Ruth Cullen: The Storyteller
It was personal, and a little bit political, for the documentary maker when she took on The Scribe.
Graham Freudenberg was a Labor Party speechwriter during the Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Neville Wran and Bob Carr eras. Now 84, and still very much lucid whilst puffing away on a cigarette compulsively during The Scribe, he recounts the significant moments in politics through his working life, and unwraps the way he works, without giving much away of his personal life.
“Honestly, with those guys and that generation, politics was their personal, there was nothing else, that was their entire world,” says Cullen. “They weren’t at the football on Saturdays…But for me, it was his brain that was personal. Every conversation I have ever had with him is about politics.”
Cullen had known Freudenberg all of her life, with her father Peter a former Whitlam staffer and later lobbyist. “I grew up in that world. Politics is really important. Graham is a very charming, personal man, but he’s also a major thinker and has been a real force behind the scenes. So, I thought, yep, particularly in the age of Trump, we need this more than ever.”
And despite Cullen and Freudenberg’s obvious political leanings, The Scribe is never about ideology. “I didn’t want it to be about Bill Shorten versus Malcolm Turnbull,” says Cullen. “I wanted to get bigger than that and get back to the intelligence. It’s really about breaking down that cynicism around politics; there’s a lot of reasons for it, especially of late, but I wanted to get bigger than that. And Graham has that sort of brain; he gets down to the really big questions – why are we here, what’s holding us together, why is politics important?”
Interviewing Freudenberg in his Brisbane home over a few well-researched days makes up the majority of the footage in the film. Judiciously inserting select archival footage (surprisingly, apart from Whitlam’s ‘It’s Time’, most of Freudenberg’s most famous speeches have been lost) – which adds perspective on this country’s history – and a few notable talking heads, ultimately, it’s surprising how compelling The Scribe turns out to be, despite being such an uncinematic premise – it’s about a man who wrote speeches for a living. “I wanted the location to be inside Graham’s brain,” says Cullen. “I wanted his ideas and his brain and to be inside his head.”
Director, Ruth Cullen. Photo Credit: Julian Panetta. © Ruth Cullen
Graham Freudenberg. Photo Credit: Julian Panetta. © Ruth Cullen