I caught the fantastic doco Bastardy the other night. Directed by Amiel Courtin-Wilson, it’s a beautiful cinematic portrait of Aboriginal actor Jack Charles, who later became notorious for burgling the wealthiest suburbs in Melbourne (what Charles calls ” just collecting rent”). Filmed over seven years, Courtin-Wilson follows the loveable Charles – a heroin user, cat-burglar and homeless since ’73 – as an elderly man, tired of sleeping in laundries and running from the police, contemplating giving up the drug and finding a place of his own. The relationship between the two men is quite touching, and Charles’ radiant personality and sense of humour is infectious.
What I found most moving about the film was a scene when Charles opens up to the camera about the first relationship he had, with another man, which clearly affects him deeply still. In trying to articulate what went wrong, Charles explains that, being taken from his mother as a baby, only 10 months old, and growing up in a boys’ home, (as was the Australian Government’s practice at the time) he couldn’t recall ever being “held”. He went on to say that he’d never had a relationship with anyone, let alone a lover.
Though there is so much tragedy in Charles’ history, and in this film, his palpable sense of regret and failure in this scene was the only part of the film that made me cry.
The “stolen generations” is a term used so often in Australia, that I sometimes think the words have become an abstraction. However, after watching Bastardy, it struck me how true that phrase is. As a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, I realised how “stealing” a generation is the most accurate description of how genocide works. And how its effects are shared across cultures.
Self-medication is common among Holocaust survivors too: many in my grandparent’s generation, as well as their children, had/still have serious, often debilitating addictions to prescription drugs (a lot easier to hide than heroin) such as valium, slimming pills and painkillers. The Jewish community’s preoccupation with marriage and procreation, (I’m speaking for mine, although I can imagine this is similar elsewhere) the rife homophobia, and the often dysfunctional, neurotic family dynamics in the Jewish community is another symptom of this.
Not to mention how my grandmother (who was 9 years old when the war broke out in Poland, and who lost her family as well as her childhood to it) has a collection of teddy bears and dolls that takes up an entire room in her house.
At another point in the film, Charles said that when the newspapers printed stories about the talented actor’s turn to crime, he half hoped that his father (he never found out who his father was- hence the film’s title) would come looking for him.
For me, what the film showed so vividly, is that it takes more than a lifetime to overcome the scars of being taken away from your family at that young age; to overcome the memories of violence and abuse heaped on you; to overcome the deaths of your loved ones, and the absence in your life of those you never knew. That’s what we mean, I suppose, when we talk about the “stolen generations”.