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Dr

Steve Thomas

Senior Lecturer In Film & Tv (Documentary)
Victorian College of the Arts
documentary
ethics
collaboration
filmmaking
reflexivity
collaborative practice
freedom stories
reality tv
asylum seekers
Steve Thomas's Profile Picture
Dr

Steve Thomas

 
Division
Fine Arts and Music
Steve Thomas's Profile Picture
Dr

Steve Thomas

 

Scholarly Works

Displaying the 10 most recent scholarly works by Steve Thomas.

Credentials

Positions


Senior Lecturer In Film & Tv (Documentary)

Victorian College of the Arts

Education


Doctor of Philosophy

University of Melbourne

Master of Film & Television by Research (Documentary)

University of Melbourne

Bachelor of Science Honours in Chemistry

Durham University

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American documentary filmmaker Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack tells the story of the Angulo brothers, who grew up in a New York housing project apartment which they rarely left for fifteen years and then only under their father’s dictatorial supervision.

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One year they never went out at all. They were home schooled by their mum and not allowed to cut their hair.

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Amidst this cult-like confinement they dispelled their boredom by re-enacting their favourite Tarantino and Batman movies, until eventually at the age of 15, one of the older boys decided to “break out”. His five brothers soon followed and the cover was blown on an extraordinary story. The resulting documentary won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Festival and the Angulo brothers have since attained celebrity status.

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The ethical questions surrounding The Wolfpack are various. Paul Byrnes in his review for the Sydney Morning Herald is primarily worried about issues of consent.

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Most of the brothers were still minors when the first-time director began filming them and there is a seventh sibling, a disabled young woman. Their father is often drunk and appears to be delusional. There are hints of marital violence. Other reviewers have raised questions about the legality of preventing children from leaving their home and the filmmaker’s “exploitation” of the story.

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However, my own concerns lie at the more subtle levels of documentary ethics, revealed in the story form and aesthetics of the film.

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The truth is that whilst filmmakers can cite signed release forms to justify their actions, these are just pieces of paper. Consent in longitudinal documentary projects (which follow people over a long period of time) is an ongoing process. It requires the development of a trusting relationship between filmmaker and participants to the point where the latter agree to be filmed. This mutual trust must then be reciprocally maintained throughout the production. You do something for me and I do something for you. The Angulo boys’ obsession with movies meant that once they decided to trust Moselle they were in.

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It is impossible to predict the consequences of appearing in a doco. Just ask the filmmakers and participants in this year’s Struggle Street (SBS 2015), which provoked controversy well beyond that deserved by a modest project with the corniest narration yet written by an SBS executive (no filmmaker would or could write such pap).

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Apart from terrible music and a sensationalist trailer that provoked an outcry, its only mistake was to focus on the suburban underclass.

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Australian filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke’s Cunnamulla (2000) did the same in a country town, with similarly resulting hysteria from the middle-classes, who like to pretend that pregnant women never smoke bongs, especially on the toilet with their mothers next to them.

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Generally with a documentary, you decide there’s something worthwhile in participating and you trust the filmmaker so you take a punt, and in the case of the Angulo brothers it paid off. Unlike the residents of Mount Druitt, the film set them on the road to fame and possibly fortune, being as several of them now work in the entertainment industry.

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For the other members of the Angulo family however, being sucked into this process was more difficult.

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To her credit, their mother negotiated this terrain with skill and flair, liberating herself in the process and subsequently reuniting with her estranged family. But their father remains deluded and secluded. Moselle reports in an interview with Vice that he even likes to take credit for her documentary – in a kind of twisted justification for the virtual imprisonment of his children.

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But then, what do you do when a pretty girl turns up to your house with a film crew having already won over the rest of the family? Chase them away, or grin and bear it? You’re wedged, as Tony Abbott would say, and the results are difficult to watch.

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But the Wolfpack participants are adults (now, even if some weren’t when filming started) and one assumes they can make their own choices, while the really vulnerable family member, the disabled daughter, is wisely left largely out of the frame.

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Of course the terms of consent are negotiable to some degree and in order to gain that essential trust some filmmakers will at least offer participants a look at the rough cut or even an informal right of veto, but sshhh, don’t tell the commissioning editor that.

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So what are my concerns? There is an overall mood in The Wolfpack that is created not just by the story but by the way it is told, and I suspect this provokes the kind of ethical questions referred to above.

