Ken Loach may be the father of British social-realist cinema but hes also Dad to Jim Loach, whose debut feature Oranges and Sunshine, opens in UK cinemas on Friday April 1st. Whether its nature or nurture, Loach the younger has inherited his famous Fathers social conscience, choosing to tackle the extraordinary true story of the so called Children of Empire scandal, in which 130,000 children whod been taken into care during the 50s and 60s were illegally deported from Britain to Australia and turned over to Christian orders, where they suffered systemic abuse, including rape and enforced labour. Amongst the films less harrowing revelations are the lies told to children as young as 8. They were told their parents had died and that a lifetime of sandy beaches and fresh fruit awaited them. Their parents were told theyd been adopted and had gone on to better lives. Loachs film focuses on Margaret Humphreys, a Northampton social worker whose diligence and hard work uncovered the scandal, going on to play an instrumental part in reunited many families. It would take a further 23 years however, for the UK and Australian governments to accept responsibility and apologise. When I meet with Jim Loach to discuss the development of the film, its relationship with reality and how those involved in the events depicted have reacted to it, I find him to be a quiet and unassuming man. Its not hard to imagine that hed rather let the film speak for itself rather than go through the grind of publicity. Nevertheless, in the interests of you dear reader, I started by asking him about the thematic connection between Oranges and Sunshine and one of his Fathers signature pieces. OWF: Did it occur to you that this could be seen as a companion piece to Cathy Come Home?
JL: It did occur to me, yeah. Not in the sense of it being a companion piece, but I did worry about opening with a scene in which a woman has her child taken into care. We thought about it and we just thought about the film, about our story for the film and that character. It was the right decision so I banished any other thoughts from my head.OWF: You started pre-production in 2002 and then, in 2009 just as production was gearing up, both the UK and Australian governments finally admitted culpability. Did you feel as though the fates were with you, as it were?
JL: It was coincidental what happened, I mean it was quite strange. Wed first come across the story in 2002 and then we worked on it for about seven or eight years. It just so happened that it all happened at about the same time. We were just about to start shooting when Kevin Rudd apologised in Australia, and then when we went to Australia, Gordon Brown apologised, so it was just the way it happened. It was a huge moment, feelings were running very high. It was a massive moment for Margaret and the child migrants. They were completely knocked out by it. Theyd worked for it for so long. It was fortunate for us. I mean, we didnt set out to make a campaigning film. We didnt see it like an issue film. So, actually, that got that out of the way. It also gave a full stop to the story, which we thought was important the audience gets to an end of sorts.OWF: So do you think theres now the potential for the children to find closure some day?
JL: Its a really good question but Id be lying if I said I had an answer, plus Im weary of speaking for them. I think they would say that theyve found a way of living with it. Obviously some found their parents, so for them it was the start of a new chapter. Others are still looking. All of them still live with the damage done. We were fascinated by the fact that they never presented themselves as victims. To us they became heroic characters. Theres this one guy who became the inspiration for the Len character in the film. What we liked about was that if you offered him sympathy, hed run a mile. He hasnt interested in an arm around the shoulder. He was full of great humour and strength and dignity, hence he became a heroic character to us.OWF: The film plays with audience expectations, befitting its realist credentials. Len is introduced as quite an obnoxious character, Jack is quiet and conspicuously fragile. In a fictional piece you might expect Jack to find his mother and Len not to, but it fact its the other way around. Can you talk about how you worked with the actors when thinking about introducing that realist element to characterisation?
JL: Hugo went to meet this guy in Melbourne who helped us a lot with the script. He was part of the inspiration for the character of Jack. David went to Perth and spent the weekend with this guy who sort of became the Len character. God only knows what happened during that weekend because David came back with a massive hangover, I think hed been pissed all weekend. They were really struck by them. I kind of expected that. When you meet the people you cant help but have an incredibly strong impression of them. Hugo and David were very diligent, they went away and did a lot of research. They did a lot of leg work, as Emily did, and then, when we started to talk around it, we went through the characters and the different aspects of the characters. We didnt go into long rehearsals or anything, I didnt really want to do that.OWF: It seems to me that the film could have developed in any number of ways Len and Margaret could have engaged in an abuse driven, though entirely fictional affair, the Christian Brotherhood might have begun a violent campaign of revenge and intimidation for Margarets expose of their abuses. Thankfully its enough in the film that she confronts them and raises her voice a little. Was it because of the way the film was put together that these entire fictional pressures that Ive just invented in my imagination for the purposes of this question werent brought to bear on you as a filmmaker?
