The ex Detective Sergeant broke down and cried as he began to recount - and relive - his dozen years or so as an honest cop in a corrupt force. It had been traumatic to see
his colleagues on the take, perverting justice not serving it, continuously fearing for
his own safety in the process.
He was starting to talk of his experiences not to the stern faced members of an
internal affairs unit, but to a group of actors assembled in a rehearsal hall.
"A debate on police culture and mateship"
Having regained his composure, the man - let's call him Mr A - began his briefing to
the actors with a short anecdote about his first day in plain clothes. He was attending
the scene of a break-in at an electrical goods store, together with his superior officer.
The senior officer carried a number of items from the burgled store and stacked them in
the boot of his car; as he slammed the lid down, he turned to Mr A, saying "Welcome
to plain clothes."
Writer/director John Dingwall (Sunday Too Far Away) had invited Mr A and an ex
Detective Constable, Mr B, to talk to his cast as he prepared to make his latest feature
film, The Custodian. Dingwall, once a police roundsman, says the film is intended to start
a debate on police culture and mateship: the timing of the film's release (March 17, 1994)
could not have been more timely had it been planned (which it was not), coming just days
after more revelations of police corruption in ICAC's latest report.
"Mateship has become an icon"
"Mateship is the motivating factor whether things happen in Australia,"
Dingwall believes. "Mateship has become an icon, rather like the stars and stripes is
an icon to Americans...some of whom commit the most dreadful atrocities under it. This
debate is overdue, I believe, as our faith in ourselves is fragile."
The briefings were sobering for the cast. They heard first hand how insidious mateship
could be, when it was put to corrupt use, creating a network of mates who either condoned
it or collaborated in it.
Mr A and Mr B both had felt ostracised for being straight. Mr B recalls going to the
toilet at a police station where he was based at one time, and finding obscene graffiti
about his wife smeared on the wall. Both had had threatening phone calls.
"When Mr A began to relive the nightmare of being a straight cop in a corrupt
force, his wife gave him an ultimatum: he had to either quit working on the film with us,
or quit his marriage," says Dingwall, "that's how bad it was." Mr A left
There were other ominous signals that police culture does indeed involve silence - the
silence of the damned. The stonewall, the whitewash, the averted eyes and the pretence
that corruption is all just a matter of a few bad apples no longer has any credibility.
"...denied co-operation by the police"
During the making of The Custodian, Dingwall's crew was denied co-operation by the
police when they wanted to shoot the police cell scenes.
Last month, when the finished film was being readied for release, the media unit of the
Police Association was given a chance to invite police cadets to a special screening. The
spokesman told a representative of the producers that since earlier co-operation had been
declined, it would be unlikely, but he would call back. He never did.
Needless to say, a group of whistle blowers and other interested parties were not so
reticent: a special screening attracted the likes of Nigel Powell, who was the whistle
blower responsible for triggering the Fitzgerald Inquiry. During the discussion that
followed the screening, Powell said he felt the debate about police culture is too
difficult: he suggested it should be about individual responsibility.
"..twisted integrity of a police culture which
requires the bond of silence"
In The Custodian, that is exactly what Dingwall addresses. His central character, James
Quinlan (Anthony La Paglia), is an honest cop whose best friend, Frank Church (Hugo
Weaving), is not. But mateship has kept Quinlan's eyes averted and his mouth shut for a
dozen years. It is the twisted integrity of a police culture which requires the bond of
Then, as Quinlan's marriage breaks up and he is left isolated, feeling he has nothing
to lose, he faces up to his conscience and decides to risk his own life and his own career
to expose Church and his cohorts.
Barry Otto plays the ex-lawyer who now heads Internal Affairs, and Dingwall's son Kelly
makes a strong debut as the young, sincere if naive television reporter through whom
Quinlan exposes the corrupt men.
In implicating himself, Quinlan readily accepts that he will have to pay for his past
silence - so his is more than a noble gesture, especially as by the time internal affairs
raids Church's home and finds the dirty money and other evidence, Quinlan has fallen in
love with a young woman, and he does now have something to lose.
The film, a tense and involving feature that avoids shoot outs (there is one shot
fired), spectacular car chases and macho beef bashing, offers an unforgiving view of
police corruption, but is most scathing about the question of mateship being put in its
"We accept that what you've written is true"
Interestingly, when Dingwall was doing some informal script workshopping on The
Custodian with a handful of American writers in a New York hotel room one night, they
picked on Quinlan's motivation.
"The main comment was, 'why would somebody like Quinlan put himself at risk to do
this?' It really amazed me," says Dingwall, "because in this genre of American
films guys are always doing these individual acts. What those writers were really saying
to me was, 'we accept that what you've written is true. And if it is true, why would he
put himself at risk?
"I then gave the example of Donald McKay, the guy in Griffith, as to why people
put themselves at risk. McKay was warned of what he was doing and then he paid the
ultimate price. Why did he do that?"
Why does someone like Quinlan - and there are many potential Quinlans in the world -
take such risks?
Because the time had come for Quinlan to admit that he had been blinding himself to the
truth. Quinlan is a highly decorated, model police officer, who has for years walked away
from anything that resembles corruption - and practiced self-denial where his mate Church
was concerned. He accepted Church's story, for instance, that his wife had come into money
as an explanation for their splendid waterfront home.
"We never blame ourselves"
(At the Cannes film market, Beyond Films sold The Custodian to USA, UK, Germany,
Canada, Brazil, South Africa, Scandinavia and Turkey: "it was the second most
successful film we have launched on the international marketplace next to Strictly
Ballroom," said a spokesman.)
Dingwall says he wants to make a point about individual responsibility. "I think
we Australians have this habit of blaming the government and everybody else. We never
blame ourselves. We are responsible for everything that happens to us. Quinlan decides
that the responsibility is his. He has taken the job as a policeman; he is 'the
custodian', he has the responsibility not to be corrupt and to bring down people who
It might be convenient for some to dismiss Dingwall's argument as the noise of a
busybody, to decry him as a do-gooder using lofty arguments to make films, using the
public purse, an intellectual who is removed from the reality of it all. But that would
entirely miss the point. Or points.
"I wanted this to be the strongest possible story,
recognisable anywhere in the world"
While all of this is strikingly relevant to the here and now in an Australia reeking of
police corruption, Dingwall's film does not portray actual people or incidents. In fact,
the police force depicted in the film could be anywhere, any large city in the world.
Dingwall's script workshop in New York was just one of several pit stops around the
globe as he wrote and re-wrote the film: he also went to London and Paris, and finally
settled on the 17th draft. "I wanted this to be the strongest possible story,
recognisable anywhere in the world, and writing in other cities allowed me to get new
perspectives to add colour to the narrative...."