Key Points:

A camera pans slowly across a rustic, but smokey, valley, surveying farms and forests, until the source of the smog is revealed - a chimney stack belching out black smoke.

In the next scene the camera is still as a train laden with gold mining tailings rumbles along the main street of Waihi. Cut to an interview with an old miner, Charlie Opie, recalling a dark moment in New Zealand history. The 1949 film footage is grainy but Opie's memory of the 1913 miners' strike - infamous for the death behind the miners' hall of Frederick George Evans, courtesy of a police baton - is as clear as yesterday.

Pioneering film-maker Cecil Holmes used Waihi to set the scene for his documentary about the Auckland carpenters' lockout of 1949, seeing parallels in the bosses' efforts to cut wages and form a scab union. Fighting Back is a left-wing account of the 16-week dispute which - after the wharfies, railwaymen and drivers' union showed support - choked the city's industrial life in a foretaste of the 1951 waterfront lockout.

The 30-minute doco, directed by Holmes and filmed by veteran film-maker Rudall Haywood, will be shown next weekend by the Auckland Labour History Group as the Auckland Heritage Festival kicks off.

For modern viewers, Fighting Back seems a straightforward enough piece of film-making but documentaries with a New Zealand face were a rarity in the 1940s. Holmes, formerly of the National Film Unit, was influenced by the British documentary maker John Grierson and the school of British film-making which celebrated the nobility of labour. But, apart from the opening and closing scenes (the ending focuses on workers building a railway bridge high above a river, not a safety harness in sight), Fighting Back is largely a chronicle of the bitter dispute from its origins - an Arbitration Court ruling cutting carpenters' travel allowances - to the end.

Even within those constraints, Holmes finds room for the bigger picture: Auckland is depicted as a class-divided city, with the mansions of Paritai Drive - where a mock-socialite sips gin and bores her guest about her trip to Paris - contrasted with cramped workers' cottages in Freemans Bay. A monotonous voice reads company results at high-speed, then government statistics are cited showing how real wages have declined. In plummy English tones, the narrator leads us from the bustling commercial precinct and port to idle building sites: "the big construction jobs still stood silent ... rotting in the weather."

There's footage of the watersiders' charismatic leader Jock Barnes addressing 3000 workers at Carlaw Park, likening the American Civil War fight against slavery to the carpenters being "denied the right of work using the economic whip of starvation".

While the film is an eye-opening reminder of a low point in our social history, the backstory about its director is even more compelling. Palmerston North-born Holmes was a passionate film-maker who also happened to be a communist. He returned from World War II to find a job with the fledgling National Film Unit - set up on Grierson's advice initially to promote the war effort but also to present a New Zealand face to cinema audiences. Holmes began producing short films for the unit's Weekly Review, shown in cinemas - then a major source of entertainment and information for New Zealanders - before the main feature. His sympathy with the British social realist school of filmmaking was apparent in efforts such as The Coaster, about the life of coastal sailors, with verse by Denis Glover voiced by a young Selwyn Toogood.

Holmes' surviving brother, Basil, said the Weekly Review's popularity was linked to New Zealanders' emerging sense of national identity. Holmes' contributions reflected his interest in narrative film-making more than his communist beliefs, although he became a Public Service Association delegate.

Communism had a small but dedicated following among New Zealand workers who had experienced the Depression, the rise of Fascism and at least one world war, said Basil Holmes. But, after 1945, there was growing alarm internationally about the rise of the Iron Curtain and the "Russian intention to conquer the world by conspiracy and revolution". The Cold War was gripping Europe; in America, Senator McCarthy would foment reds-under-the-beds hysteria.

Here, there was growing industrial unrest among workers who had returned from war impatient for a better life, only to find wage restraint and stagnation. As militancy grew, it suited politicians to play up concerns about communists infiltrating unions.
In December 1948, Holmes became the victim of McCarthyism, New Zealand-style, while the PSA was pursuing wage claims. He went for his regular Friday night drinks with some parliamentary friends, leaving his car parked in parliament grounds with the windows down, his camera and satchel in the back seat. According to Annie Goldson's 1996 documentary Seeing Red, a parliamentary staffer stole the satchel. Rifling through, he found Holmes' Communist Party membership card and another damaging document - a note drafted to PSA president Jack Lewin calling a stopwork meeting and advising Lewin how to handle the meeting. The rather presumptive note suggested, among other things, that Lewin "butter the bastards up a bit" and that "after you've wound up, this resolution will be put and carried unanimously".