JL: I was left to make the film I wanted to make, I couldnt pretend otherwise. Its not a typical narrative structure in a way. We didnt want to give the audience an easy out, where theres a big thing and theres tears and then things are basically okay. We didnt want to do that. Thats how we came by our narrative, by trying different things.OWF: How do your responsibilities change as the director of a drama rather than a documentarian?
JL: Approaching it as a drama you have your eye on a bigger truth, thematically speaking. With a documentary you focus on exactly whats in front of you, the ins and outs of exactly that moment you have to be truthful to that moment. The events in Oranges and Sunshine happened over a period of right years and some of them happened in a different order. Thats life, its chaotic. Everything in the film is true, whatever that means but the truth we were honouring was the bigger, emotional truth. That was our objective. Based on a true story can devalue what you mean by true but all the events in the film happened in someway, but its the bigger truth we were driving at.OWF: So theres more separation between you and the subject? A creative distance perhaps.
JL: Yes, I think so.OWF: You talk about compressing the timeline of events. I wondered about the order of events depicted and how they followed in quick succession, namely Margaret being initially approached and then, conveniently, hearing a reference to a deported child in Australia the following day. I take it those events were compressed?
JL: Yes, they were compressed. The real events took place over a long period of time. Not hugely longer, I mean the time narrative in the film is two years and in real life itd probably be five to six. What we tried to stay true to was the spirit of what Margarets experience was at that time and how those events were impacting on her. Of course in real life events happen in a random order dont they, but you dont do that in a film because itd be incoherent, that was our feeling.OWF: The listening component of Emily Watsons character is interesting its a very quiet, very measured performance. Can you say a little more about how you worked with Emily in developing her portrayal?
JL: We talked a lot about it but Emily did a lot of research, talked to a lot of social workers. She watched a lot of social workers in action. By the time of shooting Id known Margaret myself for a long time, so had done a lot of work myself. One of the reasons I wanted Emily was because shes a really great listener. She totally understands that aspect of the part. She got it from day one, so that was very heartening. There were many other attributes she could bring but I knew that would be one of them. We were always fascinated by the idea that this woman has a big interior life, but she cant ever say, I mean theres no scene where she goes to the pub and says I cant do this, this is a nightmare, no one person can do it all. She had to communicate that in the smallest moments. In that environment, professionals dont show that much, so we really wanted to be truthful to that. We hope people will get that through Emily.OWF: They say listening is the essence of good acting anyway and when I say they I mean me, just now.
JL: Yeah.OWF: Theres a scene in Sleepers for example, where De Niros character is told about the abused boys and music plays while we study the reaction on his face so you know, in that sense.
JL: Well shes a good listener. Shes genuinely interested in other people. For me, the crux of that part was a combination of strength and empathy. We didnt want it to be sentimental. Expressing empathy without sentimentality is a challenge. I knew that Emily had that in her locker, so to speak. Also, shes a lot of fun. We wanted that in the character too because the real Margarets a lot of fun.OWF: They didnt meet prior to shooting did they? Did that surprise you?
JL: No, well, we talked about it a lot. Ive since been questioned a lot about it. Both Emily and I came to the conclusion it would be better if they didnt. Emily had played real people before, for a start. I think she would say that shed, well yknow, shed been around the course on that. Shes aware of the problems that can bring. Also, theres no point getting bogged down in a narrow impersonation. She was aiming at a wider truth. The real Margaret creates a very strong impression because shes quite an impressive woman, someone we found very inspiring, but for me there was no point in Emily getting distracted by things that werent relevant. They met after a screening a couple of weeks ago and they got on very well.OWF: What does the real Margaret think of Emilys performance?
JL: She really likes it a lot. I really didnt know what Margaret would think of the film, I had no expectations. Good or bad I just didnt know what shed make of it. Social workers generally have really responded to what Emilys done, which is really gladdening. People in Margarets family and her friends cant believe they didnt meet before hand, its quite odd.OWF: Did Margaret have any comment on the depiction of her family and the impact the events had on them?
JL: We talked about it a lot at script stage. For the first few years Margaret was quite weary of having the film made. Shes very private for a start and she just didnt want to put her family up for discussion, which I can understand. I think she wanted to know what the film was going to be and thats really difficult to answer, I mean, truthfully, you really dont know what the films going to be before youve made it, do you? You have strong ideas but nothings been actually committed to film. What changed was that she started to read bonus drafts, she knew we werent going to just make stuff up, so her opinion changed gradually over the time I got to know her.OWF: Just returning to the issue of authenticity, theres one scene in particular I wanted to follow up on, namely when Margaret and Merv meet with government officials for the first time. As theyre leaving, a woman chases Margaret and questions why shes bothering. Now I heard her say, and I made a note of it, these are the children of degenerates. Is that an actual quote?
