Vale Rod Webb

May 28, 2020
Rod Webb. Photo: Ania Bokina

By the late 1960s the Vietnam War was drawing mass protest, the feminist movement had burst onto the scene and the gay liberation movement, as it was then known, was emerging. The heart of Sydney activism included Resistance on Goulburn Street, a protest centre and a cultural hotbed.

On Sundays, after a day of poster silk-screening, or printing the next anti-war high school pamphlet, I got to see L'année dernière à Marienbad, La guerre est finie, À bout de souffle, Les Carabiniers, El ángel exterminador, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, and dozens of other old and modern cinema classics.

For that education I am indebted to Rod Webb, who ran the Resistance Film Society, a unique and important contribution to Sydney’s cultural environment in a time before arthouse cinemas, SBS or Netflix.

Rod featured in this period of cultural and political upheaval. John Percy, in A history of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, describes Rod’s involvement in early forerunners of Resistance and the Socialist Alliance. These included the Vietnam Action Campaign, Group X, the Socialist Review Group, the launch of Direct Action (predecessor to Green Left) and the launch of Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA which later changed its name back to Resistance).

Comrades from those days each remembered different contributions. For Geoff Payne it was his central role in the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign. Sol Salbe remembers his passion for justice in three areas: Vietnam, Palestine and gay rights.

This was a critical period in the fight to end Australia’s involvement in the war in Vietnam and Rod led SYA’s enormously important anti-war campaigning in 1971. Rod was passionate advocate, an organiser, an ambassador and a leader for the movement.

At the start of 1972, Rod took a role at the Macquarie University Students’ Council and later replaced a homophobic editor at the student newspaper Arena. Jeremy Fisher, a gay student who was facing expulsion from his residential college, describes how within hours of speaking to Rod the issue snowballed in the press with the Builders Labourers Federation introducing “pink” bans on the site. Another case involved Penny Short, a lesbian denied a teaching scholarship.

Rod was part of the 1973 Australian Union of Students campaign to provide support for the Palestinians who, at that time, faced extreme isolation. After Rod left Macquarie University, Antony Loewenstein in My Israel Question describes an unsuccessful interview Rod had for general manager of the Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide. The ADT chairman thought Rod was an excellent candidate, but explained that as then-Premier Don Dunstan was a strong supporter of Israel, Rod wouldn’t be a good person to approach him for funding for ADT. Nothing more was heard.

Instead, Rod joined the National Film Theatre of Australia, the Australian Film Commission, the Sydney Film Festival as director 1984–88, the Australian Film Institute and then network programmer and briefly acting head of television at SBS from 1991 to 2003. The Senate hearing in 2003 discussing Rod’s refusal to cut staff at SBS is a wonderful read.

In his final major role, he became head of programming until 2011 at ABC’s Australia Network.

Rod’s outspoken commitment to his principles never faltered. In 2009, he debated Richard Moore of the Melbourne International Film Festival on ABC Radio National over Israeli government sponsorship for MIFF that year.

On May 15, Rod died of Parkinson’s disease, at 76. He will be greatly missed.

[Rod is survived by his partner Ania Bokina, their two daughters and two sons from a previous marriage. There will be a memorial service on a date to be fixed.]

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