Tag Archives: Azaria Chamberlain

Hanging half a century on a solution

FORTY years since the premier of the Peter Weir film, it’s time for Australians to realise that Picnic at Hanging Rock has kept us completely fooled for five decades.

This evocative screen mystery burst into our consciousness the same spring that the constitutional crisis of the last months of the Whitlam government left Australians in an altered state.

“Australian cinema’s ‘new wave’ success story rose on the back of a terrible cultural lie.”

The original novel by Joan Lindsay was similarly about the impact of sudden change. When three schoolgirls and a governess do not return from a commonplace picnic at a local beauty spot in 1900, the mechanics of shock and denial challenge the very foundation of knowledge.

WHAT DO YOU KNOW? Helen Morse as Mlle de Poitiers and Vivean Gray as Miss McGraw in Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock.

As French governess Mademoiselle de Poitiers farewells four of her charges wanting to explore the base of Hanging Rock, seeing Miranda turn away, she asserts: “Now I know”. The only one who hears is mathematics teacher Greta McGraw, who replies: “What do you know?”

Mlle de Poitiers is happy to believe she has seen an angel by an old master, although Miss McGraw appears to have her eye on something far more attractive.

Minutes earlier, this rational, scientific 45-year-old noticed her watch, like everyone else’s, had stopped, right on midday. The picnickers are suddenly, and literally, out of time.

This fictitious pre-Federation mystery perfectly captures modern Australia’s struggle to form an identity, because the answer to what drew Miss McGraw to follow the girls up the rock that timeless afternoon was always there, it’s just that others decided we were not prepared for it.

A real-life disappearance occurred at another famous rock and challenged Australian identity all over again, when, on the night of August 17, 1980, baby Azaria Chamberlain was taken from her tent by a dingo at a campground near the base of Uluru – at that time known by its European name Ayer’s Rock.

EVILANGELSIt did not take long for the majority of Australians to decide this event was nothing more than a fanciful story, sprung from the imagination of Lindy, Azaria’s mother, who was jailed for life for her daughter’s murder.

We were far more willing to cry murder than countenance the reality of predators in our landscape.

Fred Schepisi’s film of John Bryson’s book on the Chamberlain case – Evil Angels – outlined the dingo story and subsequently bombed at the Australian box office.

We could barely look at the Evil Angels, whereas the romantic never-to-return ‘angels’ of Picnic at Hanging Rock we took to our hearts; but Australian cinema’s ‘new wave’ success story rose on the back of a terrible cultural lie.

Joan Lindsay complained of endless fan mail asking whether her story was based on fact, although I call her annoyance a dodge, because she brought all the attention on herself as soon as she allowed her publishers to lop off the last chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock before it was published in 1967.

But her original Chapter Eighteen survived the butchering of editors: she entrusted it to her literary agent John Taylor in 1972, with strict instructions to publish it after her death.

This he did in 1987, by which time a cult had grown around Lindsay’s ruse. The twelve pages of Chapter Eighteen published in the booklet The Secret of Hanging Rock were framed by tongue-in-cheek essays by Taylor (claiming that Lindsay’s solution was “unfilmable”) and Yvonne Rousseau, a writer who’d spent years sleuthing Lindsay’s oeuvre.

Despite the attention Lindsay’s ‘solution’ received, it was not enough to challenge the trajectory of the film’s success. A director’s cut was released theatrically and on DVD, including a documentary in which not a single mention was made of Lindsay’s Chapter Eighteen.

“They were happy to escape a life of corseting, cosseting and control.”

Her long-concealed dénouement quite matter-of-factly revealed the missing schoolgirls and their governess had undergone the kind of transformation common in Classical legends, although Lindsay had created a credible bridge between European myth and Aboriginal Dreaming.

Other writers had attempted this earlier. Arguably the most famous was the fake Aboriginal Legend of the Three Sisters, the story of three Aboriginal women transformed into the famous rock formation by their ‘witchdoctor’ father, written by Sydney schoolgirl Patricia Stone in the 1930s and subsequently sold by Katoomba’s tourist industry as genuine Aboriginal legend.

DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM Seeking the solution to what happened.
DREAMING WITHIN A DREAM Seeking the solution to what happened.

But Joan Lindsay avoided cultural appropriation. Instead, she allowed her large cast of European women to be themselves appropriated by a Dreaming entirely appropriate for an Australian story.

