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Bringing the past alive

In the dark space beneath a staircase is an old wooden box. It hasn’t been opened in nearly 50 years. The box is filled with treasure; not pieces of gold, but pieces of the past. Fragments of moments strapped to thin, black film wound tightly inside metal cases. The faces and places cast across the reels of film make up the historical stories stacked to the brim of the old wooden box.

The box beneath Barry Sue’s staircase. Photo: Matthew Comito.

Crouched over the box, Barry Sue sifts through the films his father left below the staircase of their family home nearly half a century ago. “He was an avid photographer and also did quite a lot of underwater filming,” Sue says. “Dad was very good with the camera, he had a natural flair for it.” That flair led Sue’s father into a successful career in television. Amongst the reels of film inside the box are scripts for a TV show in a tattered black folder. In typewriter lettering across the top of the pages reads the title Down Under with Jack Sue.

With the box of films, his own wealth of historical knowledge and desire to keep his father’s name alive, Sue plans to digitise the films and bring the forgotten treasures into the modern world. Sue is part of the growing trend of historical preservers hoping to keep their memories alive forevermore in digital form. But unwilling to donate his collection to the societies and libraries around the state who collect and digitise historical films, Sue is looking for a way to do it all himself.

“You need to be careful about giving things away for nothing,” he says. “It’s our own copyright and I don’t want to lose that. Dad did talk about what could be done. He said to me, ‘There has to be a way’.”

Sue’s father Jack Wong Sue passed away aged 84 in 2009, but not before living a remarkable life. A decorated war veteran who served as a secret agent behind Japanese lines in WWII, Jack Sue returned from the war and found peace in some of his passions, opening WA’s first ever retail scuba diving shop and reforming his dance band which split at the start of the war. Jack Sue was the pianist and front man of Jackie Sue’s Rhythm Boys, a band he played in for 38 years.

Jack Wong Sue. Photo: Barry Sue.

He also rekindled his love of film and photography, working as a cameraman for a Melbourne TV station and hosting his own program on Channel Nine called Down Under. The reels of film stashed beneath the staircase are remnants of his media career long forgotten by the rest of the world.

“At one stage during the 60s and 70s my father was a household name all over Australia,” Sue says. “He had a great life and was very highly loved in Australia, very highly respected. Naturally people die and new kids come through so now people say, ‘who? I’ve never heard of him’. But in those times he was well known.”

With the box back in the light of day for the first time in half a century, Sue is planning what to do next. “God knows what’s in there,” Sue says. “What I really wanted to do was have it all done when [Dad] was alive, so that he could go through it all again. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.” Instead he’s left to decide for himself how to preserve his father’s collection.

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While searching online, Sue discovered he’s not alone in wanting to bring mementos of the past alive in the digital age. “I was on Facebook, and I came across Warren Duffy,” he says. Duffy is the founder of Lost Perth, a Facebook page dedicated to posting digitised photos and videos of Perth from the decades gone by.

The photos and films shared on Lost Perth show the roads, buildings, popular neighbourhood deli’s and eateries, suburbs, fashion trends, fads and everything in between of Perth from days gone by. It’s the simple things, however, that Duffy says garner the most attention when posted on the page. “It seems to be drive-ins and food with mum,” he says. “I took a photo of a Tupperware container, and there were 64,000 likes in one day. I still get a fizz out of the comments you get.”

Preserving history is a way of life for Warren Duffy. Photo: Matthew Comito.

When Sue messaged Duffy to tell him about his own collection, Duffy showed Sue a link to the website of a company from Texas selling machines to digitise old films. Duffy planned to purchase a machine for himself to digitise his own films, and now, with the fundraising support of the Lost Perth community, Duffy raised the funds to purchase a machine for himself.

“With freight and everything [it cost] around $9,700,” he says. Duffy contributed $1,100 himself, and followers of the page donated the rest of the money. “One person donated $1000, and two $500. Even $5 [donations], it doesn’t matter what it is, people can afford what they can afford. I’m very humbled and very grateful. We bought the machine, and now I can do films for free, forever.”

With the machine currently shipping from Texas, Duffy could hold the key to digitising Sue’s collection.

But Duffy says if Sue wants him to digitise his films, Duffy would keep copies for himself for his own use. That is, however, once he’s finished digitising his own collection.

In a crate on a shelf stacked away in Duffy’s garage is a box much like Sue’s. Inside are more than 200 reels of film, collected over time when others threw them away. One morning Duffy struck gold on the verge of a Nedlands’ street. He received a tip from a friend at six in the morning of a box sitting by the roadside. Within an hour the box was in the back of Duffy’s car. It contained more than 70 reels of film.

