This collects the key actions (a more interesting way of describing activities) that the nonfictionLab undertakes. Collected under the menu you will find the major events and initiatives of the lab.

David Carlin meets the Papa Mfumu’eto comic archive from Kinshasa, Congo

This February, David Carlin encountered the remarkable sequential art archive of the Congolese artist, Papa Mfumu’eto as an invited keynote artist and lab workshop leader at the Text Meets Image & Image Meets Text: Sequences and Assemblages, Out of Africa and Congo conference in Gainesville, Florida. The conference, organised by Nancy Hunt and Alioune Sow of the University of Florida’s Center for African Studies, brought together historians, anthropologists, visual studies and Africanist scholars with museum curators, artists and writers. These included Jean Comaroff from Harvard, Phillip Van den Bossche, Director, MuZEE, Ostend, Belgium and Patricia Hayes from Visual Studies at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. The focus was the work of Papa Mfumu’eto, ‘perhaps Africa’s most phenomenal street artist of comic zines’ (Nancy Hunt), whose vast archive of zines written in Lingala and French has been acquired by the University of Florida library. Conference participants were able to immerse themselves in the archive as well as to engage in a ‘critical forum about methods and politics in text-image studies’.

In a keynote evening at the Harn Museum of Art, David read excerpts from his book The Abyssinian Contortionist (2015), alongside an artist talk by French-based Beninois visual artist Didier Viodé and a performed reading (with improvised saxophone accompaniment) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, Congolese novelist and playwright based in Austria and author of the widely acclaimed and award-winning novel, Tram 83. David also led two experimental ‘lab work’ sessions at the conference, inviting some playful, informal approaches, first to sharing knowledge and then to listening for and ‘essaying’ into the stories and questions suggested by the archive.

David Carlin with Fiston Mwanza Mujila.

Artist Didier Viodé with literary scholar Naminata Diabaté from Cornell University.

Some of Didier Viodé’s artwork on the theme of migration.

A workshop at Eastside High School featuring Didier Viodé, Fiston Mwanza Mujila and US sequential artist Tom Hart.


Present tense .5 Faking It: The Problem with Authenticity and Sincerity in the Memoir

With Robin Hemley

Are memoir and autobiography always the same, or does memoir belong to neither nonfiction nor fiction? What is the autobiographical pact and what is the authenticity effect? In the final present tense for the year, we’ll stride confidently through this minefield of reader expectation and authorial deceit, blowing ourselves up repeatedly.

RMIT Adjunct Professor Robin Hemley has published eleven books of fiction and nonfiction, winning many awards for his work including three Pushcart Prizes in fiction and nonfiction and a Guggenheim Fellowship. For nine years, he directed The Nonfiction Writing Program at The University of Iowa. He is currently Director of the Writing Program at Yale-NUS in Singapore, where he is also Writer-in-Residence, and a Professor Emeritus at The University of Iowa. Robin is Founder of the international NonfictioNOW Conference.


Tues 5 December


RMIT Design Hub

Level 3

Lecture Theatre

Cnr Swanston and
Victoria streets



This event is free but registration is essential. Register here.

Women Writers in the City at West Space

RMIT’s non/fictionLab invites you to join us on Monday 30 October for a performance of creative work and Q&A by Zoe Dzunko and Annabel Brady-Brown.

This is the sixth and final outcome of Women Writers in the City, a project supported by the City of Melbourne 2016 Arts Grants.

Women Writers in the City at West Space

Zoe Dzunko and Annabel Brady-Brown present a multi-dimensional performance that explores ideas of weight bearing, economics, creativity, sacrifice and the opacity of boundaries in women’s labour. Responding to a number of representative effigies that render female figures as both custodians of and accessories to the politically loaded structures they adorn, the pair use poetic and critical texts placed in conversation with one another. Followed by Q&A.

West Space
Level 1, 225 Bourke St
Monday 30 October
6.15pm for 6.30
Annabel Brady-Brown is co-editor of The Lifted Brow, a founding editor of Fireflies film magazine and film editor at The Big Issue. Her fiction and criticism have been published in The Lifted Brow, 4:3, Kill Your Darlings, Senses of Cinema, The Canary Press, MUBI Notebook, LOLA, Indiewire, Variety, and more, and she was a participant in the Locarno Critics Academy 2016.

