Over the course of around 20 years thousands of English children, some orphans and some taken from their parents, were sent to migrant children camps in Australia. These were essentially hard labour camps with routine beatings and very poor conditions.
In the 80s, a social worker named Margaret Humphreys uncovered the story when she started reuniting families.
Oranges and Sunshine tells her story, showing the challenges she went through to help families find each other. Director Jim Loach (son of Ken) sat down with us to discuss his first feature film.
So in the film Margaret (Emily Watson) goes through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to all of the emotional baggage she is taking on with the child migrants. What was the feeling, having so much emotional baggage around this film?
When we started out, I sat opposite of Margaret and I sort of saw the story more objectively and I found her incredibly inspiring, I found elements of the story incredibly uplifting and for us it was all about human spirit and one woman against the odds and she seemed a very heroic character to us. That’s kind of why I wanted to make the film. And then as we went through the process of making it, I think you feel more inside of the story emotionally, and of course by that point I’d met many of the real people involved so I had a high sense of wanting to do right by them and you’re absolutely in the middle of the story. So it was more emotionally draining than I had probably expected, though obviously you’re well looked after when you’re making a film, so I wouldn’t want to overstate that.
Do you think that Emily (Watson) had any problems with that, as the central character and having to go through all of the emotions of Margaret?
That would be a good question for her, and I don’t know exactly what she’d say, but form my experience Emily absolutely lives the moment. She absolutely is inside the moment emotionally and you don’t see the acting, you’re not aware of the acting. You’re aware of the truthful moment that happens. So for me, that was the power of her performance.
So when you met the real-life Margaret in 2002, had she changed much since her campaign in 1987? I know that she’s still reuniting families.
When I met her she had an amazing drive and focus and she’s very determined and also a lot of fun. So she’s absolutely still got that, so I wouldn’t say that’s changed at all. And I wouldn’t say she’s mellowed over the years either! So in fact I don’t know if she has changed exactly. I think that when the governments apologised, particularly the British government, that was a very, very big moment for Margaret and of course for the former child migrants. I think that probably things have changed a bit post-apology. But she’s still got the same spirit about her.
And when the governments apologised, did it feel gratifying at all or was kind of annoying because your film was in the middle of production when it happened?
Well we’d never really set out to make a campaigning film, and it’s not an issue film for us. I mean, for us, the film is about identity. It’s for everybody, it’s for all of us. It’s about what makes us who we are – what are the elements of our identity. If some of those are taken away, what happens to us. So in that sense, the apology was important because it gave us a dramatic full stop. But it was never really a campaigning film in that sense. It’s a film about human spirit. We were fascinated with the one woman against the odds, she’s out trying to uncover the truth, she’s putting herself in great danger. Those are the elements of the story that made us want to make the film.
So would you say it’s more about focusing on those human characteristics than it is about exposing the story?
I think it’s both. I think, for us, the film is Margaret’s dilemma, which is that she’s got her own family at home, and she wants to keep her own family together. But at the same time she’s out in the world, she’s trying to uncover the truth, she’s trying to bring people to account, she’s putting herself in great danger and she’s trying to reunite other families that have been split up. So the personal dilemma against the bigger story, which is the heart of the film.
Have any of the child migrants seen the film that you know of?
Yeah. We had a screening in Perth and one in Melbourne, and there was an extraordinary reaction. It was very emotional and they were extremely supportive. There were obviously lots of different feelings that were stirred up, but they have so far really embraced it in a fantastic way.
Oranges & Sunshine isreleased on DVD on 25 July 2011 by Icon Home Entertainment