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The director has said that it’s a film about overcoming fear. My own feeling is of an overwhelming sense of oppression. Reviewers generally describe it as an uncomfortable but ultimately inspiring watch.

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\n The Wolfpack.\n © 2015 Wolfpack Project, LLC.\n
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One of the reasons for this discomfort is the suspicion that more has gone on behind those closed doors than is being admitted. There’s ambiguity around questions of responsibility. For example, was the brothers’ much loved mum complicit in her husband’s view that it’s the outside world which is the real jail, full of drug pushers, guns and muggers, not the harmonious world inside their jaded apartment? Was there physical as well as emotional abuse?

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One might be tempted to accuse Moselle of not pushing for answers to these questions. In this regard The Wolfpack is highly reminiscent of Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Andrew Jarecki’s award-winning doco about a Jewish American family split asunder by accusations of paedophilia.

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Jarecki openly declines to take a position on this, leaving us with an uncomfortable ambiguity. We want to know if and who did it? We need resolution. Like The Wolfpack, the film utilises home video footage, obsessively shot down the years by one of the Friedman sons.

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Anna Broinowski’s Australian doco Forbidden Lies (2007) is another of this ambivalent genre, which takes a more dramatised approach to the conundrum of whether Norma Khouri was really the witness of the honour killing of her close friend or had just made the whole thing up.

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All of these films deal (or fail to deal) with the relationship between memory and truth, and sometimes home videos and truth. But the reason why Moselle doesn’t really go there is because, despite our frustration as an audience, it’s not that necessary.

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It’s sort of water under the bridge. Or it was when the filmmaker experienced it – because her lived discovery of the story was in complete reverse to the way the narrative plays out on the screen.

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Moselle didn’t meet the Angulo brothers until after their break out, when she saw them running down a Manhattan street in 2010, waist-length hair flowing and all dressed in black suits and sunglasses a la Reservoir Dogs, one of their favourite movies.

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This piqued her curiosity and they began hanging out together in the park, discussing films and filmmaking. Eventually the boys invited Moselle back to their place. She already knew they’d been home schooled and were a bit “different”, but here she discovered that she was the first friend they’d ever made.

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By now she was filming them on an ad hoc basis, as they expanded their horizons for the first time with trips such as to the cinema and the beach at Coney Island. As an aside, how much Moselle engineered these events is unclear and another concern voiced by critic Paul Byrnes.

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For example, in one scene in which they’re filmed in a cinema, they appear to be the only people there - suggesting a less than spontaneous \nexercise arranged for the camera. But again I don’t find this much of a problem. Filmmaking is a catalyst and we all indulge in a degree of engineering, even in the strictest of fly-on-the-wall approaches.

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As Moselle spent more time with the brothers, the story of their confinement came out. While she soon got to know the mother, it was two years before she ventured a question to dad. By that time he had adjusted to the boys being out in the real world and any possibility of retribution was past.

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It wasn’t until some four years down the track that the boys told her: one year we never went out at all. “The story of their childhood is still unraveling”, she says in the interview with Vice.

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Switch back to the movie. Here the story is told differently, in chronological order, as it happened, rather than how Moselle filmed it. Dramatically it wouldn’t work any other way for an audience. So we find out about the confinement first and then the break out, after which Moselle questions the parents (in short, mum’s sorry but dad isn’t and feels misunderstood). Then we join the boys in their discoveries of the outside world. The film concludes with a moving trip by the entire family to an orchard – the brothers’ first experience of the countryside.

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What this chronological structure provokes in us is a very present discomfort at the boys confinement, which although told via interviews in the past tense is presented in juxtaposition with old home videos and the boys’ movie re-enactments that place us as an audience in the moment when the boys were confined.

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We don’t know that dad’s rationalisation of his behaviour is being delivered several years after the breakout, when whatever hullabaloo there was has settled down and he’s been more or less excommunicated in his own home. Instead we feel a very present danger. This renders us as casualties of the overarching storytelling device chosen by the filmmakers. We can’t be satisfied with the answers given and perhaps we feel that the filmmaker has opted out of the difficult questions.

