Tom Zubrycki

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Tom Zubrycki (born in London, England, in 1946) is an Australian documentary filmmaker. He is "widely respected as one of Australia's leading documentary filmmakers", according to The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film.[1] His films on social, environmental and political issues have won international prizes and have been screened around the world.[2] He is an active member of the Australian Directors Guild and lectures in the Open Program of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.[3]

Personal life and activities[edit]

Zubrycki was born in the UK. His father was Jerzy Zubrzycki, a university academic credited as one of the main architects of the Australian government’s policy on multiculturalism.[4] The family migrated to Australia in 1955, where he attended St Edmunds College, Canberra ACT Australia; Australian National University, Canberra; and University of New South Wales, Sydney.

Apart from making films, Zubrycki is also a teacher of documentary. Between 2003 and 2008 he lectured in documentary at University of Technology, Sydney, and since 2010 he has been teaching documentary masterclasses in the Open Program of Australian Film, Television and Radio School.[3] He is actively involved in the Australian Directors Guild and was for several years on the board. He is also on the committee of Ozdox, the Australian documentary film makers forum, and also on the Film Advisory Panel of the Sydney Film Festival.

Film making career[edit]

After finishing a degree in sociology,[when?] Zubrycki entered the video access movement making short ‘process’ videos using black and white porta-paks with Sydney-based community groups and trade unions.[5] These were his first visual documentary projects and included We Have To Live With It (1974) and Fig Street Fiasco (1974). They were made in the tradition of the Canadian Challenge for Change scheme, that had a specific purpose in empowering communities and giving them a voice.[6] The videos were shown in town halls, community centers and people's houses in a period before domestic video players were available.

The limits of the new video technology and his desire to reach wider audiences ultimately forced Zubrycki to switch to 16mm film and to feature-length documentaries. Using the networks developed while making these early videos, Zubrycki completed Waterloo in 1981. The film, which focused attention on the negative social impacts of Sydney's rapid urban development, won the prize for Best Documentary at the 1981 Sydney Film Festival.[7]

Zubrycki's films have a style that he has developed over the course of his career. The subjects of his documentaries are, on the most part, drawn from issues of the day, and personalised.[8] He usually works in a documentary or "observational style" and his films are narrative-based and character-driven. His first documentaries were stories that focused on the victims of Australia's rapid economic and social re-structuring. They included Waterloo (1981) about the effects of urban redevelopment on a Sydney suburb; Kemira - Diary of a Strike (1984) about an underground colliery sit-in strike near Wollongong[9] which won an AFI Award for Best Documentary,[10] and Friends & Enemies (1985) about a protracted and bitter union dispute in Queensland that saw the rise of the New Right in Australian politics.

In 1988, he was contracted by Film Australia to write and direct a documentary commissioned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and funded by The Australian Bicentennial Authority. However, owing to an editorial difference between the filmmaker and the ACTU, the film was never officially completed. Zubrycki claimed that he was forced to re-write history in accordance with the wishes of key ACTU officials who wanted to de-emphasize direct industrial action as a way of improving wages and conditions.[11][12] The unfinished film was screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 1989, and copies on VHS tape circulated in Australia.

In the late 1980s, Zubrycki made two documentaries in Broome, Western Australia: Lord of the Bush (1990), a bio-pic about eccentric British developer Lord Alistair McAlpine and his plans to create a new ‘civilization’ in Australia's north; and Bran Nue Dae (1991), about the first Aboriginal musical written and performed in Australia. The documentary featured the indigenous playwright Jimmy Chi.

In the early 1990s, Zubrycki's focus turned to migrant and refugee families, and the stresses caused by cultural conflict, and the search for identity and home. In 1993, he completed Homelands about an El Salvadorean refugee family and the anatomy of a marriage under stress.[13] This was followed by Billal (1995), a documentary that followed the dramatic aftermath of a racially motivated incident involving a Lebanese teenage boy and his family.[14]

Zubrycki was employed as a commissioning editor at SBS-TV in 1996/97, but quickly returned to directing, making The Diplomat (2000), about the former exiled East Timorese leader Jose Ramos-Horta and the final two years of his 25-year campaign to secure his homeland's independence.[15] The film won the 2000 AACTA Award for Best Documentary and Best Director.[10] The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film called it his most successful film.[1]

This was soon followed by The Secret Safari (2001), a historical documentary set in the Apartheid era about a covert operation involving a specially designed Bedford truck which used the cover of a safari tour to run weapons and munitions to Umkhonto we Sizwe operatives in the townships of Cape Town and Johannesburg. This film involved re-enactment as part of the story-telling structure and was a stylistic departure.

In 2003, he returned to Australia and made Molly & Mobarak, a story about a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan who finds work in an Australian country town and falls in love with a local schoolteacher.[16][17] The film secured cinema release around Australia, opened the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York in 2003, and was screened in competition at IDFA.

