The story of how Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys exposed the UK Government's decades-long practice of sending orphans to Australia, and the abuse and exploitation that many suffered as a consequence.
Was reading Margaret Humphreys' book, Empty Cradles, your first encounter with this subject?
“Yeah, I read the book and I went to see Margaret. She's got like an office in Nottingham and we just talked. She started to talk about her own experience and I was just gobsmacked. I mean genuinely. I thought it was the most incredible story and I found her a really inspirational figure, quite heroic. I knew straight away I wanted to make a film of it. Obviously there's a question there - what sort of film and how are you going to approach it? - but I wanted it to be a film.”
Can you describe the impact that the book made on you?
“Of course I found [Margaret's] story compelling, but I felt that it always had the ability to transcend that and to explore the notion of identity: what makes us who we are and what happens if some of those bits are taken away? What happens to somebody, their notion of themselves, and who they are? For me that was really fascinating.”
Why do you think that particular theme gripped you the way it did?
“Well, you know, in some ways you're always tempted to bring these things back to your own self, do you know what I mean? [Hesitates] Objectively, I found it a really compelling story. Objectively I found it really gripping and inspiring.”
I wondered if the fact that your father's Ken Loach meant you felt you had to go out and establish your own identity as a director, and whether working in television, as you have been doing, allowed you to create your own space and find your own voice?
“Yeah, yeah, I think it probably did. I think you're probably right. It's an issue, there's no doubt about it. And in television you have a bit of space to explore drama. And I walked around it for a long time, the film. It got to the point one day where my dad said, 'You've just got to make the bloody film.' And I'm glad he said it. It would only have been him that would have pushed me towards making it, you know what I mean?”
So was there hesitancy on your part because of your father? Did the idea of people making comparisons worry you?
“Yeah, it did. I didn't realise that at the time but I spent quite a long time running from it, really. Running from comparisons. You want to be your own person, so for me making films wasn't the easy choice. This is very psychological but for me, personally, I just got to the point where I was able to turn round and face it.”
I read that at one point you and your sister made a blood oath that you wouldn't go into filmmaking, so I wonder what changed that? Because you did feel that you needed to tell stories, didn't you?
“Yeah, definitely when I was much younger I was just rebelling. I didn't want to do what my dad did. Whatever my dad did I would want to do the opposite and I hope my kids do the same. It's what kids do, isn't it? So I was no different. I was absolutely determined that I wouldn't make films. I'm really proud of my dad, so it's not because of that. But then I sort of had an irresistible pull towards it. I think my way in was through documentaries and, of course, once you're making documentaries you are telling stories, and through that I kind of realised I absolutely wanted to make films.”
Does it irritate you when people ask if it was inevitable that you became a filmmaker? Because if one's father's an accountant, people don't think there's an inevitably that you'll also become one in the end. But with film, that seems to be people's expectation.
“It is difficult, yeah. It's either what you talk about or it can seem like the elephant in the room, so it's either one of those two things. When I was walking around this film I think it had a disproportionate power over me. This is all very psychological, so I'm sorry. At some point I sort of disengaged from all that and now I avowedly don't read anything about that, I completely ignore it, and I just do my own thing. I know that there will be comparisons made and some will be favourable and some unfavourable. That's fine, I just go and do my own thing. Because I'm quite thin-skinned, you see. That's the trouble. I can't really engage with it, because otherwise it's just too much.”
Like your father's film, this is about social injustice. Did you ever think of this film in terms of giving a voice to people who perhaps haven't had a voice in the past?
“Absolutely, yeah. I found the people involved in it quite heroic figures. When we went to meet many of them Australia, they are absolutely the reverse of what you expect. They're not victims whatsoever. They're incredibly funny, sometimes very angry, always incredibly hopeful. So for me they were really inspirational figures. I absolutely felt this story had a huge intrinsic value and should be told.”
Was there a degree of trust building that had to happen between you and these people, because it's delicate emotions you're dealing with and these people are living with this every day of their lives?
