone. Now we are just getting on with it. I think Newcastle is filled with smart people who know how to survive hardships and because of this I feel like we could keep making these films till I die. It’s a town built on great stories.

Finally, as a Newcastle local, what are some of your favourite spots to hang out with your family?

Because of COVID, my family and I, like everyone else got out and walked and man it’s all good in this town. We went to Ash Island of course but we also spent a lot of time bushwalking near the ocean at places like Glenrock, Dudley and Redhead. I had friend in NYC living in tiny apartment and I felt we were so lucky. As my wife says “Be a tourist in your own town”. 

Visit the website for more information about Stories of Our Town.

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