Deep Water - The Real Story: a brutal time kept hidden

By Andrew Koubaridis

Alan Rosendale (right) a victim of a gang attack in Moore Park in 1989, and Paul Simes, who witnessed the attack. Photo / SBS
Alan Rosendale (right) a victim of a gang attack in Moore Park in 1989, and Paul Simes, who witnessed the attack. Photo / SBS

Victims were thrown from cliffs like pieces of rubbish and crashed to the rocks below. Others were bashed to within an inch of their lives.

The survivors were the lucky ones. But many young men didn't survive. They were the forgotten victims of a series of hate killings that plagued Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s.

There were 80 murders, thousands of assaults and 30 unsolved cases- the victims, all young homosexual men.

A new documentary Deep Water - The Real Story about to air on SBS unravels the stories of a city in the grips of homophobia as gangs stalked Sydney's eastern suburbs seeking out vulnerable victims.

Director Amanda Blue grew up in Sydney and was vaguely aware of the bashings and murders that gripped the gay community throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

But the extent of the horror escaped her. Just as it did millions of others.

"Most people you ask in Sydney, when I told them I was making the film and you tell them the story, most people don't really know much about it. They really don't, I mean it's extraordinary how little we know."

"I had gay friends and was aware it was dangerous and I would think 'be careful on your way home', I certainly had a sense of it, but didn't on any level have an idea of the scale."

It was only when she began researching Deep Water - The Real Story that she realised the brutal truth. And she was hooked.

"I was absolutely drawn into this story because to have this on the doorstep of your city, that I was proud to come from and from what I thought was a tolerant city and accepting of gay people...It really felt like people came from all over the world to be here [for that]. But that wasn't quite the truth."

The result is a raw, confronting account of a part of Sydney's history many would like forgotten.

"I think it's very confronting, it was a brutal time that has been kept hidden to some degree."


"There's an amazing line in the film where someone says we can't just blame the 'homophobic' police. Because society wasn't interested and if we cared more about the gay community then the police would have been forced to be more conscious," Ms Blue told from London.

She said the 90-minute film had a subtle "no one is to blame" message running throughout it.

"There are various parties that are responsible but there is a kind of overriding sense we were all blissfully ignorant or not interested or indifferent - but maybe people should have been asking...So there's a kind of conflict, on one hand [Sydney] was a gay mecca on the other it was a dangerous place to be gay - seriously dangerous."

Deep Water is a mixture of first person interviews with people connected with the bashings -victims, their families, and police - and dramatisations about what happened.

Ms Blue said walking away from interviews with the family members of those who had been so needlessly killed impacted her more than she thought.

"I got to know them really well and felt incredibly sad and also really angry that families would suffer such injustice and ongoing sadness. They were all equally brilliant or funny and it's just the tragedy of those lives being cut quite young, men who would have contributed to society and didn't get a chance to."

But after that sadness came an "outrage and anger".

"It's still not resolved and that is angry-making. The police are in this one phase at the moment of trying to do the right thing, but there's a lot of stuff that is still not being owned. The mistakes, the really big mistakes and big decisions. It's just about owning that and then we can move forward. That makes you angry, because you still feel there's injustice."

And there are killers still walking free today.

"That's the other element. The thing is, often the crimes were committed by mostly gangs of kids and they weren't just the six, or seven, or eight kids that really got in there and were violent, but there were probably 20 kids around them knew about them."

Ms Blue said the Deep Water team got "really close" to some of them - and hints there may be more to this to be told.

"We know really a lot about the people who are out there who certainly know what went on. There are enough people out there who know what happened and who are still silent. And that makes me angry, because it could bring real peace to families."


"It was a sport. That's the word, that's the kind of analogy used by everyone. Whether they are cops or kids at the time and you know, the kids were also victims of their own circumstances because they grew up in families and society that told them it was OK."

In that time, it was normal to brand someone a "poof" or taunt someone in the schoolyard who was believed to be gay. There was an obvious clash to what was happening in other parts of society, with homosexuality being legalised and in some ways being celebrated.

And yet, in Sydney the bashings and murders gathered pace.

"You speak to gay people and they tell you that it was only really being celebrated in the inner city of Sydney. Go beyond that it was really untolerated."


In Deep Water, assault survivor David McMahon reveals the impact the attack had on him. And he was one of the lucky ones.

"He was dragged across the cliffs of Bondi and almost thrown off, but escaped. His attack became really significant because it was only a couple months after a murder of a gay man, who was thrown off the cliff."

Ms Blue said Mr McMahon was a key witness because there had been two murders before him and another one after his attack. "So he was the one who got away."

He was attacked, dragged down three flights of stairs and managed to escape, but, chillingly, heard an attacker say: "Let's take him up and throw him off where we threw the other dude".

Deep Water also meets a man convicted for murder. "There were three boys who murdered a gay man in 1990 and one of them wrote to us. He wanted to speak to us."

Corrective Services NSW wouldn't allow her to interview him in jail so the inmate wrote her a series of letters where he talks about the murder, why he did it and how he feels now.

"It's the most extraordinary series of letters about how he feels complete horror of the murder he committed that night when he was a 17-year-old boy, angry and disenfranchised himself."

It was those people who were the most dangerous though. "They felt they were the lowest group on the social ladder. And yet there was one group lower than them. And that was gay men."

The convicted killer talks about the murder being a release from his "own dysfunction, anger and fury at the world".

Understanding that anger was crucial, Ms Blue said.

The "vicious cycle" began with bashings, then through a combination of police inaction and the gay community being fearful of police, things "escalated to murders".

"We all have to think what was going on to think it was OK, because there was long period it was and these boys were led to believe it was and they got away with it."


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