“Yeah, that was a bigger leap of faith than I kind of even understood at the beginning. Rona [Munro, the screenwriter] spent a lot of time listening to them and listening to their stories and starting to create characters that grew from their experiences. And, of course, we spent a lot of time with Margaret. But we were asking them to make a huge leap of faith. The responsibility of it, I felt it quite heavily on my shoulders to be honest.”
Did that weight grow the deeper you got into it?
“Yeah, and I think it was because I understood the story more. The further I got into the more I was interested in identity and what a huge impact that has on someone's life if aspects of it are taken away. So for someone who struggles with trying to establish what their identity is, for you to meet them and then not be faithful to who they are is of course absolutely unthinkable. So it was a huge leap of faith in that respect.”
Was there any opposition to the film from anyone?
“Do you know what? Surprisingly not. They all wanted the story to be told. Some are obviously more private than others and some didn't want to get involved in a direct way. That's fine, of course. But no one was opposing it.”
Were they difficult stories to hear? In the film Margaret suffers from panic attacks after a while. So did you get a sense of why she would have reached that point?
“Yeah, during the whole time of making the film I had kids myself and you tend to see a lot of these people were sent aged six, seven, eight, nine and for me it made a huge impact.”
One of the particularly cruel things to me was the way that the children were made to volunteer to go at an age when they were too young to make that kind of decision.
“Yeah, which is absolutely appalling. They weren't old enough to make an informed decision of course. No way. And yet some of them actually said to us, 'No one put a gun to my head. No one forced us. We were given a choice.' And that at the age of seven or eight, as if they're qualified to make a decision. It's shocking.”
One of the themes of the film to me was asking about the responsibility that we have to the most vulnerable members of society, which are the children. With child poverty likely to rise as a consequence of the UK Government's cuts, do you think that theme, that question, has even more urgency now?
“Yeah, that's exactly how it seemed to us, that thematically it's directly relevant to now and today, whether you're talking about teenage pregnancies or cuts in welfare, all these sort of support agencies for so-called vulnerable people in society. For us the comparisons were really direct.”
You read Empty Cradles before you went to meet Margaret, so did you have any preconceptions about what she would be like and was she as you'd expected?
“Gosh, that's a very good question. I think she was altogether tougher than I expected. My preconception is – I don't mean this at all to big myself up – if you turn up and say, 'I'd like to make a film of your life,' you expect the other person to say, 'Amazing! Brilliant! When do we start?' That couldn't have been further from the person that I met. Margaret is very healthily sceptical of anyone loosely connected with the media and was very healthily sceptical about what sort of film it would be, what it would do, and what impact it would have. That's partly what I mean when she made a huge leap of faith, really. I think she didn't want anything to just be sentimental. And nor did I, so that was good. But she didn't want it to be sentimental and kind of glib, anything like that.”
Was she a bit wary of putting herself out there as the focus of the film? It's really the migrants' story so was she concerned about being centre stage?
“She's quite private, so she was concerned about it. And it was quite a big ask really, of her. But we always felt that to explore that issue you couldn't just do it directly about the kids. You had to come at it indirectly. Her experience, and therefore that character in that film, do that.”
It feels like a journey to the dark heart of all of this. By the time she gets to Bindoon it's like the deepest circle of Hell as it were.
“I'm glad you think that. That's exactly what our intention was. She goes on this journey and she doesn't know where it's leading. There aren't all the answers in the film because what we wanted to do in the film was experience it as she experienced it at that time. So there aren't neat answers, I hope.”
We see her experiencing post-traumatic stress in the film. Was it difficult for her re-visting all of this, even though she's still actively involved with the issue?
“I think it was. She said to me many times that it wasn't something she'd ever re-visited before, and hadn't felt the need to. So watching the film I imagine it would have been difficult. And when we showed Margaret the film, we were super nervous. Because I just wouldn't have wanted to make the film if she hadn't wanted to support it or if the child migrants had been uncomfortable. I just wouldn't have wanted to make it because it's not in my instincts, you know? Some people can do that, where they just think, 'I'm going to do that, come hell or high water.' That wouldn't have been for me personally, because the damage it would have wreaked would have been horrendous. So it's really important to us that she gave us a clean bill of health [laughs].”
