Archival Footage and Storytelling in The Trouble with Merle

Maree Delofski
Senior Lecturer
Convenor: Screen Production Dept MediaDivision of Society, Culture, Media and Philosophy
Macquarie University Research Associate,
Centre for Screen Studies Research, AFTRS

*Not for citation without written permission of the author.

This presentation is an account of my approach to visualising and structuring some elements of the research underpinning my recent television documentary film The Trouble with Merle (2002) about Merle Oberon, the Hollywood star of the 1930s and 40s. The film unpicks the competing stories and claims made by different groups for Oberon’s ethnicity and nationality: that she was either born in India of Anglo-Indian ancestry or that she was Tasmanian-born of Chinese ancestry. In the process of uncovering these stories, the film reflects on celebrity and memory and the way in which racism can shape a life.

There are a number of radically different perspectives or stories held on Merle Oberon’s early life and upbringing. As a filmmaker I’m particularly interested in the function of storytelling in my culture. Unpicking these offered me an opportunity to consider this. In this session I want to reflect on the uses of non-fiction, fiction and occasional faux archival film material in the construction of my biography of Merle Oberon. Tracking the ways in which the function of this material changes throughout the film. Along a spectrum from the evidential or empirical to the expressive. I say my biography because Merle Oberon’s provenance and early life story have been such a matter of contention to those interested enough to discuss such things, particularly in Australia, where numerous individuals have claimed a family relationship to her.