This was followed in 2005 by Vietnam Symphony, about how during the American War (aka Vietnam War) the Hanoi Conservatorium of Music - teachers and students - evacuated to a village where it continued to operate for five years. In 2007, he made Temple of Dreams about an Islamic Youth Centre in Lidcombe and its battle with the local municipal council that wants to shut it down.[18] In 2011, he completed The Hungry Tide, a personal story about the impact of climate change on the small Pacific nation of Kiribati,[19] which was premiered at the Sydney Film Festival and screened in competition at IDFA.[20]

In 2017 Zubrycki completed his last film Hope Road, which was 5 years in the making. A refugee from the Sudanese civil war, Zacharia (one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan) lives in Australia, with his partner and daughter. Like many others who are forced to leave their homeland, Zacharia wants to give something back and improve the lives of people he left behind. Zac’s ambitious dream is to build a much-needed school in his home village, now part of the new nation of South Sudan. For support he enlists the backing of an unlikely band of Aussie supporters who join him on a 40-day charity walk to raise funds for this venture. But life disrupts the best-laid plans, and Zac has to draw on all his resources to keep his dream alive. Hope Road, had its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival on June 14, 2017, and also screen at the Melbourne International Film Festival[citation needed]


In the early 1990s, Zubrycki started producing the work of emerging directors. One of the first films he produced was Exile in Sarajevo (1996), a personal story about the last of the Siege of Sarajevo during the Balkan war. The film won an International Emmy in 1998.[1]

Zubrycki continues to work as a producer with new and emerging directors. His latest is The Panther Within, a journey of discovery as the filmmaker Edoardo Crismani unravels the mystery surrounding his grand-pop, Aboriginal boxer and vaudevillian, known as the ‘Black Panther'. The film was commissioned by NITV. Prior to this, Zubrycki produced The Sunnyboy (2013) about Jeremy Oxley the enigmatic lead singer of the 1980s band the Sunnyboys and his gradual recovery from schizophrenia leading to the band's successful come-back. The film was premiered at the Sydney Opera House in 2013 as part of the Vivid Festival and the Sydney Film Festival.


  • 2017: Hope Road (103 mins. Director/Producer)[1]
  • 2011: The Hungry Tide (83 mins. Director/Producer)[21]
  • 2007: Temple of Dreams ( 89 mins. Director/Producer)[22]
  • 2005: Vietnam Symphony (52 mins. Director/Producer)[23]
  • 2003: Molly & Mobarak (85 mins, Director/Producer)[24]
  • 2001: The Secret Safari (52 mins, Director)[25]
  • 2000: The Diplomat (84 mins, Director)[26]
  • 1995: Billal (87 mins, Director/Producer)[27]
  • 1993: Homelands (79 mins, Director/Producer)[28]
  • 1991: Bran Nue Dae (55 mins, Director/Producer)[29]
  • 1990: Lord of the Bush (55 mins, Director/Producer)[30]
  • 1990: Amongst Equals (90 mins, Director)
  • 1989: Strangers in Paradise (56 mins, Director/Producer)[31]
  • 1985: Friends & Enemies (90 mins, Director/Producer)[32]
  • 1984: Kemira - Diary of a Strike (62 mins, Director/Producer)[33]
  • 1981: Waterloo (48 mins, Director/Producer)[34]
  • 1974: We Have To Live With It[35]
  • 1974: Fig Street Fiasco[36]

Apart from directing Zubrycki has produced a number of documentaries with first time and emerging filmmakers, including

  • 2018 "Teach A Man To Fish" (80 min)[37]
  • 2017 "The Panther Within" (26 min)[38]
  • 2013: The Sunnyboy[39]
  • 2013: Mary & Mohammad (26 min)[40]
  • 2012: Menny & The Bundaroos (26 min)[41]
  • 2012: Light from the Shadows (26 mins)[42]
  • 2009: The Intervention (2009, 56 mins)[43]
  • 2009: Stolen Generations (75 mins)[1]
  • 2008: Mad Morro (46 mins)[44]
  • 2008: Wanja (26 mins)[45]
  • 2006: The Prodigal Son (28 mins)[46]
  • 2005: Short Stories (4 x 1/2 hour)(2003)[47]
  • 2002: Gulpilil - One Red Blood (56 mins)[48]
  • 2002: Making Venus (78 mins)[49]
  • 2000: Stolen Generations (56 mins)[50]
  • 1998: Whiteys Like Us (52 mins)[51]
  • 1996: Exile in Sarajevo (90 mins).[52]

Awards and honours[edit]

In 2010, the Australian International Documentary Conference presented Tom with the highest award[citation needed] for a documentary practitioner, the Stanley Hawes Award "in recognition of outstanding contribution to documentary filmmaking in Australia".[53] In his presentation he criticized the mainstream broadcasters ABC and SBS for commissioning factual programs that were format-driven and light in content. He called for a dramatic increase in Screen Australia's Signature Fund in order to finance documentaries that were not dependent on broadcaster commissions.