Zoe Dzunko is co-editor of The Lifted Brow and in 2014 she founded Powder Keg Magazine, an online poetry quarterly based out of Melbourne and New York. She is the author of numerous chapbooks, most recently Selfless (TAR, 2016), and her work has been supported by programs such as Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Tin House Writer’s Workshop, and Yale Writers’ Conference. Her writing has appeared widely in Australian and international publications, including The Age, Australian Book Review, Southerly, Guernica, Tin House, The Fanzine, Prelude et al. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Deakin University, and completed her Masters degree at Melbourne University, where she teaches creative writing, small press publishing and independent media.

Supported by the City of Melbourne Arts Grants Program.

DOCUVERSE 2018 call for proposals

Expanding documentary: Ecologies and dialogues


Since its inception in 2016, Docuverse has been aiming to bring together a diverse range of people from independent filmmakers and artists to research-practitioners and industry representatives. With its third iteration, our symposium will continue to foster these cross-disciplinary conversations that are increasingly necessary to navigate the expanded documentary landscape.

For our annual event on the 9th of February 2018 at RMIT University in Melbourne, we invite contributors from different backgrounds to open dialogues into various directions:

  • between filmmaking, programming and design thinking
  • around points of tension and contact between different approaches and skillsets
  • on how to navigate challenges that we cannot find clear answers to
  • or any other aspect you deem relevant for advancing expanded documentary further

Following the idea that the electricity comes in the exchange, we specifically welcome experimental and more dynamic formats such as in-conversations, provocation-and-response or incubator workshops. To kick things off, on Thursday the 8th February, we will host a pre-conference evening including screenings of submitted projects and the launch of our e-Book. If you have a creative project you would like to show, a conversation proposal, or another format for a presentation, please send us a few sentences about your work or idea accompanied with a short description of how you would like to present it on the day. These proposals should not be longer than 150 words. Preference will be given to submitters who can attend in person. We also welcome short creative works submitted for screening.

Please email proposals to Kim at by November 20th, 2017.

Docuverse events archive:

Docuverse team:
Hannah Brasier (RMIT University)
Nicholas Hansen (RMIT University)
Kim Munro (RMIT University)
Franziska Weidle (University of Göttingen)

Docuverse is supported by RMIT’s non/fictionLab

OzWallace 2017, the first ever David Foster Wallace conference in Australia, was held at RMIT University from 1-3 September. Sponsored by non/fictionLab and the International David Foster Wallace Society, it featured 25 presentations from a diverse array of speakers from around the world, including David Hering’s keynote address on Wallace, Ronald Reagan and the 1980s. There was a Howling Fantods fan event, a trip to the AFL Women’s League football at Etihad stadium and a puppet show (derived from Infinite Jest) to entertain the participants.

Docuverse presents: David Bradbury rough-cut screening of ‘The Darkest Hour’
image credit: Louis Fisher


On Tuesday 22nd August, Docuverse will be hosting David Bradbury and screening his rough-cut edit of his new film, The Darkest Hour. 

The film will be screened in: Building 80, level 4, room 11. Please arrive at 6.30 for a 6.45 start. Email for confirmation of attendance or any questions.

This rough-cut is NOT yet finished but is a great opportunity to see the documentary editing process in action as well as to speak with one of our best practitioners and give him valuable feedback before he goes back into the edit room with editor Walter McIntosh.

More info

David Bradbury, one of Australia’s most respected documentary filmmakers took his family to the US last year. Tired of constant rejection by ABC Factual and SBS Independent, his plan was to see if he could break  into a bigger fish pond (Netflix, HBO, Sundance, Stan, Amazon etc).  He quickly deduced it was not possible beyond committing several years of struggle to break in from the outside as a Newcomer. Too many other hungry American indie filmmaker’s mouths to feed.  So he did the next best thing. And what he liked to do most. He decided to shoot a film about what he was seeing three months out from the shock election of Donald Trump.

Eight US cities later as Bradbury toured his latest film (‘War on Trial’ – a feature length doco made on the princely cash sum of $6,000), he chronicled what was happening on the streets of America; 40 years after Ronald Reagan introduced the economic theories of Milton Friedman and the infamous Chicago Boys to the world. Globalisation. What Bradbury’s camera captured is not a pretty picture. He interviews veterans of America’s failed wars to maintain Empire, gets down in the gutter with the Homeless to find out what life is like on the streets, speaks to a nun who was violated by the military junta in Guatemala under the directions of a CIA operative, goes to the US/Mexican border where Trump plans to build the Wall, visits the rust belt of middle America where factories are closed and people are hurting. Ending up at the Standing Rock protest camp for Election Day. Standing Rock was a rallying point for Native American Indians and their environmental supporters stopping an oil pipeline cutting through sacred lands and over gravesites. To give context to his critique of the American penchant for Empire.  The Darkest Hour intertwines archival footage from some of Bradbury’s previous award winning films shot in South East Asia, Central and South America.
Recap: Docuverse presents Reaching Out & Looking In

