It’s the nineteen eighties. A British social worker from Nottingham, Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) coincidentally stumbles upon two similar stories. One is of an Australian woman claiming to be English but forcibly abducted to Australia as a child. The other has to do with a familiar woman who faintly remembers having a brother when she was a little child, and has reasons to believe that brother has been sent to Australia. Could this really be a coincidence?
Humphreys starts investigating the matter, and the more investigating she does the more people with similar life stories she identifies: English people who were forcibly detached from their families as children and “exported” to Australia, where they were treated as slave labor for the institutions raising them. The numbers are astounding; there is no way so many kids could go through that fate without some governmental approval. But if that is the case, how come no one heard of this scheme?
Humphreys finds her commitment levels to the cause constantly rising, and as they do they have an effect on her person and family. In parallel, she starts identifying abductees and uniting them with loved ones. The simple drama behind the film begs the question how far she can. Is she in for the long ride?
The scariest thing about Oranges and Sunshine is that its story is entirely true. It is the tale of what is now known in Australia as that of the Forgotten Children: between the end of the Second World War and 1970, tens of thousands of children were exported from England to Australia (as well as other Commonwealth countries). On the UK side of things, these were children from “problematic” backgrounds, such as those born outside of wedlock. Against their will, and usually against the will of their families who were left in the dark, these children were then exported to an Australia that welcomed them as positive contribution to the White Australia agenda. Typically, the kids would be raised at church related institutions, where in effect they would be used as slave labor and where they’d often be raped in that typical style the church is so good at (and so good at getting out of).
Oranges and Sunshine, a film named after the promises made to these kids in order to entice them to board the ships that would take them to where the rest of their now desolate childhoods would be spent, attempts to portray to its viewers just what this Forgotten Children phenomenon is all about. It does so in a rather subtle manner through the invocation of a few true personal stories: the social worker that uncovered the whole thing to the public (Humphreys), as well as two victims brilliantly portrayed by Hugo Weaving and David Wenham.
If you ask me, the greatest compliment I can bestow on Oranges and Sunshine has to do with the way it shows us just how badly the entities we trust the most can fail us. Most of us tend to regard our own governments as trustworthy: we are the good side, it’s the others that do bad things. Well, Oranges and Sunshine comes in to tell us that even the goodie governments of the UK and Australia can commit atrocities, and not just upon the citizens of remote countries like Vietnam or Iraq. It's not only countries whose population happens to look slightly different to “us” that suffer: no, we can do the worst things ever to our very own. And if that is the case, then surely we can do unjustifiably bad things to those slightly different to us, can we? The lesson is simple: we need to check our governments and check our corporations. We need to vote for the transparent politician, not the one that only promises. And we need a society with healthy media. And don't get me started about the church!
Under such light, Oranges and Sunshine is more than a riveting true story about great injustices performed by supposedly advanced Western countries, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, and taking place during the lifetime of many reading this review. Oranges and Sunshine is a lesson in what good citizenship should mean: good citizenship means the ability to look your country and institutions in the eye and call things the way they are, even if those things disturb some holy grails.
Best scene: While walking along a beach, Weaving breaks down before Humphreys and shares some stories about his identity deprived childhood. A marvellous display of fine acting helps communicate this important story.
Technical assessment: Not that bad a DVD, but not one you’d be using to test your speakers and TV with.
Overall: Oranges and Sunshine should be integrated into the school curriculum of all the countries involved. 4 out of 5 stars.