I rate it among the best Australian documentaries ever made
If you want to see Chasing Asylum, Eva Orner’s brilliant new Australian documentary, my advice is to hurry along. At last count it was showing on just two screens in Sydney, and when I went along to the Dendy in Newtown on a recent Sunday afternoon – usually a good time for ticket sales – I was directed upstairs to a little cinema at the end of a long corridor to find the place half full. The ads are promoting it as “The film the Australian Government doesn’t want you to see” – and that I can believe. But does anyone want us to see it? Not the distributors – there’s barely a mention in the ads. Not, apparently, the ABC or SBS, who should be seizing it with both hands for prime-time screening during the election campaign. Perhaps that’s the problem – the film is politically explosive, and everyone seems to be running scared, including, of course, our political masters.
Important is not a word I like using about films. For a critic, a film is either good or bad. In varying degrees it succeeds in its stated purpose or it doesn’t. Orner’s film is important, and it succeeds magnificently. I rate it among the best Australian documentaries ever made – up there with Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson’s First Contact (1983), set in Papua New Guinea and nominated for an Oscar; or Rats in the Ranks (1996), their devastating expose of scandals at a Sydney local council. But perhaps the best comparison is with Orner’s own Taxi to the Dark Side, about the abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Taxi to the Dark Side was directed by Alex Gibney; Orner (as producer) collected its best documentary Oscar in 2008.
In many ways, Chasing Asylum and Taxi to the Dark Side are companion pieces, alike not only in subject matter but in their investigative techniques – interviews with camp guards, prisoners and officials, interspersed with well-chosen archival footage. There is, of course, little archival footage of Nauru and Manus Island – access is restricted and visitors are hardly encouraged – so Orner had to shoot her own. On visits to the camps she filmed interviews and shots of inmates with a concealed pen-camera, and inevitably much of the footage is crude and unstable. But Annabelle Johnson’s editing gives everything a smooth narrative flow, aided where necessary with sub-titled speech and on-screen messages.
There are now an estimated 1600 asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru – men, women and children – in addition to some 10,000 people marooned in Indonesia under Australia’s restrictive anti-refugee policies. All are what the government likes to describe as “illegal boat arrivals”, as if fleeing from war, poverty and persecution were somehow against the law. (It’s the camps themselves, of course, that are against the law – condemned by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, outlawed by the UN Refugee Convention and, most recently, by Papua New Guinea’s High Court.)
One of Orner’s recurring images shows a little open boat, ploughing on through turbulent seas while its wretched human cargo lie crammed together inside. God knows where they finished up, but if they were hoping to get to Australia there was bad news in store. The film includes a government propaganda video in which a stern military type stands before a huge banner reading NO WAY and informs unlucky refugees that if you try to come by boat there’s “no way you’ll make Australia home.” I wondered why the words of that popular Australian song were considered likely to resonate with impoverished peasants from Iraq or Afghanistan.
For all the power and urgency of its message, the film’s tone is never strident or inflammatory but strangely calm. The camps themselves look much the same – rows of semi-dilapidated tents, improvised sheds and what look like old army huts, enclosed by wire fences. In their bunks, inmates are slumped in grotesque attitudes of boredom and despair. “I thought Manus Island was part of Australia,” one of them laments. For another, the prospect of a journey to Australia “sounded like a holiday.”
Boat arrivals were officially assigned “Boat-ID numbers” – a little like car licence plates (BON-314), and often used, in a semi-jocular way, as a form of address. Overheard conversations between camp officials are laced with obscene references to the refugees in their charge. One inmate is ordered to remove his hat in the mess hut during meals. His protests are met with the insistent rejoinder: “It’s the rules. We don’t make the rules. Transfield make the rules.” It should be stressed that the Transfield corporation has since severed all connection with the camps, but I have often wondered what Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, the company’s revered founder and one of Australia’s great pioneering immigrants, would have thought of Transfield running squalid detention centres.
It seems the camps have no shortage of social workers and support staff, presumably on hand to help inmates with their traumas. For both camps there’s someone called the “Director of Mental Health Services” – the government must have known he’d be needed. A social worker at Nauru gives a horrifying account of prisoners self-harming – mutilating their arms and faces, stitching their lips together, even their eyelids. These are government employees and contract staff speaking out about the horrors they have seen. Their names and faces are mostly concealed, but one of the few identified in the film is Greg Lake, boss of the Nauru camp for a time, who recalls his upbringing on Sydney’s privileged North Shore and speaks of his disillusionment in the job. What seemed to him at first a duty of care became a duty of deterrence. As Lake sees it, the aim of the camps is to make the inmates’ lives as miserable as possible to discourage others. And nothing speaks more eloquently of the success of this policy than the naive art-work of imprisoned children – drawings of sorrowful little faces and tearful mummies behind criss-crossing barriers of wire. A few lucky youngsters are seen in classrooms learning how to write simple English. One little fellow has trouble distinguishing the letters N and M and if the initials stood for Nauru and Manus Island you could hardly blame him.
There’s no disguising Orner’s political motives. Her film is a fierce wake-up call to the Australian public and a full-on attempt to discredit the governments and politicians responsible. Tony Abbott is regularly seen mouthing his “stop the boats” mantra, which soon begins to sound like an ugly joke. According to the journalist David Marr, interviewed for the film, the camps are a flagrant contravention of the UN Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory. For Marr, that convention was an “apology for the Holocaust”, a declaration that the persecution of innocent civilians would never again be tolerated in a civilised society. It was a vain hope, as history has shown. To Australia’s lasting shame, the camps at Nauru and Manus Island have been tolerated and defended by politicians on both sides.
A concluding title gives a list of politicians who declined to be interviewed for the film – Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull. Well might they hide their faces. It will surprise some viewers that Chasing Asylum is dedicated to the memory of Malcolm Fraser, whose government took in some 70,000 Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 80s, flying them to Australia in chartered aircraft and resettling them in the community. If we could treat refugees humanely in those not-so-distant days, why can’t we do so now?
Chasing Asylum (rated MA) is showing in selected cinemas. Four-and-half-stars.
Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.