Australia’s Secret Heroes

SBS marries past with present as 6 descendants of a special WWII unit follow in their forefathers' footsteps.

2014-06-11_2248The challenge to present history-based documentaries is always to give them a contemporary edge.

Re-enactments, archival footage, interviews and information are staples of the genre. But increasingly they are introducing reality-style devices. Sometimes they work, sometimes they feel imposed.

In Australia’s Secret Heroes six descendants of Z Special unit, a group of men who served for the Australian military in World War II, embark on a “first footsteps” exercise to learn what their forefathers endured.

Z Special unit consisted of specially-trained operatives who went on missions against the Japanese in countries such as New Guinea and Singapore. The rulebook was put aside as they learned all manner of combative skills to succeed and survive, including explosives, unarmed combat, camouflage, silent killing and how to resist torture. In training camps around the country they were tested under trying conditions, many with limited skills, but plenty of gumption.

This 3 part series by Joined Up Film Productions brings a personal touch as 6 descendants -5 men and 1 woman- are trained in similar skills and mock missions. As we watch them train we come to appreciate what their forefathers went through. In attendance is an original instructor, who was just 22 at the time.

“It was kill or be killed,” he explains.

He even has a log book from the war with the names of some of their forefathers.

“Paige. Keen, very active and strong,” he reads to one descendant.

But the training will test the six with cameras capturing their exhaustion, like a seasoned Reality show. There are also direct-to-camera admissions to storytell their emotions.

One of the most interesting secrets of this little-known operative was its recruiting of soldiers of Asian heritage. There are some fascinating memories and interviews by those who were outcasts under a White Australia policy yet commandeered for missions in which assimilation would play to an Australian advantage.

The first episode also simulates a daring plan to sail to Singapore and paddle into the harbour in foldaway kayaks, placing limpet mines on Japanese ships in the dead of night. It was a crude and daring exercise, worthy of a Hollywood movie. As descendants simulate the espionage, original Z Special members recall the actions of the real thing.

The marrying of present and past works well in Australia’s Secret Heroes, and turns the spotlight on a little-known chapter of World War II.

Although the series may have been more timely as an ANZAC or Remembrance Day screening, it should be applauded for remembering some remarkable Australians.

Australia’s Secret Heroes airs 8:30pm Sundays on SBS ONE.

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