For our latest Docuverse Snapshots we had Dan Edwards present a talk called Reaching Out & Looking In: Independent Chinese Documentary Today. Dan is a Melbourne based academic, writer and journalist interested in Chinese and Australian film and culture. For this Snapshots talk Dan shared with us his extensive knowledge of Chinese independent documentary.

Dan began by drawing attention to the explosion of Chinese independent documentary which emerged out of the arrival of digital technologies in the late 90s and spanned till 2011. He discussed how during this time these documentaries were played at unofficial screening events, often in informal venues, removed from State censorship and not played on television or cinemas. Dan then went on to describe the characteristics of this burst of documentaries as observational, showing interaction between filmmaker and subject and showing disenfranchised communities and/or individuals. It was these types of documentary techniques which allowed these films to be political without explicitly criticising the state or country. As Dan described these films often took on a less confrontational approach by making visible what the mainstream media didn’t cover or glossed over. These films were activist films simply because they did what the mainstream didn’t.

Of particular interest to Docuverse, in terms of expanded documentary practices, was Dan’s mention of participatory initiatives in the mid-2000s. He drew particular attention to The Memory Project (2010) in which documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang trained people from rural areas how to use digital filmmaking equipment. These trained individuals then interviewed villagers about their memories of the Great Famine of the 1950s, reflecting a common characteristic of independent Chinese documentary during this time – to explore memories that are unacknowledged by the state-sanctioned media. Dan noted how some of the participants of this project have gone on to make feature length films. While the site to watch these interviews was shut down this year, Duke University Press has preserved over 1000 of them in an online collection.

As Dan discussed this rich period of independent Chinese documentary, one kept wondering what happened in 2011 to stop this proliferation of films. Dan came to answering this toward the end when he talked about the “dramatic tightening” of the party state on culture and education that has happened in China since 2011. This tightening came as a mixed result of concern about the so-called “Jasmine Revolutions,” increased ethnic unrest and an increased feeling that independent cinema was overstepping the mark. In 2012 power was cut to the 2012 Independent Film Festival in Beijing. Dan finished his talk by highlighting that whilst Chinese audiences don’t have access to independent Chinese documentary today, we have seen increasing internalisation of these films. However, they are much more polished and tight structurally to appeal to Western audiences.

The questions which followed Dan’s talk revolved around whether or not these Chinese documentary filmmakers are film school trained, whether essayistic modes were prominent, and the role of the internet for distribution.

In an area not covered by Docuverse yet, Dan provided comprehensive insight into the rather unknown aspects of Chinese independent doco.

Dan has written a book entitled Independent Chinese Documentary: Alternative visions, alternative publics (2015).

Photographs by Nicholas Hansen and Hannah Brasier

“Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.” – Krapp’s final words, in the play Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett.

It’s awkward when one can’t work out how to spin a photo for this blogpost, but we did at least manage to spin the wheel at last night’s third movement of The Symphony of Awkward at the Urban Writers House. For this rendition we employed bingology as method, each round delivering a number that was duly translated into a date. Each of us then presented a contribution from her archive corresponding to said date, so that assorted diary entries, childhood art works and photographs were patched together into a kind of faulty fugue. We still don’t know where we are going with this, but there is something so compelling about our experiments that we shall continue to meet, and to diarise our sessions as well, towards some kind of co-created research outcome, and possibly, in due course, a public event.

Kat Clarke and Emily Bitto read from works in progress

Please join us at the Urban Writing House on Tuesday 25 July for an informal reading of works in progress by Emily Bitto, author of The Strays, and Kat Clarke, graduate of RMIT’s BA (Creative Writing).

This is the third outcome of Women Writers in the City, a project supported by City of Melbourne 2016 Arts Grants.

non/fictionLab invited Emily Bitto and Kat Clarke to create new work, collaborate on an experiment in mentorship, and explore what it means to be a female-identifying writer in the city of Melbourne.

This reading in the Urban Writing House is a rare opportunity to hear them read from works in progress in an intimate space. There’ll be time for questions and there’ll be snacks and wine.

