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Hamptons Life

Oct 9, 2011 9:59 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

From Britain To Australia, "Oranges And Sunshine" True Story Surprises Audiences

Oct 11, 2011 12:27 PM

For nearly four years, British social worker Margaret Humphreys resisted all attempts by director Jim Loach to turn her remarkable story into a film.

But it was his steady persistence and the lack of acknowledgement toward one of the most significant social scandals in recent times—the organized deportation of children, which she uncovered—that changed her mind.

Mr. Loach’s first feature film, “Oranges and Sunshine,” which will make its United States premiere on Saturday, October 15, during the Hamptons International Film Festival, follows the true story of Ms. Humphreys, played by Emily Watson, who in 1986 blew open a post-war scheme that shipped about 7,000 children under government care from the United Kingdom to its commonwealth, Australia, between 1947 and the early 1970s.

The children came from orphanages and institutions; some were illegitimate, others were from families too poor to keep them. The birth parents thought their children were adopted. The child migrants were told their parents were dead. Ms. Humphreys made it her mission to reunite them.

“Australia wanted 50,000 white children, and that was the pull,” Ms. Humphreys explained during a telephone interview last week from her home in London. “The push was from the UK. I can just tell you the official view was to give these children a new start in life. But as the film shows us, that very clearly was not the outcome. And it was hard for us to imagine, for one minute, that that was really the purpose.”

Through interviews with child migrants, who in the film are portrayed by actors Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, to name just two, audiences learn that the children—who ranged in age from 4 to 10—were promised lives of sunshine in a land where they could pick oranges off the trees for breakfast.

Instead, many of the children worked as laborers on farms and lived in crowded children’s homes. Some were subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse. One destination, Bindoon, run by the Catholic Church’s Christian Brothers, was especially notorious.

“By the time I reached a stage where I had a level of awareness of the enormous scale of this, I never thought for one moment that I had any choice but to continue,” Ms. Humphreys said of her work. “It never dawned on me, ever, that there was any other alternative.”

Mr. Loach experienced something of the same emotion after listening to Ms. Humphreys’ story approximately eight years ago while sitting in her office in Nottingham.

“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I hadn’t heard anything of it before,” Mr. Loach said during a telephone interview last week from his London home. “I got back to London and I was talking to my friends about it, and no one else had seemed to hear anything about this. I pretty much knew there and then that it was a film I wanted to make.”

Ms. Humphreys’ book, “Empty Cradles,” was a jumping-off point, Mr. Loach explained. What unlocked the script was the central drama—Ms. Humphreys trying to reunite families while at the same time keeping hers together—and interviews with former child migrants in Australia that shaped the supporting characters, he said.

“What was amazing about them was they were the reverse of what we expected,” he recalled. “We expected they’d be victims in a way, victims of what happened. We didn’t find those people. They were very much survivors and with an amazing sense of humor.”

Script in hand, Mr. Loach met up with Ms. Watson for hot chocolate on a snowy day in London a couple years ago, he said. An admirer of Ms. Watson for quite some time, Mr. Loach discussed the story with her for many hours, he reported.

“I knew straight away that she completely got it,” he said. “As the script had developed, Margaret’s character became Emily in my mind. Partly because Emily has got that, for me, a very special combination of fragility and strength, which is almost a contradiction. And in some ways, it is a contradiction at the heart of the character and in Emily, as well, and I really admired that.”

The film brought Mr. Loach and his team to opposite ends of the globe, shooting first in England for two weeks and then nearly a month in Australia.

“Australia was bloody hot,” he laughed. “We ended up in the Outback the last few days, in blazing heat, and shooting the film, and it was kind of gloriously tough. Filming on two continents, it was complicated. It was kind of in half, the story. And it was really vital for us to set up the film like that, because that was the heart of the story we were telling.”

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