Picnic at Hanging Rock screenwriter Cliff Green identified one of the major themes in Lindsay’s story as child abuse, and once the women do not return, the checks and balances of a ‘proper’ education gradually do reveal the physical and emotional weaponry of British headmistress Mrs Appleyard.

The missing schoolgirls and their governess, then, were not victims of crime or whisked away unwillingly. They were happy to escape a life of corseting, cosseting and control.

“I can hardly wait,” star maths student Marion Quade says in Chapter Eighteen, anticipating her chance to shuffle off the twentieth century and follow her transformed maths teacher Miss McGraw “without a backward glance”.

Marion’s escape route comes straight out of 1960s notions of Aboriginal Dreaming, atmosphere that undoubtedly challenged the original publishers into such a severe deletion. Far more preferable for daughters of the Empire to disappear into thin air than be seen to delight in a spiritual transition well-known by the nation’s first people.

The edit allowed Joan Lindsay’s fact-fiction flim-flam to become the focus of the book and film’s success, and even though all along she knew she’d not written a mysterious disappearance, she played her part very well by suggesting the audience decide what was true and what wasn’t.

Fans and detractors rushed to pore over the archives and trample across Hanging Rock, well off the scent of a simple look into Lindsay’s education at a Melbourne ladies’ boarding school.

LADY LINDSAY Joan Lindsay (1896-1984).
LADY LINDSAY Joan, Lady Lindsay (1896-1984).

It was Terence O’Neill in a 2009 La Trobe Journal essay Joan Lindsay: A time for everything who proposed that Lindsay can hardly have been unaware of her alma mater’s move from Melbourne to Woodend, close to Hanging Rock, in 1919, after her graduation; and, far more interestingly, the account in the school magazine of a Miss McGraw, teacher at the school in Lindsay’s time, who led the twilight expedition to Hanging Rock that inspired forty years of annual picnics and the telling of ghost stories on the way home. 

It’s also enlightening to analyse the corporal punishments Lindsay portrayed in detail – those that inspire adolescent fantasies about escaping the control of disciplinary adult paradigms – when seeking the real seeds of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Missing corsets and stockings, a maths governess seen climbing Hanging Rock availed of her skirt, and the discovery of one of the missing girls, are all clues in both book and film, but they remain the worst kind of red herrings without Chapter Eighteen.

Another red herring is the sound of Pan pipes played by Gheorghe Zamfi on the soundtrack, evoking the old Greco-Roman gods of different land altogether.

It’s probably un-Australian of me, but I call for a remake. 

PANIC
MUCH TO LEARN Edith runs from the top of Hanging Rock.

Pan pipes would easily be replaced by a well-known Aboriginal wind instrument; and doubtless there is much to learn from the Wurundjeri nation, traditional owners of Hanging Rock, the rock formation they were dispossessed of in the 1840s.

Joan Lindsay’s literary stock-in-trade was time. I can’t imagine her not approving of a reappearance of Miranda, Marion and Miss McGraw in an episode of Doctor Who, or at least a mash-up adaptation like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

The Northern Territory legal system took thirty years to come to terms with the facts about the dingoes that preyed on Azaria Chamberlain. Surely in that time we have grown enough to cope with Aboriginal Dreaming in one of our greatest novels?

As Gough Whitlam famously affirmed in 1972, ushering in the government that would transform the lifeless Australian film industry, led by Lindsay’s big-screen icon: “It’s time”.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

A dingo took the story

DESERT CHAMELEON Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in 'A Cry in the Dark' (Photograph by Vivian Zink).
‘DINGO BABY’ Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ (Photos by Vivian Zink).

Can a real-life story be plotted into a dramatic arc?

THE hardest form of plotting is the real-life story. Remember when James Cameron made you forget the Titanic was going to sink? Like or love his movie, Cameron’s masterstroke of ‘real-life’ storytelling created a new benchmark, but his love story also bent the ‘real life rule’ quite a bit by using fictitious characters within a real-life story.

The reason real life is the hardest form of fiction should be obvious – life does not slot easily into a three- or five-act dramatic arc. Producers and publishers don’t like real life – it’s never fast or entertaining enough to put bums on seats, it’s way too random, and it usually needs a bit of tweaking.

Even reality television only feels real – it’s been fictionalised ever since the quiz show hit the small screen.

