In early 2011 I was with two friends filming a documentary in Albany, a small town in southwest Australia. One morning we were collecting scenery shots a kilometre or so out of the town centre, near the port. It was just us, a camera and a tripod. We were filming a shot of a food van parked on the roadside when a car pulled up and a man stepped out. He introduced himself as an AFP (Australian Federal Police) counter-terrorism officer and asked what we were doing. We fed him some vague information about the film – everything he could possibly need to know – and stressed that it was a 'legitimate' government-funded production, in the hope that he'd leave quickly. He told us that he was just checking in because he'd heard that there were people with a camera, and the counter-terrorism squad was sensitive to activities occurring near the port. He took our basic details, wished us luck for the rest of the shoot and left us to it. We were amused that there was a counter-terrorism presence in Albany, and even more amused that the government had flattered themselves into thinking that Albany could be a potential terrorist target. Months later back in Perth, there was a card slipped under my door. It was from the counter-terrorism squad, asking me to call them. Not having made any recent plans to blow up shopping malls, I figured that it must have something to do with the Albany shoot. I called the other crew members and sure enough, they'd received the same card. Hugh, the DP, had already called the police. An officer had told him that it was just a routine followup and asked him the same things that the Albany cop had asked. Hugh must've handled the questions in a satisfactory manner because the other crew member and I never called the police and they never called us either.
Last week I was with two other crew members (Hugh again on camera, Ben on sound) working on Offscreen, my PhD film project. Over the week we'd been visiting the new, outdoor public observation deck outside the Perth Airport, to get shots of planes taking off and landing at different times of the day. On this occasion we wanted to film planes as the sun was rising. We arrived at the observation deck just before 7am and saw that the gates wouldn't open until 7.30am. We drove a few hundred metres down the road and pulled over at a small grass clearing – the same place we'd previously stopped to get shots or have a smoke break. We set up the camera and tripod, hoping to get some glimpses of planes until the observation deck opened. We couldn't see any, so we grabbed instead a few shots of the surroundings – clouds, trees, birds resting on light poles. About five minutes in, an AFP car arrived. Two police officers – a man and woman, from the counter-terrorism squad.
It was a classic good-cop, bad-cop pairing. The man was polite, apologetic and later even suggested better spots in and around the airport to film planes. The woman was everything you'd expect a Perth counter-terrorism cop to be: nasty, efficient, suspicious and mind-bogglingly stupid. You could tell she was craving conflict from the moment she jumped out of the car. They asked what we were doing and we told them what should've been obvious. I asked if it was a problem to be filming there. After all, we weren't inside the airport and the observation deck that we'd come for was open to the public – including, as we'd seen from our previous visits, people taking photos and videos. We'd also filmed on this very patch of grass before and police had driven by, with no questions asked. The man told us it was fine as long as we didn't get too close to the fences. Meanwhile, the woman checked the license of the car I'd borrowed for the shoot. There was a problem: the registration had expired a couple of weeks ago. The man asked if I could pay this now, to avoid a fine and court summons. I made a call and arranged it on the spot. The receipt popped up on his iPhone; he was satisfied and assured me nothing would come of it (given they were federal and not state police, I doubt they could've done much about it anyway). I thanked him. So far so good. But the expired registration had made the female officer's antennas prick up, prompting her to radio in a background check on us. While she waited for the information, she pulled Hugh aside.
"Do you have a criminal record?"
"Tell me now if you have a criminal record, or we'll quickly find out."
"I don't have a criminal record."
Then she pulled Ben aside.
"Have you been in trouble with the law before?"
"What are you doing here?"
"Shooting a film."
"Do you have any intention of doing anything illegal or related to terrorist activities?"
"Where are you from?"
I was making small talk with the male cop when I heard "Albany" mentioned on his partner's radio. I immediately realised what it referred to. "Something's come up," she said, and turned to me. "Do you have anything you shouldn't have in the car?" I told her I didn't. She told me to open the boot. I asked her if she was aware that the Albany thing was just a routine check, that there was nothing at all to it. Too bad; Hugh and I were on record. Expecting her to have only a quick glance inside, and eager to get rid of the moron as soon as possible, I opened the boot. The two of them then proceeded to check everything: every case, every zip pocket on every bag, every compartment in the car, even the bag full of bananas and cashew nuts that was to be our breakfast. A name was written in White-Out on one of the lens cases – a previous owner of the case, which had been given to me by somebody else. She made a note and demanded to know who it was. She then turned to Ben and asked what he did for work; he replied that he taught at a university.
"So when I asked you before where you were from, why didn't you mention that?"
"I didn't realise that's what you meant, sorry I've only had four hours' sleep."
"So, I've only had a few hours' sleep."
"I said: 'I've only had a few hours' sleep myself.'"
"Why were you awake at four in the morning?"
When she was done with Ben she turned to me and continued her fine detective work.
"Judging by the (hairs in the) back seat, I take it the owner of the car has a dog?"
"Where do you work?"
I told her.
"Why didn't you tell me that earlier?"
"I did. I told your partner."
She gave her partner a glare and continued rummaging through the equipment.
"If you haven't done this before, I wouldn't need to do this. What am I to think when I look in your car and you have a boot full of weird shit that looks like..."
"Listen, I'm just doing my job, just like you're doing yours. Step back and let us do our job."
During the search, I had to make another call to confirm some details about the vehicle registration. When I turned around, the woman was standing right behind me, holding a camera a couple of feet away from my face. She took a photo. I shielded my face and asked her why this was necessary. "You don't need to know why we're doing what we're doing," she replied. "You just need to do what we ask you to do." I turned my back to her and she told me to turn around so she could see my face. She snuck in a few snaps, then her and her partner returned to their car and drove off. (Researching this later, it appears that the female cop might've gone beyond her powers in taking the photos.) Strangely, after all this, we were free to continue filming. I've read and heard about Australia's disgusting (and ever-increasing) counter-terrorism police powers, but this was the first time I'd experienced it firsthand. If the five-minute conversation with the cop in Albany was the impetus for this invasive procedure – the excuse they'd used to search the vehicle, interrogate us like criminals and take photos of us without our consent – it's scary to think of the precedent that's set each time some hack from the counter-terrorism squad decides to harass us for pointing a camera at the sky. Needless to say, this 'incident' will also pop up on our records next time.
I'm bewildered as to why police take such keen interest in people filming. Logic would suggest that those intent on committing crimes – terrorism or otherwise – wouldn't disguise as filmmakers and parade themselves on a busy street next to an airport, with equipment, in full view of anyone who cared to look. The irony here is that in each and every pants pocket of the people who drove by as we were searched, as well as in our own pockets and in the cops', were devices capable of doing exactly what we were doing, in a much more discreet fashion. Using a phone or small camera to take a shot of a plane or bird wouldn't attract a second glance. But as it currently stands, as soon as you stick a camera on a tripod, it becomes something to fear and become paranoid about, regardless of how small or large the camera may be (we were using a Sony F3 in Perth and a Canon 5D in Albany – the latter is a small, ubiquitous DSLR camera that's popular amongst filmmakers and photographers). Maybe it's because a tripod, with the right combination of a paranoid imagination and stupidity, can look like a grenade launcher? Who the fuck knows. All we know is that a cop drove away that morning, thinking that she'd done her job well; that she'll continue to Keep Australia Safe.