June 8, 2011
The 2009 National Apology to the ‘Lost Innocents’ — the thousands of unaccompanied children exported from England to Australia during the 1940s and 1950s — was, like the Apology to the Stolen Generations, a rare moral highlight of Kevin Rudd’s mostly lacklustre tenure as PM.
Oranges and Sunshine relates the history of this dark period of colonial history from the perspective of Margaret Humphreys, the heroic English social worker who in the 1980s uncovered the truth about these ‘child migrants’, and who still works to reunite the now adult children with their families.
Humphreys’ non-fiction book Empty Cradles was the main source for the film. ‘I read it in 2003 in one sitting,’ says director Jim Loach. ‘I knew very little of the wider story of the child migrants, and was shocked by it.’ The following day he phoned Humphreys and set up a meeting. ‘She was inspirational, and had an incredible story to tell. I knew it was a film I wanted to make.’
‘She’s a working mum,’ says Loach, ‘trying to run her own family, but also out trying to repair the damage done to others. That juxtaposition made the story more morally complex. If it was told from the perspective of the child migrants, the rights and wrongs would have been very straightforward.’
Detective work is hardly the most difficult aspect of Humphreys’ job. For many of the children, forced separation from their families was exacerbated by the abuse they suffered in Australian institutions. In the film Humphreys becomes literally ill from her exposure to the trauma that many still carry.
The Christian Brothers, who were responsible for some of the institutions at issue, are portrayed in an unflattering light. During her investigations, Margaret is subjected to a campaign of intimidation that is attributed (albeit ambiguously) to supporters of the Brothers. When she eventually comes face to face with some of the Brothers, at Dimboon outside of Perth, they regard her with resentful silence.
These encounters, Loach says somewhat elusively, are based on ‘something that happened in real life’. That said, the decision to keep the Brothers literally voiceless within the film was quite deliberate. ‘They’ve had their say,’ says Loach. ‘I wasn’t going to give them another opportunity.’
To be fair, the Brothers as an institution have made efforts to atone for their wrongdoings of that era. That Oranges and Sunshine seems to condemn them universally, when it’s likely that the innocent have been tarred along with the guilty, is due less to malice than to the fact that Loach’s sympathies sit sqaurely and wholly with the child victims.
He notes that there is an implicit power shift in the scene where Humphreys and one of the former migrants (portrayed by David Wenham, who, along with Hugo Weaving, features as one of Humphreys’ most pertinent clients) confront the silent Brothers. ‘The power lies in what’s unsaid.’
Loach is as strongly critical of the British government as he is of the Australian institutions. But Oranges and Sunshine also resonates, unintentionally, with another, particularly Australian story.
When Margaret pleads with government officials for accountability and transparency, they respond that the scheme was carried out in ‘a different time’ and with ‘the best of intentions’. This echoes the apologetics proffered by defenders of the forced separation of Aboriginal children from their parents.
It’s enough to make you wonder what defense the perpetrators of the current inhumane treatment of asylum seekers will offer in decades to come. ‘It’s amazing how you can delete the scandal, insert another one, and the same scene would probably work,’ quips Loach.
WIN: Eureka Street has five double passes to give away to see Oranges and Sunshine. For your chance to win, email us by 5pm today, Thursday 9 June 2011, with the words ORANGES AND SUNSHINE in the subject line and your postal address in the body of the email.