Throughout history countries across the globe have perpetrated many human atrocities in response to the rise of immigration and its attendant, perceived, threat of damaging the “pure race” that existed prior to multiculturalism.
Events stemming from racial scapegoating and religious persecution are today widely recognised and acknowledged as regretful times in a nation’s history; looking back on these events with educated perspectives allows us to continually learn from them. Unfortunately, however, one can easily question whether the majority of what we learn in our history classes is merely what the government has chosen to acknowledge. How many missionaries created by government policies have been pushed under the rug only to be revealed through personal documentations? These questions came to mind after attending the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne for a previewing of the documentary Fantome Island.
The gentle, deep hum of the didgeridoo echoed deep within my chest as the lights dimmed and an official welcoming ceremony introduced Fantome Island, acknowledging the traditional Koori owners of the land. Marking the 15th anniversary of National Sorry Day, the 18th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report, the 45th anniversary of the 1957 referendum and the beginning of Reconciliation Week, it was clear that this screening of Fantome Island held a deep connection with the local Indigenous community and, indeed, within Australia’s history.
Directed by Sean Gilligan, the film is based on the authentic reflections of Joe Eggmolesse, a well-respected elder of the titular island. Joe shares with us his journey through childhood and early adulthood: at the age of seven he was taken away from his family by the government and sent to Fantome Island, a leprosarium for Aboriginals.
With the severity of leprosy in the 1940s, the government – as a part of the Protection and Segregation Act – sought to remove the ‘Aboriginal problem’, as they were considered a dying race, rather than finding a cure for the disease. This resulted in the forced removal from their families and communities of any adult or child (of any age) diagnosed with leprosy, and subsequent incarceration on Fantome Island. At the time, there was a stigma regarding leprosy, which was largely magnified by politicians. Many of those sent to Fantome Island, Joe explains, believed they were there to die, calling themselves “the living dead”.
On the anniversary of the Remembrance Day for Fantome Islanders, Joe heads back to the place he called home for a decade. This emotional return reunites him with fellow Fantome Islanders, whom he refers to as his relatives. The former Leprosarium, located north of Queensland, now exhibits a clear blue sea and merely the remains of the gravesites of all passed-away residents. As part of his returning journey, Joe shares with us his personal experiences on and memories of the island, and the close family relationships formed over his time spent there, including parental figures and love.
One of the most interesting aspects of Fantome Island is the closure that Joe admitted to experiencing through creating this documentary. He notes that the film has helped the process of his reconciliation. “Had I continued to dwell on the past, I would not be here today,” he muses. Furthermore, the sense of gratitude held towards the Catholic French Canadian nuns for looking after him is also interesting. Being themselves isolated and generally unaware of the common treatment of Aboriginals at the time, the nuns were constantly apologising for what they were ordered to do and, significantly, they even approached the government to seek marriage rights for the island’s residents.
This emotional story is bound to touch your heart and broaden your perspective on the stolen generation, and institutions that are hidden within Australia’s history. With an emotional response from the crowd post-screening, numerous audience members made clear their gratitude towards the film and Joe for sharing his story and revealing Fantome Island as a significant aspect of Australian history.
Fantome Island is out now on DVD through Ronin Films. For more information, visit www.fantomeisland.com.