FEATURE: Controversial Australian TV series tackles Changi.
It is the end of World War II. The Japanese army have surrendered, but instead of releasing the thousands of Allied troops being held in the Singapore Prisoner of War (POW) Camp Changi, the Japanese soldiers gun them down in cold blood.
It shouldn't because it never happened, says Australian historian Peter Stanley.
Yet despite this fact, a new Australian six-part historical drama that concluded Nov. 18 on the government-owned Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) showed just that.
Called Changi, the drama focused on a group of six former POWs who meet every nine years after World War II to remember their experiences in the lead up to what will be their final reunion, almost 60 years on.
ABC describes it as a drama series about the horror of war, the pain of memory and the power of laughter.
The series, which is lighthearted in parts, recounts the Australian soldiers' initial landing in Singapore in 1942, just in time for surrender, and how, together with 15,000 others, they are marched off to Changi. Together, the six men survive three-and-half-years of incarceration.
Apart from what historians have called ''great historical inaccuracies,'' Changi has been a ratings winner for ABC and last week was the second most watched Sunday evening program on Australian free-to-air television. Yet its broadcast has sparked lively debate among historians, former POWs and the series' producers and writers.
Changi's creator John Doyle has gone on the record numerous times since his drama series hit the headlines to clarify that he is ''quite happy to talk about the series as art, but not as history.''
''I wasn't writing history. Criticize it as being bad art if you like, but bad history, that wasn't my concern at all,'' Doyle told the Sydney Morning Herald last week.
Yet historians have sounded warning bells over Changi, highlighting what they see as its implicit dangers.
''It gives viewers a misleading and unrealistic idea of the POW experience and of their captors. The danger is that people either believe what they see on television or don't know what's wrong and right,'' Stanley, who is principal historian at the Australian War Memorial, told Kyodo News.
Apart from inaccuracies about the size of the camp, which in reality housed thousands of men, but in Doyle's version is home to just a couple of hundred, there are more serious erroneous details.
''The Japanese prison guards are misrepresented, although not as seriously as the prisoners,'' Stanley says.
For instance, he says, the POWs take liberties with the Japanese they would never have been able to take in real life. In one scene, two of the Australian prisoners dress up as Japanese soldiers and mimic them in a burlesque theater. The response from the Japanese prison guards is to laugh along with the amused inmate audience.
''That would not have been the response in real life because Japanese guards were very conscious of preserving their dignity. In real POW camps, prisoners dared not make fun of Japanese guards. It just simply wouldn't have happened,'' Stanley said.
The same goes for a scene where a Japanese general drives into Changi and shoots a prisoner on parade.
''That simply did not happen,'' Stanley says.
''The real Changi was run by Allied POWs and the Japanese were not seen inside for most of the war. Doyle's camp is completely different. It is a small camp where the Allies and Japanese are thrown together quite intimately,'' he added.
Stanley says the final episode contains by far the greatest misrepresentation and one he feels sure Japanese would be concerned about.
It comes when Japanese prison guards are shown shooting prisoners on news of the Japanese surrender. He says that while it is true some Japanese commandants in some POW camps were given orders to kill prisoners, he does not know of an instance where it was acted on.
''Yes, there were all sorts of terrible brutalities perpetrated by the Japanese toward POWs, but this isn't one of them. Let's not pretend that these terrible things didn't happen, but let's not make up incidents,'' he said.
As a war historian, Stanley places great importance on meeting and collaborating with his counterparts in Japan and will be traveling there within the next three months for further dialogue and study.
''It's difficult to admit the brutalities of the past, but we have to be straight with each other. Painful though it may be, we must face the truth. Distorting these accounts, the way Doyle has, just makes it harder,'' he said.
Changi follows in the hallowed footsteps of big screen Australian war dramas, including 1981's Gallipoli, a film which probably did more than any other to shape the Australian collective memory of war.
Stanley acknowledges the power such films wield over their audiences, but is concerned Changi's writer didn't see fit to consult with the Australian War Memorial in the interests of historical accuracy.
Assoc. Prof. Paula Hamilton of Sydney's University of Technology is also keen to encourage historians to get involved with popular culture's versions of history.
As an expert in memory studies, she is comfortable with Changi as a series about memory, not history, yet acknowledges that for some viewers, the fictional Changi surpasses the real.
''There are a large and increasing number of people who get their historical understanding from popular culture, whether that be movies or television. It is up to the historians to engage with these accounts. So, instead of deriding it as entertainment, historians need to respond more to what's being represented on screen. They can't just say that's inaccurate, therefore it's useless,'' Hamilton says.
But for Doyle, the program's writer, there is little concern that those who have been watching will not be able to tell fact from fiction.
''In no way is it historically accurate. I would hope that for a new generation of people for whom Changi is forgotten or a mystery, that seeing the series may encourage them to go to the material, the source material, and investigate it for themselves. I'd like to imagine it might be a thought-starter,'' Doyle said.
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|Publication:||Asian Economic News|
|Date:||Nov 26, 2001|
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