A journey through the history of immigration

The story of the false oasis of Bonegilla will now be told on the big screen in a Ultrafilms-Realworld Pictures coproduction, featuring Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts award-winning actor Vince Colosimo

“Acting is the study of human nature, and if you can incorporate all of that in your work, you can only prosper, learn, and thrive,” says Vince. That is what he intends to bring in his new work, soon in preproduction. Bonegilla promises to be a very compelling movie that depicts Bonegilla history, through the ruse of a spy story. Strangely enough, no movies have yet been made about Bonegilla, despite its undoubted and pivotal influence on Australian culture and history. For those who lack knowledge of Australian history, in fact, Bonegilla was one of the major immigration camps of Australia and was located in Victoria, just 300 kilometers from Melbourne. As a postwar immigration camp, Bonegilla was presented to the world via promotional videos and other forms of propaganda as a great opportunity for a better life, with the very tempting promise of a job and a bright future for the whole family as soon as one landed in the “lucky country.”

Although Vince himself doesn’t have any link to Bonegilla in his family, he gave us a lesson of what family means to him, and how such roots can shape us, without our knowing.  Vince had one of his most life-changing experiences during the making of an episode (which took a year and a half to research) about his origins for the SBS television series Who do you think you are?, where he literally traveled through his family history to ultimately discover who he really is, who preceded him, and through what sort of hell his family had to walk through when they migrated to Australia. Although they didn’t have to go through Bonegilla, they know many other migrants who did. 

Vince Colosimo, dressed by Calibre

I am quite fascinated by this story because it feels like this part of history, like Aboriginal history, was kept hidden from us, and I can’t wait for this story to be told because it tells so much about where we come from, how we immigrated, the struggles people went through to move to the other side of the world and pave the way for others … I don’t know why they chose here. There was work here, I suppose, but I always wondered, why Australia?

Whereas the government propaganda painted a rosy, idyllic picture of the camp, the reality was far darker than that. What the commercials showed was nothing like the crude truth. As expected, in all documentaries available online as testimony of an historical turning point for our community, we notice how the presence alone of the videographer strongly influenced the behavior of workers at the facility. Bonegilla was, after all, mostly an enticing bait that soon became a nightmare for many. For those who chose to follow “the dream” by putting their whole world in a suitcase, the journey would have started as soon as they boarded the ship. Hard to fathom how both exciting and dreadful it must have been. The so-called land of opportunity was far, at a distance that must have seemed like light years away from home.

“Imagine the paranoia. They embarked on this journey for their family’s sake, they must have been so scared of failure,” adds Vince. Once arrived, migrants would soon realize how far from immediate that long-dreamed life would be. In order to attain a job, families were often forced to split up. No work meant being sent back home, all hopes and expectations were over; and to many; it would mean the end; depression hit hard, hence the many suicides that occurred in Bonegilla. “There are still many modern day examples of  Bonegilla around us,” continues Vince. “Today’s detention centers are far away – far enough we are not forced to see them.”

Bonegilla movie poster

“They must have felt like prisoners of war,” continues Vince, “people detained before walking out into society. There must have been so much miscommunication and misunderstanding between the “guards” and the “prisoners.”” To those who managed Bonegilla, this camp should have looked like a blessing in comparison to the nightmarish experiences of wars and Nazi concentration camps. The very epitome of every culture, food, became the cause, or effect, of conflict. When all dreams seemed to vanish, frustration reached boiling point. After simmering for years, it eventually exploded. At the end of the day, something had to give. Despair and extreme frustration pushed people over the edge, leading to several riots.  Reasons for those occurrences can be found in various factors, although very hard to pinpoint without knee-jerk judgments of incompetence and inexperience.

I can relate to my character because he too is of Italian heritage. It’s funny, but back in the days, this sort of role used to be called “typecast” but I don’t call it being typecast, every character is different, I don’t believe in this. The fact that he is of Italian background, son of immigrants, works beautifully for me, in fact is a plus. I can take on his struggles, the tragedy, the passion of this character. When I was a student and nobody imagined I could act, I found the strength to bring out my innate passion for acting, and I say that because I want to inspire other young people, who get typecast in society, to break down the barriers and bring new life to the existing society.

What we take for granted these days – such as numerous Italian restaurants, German, Spanish – all these amazing cuisines that we all love so much probably had their beginnings right there, in the dirty kitchens of Bonegilla, when the refugees, after the riot of 1952, were finally granted the possibility of cooking for themselves rather than endure nasty canned food, so very degrading for what was left of their cultural dignity. More than 350,000 migrants came from Bonegilla, having had their first taste of Australia. They are those who could call the Bonegilla camp their first home, to some extent their first achievement of a journey in the making. And acting is a journey too. 

Vince Colosimo on stage

I look forward to playing this character. It is always a work in progress, there is always a beginning, a middle, and an end, and this is the beauty of a film, compared to a series, where you don’t know exactly where the character is going. When I read the script, I can immerse myself in the character.

In the end, despite the differences and controversial mistreatment, and degradation, Bonegilla did in fact help contribute to shaping the multicultural Australia that we know and live in today. In today’s world, things are not that different: despite plenty of progress, law changes, people still go through war to seek peace. If those immigration camps are no more a thing, the Bonegilla movie will help remind us that in today’s world we still have refugee camps spread around Australia and the world where people from different ethnicities still struggle, living in a limbo of so-called justice to hopefully see the light at the end of the tunnel. The question is, “how far have we really progressed?”

Photography by Mark Wiesmayr