One of the finest examples of a real-life dramatic arc is Fred Schepisi and Robert Caswell’s adaptation of John Bryson’s long-form work of journalism, Evil Angels, the story of the Chamberlain ‘dingo baby’ case, otherwise known as A Cry in the Dark.

Let’s put the plot through its paces… beware, there are spoilers (yeah I know, you know how the story ends… or do you?).

Exposition – “A dingo’s got the baby”

The exposition must introduce us to the characters and show who is the protagonist (the hero) and the antagonist (the anti-hero, or ‘villain’); and the protagonist must be called to action, posing a question so interesting that we are gripped.

Lindy and Michael Chamberlain (the protagonists) are at their Seventh Day Adventist church in Mount Isa for the christening of their daughter, Azaria, when passing truckers gossip about Adventists over their radios, and the family portrait is showered by their dust, revealing the Australian public’s (the antagonists) wariness of anyone they don’t understand. Michael (Sam Neill) and Lindy (Meryl Streep) leave for a holiday to Uluru (Ayers Rock), and settle in for a barbecue dinner. Lindy puts Azaria to sleep in their tent, and after she returns to the barbecue, another camper, Sally Lowe, hears the baby cry. When Lindy goes to check, she sees a dingo emerge from the tent, finds Azaria missing, and shouts the now infamous line.

Rising Action – “A lie goes around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on”

The rising actions are those the antagonist uses to thwart the protagonist and show us who both of them really are.

The Chamberlains wake to news that Azaria’s body has not been found. The media soon picks-up on the disappearance and stories spread across the Australian public’s TV screens, with an edge of eeriness and mystery. The Chamberlains return home to rebuild their lives, but the media continues its push for information, and Lindy attempts to tell her story, but it backfires as the media disseminates rumours about the family. The Australian public starts its own dialogue about the case, mainly convinced of Lindy’s guilt and the dingo’s innocence. An inquest, which clears the Chamberlains of all guilt in Azaria’s death, seems to resolve the case.

MIKL CURDLER Meryl Streep's portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain saw her on the receiving end of similar hatred.
NUT CRACKER Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain saw her on the receiving end of similar hatred.

Climax – “A face that could crack walnuts”

The climax must be the start of a battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, and a turning point after which there is no going back for either.

Disgruntled Northern Territory police consult forensic experts, who find enough evidence to re-open the case. The Chamberlain’s home is raided and items taken for testing. Witnesses are simultaneously interviewed. The media breaks the story and the Australian public devours the new information with hysteria, focussed on perceptions of Lindy’s demeanour. Lindy is heavily pregnant as the ‘trial of the century’ begins in Darwin. The jury, representatives of the Australian public, ultimately ignores eyewitness accounts in favour of forensic evidence and finds Lindy Chamberlain guilty of murder and her husband Michael an accessory. Lindy is sentenced to life imprisonment. The Australian public celebrates.

Falling Action – “I will not have another dinner party ruined by those people” 

The falling action must play out the battle between the protagonist and the antagonist, allowing one of them to win. The winner defines the piece as a comedy or a tragedy.

Lindy is separated from her family in prison, where she gives birth to a daughter whom she is quickly forced to hand over to Michael, and she disappears from the Australian public’s consciousness while the Chamberlain’s legal team begins the long process of appealing her sentence. Despite the Australian public’s deeply-held conviction that she is guilty, cracks start to appear in the wall of opposition to Lindy. When the unexpected death of a tourist at Uluru leads to the chance discovery of Azaria’s matinee jacket (evidence the prosecutors used to paint Lindy as a liar), Lindy’s is swiftly released from prison after three years. She returns home, a stranger to her new daughter Khalia.

Dénouement – “How important innocence is to innocent people”

The dénouement (‘to untie’) must unravel all the conflict and bring everything to a sense of resolution. In a comedy, the protagonist is better off than when they started. In a tragedy, this is reversed. The big question posed in the exposition must be left answered.

At their church, the Chamberlains are welcomed by a cheering crowd of Adventists, and Lindy speaks about the family’s patience and endurance while the truth about Azaria’s disappearance was eventually revealed. During the applause, Khalia comes to her mother’s side, and the family group which was ripped apart is restored, albeit changed. Outside, a media pack launches itself at the Chamberlains, suggesting that their journey to exoneration is far from over, and Michael underlines the importance of the concept do innocence to innocent people.

