Michael Rubbo and The Man Who Can't Stop

By Cameron Scott.

Forty years on, a film that stunned with its stylistic ingenuity is as relevant as ever in documenting the struggles and triumphs of preserving a vulnerable environment.

Australian director Michael Rubbo’s 1973 film The Man Who Can’t Stop documents the dedicated campaign of his uncle, Francis Sutton to gain support for his plan to redirect wastewater polluting the NSW Central Coast. “Francis’ basic argument is it’s crazy to dump enriched water into the sea when you can use it as a fertiliser, as so many countries did and still do,” Rubbo says.

Having worked most of his life in advertising in Sydney, Sutton was an unlikely environmentalist. It wasn’t until after his retirement, when he relocated to Bateau Bay, that he became determined to stop the effluent pollution of the nearby coast. The film shows aerial footage of the coastal areas where this pollution was occurring - what Sutton calls in the film, an “intense, dark brown sludge”. Today, Rubbo says: “He came upon [the issue] not so much as an activist, but because it just happened next to where his holiday place was.”

The film’s familial, intimate style - with Rubbo himself appearing on-screen - challenged traditional documentary style, in which the director was very much absent from the action. Over forty years after the documentary’s release, Rubbo is still adamant about the decision: “The cinéma vérité ethic says you’re a fly on the wall. That’s not true. You’re never a fly on the wall. You’re a physical presence in the scene and you’re influencing things,” he says.

But for many in the industry at the time, Rubbo’s style was too disruptive of their idea of documentary filmmaking. “It was considered that… journalists are not supposed to intrude into the story, and I was ostensibly the journalist here,” he says. Rubbo also had significant appearances in his earlier documentaries Sad Song of Yellow Skin, and the acclaimed Waiting for Fidel.

Rubbo’s groundbreaking, personal style may have been questioned by contemporary critics at the time, but it’s since become a staple in documentary cinema. Today it’s used to great effect by filmmakers like Michael Moore and Louis Theroux. “The follow-the-action filming was not so common then, it was really the very beginning of this fluid, go-with-the-flow style. It’s unremarkable today, but at the time it was quite special,” he says.

Rubbo also faced criticism for using his uncle as the subject of his film. He admits he could’ve focused on a non-relative, “But Francis, I knew him well, he was accessible to me - and documentary making is all about getting access,” he says. “And I wasn’t overly soft on Francis. I showed up his frailties and his ineffectuality.”

The film certainly shines a light on Sutton’s frailties, his lack of assertiveness and self-confidence proving crucial to the success of his campaign. But the film’s subject is not so much the cause as it is the man behind it.

“It wasn’t really just an issues film, it was much more a portrait of a man and his passion. Francis was such a pure soul, he absolutely was without deceit, or phoniness, or pretense. There was something about his convictions that was very touching and inspirational.” Rubbo says. 

Francis Sutton was 96 years old when he passed away in 2009, but he and Rubbo never stopped collaborating. “It was lovely to spend Francis’ last years with him - and he never gave up. We stuck together to the very end,” Rubbo says. 

In Rubbo’s intimate, often humorous style, the film explores how Sutton’s family, especially his wife Joan, supports him in his obsession to preserve the beloved coastline. “In a way, Joan is the hero of the story, because she’s the one bearing the brunt of his obsessiveness,” Rubbo says, “I mean can you imagine sitting down to every meal and the only talk is about sewerage?”

Throughout the film, Francis and Joan demonstrate an unwavering tenacity to the preservation of a beloved environment, something that is as valuable now as it was when the film first screened over forty years ago.

EFFA’s The Man Who Can’t Stop retrospective is screening on October 5 at ACMI, presented in the original 16mm projection.