Having the defining events of your life adapted into a major motion picture while you’re still alive (and working on those same issues) is weird, discombobulating stuff. Such is the case, though, for Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys, whose work in uncovering the forced deportation of thousands of British children is the basis for the new film “Oranges and Sunshine,” starring Emily Watson and directed by Jim Loach. Almost single-handedly, Humphreys brought authorities to account and drew worldwide attention to an extraordinary (and extraordinarily recent) miscarriage of justice, in which disadvantaged children as young as four years old were told that their parents were dead, and then sent to children’s homes in Australia, where many suffered appalling abuse. ShockYa recently had the chance to speak with Humphreys one-on-one, and the conversation is excerpted below:
ShockYa: Obviously, liberties need to be taken to streamline things for a film narrative. How quickly in your real-life investigations, which began in 1986, did you get a sense of the amazing scope of these deportations?
Margaret Humphreys: It took some time, it was incremental. I didn’t get the scale of it straight away for quite a long time. I think we’re looking at 18 months before I got the full-scale implications of it. But of course within the first six to nine months — and particularly when I started to receive hundreds of letters — that was an indication that this wasn’t one or two people, but probably hundreds if not thousands of people.
ShockYa: The Stateside release of “Oranges and Sunshine” comes against the backdrop of an awful lot of dissatisfaction with government, so the idea that a government would not only condone but also execute this policy in secret seems especially upsetting.
MH: And yet it’s [true]. It was government policy. That’s what we have to understand. It wasn’t illegal, like child trafficking today, for instance; that is illegal. This was government policy. So therefore it is the responsibility of government. Of course the churches and charities were involved as well, but (the British and Australian) governments were sending and receiving them, respectively. And that’s why I imagine there were finally two official government apologies.
ShockYa: The film makes clear that you were the subject of an awful lot of animus during your investigation. How much of that was from known sources, if you will, and how much of it did you not know from where it was coming?
MH: Well it went on for quite a long time, the intimidation, and it was very unpleasant and quite frightening. And of course at that time the people behind this knew a lot more about what they had to hide than I did. I’m fairly clear about that. I felt that… well, look, you don’t give in to intimidation and bullying, do you? I wouldn’t want to live through it again. It was quite unnerving, I’ll just say that. But I wouldn’t have wanted this to be the focus of this film. I felt it must not be that, it must not give these people air space, really. I wrote about it some in my book, “Empty Cradles,” and I don’t speak for Jim Loach, but he obviously felt it was vital to be part of that history of those early days.
ShockYa: Watching “Oranges and Sunshine,” I was at times reminded of the movie “Fair Game,” about (outed CIA agent) Valerie Plame, in that both of the films are honest about the tolls that these events take on the families involved.
MH: It’s heavy-duty stuff, isn’t it? We hadn’t planned our life like that, that’s for sure — most certainly not. And neither would we have done that by choice. It’s been difficult and it was a heavy toll on all of us, my husband and kids. But we’ve survived it, and more [than that], we’ve learned from it. It’s like anything — you make the best of it. We never sat down and really (talked about it in advance), because I never thought there was any choice (except to do what I did). I thought we had to manage things as best we could, and I think we did.
ShockYa: What about the film adaptation? What sort of relationship did you have with (screenwriter) Rona Munro, and the selection of Jim Loach as director?
MH: Not much, really. I had some in the very early days, but I took the view that having decided to let Jim have the rights to “Empty Cradles” and to make a film of it, that that was my book and “Oranges and Sunshine” is his film. And although we had lots of discussion in the early days, I wasn’t over-involved at all. I made sure that Jim in particular met with some actual child migrants; I thought that was pretty critical, so I facilitated that. But you get to the point where they’re off on their own, it’s [their] film and vision. They let me get on with my work, and they got on with their work.
ShockYa: Well, what does that work entail today?
MH: Oh, I’ve still got the day job (as a social worker, working the child migrant cases). (laughs) It hasn’t changed one iota. It’s not changed by a film, and it wasn’t changed by an apology. This is the real world, and I still get up and go to work five or six days a week. So nothing changes. The work is demanding, and every day that passes is a day of worry and concern that someone’s not going to be able to meet their family. So nothing changes, life goes on the same — inasmuch that there were of course the apologies and that was a defining moment of sorts, and the film itself will reach, I hope, a much larger audience, so that there will be much larger awareness in relation to child migration.
ShockYa: It feels like this would be a bigger, even more scandalous international story in America, even if it were on a much smaller scale. Does that cultural divide play a role in the apologies and healing, in your opinion?
MH: Well, the apology isn’t the end, is it? It’s not been seen as that. It’s a beginning of acknowledgement, of taking responsibility — a beginning of restoration. So it’s early days, yet, and we’re moving into the second year — it will be the second anniversary in November for the apology of the Australians, and in February for the British — of the process. Certainly for most migrants and their families, though, they don’t see the apologies as an end in themselves. They’re part of an ongoing process of reconciliation and forgiveness, and it’s an opportunity for society — i.e., the government — to prove how far they’re going to go with this restorative process. And that really means giving everything that is required to make their lives better.
ShockYa: Have you seen the film with audiences?
MH: I saw it once. I don’t intend to see it again, just because I don’t really feel the need to. When all is said and done, I’ve lived it, after all. I have done quite a few Q&As at the end of screenings, both in Australia and Great Britain, and now here. I did one last night. So I get a feel on the impact it has on audiences; they’re pretty stunned by it. Certainly in America they seem to have heard of it less, understandably. Still, it’s a stunning revelation, and they’re quite appalled and upset by it.
Written by: Brent Simon