HRAFF Film Review – Fantome Island

By Felicity James
Fantome Island Stills_2

Fantome Island is the story of Joe Eggmolesse, who was seven years old when diagnosed with leprosy, taken from his family and sent on a long train journey to a remote island in Northern Queensland.

Years later, 73-year-old Eggmolesse returns to Fantome Island, hoping to reunite with members of his “Fantome Island family” and pay tribute to those who died and those who looked after him during his 10-year stay.

When Eggmolesse arrived at the leprosarium in 1945, Australia’s Indigenous laws and policies were largely motivated by racial fear and eugenics philosophy. Indigenous people diagnosed with leprosy were sent away to be “cured” but received almost no medical attention in sub-standard camps segregated from white patients.

… Eggmolesse’s story is strangely uplifting because of his capacity for humour and forgiveness …

Although historians help paint this picture at the beginning of the documentary, it is Eggmolesse’s story-telling ability, along with a vast archive of footage of island life, which makes Fantome Island so powerful.

The documentary follows Eggmolesse on his journey around the island, as he relives his childhood memories under the care of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. He recounts painful memories of being separated from his family and girlfriend Molly, horrific camp conditions where child abuse was “the norm” and the feeling among detainees that they were “the living dead”.

But Eggmolesse’s story is strangely uplifting because of his capacity for humour and forgiveness as he reflects upon the past.

… Fantome Island is overwhelmingly a story of healing.

He has mostly fond memories of the nuns who dressed patient wounds, despite the fears and stigma surrounding leprosy at the time, and held his hand when his mother said goodbye after annual visits. “Nowadays, I would go and give them a hug”, he says, “but you couldn’t do that then.”

It is only after the discovery of his aunties’ and friends’ unkept graves on the island that we see a hint of the anger and pain Eggmolesse must have felt throughout the years since his release. “I don’t care who hears it and who knows it, it’s a disgrace”, he says. “This is not how you treat sacred ground.”

But Fantome Island is overwhelmingly a story of healing. Most of all, Eggmolesse wants his story to become part of the historical records of Fantome Island, giving a voice to fellow elders who lived and died there and have not had the opportunity to tell their story: “I have six children, 21 grandchildren and about seven great-grandchildren and I would like them to know this story.”

Fantome Island is showing at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival on 26 May 2012 at 6:30pm, at ACMI Cinemas.  To purchase tickets, click here.

Right Now Radio recently interviewed Joe Eggmolesse – the podcast is available here.

The film is also showing:

On Friday 15 June 2012 at 7pm, at Byron Bay’s Pighouse Flicks. To purchase tickets, click here.

For more on our coverage of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, click here.

To visit the HRAFF website, click here.

To listen to a podcast of an interview with Joe Eggmolesse on 3CR’s Right Now Radio, click here.

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