May 26, 2011
WHEN Margaret Humphreys asked for time at work to focus on a complex case she had begun investigating, her boss told her she could have two years. Almost 25 years later, the English social worker is still immersed in it.
”We didn’t realise it was the rest of our lives at that point,” Humphreys says now. ”Naivety is a wonderful thing.”
Humphreys gradually uncovered what turned out to be the secret deportation of more than 130,000 children from Britain to Australia and elsewhere until 1970, often without their parents’ knowledge.
The dark chapter remains largely unknown but her work is now traced in an engrossing film, Oranges and Sunshine. The film stars Emily Watson as Humphreys, and Hugo Weaving and David Wenham as men searching for answers after being deported to orphanages as children. It is the debut feature film of English director Jim Loach, 41, the son of the director Ken Loach.
Sitting with Jim Loach in Sydney before the film’s Australian premiere, Humphreys describes how she began looking into the case in the mid-1980s after a British woman told her she had been sent to Australia as a child without her parents and wanted to find out who they were.
”My first reaction was: ‘This can’t possibly have happened … We don’t send four-year-olds and hundreds of children on boats to the other side of the world,’ ” she says. ”But we apparently do.”
About 15 years later, Loach came across a book Humphreys had written about the affair, Empty Cradles. ”To me it seemed completely extraordinary and compelling,” he says. He called her with his movie idea.
During filming last year, Britain apologised for the ”shameful” chapter, as Australia had months before – ”momentous” acknowledgments that buoyed everyone working on the movie, Loach says.
Humphreys, 66, calls the film ”overwhelmingly faithful” to what happened and says watching Watson play her on screen was surreal. But she demurs at talk of heroism around what she did almost single-handedly. ”I just see myself as doing my job … It didn’t seem a huge deal then, to be quite honest. I just felt I had to keep going.”
Oranges and Sunshine opens the Dungog Film Festival today and is released nationally on June 9.