Emily Bitto’s debut novel, The Strays, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2013. The novel was published by Affirm Press, and went on to win the 2015 Stella Prize. Emily lives in Melbourne where she co-owns and runs Carlton wine bar Heartattack and Vine.

Kat Clarke is a multi-talented creative and consultant. Being a proud Wotjobaluk woman from the Wimmera, she takes pride in being active with both her own community and the Aboriginal community in Melbourne. Having graduated from RMIT in writing, she finds herself mostly merging her storytelling with her other passions such as arts management, community development, and film. Her upbringing and driven passion for her culture, has guided Kat to become a Cultural consultant for gaming and film companies interested in telling First Nations stories.

Date: Tues 25 July
Time: 5pm for 5.30pm
Location: Urban Writing House, Stewart Street (behind Building 80, opposite the basketball courts – 80.1.8).

Supported by the City of Melbourne Arts Grants Program.

Docuverse Snapshots: Karelle Arsenault

Snapshots: I recall an interactive documentary…

By Kim Munro

Part-way through her presentation on interactive documentary and memory, Karelle began to recount memories of sleepovers as a child. Karelle and her gang of movie-loving friends would line up their mattresses in the basement and have ‘watching marathons’ that lasted well into the morning. They would eat pizza and watch movies (often horror), compiling quantitative data such as the number of murders in each Friday the 13th sequel. Karelle then invited the Docuverse audience to speak about their own memories and we each recalled similar ‘film events’ from when we were younger.

There are many reasons why memories of watching films remain vivid; the collective experience of watching films, a formative time in our lives, the cultural position and posterity that many films and TV series have acquired. But how will interactive documentary be remembered without these factors which help us to retain the experience of where we were when we watched these?

Karelle Arsenault’s presentation explored and questioned whether interactive documentary projects will still exist in the future, and if so, how will we remember them? Karelle’s presentation prompted many questions about how we engage in interactive documentary as an individual rather than collective experience, or as something that is studied (a “discourse of sobriety”[1]?) rather than viewed for pleasure. It also raises broader issues around the changing viewing habits that tend further towards individuated experiences rather than collective ones. The longevity and impact of interactive documentary is an issue that is often discussed in scholarship in the field. Jon Dovey claims that given this is a relatively new field, we will still need more time to ascertain its impact, establish audiences and develop a culture.[2] Karelle’s presentation gave us both the opportunity to think about our own film memories while also critically questioning the role and place that interactive documentary might hold for us in the future.


Workshop recap:

By Hannah Brasier

Karelle’s second event with Docuverse was her The experience of interactive documentary workshop. In this workshop Karelle worked through a series of questions with a group of 6 participants on their experience with The Block (SBS); a web documentary on Redfern’s infamous block in Sydney . The workshop ran in a focus group style, however Karelle’s intention was that everyone attending could take something away from the discussion. The discussion cultivated by Karelle’s questions spanned from how and when we interacted with The Block to the specifics of the interface design and content.

As most of those who participated in the workshop were makers Karelle was interested in how the interactive documentary experience could be improved to alleviate the tension most of us felt between the intention of The Block and the experience of it. Most of us felt that while the interface provides a map of the places within Redfern’s block there was no way us as users could experience these places. So, while there were a catalogue of video interviews with those who had a connection to the block there was no connection made in the interface between the interview stories and the places. The map of the block as interface then appeared to have little significance.

This tension between intention and experience is something which has emerged throughout Docuverse’s events, so it was great that Karelle gave us an opportunity to discuss this in detail. What emerged through the discussion was that there are often tensions between the interface and the content of a project. As interactive documentary makers we need to give users the agency to explore content in a way which enriches their relationship to what they are seeing.

images: Hannah Brasier

[1] Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010, p. 250.

[2] Jon Dovey, ‘Who Wants to Become Banal? The i-doc from Experiment to Industry’, in Judith Aston, Sandra Gaudenzi & Mandy Rose (eds), i-docs: The Evolving Practices of Interactive Documentary, Wallflower Press, London & New York, 2017, p. 274.

Lunchtime Lit: Emily Bitto & Kat Clarke at the Emerging Writers Festival

RMIT’s non/fictionLab invites you to join us on Thursday 22 June as Stella Prize-winning author Emily Bitto (The Strays) and multi-talented writer Kat Clarke discuss what it means to be a woman writer in the City of Melbourne.

