My name is James Findlay and I’m a historian with interests in media history, convict history, and settler colonialism in Australia. I was awarded my PhD at the University of Sydney a few months ago. Before returning to study I worked extensively in film and television production for companies and broadcasters including Beyond Television, Screenworld, Film Australia and the BBC in London. I’m currently sessional teaching with the History Department at USYD.
1. Tell us about your PhD research.
My thesis explores the intersection between historical myth and screen culture in relation to convictism in Australia. Since the origins of Australian cinema, filmmakers have told stories about convicts: those men, women and children transported from their homelands whose role as founding settlers was often viewed as a stain on the country’s reputation. I argue that with the rise of film and television, convicts emerged as key historical figures who shaped and defined ideas and attitudes about Australia’s colonial past. My research navigates a way through representations of the convict experience across a wide range of genres, from silent epics to musical melodramas and reality television. In doing so it demonstrates the critical role their production and reception has played in ascribing meaning to the processes and outcomes of colonisation in Australia.
2. Why does it matter?
Understanding how media functions in society matters because popular culture, especially film and television, profoundly shaped ideas about colonial history in 20th century Australia. Convicts are particularly fascinating historical figures to explore through this lens because the mythologies that surround them have shifted over time from a focus on convict victimology, to convicts as nation builders, to convicts as invaders. As filmmakers negotiated, and audiences responded to, these often problematic histories, their visions of the past influenced a wide range of historical discourses relating to race, class and gender in Australia. The mass appeal of these representations disrupts the historical orthodoxy that a desire to suppress the convict ‘birth stain’ was a dominant force shaping Australian history-making during the first half of the twentieth century. For many Australians, going to the movies or watching television defined the convict era and its legacies for modern nationhood.
3. What are you researching now or intending to do next?
As with most ECR’s I’m embarking on the task of turning my thesis into a book. Last year I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Jill Roe Prize at the AHA conference in Newcastle, so I’m also in the process of turning that essay into a paper for History Australia. I’m also very keen to try and push my research into the public sphere as much as possible. I’ve given talks at film festivals, historical societies, and libraries and worked with cultural bodies such as the Goethe-Institut to push my research beyond academic conferences. I even worked with a resident’s action group in Parramatta to organise a screening of a little known 1930s German musical about convict women in the Parramatta Female Factory to an audience that included the city’s mayor! On top of my publishing goals, my dream would be to turn my thesis research into a museum exhibition – there’s certainly enough movie ephemera and fantastic footage to do it (hint-hint any curators out there!). I really feel that public engagement of this kind is vital to our profession. One thing that surprised me coming back to study was how little the broader public is aware of the huge amount of fantastic research that scholars produce. I still find it quite upsetting that so much knowledge is being made, but so little of it is making it beyond the walls of universities.
4. Why did you switch careers, and what do you love about being an historian?
I don’t feel that my time working in film and television is over – but the reasons I went back to study and write my PhD were varied. The landscape in documentary television, where I racked up most of my production credits, changed a great deal during my time in the industry. The social and historical docs I loved working on were being replaced by ‘factual entertainment’ series, and it was becoming harder to work on projects that I really cared about. Given that working on these programs can eat up your life (long hours – tight deadlines etc.) you really have to believe in the output otherwise it can be disheartening. I also discovered that I was happiest when working on programs that touched on Australian history. The more I explored this subject the more fascinated I became. Obviously this work experience has impacted my research interests. Having been involved in making history series I’m fascinated by the processes that lead to particular visions of the past being transmitted to mass audiences and the influence they have on historical consciousness, collective and individual.
In terms of what I love about being a historian, I love the endless discoveries and exchanges of ideas. The writing, the teaching, the research and the historical worlds they create – I’ve never been happier than doing what I do now.
5. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?
In TV the majority of jobs are freelance so I’m familiar with the untethered nature of ECR employment. That’s not to say I like it, but the work is out there – you just have to believe (to quote the Beastie Boys) that you ‘have the skillz to pay the bills’. At an institutional level I still get annoyed by the way universities trade on research outputs that often end up behind pay walls or are skewed towards individual success over fostering knowledge that could be used by more people. There seems to be a positive shift towards linkage projects and external engagement with the community outside of the academy, but there’s still a long way to go. As historians we should be leading the charge in the social sciences because there is a real hunger out there for what we do!
6. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?
The answer to this question changes depending on what I am reading. At the moment I’m in the middle of Inga Clendinnen’s Aztecs: An Interpretation, so today it would be 16th century Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) a place I have visited and loved, and now must return to!