In the early 1990s a mini series called The Leaving of Liverpool was shown on Australian television. It was a huge success, and brought to light something that very few of us (myself included) were aware of - that for over 100 years, British children were being shunted out of orphanages and sent to Australia with the promise of a fabulous new life. For many, the truth was something else entirely. They endured years of abuse, were treated as slave labour, and were then cast out at the age of 18 to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, a great number of them floundered in society and went on to have great difficulty functioning. There are scores of stories of these children growing up to become adults with drug and alcohol problems, struggles in maintaining connections due to abandonment issues, difficulty obtaining work due to little education, and so on.
A few years later I was in a bookshop and saw a book called Empty Cradles, which was about the same topic. The mini series had really stayed with me - I couldn't quite get my head around the fact that this was happening right up to about 1970. I could dismiss that sort of thing going on in 1890, but in the latter half of the 20th century? I devoured the book and then over the years have hunted down whatever other information I could find - there is a particularly good (but apparently out of print) book called Orphans of the Empire by Alan Gill, which tells many of the personal stories of these children.
Oranges and Sunshine is based on the book Empty Cradles, written by social worker Margaret Humphreys. Unlike The Leaving of Liverpool (a fictionalised account), the film does not deal with the stories of the people as children, but as adults, and their efforts to track down whatever family they may have left. Margaret, who was instrumental in setting up a trust to help these people, also experienced a lot of barriers from both the British and Australian governments and the Catholic church (who sponsored many of the children and were responsible for much of the abuses meted out to them). From being tangled in red tape to outright death threats, Margaret persevered and was eventually awarded an Order of the British Empire and an Order of Australia for her efforts.
Oranges and Sunshine tells the story of Margaret Humphreys' initial contact with a child migrant trying to find her family (in the film she is approached in the street, but in the book she was sent a letter in her role as a social worker for a local council). This spurs her on to find out more about what happened, and eventually in to setting up the Child Migrants Trust. One of the most shocking aspects of the deportation of these children is that many of them were not actually orphans - it was common for parents in poverty to place their children in orphanages for periods of time while they got themselves on their feet, or give them up for adoption and the hope of a better life. The children were told that their parents had died or no longer wanted them, and that they would be better off in a new land. The parents who came back for their children were told that they were gone and that was the end of it. It was routine to lie to insistent parents about which country their child had been sent to, lest they somehow acquire the means to track them down. Part of Margaret's job became finding the parents and siblings who were still alive so the children could be reunited.
The film focuses on her work, and also two adults who had been sent to Australia as children. Len, played by David Wenham, is obnoxious and wealthy, having found success as an adult in his new country. He donates money to the church farm where he was raised, but hides a bitter anger at the way he and the other children were treated and also towards the mother he feels rejected him. The second person, Jack, is played by Hugo Weaving, and it is his performance that makes this film so utterly heartbreaking. I find him annoying at times because he can be a bit of a ham, but he underplays this role beautifully and his character's story is just shattering.
This is not an easy film to watch - from early on I was viewing through a haze of tears. It's baffling to think that this practice continued for so long, and that when someone finally made the public aware of it, both country's governments tried to sweep it under the rug. The child migrants did not receive an official government apology from either Australia or Britain until 2009, and the church to this day is still shuffling its feet. There are a couple of pointless, clunky scenes such as an awkward sex scene between Margaret and her husband, and a jolly sing-a-long in a car that appears to only be there to lighten the mood briefly. However, overall it's a film that is worth seeing - just make sure you've got your tissues handy.