  1. ^ a b c d e Ramon Reichert (2013). "Australia". In Ian Aitken (ed.). The Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. Routledge. p. 56. ISBN 9781136512063.
  2. ^ Tom Zubrycki, Australian Screen Online
  3. ^ a b Directing Masterclass with Tom Zubrycki, Australian Film, TV and Radio School
  4. ^ John Williams; John Bond (2013). The Promise of Diversity: The Story of Jerzy Zubrzycki, Architect of Multicultural Australia. Grosvenor Books Australia. Retrieved November 15, 2013.
  5. ^ Trish FitzSimons (2011). Australian Documentary: History, Practices and Genres. Cambridge University Press. pp. 79–80. Retrieved November 15, 2013.
  6. ^ "Video Politic" in City Video Newsletter No 1, 1974
  7. ^ Sydney Film Festival Award Winners
  8. ^ "On filmmaking, history and other obsessions" by Patrick Armstrong, Metro Magazine, Issue 144, 2006
  9. ^ "Showing some fight: Kemira's challenge to industrial relations" by Rebecca Coyle & Lisa Milner pp 178 - 183, Metro Magazine 153, 2007
  10. ^ a b c d e f Past AFI Award Winners, Australian Film Institute
  11. ^ "ACTU seeks to suppress controversial film", Sydney Morning Herald, January 12, 1991
  12. ^ The "Amongst Equals" is a collection of articles about the film history of the Australian Trade Union movement by Ann Curhtoys and Hall Greenwood in Filmnews, V.21 No.1 Feb 1991 5-7
  13. ^ "Film captures revolutionary’s haunted past", The Australian, October 15, 1993.
  14. ^ Deborah Hope, "How ethnic conflict left a young man with brain damage", Sydney Morning Herald, October 5, 1995
  15. ^ Mary Debrett, "Reclaiming The Personal As Political", Metro Magazine, Issue 138, 2002
  16. ^ Kate Nash, "Stealing Moments: Tom Zubrycki’s MOLLY & MOBARAK", Metro Magazine, Issue 165, 2011
  17. ^ Sonia Tascon, "'I’m Falling in Your Love’: Cross-cultural Romance and the Refugee Film", Diasporas of Australian Cinema eds: Simpson, Murawska and Lambert. Intellect Press. 2009
  18. ^ Susie Khamis, "Lebanese Muslims Speak Back: Two Films by Tom Zubrycki", Diasporas of Australian Cinema eds: Simpson, Murawska and Lambert. Intellect Press. 2009
  19. ^ "The Hungry Tide". Review by Shweta Kishore in Metro Magazine, Issue 171, 2012
  20. ^ "The Documentary as Privileged Access", Lumina journal, No 8, Australian Film, Television and Radio School. 2011
  21. ^ The Hungry Tide, official website
  22. ^ Temple of Dreams, Australian Screen Online
  23. ^ Vietnam Symphony, Australian Screen Online
  24. ^ Molly & Mobarak, Australian Screen Online
  25. ^ The Secret Safari, Australian Screen Online
  26. ^ The Diplomat, Australian Screen Online
  27. ^ Billal, Australian Screen Online
  28. ^ Homelands, Australian Screen Online
  29. ^ Bran Nue Dae, Australian Screen Online
  30. ^ Lord of the Bush, Australian Screen Online
  31. ^ Strangers in Paradise, Australian Screen Online
  32. ^ Friends & Enemies, Australian Screen Online
  33. ^ Kemira - Diary of a Strike, Australian Screen Online
  34. ^ Waterloo, Australian Screen Online
  35. ^ We Have To Live With It, Australian Screen Online
  36. ^ Fig Street Fiasco, Australian Screen Online
  37. ^ Teach A Man To Fish,
  38. ^ The Panther Within,
  39. ^ The Sunnyboy, official website
  40. ^ Mary & Mohammad,
  41. ^ Menny & The Bundaroos,
  42. ^ Light from the Shadows,
  43. ^ The Intervention,
  44. ^ Mad Morro,
  45. ^ Wanja,
  46. ^ The Prodigal Son,
  47. ^ Short Stories,
  48. ^ Gulpilil - One Red Blood, Australian Screen Online
  49. ^ Making Venus, Australian Screen Online
  50. ^ Stolen Generations, Australian Screen Online
  51. ^ Whiteys Like Us,
  52. ^ Exile in Sarajevo, Australian Screen Online
  53. ^ “The Stanley Hawes Address”, in Lumina Journal No 3, Australian Film, Television and Radio School. 2010
  54. ^ Stanley Hawes Award

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]