Sydney Morning Herald/Ben Bohane: 3 February 2004
A GUERILLA AND A ONE-MAN BAND
Mark Worth, who has died of pneumonia at 45, was one of Australia's finest frontier cameramen. He aspired to the pantheon of great Australian documentary filmmakers and conflict cameramen - Frank Hurley, Damien Parer and Neil Davis - and his contemporary peers included Dennis O'Rourke, Bob Connelly, Mark Davis and David Brill.
By BEN BOHANE
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Mark Worth, Documentary filmmaker, 1958-2004
In the coastal village of Abepura in West Papua, one of Australia and the Pacific's great underground artists was recently laid to rest. His name was Mark Worth, although he went by a variety of nicknames, including Kurtz, Captain Kino, Captain Kaos and, affectionately, Worthy.
Worth, who died of pneumonia at 45, was one of Australia's finest frontier cameramen. He aspired to the pantheon of great Australian documentary filmmakers and conflict cameramen - Frank Hurley, Damien Parer and Neil Davis - and his contemporary peers included Dennis O'Rourke, Bob Connelly, Mark Davis and David Brill.
Invariably, the first thing Worth would say when introduced was, "I was born
in New Guinea." In many ways it defined him and he wore it as a badge. He
was spiritually caught between black and white worlds and his art came out
of this tension, which he was never quite able to reconcile. He had the
ability to tell stories at apparently opposite ends of the spectrum, from
social histories of Australia's avant-garde to sober political documentaries
about the region.
One story, in particular, gripped Worth for decades - that of West Papua and
its struggle for independence. Worth believed it to be the great untold
story of injustice in our region and completed his documentary for Film
Australia on the subject, Land of the Morning Star, just months before he
died. It was shown on ABC TV last night.
Worth leaves behind perhaps a dozen other films, from experimental collages
to anthropological documentaries to news and current affairs pieces for ABC,
SBS and the Nine Network.
A whole generation of video journalists have him to thank for opening the
door to the one-man-band style of guerilla filmmaking to be found today on
ABC and SBS current affairs and programs such as Race Around the World.
Although his life was cut short, Worth packed a lot into it. He lived his
art more than most and was utterly uncompromising in his approach. At times
I see his life as one long performance piece, an epic soliloquy traversing
the whole range of human emotion. While his films will resonate across time,
for those who knew him, his film, radio and writing were in a way just
offshoots of the art of himself, his day-to-day existence which displayed
his generosity and grand storytelling ability in the great oral tradition of
Storytelling was a compulsion for him, as was his need to argue. It
sometimes made him a cantankerous, stubborn and brittle character and he was
capable of verbal decapitation of the unsuspecting. Yet his rages were more
often than not his way of drawing you closer, to engage with you more
deeply. He would say "I can't live without fighting", and almost daily
attacked a variety of countries, governments and individuals. He could also
be perfectly charming.
His hero was Lou Reed and he retained his punk sensibility until the day he
died. He managed to combine the sensitivity of a Beat poet, the angry energy
of punk and an academic's drive for historical accuracy.
"He was an absolute original," said Mark Davis, the SBS Dateline presenter
and journalist who knew Worth since their days at Swinburne Film School in
"He was more Papuan than even he realised and he landed, like a Martian,
into the greyness of Melbourne, bursting with stories of other worlds. There
was no art, no music, no political crisis that didn't have a brilliant
parallel in tribal Melanesia. A generation of artists, journalists and
filmmakers were drawn into the region through Mark.
"He was a steam train and a lot of people wanted to get on board. I
certainly did. He changed my life and I will miss him forever."
Worth was born on Manus Island off the mainland of PNG, when it was an
Australian naval base. His father, Geoff, was chief petty officer on the
base and Mark would later describe the idyllic childhood he spent there,
playing around the World War II wrecks, exploring the jungle and cruising
the islands in patrol boats. He was a Scout leader who visualised the day
when perhaps he would be trekking through the rugged interior of PNG as a
kiap (patrol officer), dispensing justice in a "firm but fair" way. However,
there was pressure on Australia at the United Nations to begin
decolonisation and so PNG moved quickly to independence in 1975. It was time
for "the Territorians" to go "home" to Australia.
