But they do. I once told my father about particularly unethical, dangerous marketing practices by pharmaceutical companies and he refused to believe me. “It can’t be true,” he said. “You must be exaggerating.”
I wasn’t. The makers of Oranges and Sunshine ran into the same problem. “We met that disbelief, implied or overt, when we were putting the film together,” recalls producer Camilla Bray. People would say: “Is this exaggerated? Aren’t you maybe enhancing one or two bad incidents in order to have a story?”
No, she wasn’t. The deportation of tens of thousands of British children to Australia (the cost of a one-way ticket was deemed less than the cost of keeping a child in care), and the sexual, physical and mental abuse of many of them, has now been the subject of an official apology by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his counterpart, Gordon Brown. (And if you doubt the importance of apologies for past wrongs, talk to the affected children.)
Despite the apologies, the shocking story is little known, and this feature film deserves to be seen for that reason alone – as a reminder of the evil that can be done in the name of “helping and caring” by people who should (and sometimes did) know better, and how such “well meaning” actions (buttressed by racism, since it reinforced the White Australia policy) provides cover for sadists and child molesters, in the form of some of the “Christian” Brothers who ran institutions to which the children were sent.
The main reason for seeing the film, however, is that it’s very good. It’s not a polemic, striving earnestly to deliver a message. It’s a moving, understated account of how a Nottingham woman, Margaret Humphreys, learned about the problem (after at first failing to believe it could possibly be true) and devoted years of her life to tracing the parents of the children.
As well as Margaret, an ordinary person doing her best in a difficult world, the film focuses on two adults who were shipped out as children: Jack, a gentle, lost soul and Len, a tough, irritating businessman. Both want to meet their British mothers.
Jack’s story is sad (you’ll need a box of tissues for this film), but it is Len’s abrasive, awkward relationship with Margaret – and finally his insistence that she visits the Christian Brothers’ “home” at Bindoon – that gives the film added bite.
* Oranges and Sunshineopens in UK on 1 April