We talk to the director behind the movie that tells the story of thousands of children who were deported to Australia in the 40s.
What drew you to make this story into a film?
JL: I read Margaret’s [Humphrey] book and I went to see her – she’s got a little office in Nottingham above a sandwich shop – I was completely spellbound by what I was hearing. She just started to tell me her story and the wider story of what had happened and I found it incredible. The more she talked, the more her own story emerged. When I got on the train back to London, I resolved there and then that I wanted to make the film and I started from there.
It sounds like it had a very strong impression on you, straight away.
JL: She had a very strong impression on me; I found her a very inspirational woman and a formidable woman too. As we spoke, her dilemma started to emerge – that she is a woman that tried to uncover the truth, she took on all these authorities. She was out there trying to repair the damage done to families and reunite people with their parents. She was trying to do all of that, while at the same time she was trying to keep her own family together. So the personal dilemma set against the bigger story, I found really fascinating. That’s where the film started, really.
Why did you decide to tell the story in the present day (in terms of the film’s timeline) as opposed to chronological order?
JL: It was Margaret really. Of course we could have told the story through the eyes of the children themselves, and we did think about that a lot. We met many many former child migrants and to be honest, any one of their stories could have been a film. The people we met, the stories they had to tell us were extraordinary and we were absolutely gripped by them. Rona Munro – who wrote the script – and I made many trips, and when we got back and looked through everything, we were always drawn back to Margaret’s story. We were interested to explore how they dealt with it as adults, how they got to grips with it, and we were always interested in seeing the story through Margaret’s eyes. The audience take it as a very inspirational story through her eyes and that’s why we wanted to tell her story.
You mentioned Rona Munro. There is a family connection there, how did she get involved?
JL: We met when I was at college, and I wrested with the project for a long time and Margaret was quote wary of doing anything for several years. I stayed in touch with her and we got to know each other pretty well. We asked Rona to write the script because she managed to forge an incredibly good relationship with Margaret and the real people involved. She’s got an incredible ear for dialogue and she’s got a lot of experience in dealing with real stories.
How involved were Margaret and the former child migrants you spoke to in the making of the film?
JL: They were really involved when we were at script stage. We spoke to many of them and I made many many trips over to Australia and spent a lot of time with Margaret, Basically I would send them various drafts of the script – especially Margaret – and they made comments and suggestions and we tried to take them on board. So they were very involved. Just before we started shooting David Wenham and Hugo Weaving went to meet some of the people who helped us to create the characters… They spent a very drunken weekend with a guy in Perth! [laughs] They were very diligent in their research, but once we started shooting we just got on with it. I think Margaret had a sense that we had to just go away and shoot it.
What did Margaret think of the finished film?
JL: We showed her the film when we had finished it. We sat outside very nervously, Rona and I, wondering what she would make of it. To be honest I genuinely didn’t know what she would think, I couldn’t tell, I couldn’t read it. She was delighted with it, she responded incredibly well to it. She said that she thought it was very faithful to the spirit of the book, to her life and to the migrants. So we were chuffed.
What do you hope audiences take from the film?
JL: Audiences who have seen it so far, what they respond to is an inspiring story of a person battling against the odds, and they respond to Margaret’s heroism. They ultimately find it an uplifting story, because in the end she doesn’t walk away, she keeps going and it is a question of whether she can come through and triumph at the end. That’s what I hope people will take from it. I hope they find it uplifting, inspiring and as compelling as we did.
There are very strong parallels between the story of this film and the truths that have recently come out about institutional abuse in Ireland. Do you think this is the right time to tell this story?
JL: Yeah I do think it’s about the right time. For us, the centre of the film is about identity and what makes us who we are, as people and what happens to people of elements of our identity are taken away. How do you recover from that? So for us, that was the story that we were interested to tell and, obviously, when these kids went to some institutions in Australia they met very bad abuse, but for us that was a secondary element to the story in a way.
The UK and Australian governments apologised for what happened to the migrants. When, in the course of the project, did that happen?
JL: It was just as we started to film. We were literally a few days away from shooting in the UK and the Australian government apologised. Then we moved the whole production over to Australia and the British government apologised! [laughs] It was all mixed up together. It was an incredibly heightened time – feelings were running really high. It was an extraordinary time. It was complete coincidence; you just couldn’t have imagined it at the outset because at that point Rona and I had been working on the project for years and years.
You invited the Pope to come to a screening of the film in Rome, did he accept?
JL: [laughs] We had the world premiere at the Rome Film Festival. We were a little nervous about taking it to the home city of the Pope, because we wondered about what reaction we would get. People were asking us if it was an anti-Catholic film, and we were at pains to say that it isn’t… This was all being discussed at the press conference – that was the context – and I said ‘we’d love it if His Holiness could join us tonight’ and the Italian journalists loved it and kind of ran with it! [laughs] Unfortunately, he didn’t make it.
You mentioned that the film was shown at the Rome Film Festival, and it was shown at the Jameson Dublin international Film festival. How helpful are festivals like these to your film?
JL: I loved showing it in Dublin, honestly I really did. I found the audience in Dublin so thoughtful, and they really love films in Ireland. I wish you could find audiences like that everywhere. I really mean that, I am not just saying it. It was a great screening, and the Irish seem to really love their movies. It was a really enjoyable trip. What I personally enjoyed was, there was a really brilliant discussion afterwards where people picked up the threads and wanted to discuss what happened in the film in a really interesting and intelligent way. That, for me, was really rewarding.
Words – Brogen Hayes
ORANGES AND SUNSHINE hits Irish cinemas on April 1st 2011