Hosted by the Emerging Writers Festival, this is the second outcome of Women Writers in the City, a project run by RMIT’s non/fictionLab and supported by the City of Melbourne Arts Grants Program. We invited Emily Bitto and Kat Clarke to create new work, collaborate on an experiment in mentorship, and discuss their ideas, experiences, and craft.
Emily Bitto’s debut novel, The Strays, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2013. The novel was published by Affirm Press, and went on to win the 2015 Stella Prize. Emily lives in Melbourne where she co-owns and runs Carlton wine bar Heartattack and Vine.

Kat Clarke is a multi-talented creative and consultant. Being a proud Wotjobaluk woman from the Wimmera, she takes pride in being active with both her own community and the Aboriginal community in Melbourne. Having graduated from RMIT in writing, she finds herself mostly merging her storytelling with her other passions such as arts management, community development, and film. Her upbringing and driven passion for her culture have guided Kat to become a Cultural consultant for gaming and film companies interested in telling First Nations stories.

Date: Thursday 22 June, 2017, 12.30pm
Cost: Free
1000 £ Bend (Unknown Union)
361 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne VIC 3000

Supported by the City of Melbourne Arts Grants Program.

More details here.

Non/fictionLab’s David Carlin has been a Visiting Professor at the University of Lapland this month. David gave a Keynote talk and a workshop at the University of Lapland’s Faculty of Social Sciences Seminar: ‘Situating the Self Ethically, Academically and in Society’ in Ranua, Finland. David’s talk was called ‘Essaying as Method’. It looked at the idea of essaying as method through discussion of a workshop called Essaying Manila David led with Australian filmmaker and RMIT Adjunct Professor John Hughes, as part of this year’s WrICE residency in the Philippines. ‘The participants were a mixed group of Filipinos and Australians, academics, students, writers – self selected on the basis of being interested in non-fiction writing. The topic of investigation presented to the group was Manila. The task was to ‘essay Manila’. We asked: in the highly constrained time and space available, what kinds of textual accounts, brief and provisional, might be produced, not to represent Manila but to help reassemble it, as it were: to start to trace the associations that make it up as a city?’

The Ranua events took place adjacent to the Ranua Zoo, the world’s northernmost zoo, where many companion species could be encountered including the critically endangered Arctic Fox. Behind bars but, this one at least, alive.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” – Søren Kierkegaard

A further gathering of devout diarologists took place in the Urban Writers House last Thursday night to consider avenues for situating and extending discussion of our juvenilia  into a range of possible research frameworks within the field of creative writing and beyond. Contexts such as memoir studies and memory studies, ideas of reading and writing as therapeutic practices, and future forays into essayistic and documentary space are all under consideration.  Wider readings are being sourced and shared as we tease out our understanding of the diaristic impulse – past and present, digital and analogue – as means to capture, to confess, and to confide.

A third movement will be held in July.

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”  – Gwendolyn Fairfax, in The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde

 The first ‘movement’ of the inaugural Symphony of Awkward was conducted last Thursday evening at the Urban Writers House under the baton of Stayci Taylor, Kim Munro, and Peta Murray. This project, supported by seed-funding from non/fictionLab, drew eight contributors, all of whom had ransacked their personal archives to unearth something mortifying for the occasion. Family photos, teenage diaries, and travel journals were among the stashes and sources mined and shared in quest of traces of our pre-formed selves.

The group will meet again before the end of May to discuss and to refine research possibilities, but several avenues are already apparent. These include work on digital vs analogue archives, questions of the gendered nature of diary-keeping, notions of seeing and re-seeing, considerations of the developing artistic ‘eye’ and ‘voice’, and a further tantalising research strand around the study of Girlhood Hair Styles Through The Ages.


Sophie Cunningham’s Elephant Walk, 3 May

Ranee was the first elephant in Australia. She arrived in Melbourne from Calcutta Zoo on the 5th March 1883. After docking in Port Melbourne she was held at Sandridge at the Port Melbourne police station until late at night. She was then walked through the streets in darkness.  It took many hours to walk the seven kilometers but Ranee remained calm until she saw the zoo itself, at which point she attempted to bolt. Ranee lived at the zoo until her death nineteen years later.  Ranee’s dark walk, after a long and lonely sea voyage, provides a way for us to talk about a range of things including the rights (lack of) of domesticated/working animals in early Melbourne and the politics of zoos.

