Finding the means to give voice to their plight is a challenge indeed, but one taken up by Graham McNeice Productions (Criminal Investigations Australia, Australian Families of Crime, History of Australian Radio) for the CI Network. It will be introduced by former Queensland premier, Anna Bligh.
This saga takes shape across a two part docudrama, comprising interviews with men who were subjected to the abuse, dramatisations with actors and interviews with experts. What unfolds is numbing stuff for any viewer.
Westbrook opened in 1900 as a home for orphaned, disadvantaged and Aboriginal youth -all of whom were too young for prison. It developed a reputation as the most brutal home of reform in the country and didn’t close until 1994. As these tales of horror are recounted in this doco, there is nowhere to hide.
Leading the memories is Alfred “The Crow” Fletcher. Now one of several senior survivors, he explains the torture he endured at Westbrook. The lines on his face, and those of his fellow survivors, are etched in pain by the hands of his transgressors. It’s an understatement to say we would all want to apologise for such negligence by generations that preceded us.
Bringing the drama to life is the job of actors and a film crew, re-enacting beatings, abuse and despair. Boys are beaten with the strap, dragged out of bed and punched, abused in the showers, and made to empty toilet sewerage. Some try to escape, others attempt to take their own life. Dishing out the torture are the authorities, led by the very man in charge of the institution. Making other boys watch as he abused the young men, it is impossible not to suspect sadomasochism was entrenched at Westbrook.
It wasn’t until the Forde Inquiry in 1998 that its actions were scrutinised, with the current Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse handing down its first report in July 2014.
Relating such grim information is a tall order. Ultimately, who would want to watch this stuff? What makes it all the more challenging is the docudrama form. The acting scenes aren’t exactly subtle, revisiting scenes of torture over and over (including with recaps after commercial breaks). Some of the dialogue is clunky, and the level of acting is inconsistent.
The doco element comprises stark recounts given directly down the barrel of the camera -but is confused by young actors narrating in the same style. Anthropologist Adele Chynoweth sets the scene of the administration and bureaucracy, with some archival facts. For all the drama that is admirably re-created by younger actors, none matches the harsh truths as told by those who lived through it.
Yet the sum of the parts does not satisfy as a whole. The bleak subject, unevenly executed as story and drama, makes it a difficult hour. Perhaps as a fully-fledged drama with more subtle acting it may have elicited more empathy than shock, as a documentary it could have avoided some earnest scenes.
None of this diminishes from the harsh brutality handed out, nor the need to right such wrongs for its victims.
However as an information entertainment, Westbrook‘s message is often overwhelmed by its execution. Nonetheless, abuse of this kind must cleverly never be allowed to happen again.
Westbrook airs 8.30pm Thursday, August 28 / September 4 on Crime & Investigation.