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As doco makers we all tamper with chronology for the sake of the narrative imperatives of story telling. If audiences know this then they trust us not to tamper with the integrity of the story in the process. As the old editing adage goes, you can cheat but you mustn’t lie. That is the contract. Here the narrative drive is provided by Moselle’s maxim given in another interview that “I wanted to see a transformation in my characters”). This is of course a mantra of narrative filmmaking adopted by documentarians.

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But the storytelling approach is not the only device colouring our view of The Wolfpack. The discomfort we feel is created as much by the aesthetic treatment of the film as by the adopted storytelling device. The footage in the apartment is invariably dark and shadowy. The camera moves around a lot. And the use of mono-tonal music in a minor key on the soundtrack is disturbing, particularly when juxtaposed with home movie footage rendered in slow motion.

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Seen separately for example, footage of a birthday party with the kids all with their faces painted in Kiss style might seem like a bit of weird fun, but overlaid with a tense and ominous soundtrack it becomes just that. Is this ethically wrong? The filmmakers would doubtless argue that such sequences illustrate or reinforce the “truth” of the story, that to quote Ms Moselle, “I always thought of the family as a kind of failed cult”.

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Other archive footage is similarly used to support this notion, such as the family moving around in a tight single-file circle, clad only in shorts, as if engaged in some kind of tribal shuffle. What Ms Moselle has said publicly is that after going through the mountain of video footage, most of which was mundane, “we found some stuff between the lines”.

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It’s a truism that the closer a doco gets to a narrative the closer it gets to fiction. The aesthetics of a documentary reveal the position and purpose of the filmmaker, especially when she/he is invisible in the film.

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In The Wolfpack, there are no narrated explanations and Moselle is never seen, only heard occasionally asking a question. The use of atmospheric mono-tonal music is all the rage in docos these days, even behind interviews and dialogue. And even the name “the wolfpack” is not the boys’ own but a nickname coined by a friend of the director and now adopted by them for their own production company.

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Thus film and life are intricately intertwined – as they always have been for the Angulos. And the subject of documentary ethics is a similarly complicated affair.

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The Wolfpack is currently screening in selected cinemas

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Steve Thomas does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Former detention centre detainee, Shafiq Monis, and his daughter Mahidya. Image courtesy of Steve Thomas

As an independent documentary maker, my journey through asylum seeker terrain began in 2002, when I was researching a documentary on the history of the township of Woomera. That research eventuated in Welcome To Woomera (2004), the first of what’s turned out to be a trilogy of films I’ve made touching on the situation and lives of asylum seekers in Australia.

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From those films, and the years working on them, I’ve noticed certain patterns and gained first-hand insights.

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My second film, Hope (2008), was a collaborative documentary about the life of the late Amal Basry, one of a handful of survivors of the SIEV X people-smuggling disaster of 2001, when 353 people drowned en route to Australia.

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The third film – Freedom Stories (2015) – was completed in February this year and premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in June.

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Freedom Stories (2015) trailer.
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Much of my 25 years of filmmaking has been preoccupied with the question of how it is that good or ordinary people can end up doing bad things, and the effects on those to whom those bad things are done.

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In Black Man’s Houses (1992) and Least Said Soonest Mended (1992), I pursued this theme in situations as diverse as missionary efforts to “civilise” Aborigines in the late 1800s and – in my own family’s case – the removal of my sister’s child for adoption in the 1960s “for her own good”.

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My research for Welcome To Woomera in 2002 involved the entire span of the South Australian outback town’s existence, from its inception as a base for weapons testing during the Cold War to its role, at the time of my research, in detaining “boat people” from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran under Australia’s unique policy of indefinite mandatory detention.

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Woomera has always been that place that every country seems to need, where not very good things are done, out of sight of the populace, by perfectly nice and ordinary people, on behalf of the nation’s security.

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By the time we began shooting Welcome To Woomera, the detention centre was closed, most of it having been burned down by the inmates, but there were still women and children living in community detention in the town.

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\n The Freedom mural, painted by inmates of the Woomera detention centre, circa 2001.\n Image courtesy of Screen Australia\n
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I met some as they attended the Sunday inter-faith service at the local church. One young woman had attempted suicide after two-and-a-half years in detention and its attendant dissipation of hope.

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This horrified me.

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But what struck me with equal force was that, in different circumstances, she could have been my next-door neighbour. I could detect no significant difference between her hopes and dreams and my own – except that she bore her suffering with more dignity than I could ever muster.