What would have made you feel you'd failed?
“There was a real tension, actually, that emerged, and I hadn't full comprehended years and years back when I first got into it, which is on the first hand of course you're telling a story of real people and keeping an eye on their interests, and trying to do the right thing by them. But on the other hand the film's not for them, it's obviously for the audience that just go to the cinema. So telling a film that's gripping and compelling and dramatic, all of those things, which I hope it is, but balancing those two is a challenge. It felt like there were many pitfalls along the way.”
Although Margaret is front and centre, it is the experiences of Jack and Len, two of the former child migrants, played by Hugo Weaving and David Wenham respectively, and their pain that really stick in the memory for me.
“I'm glad about that. The Len character came from a combination of people, really, but there was one particular man who when we met we were really struck by. Absolutely the reverse of a victim. If you offered him sympathy he was absolutely not interested at all. He'd virtually tell you to get lost. He was alright. He was sorted. He was fixed. Obviously not, but that's what he was presenting to us. If you tried to talk to him about anything important he would make a joke or he'd be off doing something stupid. For us that's dramatically really interesting straight away, because there's no victim mentality.”
Yes, Len, in the film, feels like he's built this protective armour but you can see the chinks in it.
“Good. A lot of it came from this guy that David met. He went off and spent a couple of days with him. We used to joke quite often when we were shooting that I still don't know what happened on those two days. David came back a slightly changed person. He definitely had a hangover and that's all I know [laughs]. I don't know anything else and what they got up to. But David was really struck by him as well.”
Did you visit Bindoon?
“Yeah, I went a couple of times. It made a really big impression on us and partly inspired the end of the film. It's an incredible place. It's like this monolithic, huge building, completely in the middle of nowhere, and we were shown around by two people - both had been there as children - and they were absolutely specific about which bits they had helped construct in terms of which stones they had put in the walls. They were sort of child labourers, obviously. One of them, at one point, broke down and started banging the wall and saying, 'My blood's in this wall.' It was absolutely astonishing.”
Did you request to film there?
“Yeah. They gave us a variety of excuses: 'Don't want to rake over old coals', 'It would upset the parents of children that were there now'. The excuses went on and on, and then eventually they just said no.”
What is the building we see from the outside in the film?
“From the outside it doesn't look like the real place. We decided in the end that that place is so unique that it's part CG and the interiors are a combination of about four or five different locations. The real Bindoon is so unique there's nothing like it. So we had to spend a lot of money, basically.”
We talked a little earlier about film when you were growing up, but was home also a very political environment because the film you're due to make in Glasgow is, again, a very socially conscious piece?
“Um, it wasn't overtly political. Well actually I suppose it was [laughs]. I was talking to one of my sisters about this that she remembers a CND demonstration where we all had to lie down and pretend we'd been victims of a nuclear holocaust. So I suppose it was quite politically aware, but also it was a very normal and stable upbringing. Not showbiz-y, anything like that. In fact emphatically not. We were very shielded from any of that.”
That was a conscious decision to keep you away from that?
“Yeah, absolutely. We were completely kept away from it. We were very lucky that in the house we had a huge amount of literature, so we grew up with magazines and were just encouraged to read and watch stuff and just be interested. Sort of be outward looking rather than be inward looking was what we were encouraged to do.”
Is the film in Glasgow happening?
“I hope so. We're really excited about it. It was in one of the papers that it's about asylum seekers which it's not really. Rona Munro's written it and it's a really exciting script, actually. I'm thrilled by it. It's something we've been working on for a couple of years. It sort of picks up where Oranges left off, although obviously it's not a true story. But it explores rites of passage. It's interesting.”
© Stephen Applebaum, 2001