Lewin rejected Holmes' advice and ran the meeting his way. That didn't matter. The letter found its way to acting Prime Minister, Walter Nash, who went public with it as evidence of communist manipulation of the union movement. Nash's statement was splashed across newspapers nationwide.

"The technique indicated in the letter ... is one used by the Communist Party in many parts of the world," said Nash. "Such a technique ... not only threatens the welfare of the trade union movement but may imperil the whole structure of the State."

Holmes was fired. Blacklisted by employers, he made Fighting Back while unemployed, awaiting an appeal against his dismissal. "It was probably the first time anyone had made a film if not pointing at the state directly but certainly objecting to its activities," says Basil Holmes, who lives in retirement on Waiheke Island.

The film was not easily made - anyone seen with a camera risked being attacked by one side or the other. "Anyone involved would have been seen as an enemy of the state and the film had to be processed in Australia.

"It was the last days of the Fraser Government and they were very nasty last days. Deregistering the Carpenters' Union wreaked havoc - it helped put the Labour Government out.

"It really was a big rehearsal for what was to happen in 1951: locking workers out and setting up a scab union, threatening picketers with antiquated laws - the authorities had it all sorted out when you look at it."

Justice at least prevailed in Holmes' case and he won his appeal against unfair dismissal. But he felt his position at the film unit was untenable. "He did what thousands of New Zealanders have been doing ever since and went to Australia, never to return."

New Zealand's loss was Australia's gain, although his film-making continued to run foul of the authorities - particularly after he teamed up with another Kiwi in exile, socialist broadcaster Colin Scrimgeour.

Australian Film historian Stuart Cunningham says Holmes' 1950s feature films Captain Thunderbolt, celebrating the bushranger myth, and Three in One juxtapose "international stylistic ensembles virtually untouched in the Australian cinema: expressionism, social realism, neo-realism, Soviet social-class typage".

But Captain Thunderbolt waited four years for release and Three in One was withdrawn from the 1956 Sydney Film Festival after organisers were pressured over the film's socialist philosophy. The movie was sold to six countries and was well-received on the international festival circuit.

Although he eventually renounced communism, Holmes went on to embarrass the Australian Government with films about the plight of Aborigines before his death in 1994. In 1985, he was made an Australian Cinema Pioneer. He married three times. Says his brother: "He would have been a difficult man to live with."

Auckland Heritage Festival 08

* Historian David Verran leads the intriguing Symonds St Cemetery tour, Tuesday, September 23 and Thursday, October 2, from 1-2.30pm.

* Fordes Frontbench: political life in Auckland, a lecture providing a thought-provoking and humorous account of political life in Auckland from 1840-65, the period when Auckland was the nation's capital, September 29-October 3 from 7-8pm.

* Learn about the dramatic history of the stretch of waterfront marked by the Ports of Auckland's red fence, September 20, 25, 30 and October 3, from 1-2pm.

* Cornwall Park: learn about heritage and writing your family history with historian Professor Russell Stone, Sunday, September 28, 2-3pm.

* Rangitoto Island: Islington Bay tour, visit archaeological sites and baches, Saturday, September 27, ferry leaves Auckland 9.15am and Devonport 9.25am.

* For the full programme of over 100 events, which run until October 5, go to: www.aucklandcity.govt.nz/whatson
SCREENINGS

* Basil Holmes will speak at next Saturday's screening of Fighting Back at 2pm at the Auckland Trades Hall, 147 Great North Rd, Grey Lynn.

* Annie Goldson's documentary about the Holmes satchel affair Seeing Red can be viewed at the National Film Archive in Karangahape Rd. For the full archive catalogue, go to: www.filmarchive.org.nz