"Mark would have made for a good patrol officer," said John Allen, himself a
former kiap and ASIO agent.
"He was a clever bloke who knew the people and was respected there. But
there was a mad dash for independence and a whole generation of white Aussie
kids who'd grown up there had to integrate themselves into Australia,
sometimes not very successfully."
The Worth family moved to the south coast of Victoria, where Mark threw
himself into surfing (a lifelong passion), joined a sharpie gang and
discovered the music of the Velvet Underground, Bowie and the Stooges.
By the late 1970s Melbourne had a lively punk scene and Worth took up
semi-residency at the Chrystal Ballroom, where he hung out with bands such
as the Sacred Cowboys, the Models and Dorian Grey. He did light shows for
Nick Cave and the Birthday Party and Dead Can Dance.
"I first met Worthy around 1980 through the menace that was the Chrystal
Ballroom," said photographer Peter Bainbridge. "People likened it to Berlin
in the 1930s. The list of people who went through those doors and made it
their house of learning is astonishing ... we made it our second bedroom."
After putting himself through film school at Swinburne, Worth began making
experimental films but was equally inspired to make documentaries with an
His first documentary for Film Australia, Super 8 Soldiers, told the stories
of Australian conscripts sent to the Vietnam War through the home movies
they shot there. Home movies would recur in his later films and he became a
master of blending archival footage and music.
In the mid-1980s he came into contact with the Melbourne band Not Drowning
Waving. It became a long collaboration and friendship. Lead singer David
Bridie, who has gone on to become Australia's foremost indigenous and
Pacific Islander music producer and a film score composer, said: "To all the
members of Not Drowning Waving, Worthy was considered its seventh member. It
was he who persuaded us to go to Papua New Guinea, made us see the history,
culture and music of grassroots PNG, which is an intense experience. He did
great live show visuals for us, not to mention the five PNG-inspired film
clips and music documentary Tabaran we did for SBS."
In 1989 Worth moved back to PNG to run a lodge on the Sepik River. The
tribal art dealer and economist Jim Elmslie hired him and the two became
close friends. "Worth ran a lodge I partly owned on the Sepik ... By the end
we were getting very little communication from him and he got quite deep
into local kastom [custom]," he said. "New Guinea was his great obsession
and he was a living encyclopedia on the place."
Worth's 1995 film Raskols, about raskol gangs operating in the highlands in
the middle of a tribal war, was controversial, not least because he ended up
raskoling his own film - after a disagreement, he pre-empted his film for
SBS with a shorter piece for ABC TV.
For the past decade Worth had based himself in Sydney, working in television
current affairs and making evocative documentaries for Radio National. His
last radio piece was on survivors of the Voyager naval disaster, including
Worth was haunted and inspired by the plight of the West Papuans for much of
his life. As a young boy on Manus Island he had witnessed the arrival of
refugees from the sham UN-supervised Act of Free Choice which rubberstamped
Indonesia's annexation of West Papua. Since then church groups estimate
100,000 people have perished under Indonesian rule.
Towards the end of his life Worth became increasingly haunted by the lives
and deaths of two men. One was Errol Flynn, who had been a goldminer, prize
fighter and patrol officer in Papua before he was whisked off to Hollywood
by the filmmaker Charles Chauvel. The other man was Chief Theuys Eluay, the
West Papuan independence leader assassinated by Indonesian Kompassus
soldiers in 2001. Worth had interviewed him at length and felt that Theuys
knew he would soon be martyred.
His ties to West Papua went beyond filmmaking. Some years ago he fell in
love with Hellen, from Biak Island, with whom he had a daughter, Insoraki.
Both survive him.
His burial on the outskirts of Jayapura was attended by hundreds of people,
including local leaders and human rights activists. From Vanuatu, Andy
Ayamiseba, of the West Papuan People's Representative Office, said : "It is
shocking news to all of us in the Pacific and what a disaster to our own
struggle to be missing someone of his calibre."
Worthy was the best natural storyteller I have ever known, in a business
where stories are real currency. In that regard, where it really counts, he
died a wealthy man. He was wanpla Big Man tru.