Warren Duffy. Photo: Matthew Comito.

“It’s like winning the lottery every day when this stuff come up in front of you,” Duffy says. “The majority of the lot we’ve got now were thrown away. They could have been lost forever. Thankfully it was me that found them, and [they] didn’t just disappear into someone’s collection. I hope there is some good stuff on them.”

Written across the cover photo on the Lost Perth Facebook page is a quote: “Welcome to Lost Perth, where your photos bring back the past.” Receiving photos and film from his followers gives life to Lost Perth, something Duffy is truly grateful for. “I’m humbled. Every time someone thanks me, it’s not [just] me,” he says. “I’m in the position where I posted a bunch of photos, and the page took off really quickly. But without the people, I don’t exist. I really, really appreciate it.”

Once digitised Duffy will share the long forgotten films in the online world of Lost Perth. What once stood still in physical reels of film in a box in Duffy’s garage will be available for everyone to see, over and over again at the click of a button. “Sadly, there are people that value the film and think it’s worth a billion dollars,” Duffy says. “You’ll never see it. What good are they going to be when the people are gone?

“Nostalgia is an important part of life. It can be a health benefit as it brings happiness and memory of the better times. Everything I can do to find film and share it for free I will do, because while people are alive that’s when there is going to be the most benefit.”

Perth historian Sue Graham-Taylor believes the benefits of digitising old films, photographs and documents go beyond showing the people who lived through the captured moments. The value extends to the families of those no longer around to tell the stories of their past. “For the general public, [digitising] has many benefits in terms of being able to understand the place in which they live, and in particular family history,” Graham-Taylor says.

“I was working for a local museum a while ago and people came in with their family records; not just paper records but also objects. It was really powerful to be able to look at some of those objects and digitise the records for them,” she says. “To add depth to their memories, that’s an amazing ability to do something like that. To bring the past alive, and make people understand what their [ancestors] went through. It’s pretty powerful.”

Two of Duffy’s reels. Photo: Matthew Comito.

Like the box of junk on the side of a Nedlands’ street which turned into Duffy’s treasure, the potential for fascinating films and photos to be sitting in sheds, lofts, garages and cellars around the state is limitless. There are already many people in Perth, however, who have ventured to the depths of their storage areas and dug out their collections. If in need of proof look no further than the library of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society.

“In total, there’s probably in the order of 30 to 40,000 photographs [here],” says Mike Taylor. Taylor is a volunteer in the RWAHS library, responsible for digitising and archiving the donated photographs. “About 20,000 have been digitised,” he says. There’s still a lot to go, and we’re working on it.” Taylor knows not every photo from long ago is priceless, and it takes a little bit of digging to find the hidden gems. “About one in every 100 photos you think, ‘wow, that’s a great photo’. There are a lot of photographs that are more mundane, but every now and then you come across photographs that have quite a lot of meaning and value.

“They have a story in themselves.”

With official agencies such as the RWAHS and amateur historians such as Duffy and Sue desperate to bring stories from forgotten times back into focus, there is no better time than now to weave through the cobwebs and blow the dust off the box in the back of your shed, and the back of your mind. “Make the effort. Get the box out and have a look,” Taylor says. “Try and find out everything you can … and share it.”

What you find in your own collection may help change what Graham-Taylor believes is an inaccurate perception many have of Western Australian history. “We tend to think we haven’t got a very old history here in WA, and we don’t really value our heritage,” she says. “The more things like this that can be talked about and used, the more value it will be to society. We can understand and preserve our heritage.”

With his own box out in the light of day for the first time in nearly half a century, Sue is contemplating what to do with his father’s collection. Whether fighting valiantly at war, diving deep in the ocean, standing behind or in front of a camera, or up on stage leading his dance band in a tune, Jack Sue was always remarkable. Unfortunately the time for him to relive the memories is gone, but it’s not too late for his son to see it all for himself.

What’s next for Barry Sue’s collection? Photo: Matthew Comito.

There’s still time to revive the memories of his father sat for too long in the dark below the stairs, if Sue chooses to call upon Duffy to help bring his father’s films back to life. For Sue, the most important thing about whatever path he takes is to honour the memories of his father in the way he sees best.

“I’d release them the way I’d want to,” Sue says. “If it was worth $20,000 a second to use it, to me it’s only a number. It’s not about the money; it’s the value. I’d like to keep my Dad’s name alive forevermore.”

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