Do Nothing And Do It Well was seen as part of the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival
The history of anti-Asian racism in Australia is much like the history of all racism in Australia… it goes back to the Federation of this country and the white people try to pretend we’ve gotten better when we really haven’t. Sure, every country born from colonialism contains some history of racism that still impacts people today but today’s film, Do Nothing and Do It Well, really does whatever it can to make it clear to its audience just how intense this history is for one community.
Do Nothing and Do It Well mostly focuses on the Chinese cabinetmakers who were around Melbourne in the early 1900s and even earlier, even borrowing its title from a phrase used at a meeting of those who went on strike. Throughout the film we are given a glimpse into the injustices that this community went through, the history of the cabinetmaking business (which included pointedly stamping any goods made by non-white hands) and how this history of anti-Asian racism still lingers today and how some things that were done to the Chinese-Australian population bear a striking resemblance to how Australia has treated refugees as recently as… well, right now.
Made by Liam Ward, who begins the film by talking about a couch his family owns that has one of the aforementioned stamps, the film has a very personal feel to it. Forgoing the need for interviews or much new footage, Do Nothing and Do It Well chooses to use mostly archival imagery and newspaper clippings that are lightly animated in order to give the film a sense of movement. It kind of looks like an old history book came to life and it makes for a unique visual style.
To accompany those visuals, Do Nothing and Do It Well also utilizes two narrators. One being Liam, who handles a large amount of the history and reading some of the quotes shown on screen (emphasis on some, we’ll come back to that) and the other being Nelson Wu who provides the voice for one of the workers during that period, doing so in Cantonese with English subtitles. This makes the film have the feeling of an interview, allowing Nelson to give voice to those who aren’t here to use their own… however, here’s where the problem kicks in.
Throughout Do Nothing and Do It Well there is a large amount of text thrown on the screen, from newspaper articles to quotes from historic figures to the English subtitles that translate the Cantonese voiceover. This is all fine in theory, some of the quotes are read aloud by Liam which gives them a certain gravitas… but only some. There’s a lack of consistency that just feels wrong, you can kind of feel something missing and it’s something so easy to fix.
The bigger issue is when it’s time for the Cantonese voiceover to start talking and the English subtitles pop up… on the same frame as a large amount of clearly important text that gives further context to what’s being said. It demands the viewer race around to not only keep up with the narrator but to try and take in whatever key information is possible from the image. It’s overwhelming, to the point where it could make an audience tune out which would be a shame because the message of the film is not only important, it might even be one of the most essential pieces of Australian history put on film this year and this style makes it a lot harder to follow than it should be.
When you can get over that hurdle, Do Nothing and Do It Well is a fascinating and confronting story that should be not only more well known, it should be in Australian History curricula all around the nation. The amount of information in this one 50 minute film could easily be a miniseries with just some mild edits, it’s jam-packed with content and all of it is able to force you to sit up straight and just take in all that this country has done that it clearly needs to make up for.
Do Nothing and Do It Well might have a few issues with how it’s presenting its information, but when it works it is a powerful piece of documentary filmmaking that shows just how important it is to know our own history and just what one person can produce with a passion for a topic and a need to educate. This is one that’s worth seeking out, even if watching it takes a little more effort than your average documentary, that effort will be worth it if it leads to a better understanding of our past.