Peta Murray

Ranee’s walk begins as a stroll through Melbourne streets, and ends with a sense of quiet observance as we approach the zoo gates. I’m not a local, yet the next day I feel the stirring of a childhood memory. I take down the blue album and search for a page, labelled, in my father’s hand: January, 1961. There are no photos of animals, but I find what I want: an image of me, arms atop a wire fence, my back to the camera, looking out at something. There is a brick animal ‘house’ in the distance, and a small white sign, just visible. Please Do Not Feed.

I am not quite three-years-old. We are at Sydney’s Taronga Park Zoo, me, my mother, another child, his mother. Here is another photo. The two of us – the boy in his white short-sleeved shirt and ‘little man’ bow tie, me in my sleeveless summer dress – wedged between our mothers, in their cat’s eye sunglasses. They’re smiling, smoking, as we wait to ride the elephant.

The memory firms. I recall a crude box-like saddle astride the elephant’s back. There is a wooden platform for sitting on and another where we rest our feet and a leather belt to strap us in tight, and we sit, three or four aside, as the poor beast rises, in slow motion, and bears us around and around its concrete corral.

Francesca Rendle-Short

Went to sleep dreaming of elephants, toes tingling with cold and night walking, thinking of Rainee and her slow walking ears flapping across those two hours or more that she would have spent plodding from sea to zoo, and how I read somewhere that elephants have a unique way of walking as if on high-heeled shoes, their heels protected by thick fatty cartilage, how the heel bones are raised up inside the foot so that it is as if they walk on their toes, how walking on hard constructed material build-environment surfaces must hurt, really hurt, do damage.

Sophie Cuningham

I’ve done Elephant Walk (Ranee’s Walk) twice. Once in the day time alone and once, with all of you, at night. Daylight gave me more of a sense of the historical nature of Port Melbourne and the bottom end of the city. All those old shop fronts and buildings look very different when they aren’t all lit up, and walking under street light gives things an artificial air As well, you could walk more comfortably through the parks. When I walked  alone I found myself feeling more emotional than I did when I was as part of a group. In these ways I connected with the past, and Ranee more. However walking at night allowed for the uncanniness of the moment when we turned off Royal Parade, towards Royal Park. The moon was bright but there wasn’t much other light. The sky was clear and the air cold. In that half light I got a glimpse of the otherness of the land on which we live, and walked last Wednesday. Ground that must have been even stranger for an intelligent creature from India, just off a boat after a long voyage, walking through the darkness: none of her own kind with her, no possibility of shared language, as she walked towards her servitude. I was so interested in the conversation we had as we walked towards the Zoo entrance.  Why did Ranee try and bolt in the final moments of her walk? Was it the smell of other animals? Their calls? It is hard not to anthropomorphise animals, especially ones as intelligent as elephants. I would so love to know what it was she was thinking and feeling over those few hours of something akin to freedom before she was locked up a final time.

Rees Quilford

After Ranee’ – Dead of night, March 1883, Ranee was led from the Port Melbourne police station to Royal Melbourne Zoo. A new trophy for the colony’s most marvellous of cities. A young elephant shipped from Calcutta, destined for servitude and loneliness. Elephant rides for the city’s children. A magnificent, once wild creature, now Eastern curios, live spectacle.

“subjected and worshipped, bred and sacrificed … something that has been rendered absolutely marginal” John Berger, “Why Look At Animals?”

We retrace that walk. Eight reminiscers, eight kilometres. Attention flits between present and past. Bay Street diners, fish and chips, tapas and wine. Introductions, discussion of work and life. Port Melbourne Town Hall, built just a year prior to Ranee’s journey. Bay Street Post Office, now Domino’s Pizza. Crossing the Yarra river. For Ranee, probably by punt. Now, a four-lane bridge, cars and trams. Flagstaff Gardens, a gathering point for those of the Kulin nation, signal station for shipping arrivals, and the new town’s first burial plot. On to Peel Street, past the Victoria Market, its aisles close and empty. To Haymarket, Royal Parade, then into Royal Park.

After Cemetery Road, the path darkens, the air dampens. The zoo is dark, quiet, a little foreboding. We track the high brick fence toward the gates. At the end of that long, lonely walk on a night in 1883 Ranee panicked and bolted.

I imagine the response was measured. She would have been quickly recaptured. There was nowhere to escape.

It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant – it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery – and obviously one ought not to do it if it can possibly be avoided.” – George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”

Twenty years in servitude, amusement for the citizens of the colony. Melbourne’s lone elephant, half a world from home.