“It’s not just gratifying – it’s a delightful honour,” Rachel Landers tells FilmInk of picking up The Waverley Library Award For Literature, which brings with it a whopping $20,000 cash prize, and celebrates research excellence in the creation of a literary work. Who Bombed The Hilton? is the terrifying tale of the 1978 bombing outside Sydney’s Hilton Hotel on the eve of the inaugural Commonwealth Heads Of Government Regional Meeting, which is widely regarded as the first act of terrorism on Australian soil. Landers drilled deep and researched far and wide to tell the remarkable story of this still-unsolved case, in the process exposing corruption, conspiracy theories, and political intrigue, while also standing as a testament to the bombing’s victims. The book, however, started out in a format that Landers is far more familiar with: documentary. As the head of documentary at The Australian Film, Television, And Radio School (AFTRS), and the director of docos like A Northern Town and The Snowman, the story of the Hilton bombing not surprisingly had Landers reaching for her camera rather than sitting down in front of her computer.
The book actually started out as a documentary. How far along had the project come? “I was a fair way along. I’d received development money from state and federal screen agencies, as well as a broadcaster, and I was deeply involved in research for the documentary, looking for a strong narrative shape. I was actively involved in contacting key players.”
What stopped the progress of the doco? “Quite a few things! Firstly, there was no definitive account of the bombing, and the investigations and various trials that spanned over thirty years. There had been no serious research done into the huge Hilton Bombing archives in State Records deposited by the State and Federal Government in 1995. These records consisted of tens of thousands of documents: witness statements, police running records, trial and inquest transcripts, ASIO briefings, communications and telexes from Interpol, international intelligence organisations, dozens of missives from international police agencies, and so on. These documents were written by hundreds, possibly thousands, of different individuals, and emanated from multiple organisations. This primary evidence was astonishing and groundbreaking, but the filmmaker in me knew that it’s tricky to make bits of paper cinematic. The second big problem was attempting to track through this crime using the players involved in the case. Many would only talk off the record; some, who would talk openly, misremembered basic (and easily verifiable facts); and some, like [controversial former detective] Roger Rogerson, had their own specific agendas and were thus unreliable narrators, and some were dead. The third problem was the kinds of history documentaries that we were making at the time as part of The National Documentary Programme. This talking-heads-witnesses-to-history-style with experts weighing in just wasn’t feasible in this narrative. I kept coming in with what I thought were wildly innovative cinematic approaches, citing Rabbit al la Berlin and Chicago 10 as examples…approaches that were received without enthusiasm. Not being able to shoehorn this particular tatty fractured history into the prescribed mould scuppered its potential as a documentary.”
With your history and experience in documentary, was it a difficult adjustment moving into book form? “No, it was completely liberating! I didn’t have to think about production logistics, bits of gear, shot lists, schedules, and so on and so forth. I dropped into pure research mode. The hardest aspect of the book was making the decision on where to start the book and how to bring these bits of paper to life. It was Detective Inspector Norm Sheather who became my guide. I described him as arriving ‘pristine in the archive six hours after the bombing’ when he was placed in charge of the 100-member Hilton Task Force. It was he who helmed the investigation, and it was he and his team who needed to solve the crime. Through him I could create a narrative. I put a great deal of thought into this – I didn’t simply want to invent an alternative narrative to replace the one that I felt was obscuring the facts. Instead I, and by extension the reader, could place themselves in the position of someone tasked with a monumentally complex endeavour: solving the first terrorist murder on Australian soil on the eve of our then largest international political event. Norm Sheather died the year that I began my research, but he was ever present in the archive. In an era of endemic corruption plaguing Australian police, he was that rare creature – a truly great and honest investigator. He was transparent, stoic, and clear-eyed. This was not simply my opinion. Sheather worked with heroic and tireless rigour to solve this case, and came tantalisingly close to doing so. Even when it all went catastrophically wrong, through no fault of his own, he wore the failure of this case unflinchingly, and never let the public forget the incalculable costs inflicted on the victims and their families.”
The subject of the book is just as timely now as when The Hilton was bombed back in 1978…maybe even more so. Has your work on the book given you an even greater understanding of the fragility of the world today? “What was extraordinary to me was how radically different much of what I found in the archives was to the public story of goodies and baddies that had lived in the public imagination. Given that the Hilton bombing directly led to the formation of The Australian Federal Police, our first counter terrorism laws, and (in the opinion of some) the birth of ‘Fortress Australia’, why were the facts not better known? Why was it not better reported considering much of the evidence had been available for decades? Why was only the miscarriage of justice narrative pursued by most journalists? Was it a flawed relationship between agencies, between police and the press? A sign of the times? A hatred of Prime Minister Malcom Fraser? A vestige of [PM Gough Whitlam’s] dismissal? It was and is deeply concerning that the facts of the case were so poorly reported for so long, and that the actual facts of the original police investigation of terrorist murder were so little known. It’s bad for everyone: the public, the press, the politicians, the police. No one wants the kind of violence that we’ve seen in Belgium or France or the USA to erupt here – we love Australia and the sense of safety that we have. Between the Hilton in 1978 and 2015, there was not a single other act of terrorist murder on Australian soil. The Lindt café siege and the murder of the police accountant in Parramatta changed that, and make us fear that it’s starting to happen here again. So what to do? How far are we willing to go? There is a tension within this. These questions are urgent. We need to have as open a dialogue as is possible. Looking back at this first act of terrorist murder knowing what we did and where we failed may supply some answers.”
Who Bombed The Hilton? is available now. For more information, and to buy the book, head to New South Books. And click through for Rachel Landers’ very own “They Should Make A Movie Of That” of Who Bombed The Hilton?