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The senior police 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 the young new cop, saying "Welcome to plain clothes." This is the corrupt ‘mateship’ culture that John Dingwall explores in his timely debut feature, The Custodian. ANDREW L. URBAN reports.

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 the set.

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 silence.

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 service.

"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 are."

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...."

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8/10/98: Made four and a half years ago, The Custodian, with its theme of police corruption, remains relevant and instructive. The film stars some of Australia’s best actors: Emmy Award winning Anthony La Paglia – pictured - (due here next month to star in a new feature, Looking for Alibrandi), Hugo Weaving and Barry Otto –cast against type.


8/10/98: The Making Of … is a unique and historic series of articles on a selection of Australian films - such as this one - that were made BI (Before Internet), or at least before Urban Cinefile was launched. All the films covered in this series can be found in the FEATURES ARCHIVES menu page, listed alphabetically under MAKING OF

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Australian Film Commission in helping to publish this series.


We have already published Making of features for the following films:

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