The newspaper article started here. "The remarkable Australian writer-director Ben Lewin being carried shoulder-high through cheering crowds at the Sundance Festival. Lewin's latest film, The Surrogate, should now enter Oscar contention. At the same time, Australia’s wealthiest woman, Lang Hancock's daughter Gina, was upping her strategic media holdings with a tilt at Fairfax. The two stories strangely connected – mining magnate Lang Hancock was a secretive player in the Australian film industry. And, having backed Australia's most famous film Mad Max in 1979, he agreed to back Ben Lewin.
Adams had long loathed Hancock’s bank-rolling of right wing Queensland premier Joh BjeIke-Petersen; his enthusiasm for business partner and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu; his contempt for Aboriginal land rights; his insane attempts to have the Treasurer of Australia ban the writings of Ralph Nader and John Kenneth Galbraith; and his lunatic plan to create new deep-water ports in Western Australia with nuclear bombs. But Lewin and Adams were finding it hard to finance a feature called The Dunera Boys - and suddenly Hancock came knocking. Waving a cheque for the entire budget.
The Dunera Boys, National Library of Australia
The film would have told why Australia used a prison camp for Jews at Hay. They'd been among a few thousand refugees from Germany and Austria that Churchill had interned during the UK's darkest hours - and then shipped them here on HMT Dunera. He bizarrely believed that the Jews, many of them men of great distinction, might be Nazis. The camp was as surreal as Churchill's notion. On good terms with the guards, the Jews re-created Viennese cafe society in southwest NSW. After the war, many Dunera boys stayed on to make immense contributions to Australia.
All but forgotten, the Dunera story is one of the oddest episodes in our history. Ben Lewin's script was masterful and Phillip Adams was the producer.
The initial approach came from a go-between who'd neither confirm nor deny that Hancock was his client. But he was well known as the magnate's man. Were there any projects that would qualify for the 10BA tax concessions? Yes but, suspecting that Hancock's right-wing views probably included anti-Semitism, Adams warned that his nameless client might not like the story. "He won't be concerned. It's all about tax planning, not the content of the movies. Nor will the size of your budget be the slightest concern."
So in the early 1980s they signed heads of agreement, booked a marvellous cast including Bob Hoskins and Warren Mitchell - and started building a replica of the Hay camp. But before the first take of the first scene there was a phone call. "My client has instructed me to tear up the cheque." No reason was proffered; no discussion would be entered into. "He's found out that our film is about a boatful of Yids, hasn't he?" Once again the lawyer would neither confirm nor deny. Infuriated, Adams warned that the film director and producer would call an immediate press conference to denounce his client as an anti-Semite. The measured response was to say this would lead to an immediate libel action.
They scrambled to save the film, trying to raise the funds within the Jewish community. But time beat them. They had to release the cast and crew, and dismantle the sets. A few years later in 1985, Ben Lewin rejigged The Dunera Boys as a mini-series under a different producer. It remains one of the finest achievements in the history of Australian television. But the backstage story of the Hancock investment scandal appears here, for the first time.
Ben Lewin's success at Sundance was wonderful but his brilliant career has not come easy. He greatly deserves his latest triumph - and to be recognised as one of our best, up there with Weir, Beresford and Schepisi." End of the newspaper article.
To my mind, Lang Hancock was perfectly entitled to back any film project he fancied and could have stayed well away from any project he did not like. So why did he seem to at first accept the Dunera Story, a tragic episode in Australian history that is still fresh in the minds of people old enough to remember World War Two, Nazism and terrified refugees?
I have of course seen the final mini-series that Ben Lewin directed, The Dunera Boys, and thought that Bob Hoskins and Warren Mitchell were indeed amazing.
Let me leap forward a few years to 2001 at the Maritime Museum in Sydney, when the 61st reunion of the Dunera Boys their families and friends was being held. Its not far from the place they first landed in Australia on the transport ship Dunera in 1940.
As already noted, they had been 2000 of the Jewish refugees who fled to England from Germany and Austria. England was afraid they might be a security risk so put them into internment camps and later shipped them to camps in Australia; a miserable cargo - unwanted and uncertain of their future. Many of the Dunera Boys went on to become prominent lawyers, doctors, businessmen, professors and artists.
At the Dunera reunion there was plenty of talk about the past, but also about current world headlines regarding the asylum seekers on board the tragic ship, Tampa. Think of events that rocked Australia at that moment and consider the coincidence of place (Sydney wharf), time (2001) and theme (desperate refugees)!
The Norwegian freighter, The Tampa, rescued and protected the refugees, 2001
In August 2001, the Howard Government of Australia refused permission for the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, carrying 438 rescued but unauthorised Afghans from a distressed fishing vessel in international waters, to enter Australian waters. The Prime Minister ordered the ship be boarded by Australian special forces and the refugees taken out of Australian waters. Later that same August, the Prime Minister introduced an emergency bill entitled the Border Protection Bill 2001. The government subsequently acted to excise Christmas Island and a large number of other coastal islands from Australia's migration zone. It was arguably Australia’s most immoral legislation since becoming a nation in January 1901.
The timing of the Tampa disgrace was exquisitely painful. The surviving Dunera boys, now men in their 80s, wanted to shake the Prime Minister, John Howard, saying “we were tragic refugees. Don’t you forget it. You must never turn a boat away with refugees”.