Oranges and Sunshine, presented at the Rome film festival, brings to the big screen a little-known dark chapter in British history – the shipping of tens of thousands of poor children to former colonies where many suffered abuse.
The film follows the story of Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham social worker who accidentally found herself uncovering the scandal and devoted her life to reuniting thousands of families and bringing authorities to account.
Loach, 41, said his father – best known for his gritty, realist and disturbing portraits of working class Britain – has had a strong influence on him even though as a child he had made an oath never to become a film-maker.
“I was lucky enough to be encouraged to have an inquisitive mind, to search stories and situations that are contradictory, dramatic and need to be told,” he said.
“I hope this film shines a light on a story that has been pushed under the carpet for too long,” he said. “But for us it’s actually an uplifting story, it’s the story of survivors, not victims,” he said.
Between 1930 and 1970, some 130,000 children aged 3 to 14 were sent from British orphanages and shelters to Commonwealth countries, mainly Australia and Canada, under the Child Migrants Programme — an enforced settlement policy with the stated aim of giving them a better life.
Siblings were often split up, names were changed, some children were lied to and told that their parents had died, while their families had no idea where they had been sent.
Once shipped abroad, many ended up in children’s homes and Catholic Church institutions where they suffered physical and sexual abuse or were used for hard labour on farms.
Only in late 2009 and earlier this year Britain and Australia formally apologised for the deportations.
The film, which includes some real footage of the migrant children, tells the story through the perspective of Humphreys, played by Emily Watson.
As she tries to help a woman taken to Australia as a little girl trace her mother, the social worker is soon inundated with letters from thousands of “lost children”, now adults, looking for their relatives and their identities.
“It beggars belief, but basically these children were a financial burden for the UK, and Australia at the time wanted immigrants to come in, and in particular they wanted nice, white British children,” Watson said.
“There is this idea that an apology can in some way be a restitution for the crimes committed, if you also look at what has happened in the Church … but if you stab someone in the street, you don’t get away with an apology,” she said.
The film was written by Rona Munro, who worked with Ken Loach on Ladybird, Ladybird – the story of a British woman fighting against social services for the care of her children.
Jim Loach said that while exploring a specific episode in recent history, the film touches on the social stigma attached to single, poor mothers – a theme still relevant in today’s Britain.
“Today in Britain there is this vilification of teenage pregnancies, so I think many of the issues in this film are still current,” he said.