Stealth Movie Story
The Stealth Story.
On the night the World Heritage listing of the Blue Mountains was celebrated at Govett’s Leap, all of us in the Conservation Society, of which I was president at the time, were convinced that this would give our beloved Blue Mountains greater protection, that all levels of government would now be conscious of the importance of this unique area and the need to preserve it.
How incredible it was to find ourselves only four years later back in the very same spot, this time rallying to defend a beautiful Heritage listed designated Wilderness area from the very government department entrusted with its care and protection. The Deputy Director of the Department of Environment and Planning had given an approval by special licence for the filming at Butterbox Point, Mount Hay of scenes for the American war film Stealth.
I suddenly found myself precipitated into that which I had vowed many great vows never ever to do again – ie another environmental campaign.
The American film company had chosen the Mountains not for their unique beauty, but because the recent bushfires provided a backdrop of devastation that suited the plot, supposedly set in war-torn Korea. They wanted to film the final scenes at Butterbox Point.
This wild and beautiful place is very special because although it’s in the World Heritage designated Wilderness Area, unlike most Wilderness, it can be accessed by road – one narrow winding dirt road that goes through kilometres of National Park to reach it. This means that people who can’t get down into the Wilderness of the Grose Valley for whatever reason can still access some of the Wilderness experience.
It also has Threatened Species of flora and fauna, and beautiful tessellated rock formations, and under the National Parks Act, only filming on conservation subjects is allowed. Anyway, hell, that didn’t bother the Yanks! It was the only spot in the Blue Mountains that would do, they said, and was absolutely essential to the ‘integrity’ of the film. It was also essential that they have actors actually running through a threatened ecological community, one of our lovely hanging swamps, habitat for the rare and endangered Giant Dragonfly, with exploding devices on their legs simulating gunfire. But hell, they promised they’d be careful and wear sandshoes!
The NSW government was co-operating like mad with the film industry and issued their approval at the last possible minute in order to make a community response almost impossible. However, they didn’t count on the combined resources of the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, the Colong Foundation for Wilderness, the National Parks Association and an outraged Mountains community, consisting of everyone from very solid citizens and scientists to some wonderful young ‘feral’ folk, all co-ordinated by an equally outraged grandmother with campaigning experience.
Within a week and a half we had organised 3 big public meetings, blockades in 2 locations of Mt Hay Rd, funding of $21,000 from the Blue Mountains Conservation Society for a legal challenge, and a hearing of the case in the Land and Environment Court.
The blockades were necessary to stop the film company from getting onto the site and starting filming before the case could be heard. If that had happened, the judge could have used his judicial discretion to say ‘Well, it’s illegal but most of the damage has probably already been done so you’d better finish it off’.
The local folks really enjoyed the blockades – it was very exciting, with people setting up camps on the road, chaining themselves to gates and tripods, being fed by a constant stream of supporters ferrying out food supplies, and solid citizens (including Dr Mick Dark and dress designer Jenny Kee) getting arrested. There was a way for everybody to be involved, whatever they could do, and they did it – the Conservation Society’s treasurer Bart Beech, who is an accountant, even came out each morning at the crack of dawn in his business suit and tie to put in a few hours before he reluctantly left for work! Keith Muir from the Colong Foundation was on the blockade, as was Greens MP Ian Cohen, who worked his mobile and his media contacts to ensure good coverage of it all, including TV. Only 2% of NSW remains as Wilderness, unexploited by humans, and people up here seem to really understand the importance of protecting it.
The blockades held for 2 days. The last blockaders were finally brought by the police at about 4 pm on the second day. The film crew immediately started to drive in. However, by this time legal proceedings had been filed in the Land and Environment Court and a hearing set for the following day.
When we got to Court the learned judge found that it was in fact totally illegal to make a film of this nature in a designated Wilderness (as it is in America too, by the way). He said (oh wonderful words!) that under law, “Wilderness is sacrosanct”.
We were euphoric for 2 hours after the judgement was handed down. Then our gallant Premier Bob Carr appeared on TV snarling that the government would appeal the decision, and that if the appeal didn’t win, he’d bring in a law to change it. This is the bloke who actually introduced the Wilderness legislation 17 years ago! Unsurprisingly, the ‘Stealth’ mob promptly found somewhere else to film - another site in the Mountains on private land where they’d already been filming - and were quoted in the Herald later saying that the new site was much better and had made a better film (though a box-office failure!).
What the judgement also did, however, was highlight the fact that the only kind of filming that can legally be done in any part of any National Park is for films that espouse conservation values. As a great deal of filming about all sorts of things other than conservation is already being done in National Parks (has been for years) the film industry got very nervous, and Rupert Murdoch who owns Fox Studios leaned on Carr to fix things fast.
So in a big hurry (5 days including a weekend after the judgement) the government introduced the draft Film Approval Bill. This was a horrible piece of proposed legislation, virtually giving the film industry the National Parks on a plate – no environmental safeguards, no community rights of appeal, everything up to the Minister’s discretion.
So then we had to run another campaign, to have the draft Bill amended in ways that gave back environmental protection, limited the Minister’s discretion and retained community appeal rights. The Mountains community were again fantastic, amongst other things running street stalls at which indignant citizens were encouraged to make phone calls to our local member Bob Debus (fortuitously also the Environment Minister at the time) from mobile phones provided for their use. This and other pressure from a variety of sources forced the government into negotiations which saw the amendments succeed, although to my chagrin with slightly weakened community rights.
But at least the protection for Wilderness was unequivocal, thanks to the efforts of the true advocates for National Parks, the people who love and value them.
The success of the Stealth and Film Approval Bill campaigns was due also in great part to the wonderful efforts of Keith Muir of the Colong Foundation for Wilderness; Andrew Cox CEO of National Parks Association; legal team Illona Millar and Jeff Smith of the Environment Defenders Office and our brilliant barrister Tim Robertson; Greens MP Ian Cohen and Dr Mick Dark; and Jenny Rich, the Conservation Society’s project officer for National Parks issues, to all of whom we owe a huge debt of gratitude.