JL: Yeah, word for word. It was worse than that, actually. We shot the complete sentence, as it was said, but we cut one bit out because people would never have believed it.OWF: Whats the full quote?
JL: Erm, dont know if I should say now. (Laughs) But the part you hear was said.OWF: In terms of building your relationship with Margaret, did your name help, the fact youre the son of Ken Loach who has a reputation for realism, etc?
JL: It never came up. Not once. In fact the first time we ever spoke about it was probably a month ago.OWF: Had you been called Bay, she might have thought twice.
JL: Well, yeah (laughs).OWF: Did it occur to you in the weeks leading up to release that the film could coincide with Route Irish?
JL: I think at one point both films were on the slate for March 18th. We laughed about it, yknow. In some ways I was pleased about it because its an issue and theres no point denying it, so you may as well face up to it.OWF: Has he seen Oranges and Sunshine?
JL: Yeah. He saw it in the cutting room and having popped in, gave me a few ideas.OWF: Let me ask you about the use of music in the film. The song Wild World is used to great effect. After youve heard it in that context you cant really listen to it the same way again for a while. Can you talk about why that particular song was chosen?
JL: In the script we went through lots of different songs. We wanted to use it in that particular scene because for us its the moment where Margaret and Len realise that it could so easily have been each other and they had a shared musical reference, yknow, liking the same thing. They could have been in each others shoes. That, for me, was what the scene was about. Anyway, a lot of ipods came into the office, a lot of trying out different songs but we settled on that.OWF: Its a deeply moving film for a general audience but have you noticed any difference between the way parents and the childless have responded to it?
JL: Yes, we have. Weve had lots of different sorts of reactions, because weve done a lot of previews now, plus Q & As and stuff. Some have a very strong emotional reaction to it, others are quite angry afterwards theyre agitated, they want to talk about it. Weve been encouraged because for us its an inspirational film. I mean, I know we use these words all the time but for me, I was genuinely inspired by Margaret and the story. Ultimately audiences have seen it as heart warming and uplifting because she doesnt walk away, leaving many of us to wonder whether we would have done at some point.OWF: Ahead of the Australian release are you anticipating a different sort of reaction over there? Here, there may be an establishment sense of guilt, but perhaps more so there because they were the recipients of the children.
JL: I think it will taken quite differently there. Of course theyve had the indigenous story there. I hope theyll be ready to accept it as part of the nations history. Emily and I may cop a bit of flak, the ol who are you come over here and tell us about our history? but we havent had any of that so far. Theres a real interest in heritage over there, especially the facts of where people have come from and when, so I hope theyll want to embrace the film as part of their history too.OWF: What about the reaction of the children themselves? What does it mean to them? Has the inspiration behind the Len character seen it?
JL: Yes, he has. A lot have them have seen it. We had a screening a couple of months ago and it was incredible actually, an amazing afternoon. They watched the film and obviously they were really emotional afterwards. Then we sat around and talked about it and I got their feedback and I found they were really ready to embrace it. It was brilliant because you dont presume to know what their reaction was going to be. It was amazing, they really want to take ownership of it. It was very highly charged.OWF: How did you go about the process of narrowing down the material, because obviously there are 130,000 stories.
JL: We met a lot of former child migrants. Honestly, any single one of them you could have made a film about. Every single one of them had an extraordinary story about being lifted out of this country, taken to another country, being sold a lie and the moment that they discovered that what theyd been told was untrue and then trying to piece together their life, I mean it was extraordinary. So in the early days we were thinking that that might be a way to do it but we kept coming back to Margaret because we were interested in her central dilemma, namely that shes a woman battling against the odds, engaged in a heroic struggle against the authorities, trying to reunite families but at the same time trying to keep her own family together. We were interested in the working Mum thing as well, as a motive for her story, in the context of the wider story.OWF: Have representatives of the Christian Brotherhood grown tired of apologising or is there a greater admission of guilt yet to come?
JL: Its been handled in such a cack handed way. A lot of what happened has been compounded by fumbled apologies and fumbled compensation. We wanted to shoot the real Bindoon , which we could have done and should have done, after all it is part of the history of that building, and we were ready to shoot but they kinda came up with a load of excuses, fobbed us off and eventually said no. At one point they said you might have to go to the Vatican for a meeting, which I was bang up for but eventually they just gave us a blanket no. Its a shame, because it would have meant a lot to the real people that theyd have acknowledged what really happened there.OWF: Jim Loach, thank you very much. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUvbnVXqp_8 Oranges and Sunshine is released in the U.K. on Friday. Read our review, HERE Win a signed poster, HERE.
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