Remembering the Cods

The Murray Cods rowing crew. HUMANITIES
The Murray Cods rowing crew.

It’s 1924 and crowds of thousands line the banks of the Port River to cheer two teams of rowers battling for the right to represent the nation at the upcoming Paris Olympics.

The crowd chants: “Paris or the Bush! Paris or the Bush!”

The dark horse in this battle, but the crowd favourite, is a crew of working class champions from Murray Bridge in South Australia piloting a rickety boat with an unlikely moniker – the Murray Cods – and a stuffed fish as their mascot.

The crew of firemen, engine drivers and manual labourers from the thriving river town have been causing havoc in the genteel world of rowing since 1908, aside from a break for the war.

The Cods’ uncouth but natural Australian style has been upsetting the crews from the best gentlemen’s clubs, and their journey culminates in winning the opportunity to represent the country at the Paris Olympics of 1924.

Now in 2015 their lives and achievements are being researched, re-remembered and re-created through a new film being developed for cinema release in June this year by seasoned film-maker Wayne Groom and digital documentary maker and researcher, UniSA lecturer Dr Carolyn Bilsborow.

The partnership grew out of Dr Bilsborow’s thesis and its accompanying film titled Inside the screen: engaging the contemporary documentary audience.

Wayne Groom and Dr Carolyn Bilsborow discuss the advantages of a digital movie camera.Wayne Groom and Dr Carolyn Bilsborow discuss the advantages of a digital movie camera.

“I thought about what digital media can bring to the documentary experience for the audience,” Dr Bilsborow says.

“In the 21st century, people can make a documentary about anything they’re interested in. They are not dependent on professional skills or distribution.”

Digitalisation has made this more intimate form of documentary possible. Groom likens the revolution in documentary to the French New Wave of the late 1940s and 1950s.

“Carolyn is riding a new wave,” he says.

“In the past, I would have needed a $250,000 camera and huge lights. Now we don’t need all that; we’ve got the community and digital cameras that operate in natural light.

“Through Carolyn’s documentary she showed me we don’t need all the paraphernalia of the past; we can tell a private story that’s really powerful and professional.”

Groom says he has also discovered the value of having an academic as a partner. Dr Bilsborow’s research skills made it easier for Groom to find stories about the Cods through sources like newspaper articles in the National Library’s Trove site.

“We’re finding the process so satisfying and as we piece together the story in our heads, these Cods are coming alive for us again and we feel like we know them,” Dr Bilsborow says.

“We get the opportunity and the privilege of meeting all these people who invite us into their lives and tell us their stories.”

The poster for the film about the Cods.The duo have embraced crowdfunding to support the film. Through the film’s website and Facebook page, they are raising money, developing contacts and keeping their supporters updated.

“We have over $90,000 now on a budget of $250,000,” Groom says.

“It’s more of a personal approach to crowdfunding. People are giving and not expecting a return.”

Groom says people have been coming forward with information about the Cods including photographs, letters and half-remembered memories of descendants.

The Murray Bridge Council and community have also quickly understood the impact it could have on the town – they’re celebrating a story that no other town has got.

For seasoned film professional Groom and researcher Dr Bilsborow, the film is more than a project.

“We’re the custodians of this story,” Dr Bilsborow says.

“Nobody else knows the story the way we do. There’s a lot of myth out there, but we can tell our truth about it.”

For more information on the film, go to the Facebook page.