Director Neil Armfield feared for his life in vicious gay hate bashing


neil armfield
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Celebrated Australian film and theatre director Neil Armfield has opened up about a life-threatening gay hate bashing he suffered in Sydney in the 1980s.

On a Saturday night in May 1986, a group of thugs bashed Armfield at a Sydney gay beat, breaking his nose.

The theatre, film and opera director spoke to The Australian about the attack for the first time.

He said the violent assault “could have been so much worse, and I know that for others, it was so much worse.”

But he said “sneering” police officers effectively blamed him for the attack and failed to “explore, investigate or link together” the similar crimes.

Armfield was 31 at the time. He went to Moores Park in Sydney, a well-known gay beat.

However soon after, he was “grabbed by my collar from behind and swung around… straight into a king hit on my nose,” he recalled.

“My nose broke and there was a gush of blood,” Armfield said.

“And as they hit me they yelled, ‘AIDS poofter’. There were about five guys (in their) mid-20s.

“I knew that if I hit the ground I’d be gone.

“I just fought to stay upright and I screamed from the bottom of my being, ‘Why are you doing this?’

“All they could reply was ‘AIDS poofter’.”

Neil Armfield feared for his life in harrowing attack

The attackers stole Armfield’s watch and demanded he hand over his wallet.

Armfield said he feared for his life. He knew he had to get away from the “very dangerous, secluded” area.

“One of them had picked up this big plank of wood,” he said.

“If I’d been hit with that it would have been … curtains.”

He managed to draw the attackers towards his car, which was parked on a busy road.

A passing driver then shone his lights on the group and the gang of thugs ran away.

The director, covered in blood, drove home and “burst into tears”.

Police made him feel attack was ‘his fault’

Two days later, Neil Armfield went with his friend, journalist and author David Marr, to report the attack to police.

But he said “sneering” police officers “did their best to humiliate me” because the attack occurred at a gay beat.

“I was made to feel like it was my fault and I sort of felt ashamed of the experience,” Armfield told The Australian.

However, he said the assault had occurred “at precisely the time people who were more unlucky than I was were being killed.”

Armfield explained to The Australian he was a valuable witness and had a “vivid memory” of his attackers’ faces.

If the police had asked him to, he could have “easily identified” his attackers.

However he “never heard a word back” from them. For months after the assault, he was traumatised.

Armfield said even today he still feels the effects of the harrowing injury. The damage to his nose required surgery and left him with a “nasal-sounding” voice, he said.

And during a recent Covid test, the health worker couldn’t get the swab in the left side, he said.

50th anniversary of gay hate murder of Dr George Duncan

Neil Armfield, who is director of the Adelaide Festival, said he was sharing his story ahead of the premiere of his latest production.

Watershed is a new opera exploring the unsolved Adelaide murder of gay academic Dr George Duncan in the Torrens River in 1972.

It’s 50 years since Dr Duncan’s death at a gay beat. Armfield said the unsolved case continues to “haunt” Adelaide.

Armfield is directing the new oratorio, which is written by Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas and composed by Joseph Twist.

Watershed draws on years of material and research on the crime in the first “nuanced, probing, artistic response on this scale”.

Dr Duncan’s death sparked national outrage and allegations of police involvement and cover-up but also pioneering gay law reform in South Australia.

In September 1975, South Australia was the first Australian jurisdiction to fully decriminalise homosexuality.

But no one has been convicted of Dr Duncan’s murder. Armfield told The Australian this was “an ongoing source of pain and anger” in the community.

However Armfield said justice was “tangible” and not out of reach.

He noted the recent conviction of the killer of gay man Scott Johnson in New South Wales.

Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan is on at the Adelaide Festival from March 2.

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