Sunday, January 01, 2006

Under pressure: Submariners documentary

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The Sydney Morning Herald
By Steve Meacham
December 19, 2005


Lieutenant-Commander Steve Hussey on the submarine HMAS Rankin.

Submarine life is a tense experience, and not just for those on board.
How's this for a bizarre reality television concept?

Put 42 men in a grossly overcrowded space for three months, with no privacy and no opportunity for escape. Impose a rigid hierarchical structure. Then unexpectedly change the rules of the game in a Big Brother-like twist and introduce six women to the equation.

That's the basic premise of Submariners, a six-part documentary series that follows the crew of HMAS Rankin, the newest of Australia's much-lampooned Collins Class submarines, as they prepare for crucial war games with the US Navy.

For writer/director Hugh Piper and cameraman Paul Warren, it proved a mission like no other. Apart from having to pass psychological profiles and sea-readiness tests to show they were capable of spending six months under the waves in a sub, the two filmmakers were vetted by ASIO. "We had to write out lists of every country we'd ever been to, so they could see if we'd been dealing with the Libyans," Piper says.

There have been fly-on-the-wall documentaries about sailors before, but rarely on those who spend their lives underwater. Films about subs have tended to be "militaristic, dry, more about the machines than the people who run them", Piper says.

Submariners, on the other hand, focuses on the people rather than the weaponry. In particular, it charts the tensions between men and women - not just the women serving on the subs, but the women left at home. Australia is one of only three countries in the world that allows women to serve on subs. In the first of the 30-minute episodes, Rankin's masculine equilibrium is disturbed by the news that six of the 26 qualified female submariners in the Australian Navy are being transferred to the $1 billion sub. Not everyone is happy. One of the men tells the camera, bluntly, that the women are only being introduced for public-relations purposes.

Was he right? Probably, Piper says. International broadcasters "were interested in seeing women aboard and the navy decided to come to the party". But who was manipulating whom? The modern navy couldn't function without its women recruits. "You don't want to feel you're part of the propaganda, an extension of the navy PR machine," Piper says. "But you're in their territory, in an intensely high-security area. There was an area of the sub we weren't allowed into."

Clearly, the navy agreed to the cameras only because it wanted to counter accusations that the Collins Class subs remain the "noisy, expensive duds" they seemed when the fleet was launched. In the series, the Rankin's skipper, Steve Hussey, and his crew still face technical malfunctions and endless challenges. They seem to triumph. Despite retaining full editorial control, Piper says: "To be honest, any number of things could have happened on that boat and we wouldn't have noticed. That's the nature of the intimacy of the crew and the security involved. They just do not blab."

The divorce rate among submariners is huge - about 80 per cent. The most harrowing images in the series show their spouses, effectively single mums, having to cope with children upset that daddy isn't around for a birthday or a school football match. One comforts her son with the words: "Only 24 more weeks and it will be Saturday."

A female submariner, Kirsty Low, has left behind her eight-month-old baby with her husband, also a submariner. By the time she returns to home port, Low says, her baby will be walking and she will have missed the first steps.

So what makes submariners volunteer for a life - six hours on, six hours off, seven days a week - most of us would consider a nightmare? "Most of them are intensely involved in what they are doing," Piper says. "They pride themselves on their professionalism, on being at the pointy, lethal end of the defence forces. In the past, the navy was about big aircraft carriers going into foreign ports and showing the flag. Now it's quiet, stealthy and very, very lethal."


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www.schnorkel.blogspot.com

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