WITCH HUNT The Chamberlains pursued into Darwin Court by a media pack.
WITCH HUNT The Chamberlains portrayed by Neill and Streep pursued into Darwin Court by a media pack.

The Verdict

The screenwriters’ decision to portray the entire Australian public as the antagonist was not only genius, it was based on the truth of the Chamberlain’s story, and helped rank the movie amongst the most gripping courtroom dramas.

The dramatic arc of A Cry in the Dark hits all the right moments, the most subtle of which is the antagonist’s (the public’s) slow realisation that an error of judgement has been made. In the end, they are defeated by the evidence.

But this win for Lindy Chamberlain cannot be defined as a comedy. This is another reason why producers often avoid real-life stories: they’re hard to define and therefore hard to sell.

In 1988, when this film was released, twenty-four years were yet to pass before the true antagonist of the Chamberlain’s story – the dingo who took Azaria – was acknowledged by the Northern Territory legal system. Before this factual milestone was reached, which acknowledged the reason no body was ever found (Azaria having been consumed by dingoes), the screenwriters of A Cry in the Dark acknowledged that the dingo took not only the baby, but also her story.

WRITE REGARDLESSThat the filmmakers found a way to capture this true tale long before it was over makes A Cry in the Dark one of the best lessons in real-life storytelling.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, Regardless!

The dingo’s not a maybe

GUILTY VERDICT The disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain has at last been explained (Photo by The GirlsNY)

A Writer’s first lesson in injustice.

I HAVE been obsessed by the Azaria Chamberlain case since I was ten years old. When others in my family would cry ‘change the channel’, I wanted to follow the legal process which led to Michael and Lindy Chamberlain’s conviction in 1982.

It’s hard to get your way at that age, especially when you’re in the minority.

I was the only person I knew who believed the Chamberlains were innocent and was willing to say so. My great-uncle (a retired lawyer) was sure, based on the forensic evidence, that Azaria had not been taken by a dingo but had been killed by her mother. Not surprisingly, his influence was quite strong amongst our circle, and it swung other generally sensible adults over to the ‘Lindy is as guilty as hell’ way of thinking.

A collective energy against an individual has often been called a ‘witch hunt‘, and Australia willingly engaged in one.

I remember the T-shirts at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, the word ‘Azaria’ written in fake blood around the neck.

I remember the time a friend’s mother told me that I wouldn’t be welcome in their home unless I changed my mind and believed that Azaria was killed by her own mother.

I remember getting onto a plane in Sydney bound for Darwin in July 1985, as Michael Chamberlain boarded and bravely ignored the wall of hushed emotion from every single passenger as we craned our necks to stare at him.

I remember the vitriol leveled at Fred Schepisi and the filmmakers behind A Cry in the Dark for producing a movie which told the Chamberlain’s story based on eyewitnesses accounts of events on the night of August 17, 1980, at Ayer’s Rock.

I remember a scene in that movie, when Lindy Chamberlain (portrayed by Meryl Streep) shakily emptied her bottle sterliser as the family packed-up and went to a motel, since Azaria had not been found.

I remember how my mother shuddered next to me in the cinema, as it dawned on her (recalling her own experience of losing a child), that a baby had died that night.

I remember how seeing the accurate portrayal of eyewitness evidence changed her mind about the case.

I remember that one of her friends admonished her for being so easily swayed by something as ‘flimsy’ as a movie.

I remember reading Justice Morling’s 1988 Report, as he unravelled every single rumour about the Chamberlains, and thinking it should be essential reading for anyone who had an opinion about the family.

In 32 years I don’t remember anyone ever coming up with a credible explanation for why they believed Lindy Chamberlain would kill her baby.

I will always remember June 12, 2012, as the day Australia grew up a little, and became a slightly safer place because justice was finally granted to a family who only wanted a truthful explanation for their trauma. Safer not because the dingo had finally gone on record as a predator capable of hunting humans in the Northern Territory, but because our justice system upheld the accounts of eyewitnesses over forensic errors.

No piece of writing could ever rival the case of the taking of Azaria Chamberlain by a dingo. We have lived through events that, if told as a piece of fiction, would be written off as unbelievable.

But it happened. Truth is far stranger, as they say.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.