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We were forbidden by the Department of Immigration from recording detainees’ stories but as the detention centre was now empty we were allowed inside to film.

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While wandering around what remained of the place we came upon some old single-storey brick buildings. On the ends of these were large, beautifully painted murals, the legacy of a brief “Prague Spring” moment when a more benign manager had given the inmates paints and brushes to occupy them.

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In these pictures, kites flew through a blue sky, ducks took off from a lake into the sunset, palm trees waved in the breeze, city lights glinted on the horizon, and in one the Titanic was gliding by, unaware of its impending fate.

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\n The Titanic mural, painted by inmates of the Woomera detention centre, circa 2001.\n Image courtesy of National Library of Australia\n
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These symbols of freedom didn’t look to me like the work of fanatics, terrorists, jihadists or even illegal queue-jumpers bent on taking everyone’s jobs. They looked like the genuine dreams of a peaceful world that ordinary people such as my suicidal friend and I shared.

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They stayed with me, those murals.

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As the years rolled on, I often wondered who painted them and what had become of them.

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A decade later I embarked on making Freedom Stories with those murals in mind. I wanted to explore the current lives of people who’d spent time in detention back then, some as children, followed by years on temporary protection visas, before finally becoming Australian citizens.

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As the ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall wrote in his book Transcultural Cinema (1998), the “shock” of the transculturality of film is that, through the particularity of discrete images and stories, the universality of human experience is evoked.

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Although from different cultures and backgrounds, my documentary participants and I inhabit the same world, and this cohabitation is a source of commonalities as much as it is of differences.

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That was my hope.

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By collaboratively listening to former asylum seekers rather than the histrionic voices around them, perhaps I could help return to these vilified people the humanity of which they have been ever more crudely stripped over the years with the seeming assent of fearful sections of the populace.

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We no longer empathise because they have become solely “them” and not at all “us”.

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I had met lots more former asylum seekers in the intervening years through the making of Hope and travelling with it to screenings around the country. So it was no surprise to me that this common humanity shines through in Freedom Stories.

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But what has surprised me is how magnanimous the film’s participants generally are towards the rest of “us”, despite the punishing “welcome” our country gave them and the psychological scars that many still carry. I believe this lack of bitterness is partly a result of the many acts of kindness that they experienced from some Australians who, for example, wrote to them in detention and helped them on their release.

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One participant in the film is Amir Javan, who was a jeweller in Iran and now works in real estate. He spent four-and-a-half years in detention while the government appealed and re-appealed his pending release all the way to the High Court.

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\n Former Curtin and Baxter Detention Centres detainee, Amir Javan.\n Image courtesy of Flying Carpet Films\n
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When I ask him in the film why he smiles so much, he tells me what he learnt in detention is that we must all care about each other.

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Another common trait among the former asylum seekers I’ve met is their enthusiasm and determination to contribute to their new country. It’s a truism to say these are the very people we need in Australia but it’s so.

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I don’t want to idealise those people. I think part of the reason for their determination is the feeling that they must prove themselves, to demonstrate that they are not the usurpers and opportunists that many claim they are.

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Whatever their motivation, some are inventing ways of creating jobs that the rest of us haven’t thought of, including opening up new trade with Asia and the Middle East – countries with which they are already familiar.

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\n Former Woomera detention detainee, Arif Fayazi.\n Image courtesy of Flying Carpet Films\n
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Arif Fayazi is from Afghanistan, via Woomera, and when I ask him in the film about the risks of starting a new business venture, he replies:

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There is no greater risk than the one I took getting on that boat. When I came here I started from scratch and if this business fails, I will start from scratch again.

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These are admirable characteristics, but one’s fear now is that if the offspring of these new Australians, who went through so much, are not adequately embraced by our education system and the like, the magnanimity and enthusiasm for progress that their parents are demonstrating may evaporate.

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Indeed, this is what we are starting to see among – although in very small numbers – alienated youth who are flirting with extremism, despite their parent’s determination to escape from such. That’s the fear that I now see in the eyes of many of those I have got to know.

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Freedom Stories will screen exclusively at Cinema Nova, Melbourne, for one week only from July 23-29. Details here.

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Steve Thomas is the documentary maker of Welcome to Woomera, Hope, and Freedom Stories, the films on which this article is based.

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