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Who Would You Tell? - Documentary Review (Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2022)

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Stolen childhood and a lifetime of pain
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Australian documentary Who Would You Tell? is a harrowing account of childhood abuse and pain in Western Australia that deeply affected the lives of migrant children right through to adulthood. It is a reflection 50 years on from brothers Raphael, Peter and Manny of their stolen childhood when they didn't have the power to have a say in the matter. It was a time Australia was growing its population and the Federal Government of Australia embarked on a plan to migrate children (boys aged 8-11 and girls aged 5-10) who would go on to have more children and populate the land. Farm Schools for child migrants sprouted and around 310 Maltese child migrants came across mostly in the 1950s-60s.

Interviews and archive materials transport you back to a time when Malta was a colony of the British Empire and a country with seemingly no future for its residents. Families were destitute, and large families were scouted by the Catholic priests, offering parents a better life and a better future in Australia for their children. Not able to take care of families as large as 10-17 children within a family, parents tearfully sent their kids away. Such was the case of the brothers - one suitcase between the four of them, the children thought they were off on a holiday. Boarding the 'Flaminia', having a good time on board, they had no inkling their parents had sent them away for good. The journey took a month by sea, finally landing in Fremantle.

Peter (15), Leli (13.5), Michael (11) and Raphael (9) Ellul from Cospicua, Malta and another boy called JP were the only child migrants when they landed on 6 August 1960. They were unloaded off the ship like cattle, picked up in a car by a priest and taken to Castledare. The youngest Raphael was left at Castledare while the rest were taken to Tardun, a small town in the Mid West region of WA, where the older children went. Tardun had around 60 children all up, and about a dozen Christian brothers. Other locations that took on the migrant children included Clontarf and Bindoon. Raphael was lost without his brothers in a strange country where he didn't speak the language and would throw himself to the ground in grief, sobbing for days. In the end, unable to do much with him, 5-6 weeks later he was sent to join his brothers.

The clothes they landed in taken away, put into uniforms with the St Mary's insignia on it, and given a pair of PJs, the children were stripped of their heritage and speaking in their Maltese language was forbidden and attracted a flogging. The Maltese children felt discriminated against and would go so far as to say some of the priests hated the Maltese children. Children from the institution got jobs on the farm for slave labour and no pay that started at 6am and ended around 8-9pm in hard labour. Though together dormitory-style, the brothers were on separate beds, apart from each other. Within 1-3 days they would feel hands crawling up their privates, being fiddled with, while another hand was over their mouths, keeping it shut. They didn't speak English, could not tell them to go away, and being innocent, young and unworldly, thought this must be natural and what they do. They would be further enticed with a chocolate or lolly to go up to the bedrooms. You could let your imagination run wild here of all the worst things that could happen to children in the hands of pedophile Catholic priests.

Through their recollection, you can't help but imagine putting yourself in the place of these innocents and what they must have gone through in reality. It certainly had a huge impact on their lives and shaped who they were in their adulthood. 'This is our little secret' is the most common sentence they heard. Things were not spoken about and all the children were very careful about what they said, everyone thinking they were the only ones it was happening to.

Shame and innocence combined, fear its ruler and wielded expertly by the priests, their hands were tied and their mouths silenced. For the couple of times they brought attention to what was happening, all they received was the biggest flogging, and being told they were ungrateful for the kindness being shown to them by the good Catholic priests. No one believed them and/or didn't take it any further. It then end, the children learnt to shut up.

In adulthood, what comes across is the anger that never goes away, angry they were never believed, angry their mother had done the worst thing in life for them. That the authorities and the priest they had the courage to report it to had done nothing about it, and instead got the daylights beaten out of them. It was a time religion ruled. Belief in the priests and the Catholic faith was so great, had the priest asked their mother to jump, she would have asked how high. The brothers in adulthood became estranged, some not seeing each other in forty years till they saw each other on the news.

Everything finally came out during the time Julia Gillard (27th PM of Aust 2010-2013) was PM in 2012. The news heading reads 'Evil Acts' and Gillard announces she will be recommending the Governor-General appoint a Royal Commission to enquire into Institutional responses to instances and allegations of child abuse in Australia. Raphael was one of the children called upon to tell his story. Him, along with others just needed to hear an apology. In his own words, it was like the weight had been lifted off his shoulders. It was a relief to finally let all the secrets out that had been held in for so long.

The final public Royal Commission hearing in December 2017 decided not to dwell on individual cases, but instead questioned how it happened and how to prevent it happening in the future. They found the abuse was known about for decades, but failed to act. 1 in 5 Christian Brothers in Australia were alleged perpetrators of child sex abuse. Described as a national tragedy, it's taken the brothers a long time to assimilate into everyday life. They still carry a lot of the burden within them.

Love is something they did not learn about from the institution. Anger, not playing well with others, staying estranged is a price that was paid along the way. Adding to the recollection are injections from Henry Frendo the Historian, Lawrence Gonzi, PM of Malta 2004-2013 and MGR Philip Calleja, a priest and head of the Emigrants Commission Malta and the sister that was left behind. This is a harrowing watch and a good look at the ugly side of Australia. It opens our eyes to the tragedy of such repercussions and how such ugly acts can devastate the lives it has been inflicted upon. Be sure to catch all the other gems at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival this month of July, online and in-cinema.

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Why? Melbourne Documentary Film Festival 2022
When: 1-31 July 2022
Where: Online and In Cinema in Melbourne
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