For my next film, I have decided to try something different and I hope it works! I’ve decided to get a little extra creative and write a (very) short story (based on historical facts) and then animate it. It’s less of a documentary and more like a creative interpretation of a moment in the life of one of the prisoners from Fannie Bay Gaol.
The thing that makes photography so fascinating is that it can do what we can’t do ourselves – physically capture a moment in time and remember it forever. Since I’m using all these amazing archival photos to make these films, I’ve decided to play with this idea of bringing a historical moment that’s been frozen in time, back to life. Of course we can never truly re-create history anyway, we can only ever re-imagine it and re-interpret it. Facts are a dubious concept and there is no such thing as ‘true history’, there is only ever a subjective interpretation of events. (I remind myself of this when I start worrying about what historians will think of my project)!
Over the course of the residency, what I’ve struggled with, is finding the ‘tone’ for my films. Are they documentaries? Are they historical fiction? Are they narrative or factual? Are they animations or animated photos or videos? What genre am I working in?!! Well, now I’ve decided they are all of these things! I’m experimenting and coming up with new forms. That should be the luxury of a Creative in Residence experience right? – to try new things and spend the time developing ideas.
I digress. Getting back to this new animated short story. It’s based on a Chinese prisoner called Ah Kim. Ah Kim was incarcerated in 1902 for supplying opium to Aborigines, which was a very common crime at this time. Not long after he was put in Fannie Bay Gaol, the guards discovered that Ah Kim was suffering from leprosy and it was decided that he should be transported to Mud Island Leprosarium to serve out the rest of his sentence. There was no treatment for Leprosy in those days and so prisoners or members of the public who were suffering from the disease were isolated and pretty much left to die.
I was surprised to discover the existence of this leprosarium in Darwin Harbour. I was already aware of our two other leprosariums at Channel Island and East Arm but I had never heard of Mud Island until now.
There is more information about Mud Island here: https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/nt/YE00283
In my research about the plight of the Chinese in Darwin I found these two articles. They paint a very grim picture of life for a condemned prisoner who also had the added burden of this terrible disease.
The Chronicle Adelaide, SA: 1895-1954 Saturday 3 May 1902 On March 19, as a result of an investigation by, the acting Government medical officer and the police, a Chinaman, named Ah Ping, residing on the outskirts of Chinatown, was transported over to the leper station and left in the hut built there for leprous subjects, with a sufficiency of food and water,Ah Ping was an old Chinaman, whose shocking condition has for long past been a subject of frequent public comment, his face being almost eaten away by some horrible disease, which, however, the late Government medical officer always maintained was not leprosy. Whether Dr. Goldsmith was right or wrong in his diagnosis, the fact remains that the man was in such a repulsive state from disease of some kind that to permit, him to hold continued unrestricted intercourse with his fellowbeings for so long has been little short of a scandal, and a reasonable regard for the public safety should have led to his isolation many months ago. His examination by the acting health officer on March 19) ended in an order being made for his deportation to the leper station on the opposite side of the harbor, Dr. Seabrook expressing the opinion that although the loathsome looking Ah Ping was suffering principally from venereal disease, he also exhibited symptoms of leprosy. He was therefore, as previously stated, conveyed to the leper station; and left to the solitary contemplation of such signs of human life as are visible from that rather distant and isolated situation. Apparently the unfortunate wretch soon wearied of this tantalising occupation, and wisely determined to make an end. No one visited the spot until Friday last, March 28, when Mr. G. C. Riddell, acting under instructions, proceeded thither-in his old launch with a fresh stock of provisions for the marooned leper. The tide was found to be low on arrival, and Riddell had some difficulty in effecting a landing through the soft mud. His shouts eliciting no response, he, walked up to the hut situated close to - the beach, and pushed back the door, noticing as he did so that a suit of newly-washed dungaree clothing was lying neatly folded on top of the tank. The door opening inwards struck against something, and on looking inside Riddell was horrified on discovering the body of Ah- Ping, clothed in trousers and shirt, hanging by the neck to a piece of rope suspended from the- roof of the hut, and upon realising the gruesome fact that the man had committed suicide he immediately returned to Palmerston andreported the matter to the authorities. On Saturday afternoon Dr. Seabrook, accompanied by Mounted-Constables Gordon and Giles and a number of natives, proceeded to the leper station in Riddell's launch for the purpose of destroying the body by fire. The task proved a by no means agreeable one, owing to the dreadful stench exuding from the rotting leprous corpse. Dr. Seabrook handled and examined the body, and expresses the opinion that the unfortunate man had been dead for overa week. The body was in a very advanced stage of decomposition, so much so that it was deemed inadvisable to attempt to cut it down. Dry driftwood - was collected from the beach and piled into the hut around the hanging corpse, and the whole was then saturated with kerosine and set on fire. The bonfire blazed fiercely for some time, eventually leaving no relics of the hut or its horrible occupant, except a few distorted' and charred sheets of galvanised iron and a heap of smouldering ashes.