Chasing Asylum: A film by Eva Orner
Reviewed by ARNOLD ZABLE
Chasing Asylum is a visceral and confronting documentary which includes revealing, clandestine footage shot inside the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres. The images are reinforced by eye-witness accounts of former detention centre workers, and the observations of asylum seekers who have spent time inside the centres.
Filmed by Oscar award-winning documentary maker, Eva Orner, it highlights the harsh conditions that asylum seekers have endured in offshore detention—and the punitive nature of a regime that breaks inmates in order to serve as a warning to others contemplating the journey.
We come to understand how the spirits of detainees are crushed by the infernal waiting, and how the mental health even of the strongest is eroded, and eventually shattered by the relentless tropical heat, the boredom and uncertainty, and the confined spaces in which detainees are housed—a mix that has included sweltering tents, crowded dormitories, claustrophobic rooms, shipping containers, and a renovated World War 2 tin shed. We hear also snatches of racist jibes made by some of the guards, and of the sexual abuse of women and children.
The secret phone-recorded footage, shot inside the centres, pans across cyclone fences, stony walkways, the walls, the doors, tents flaps, rows of beds, and run-down facilities. It occasionally lights upon an inmate curled up in despair, and on gallows humour graffiti: ‘welcome to the coffin’ reads one comment, ‘kill us’, reads another above a bank of pay phones. ‘I know I have to stay here for a long time, and I have to forget my dreams here,’ says a secretly filmed inmate.
There are scenes in Indonesia of individuals and families stuck in limbo without the right to work, or reunite with loved ones—trapped between the dangers of returning home, and the denial of any hope for resettlement in the immediate future—perhaps far longer. The average waiting time for people seeking asylum globally has begun to stretch out to years, even entire lifetimes.
There are heart-breaking scenes of the parents of Reza Barati, murdered on Manus Island, and Hamid Kehazaei, who died of medical neglect. Filmed in their homes in Iran, the parents are left with a lifetime sentence of regret and grief at the premature loss of their sons. In one last act of love Hamid’s mother asks Australian authorities to donate her brain dead son’s organs. ‘He is always in our thoughts, always,’ a bereft parent reflects.
In tracking asylum seekers in Iran, Lebanon, Cambodia and Afghanistan, and with news clips of those chasing asylum across the Mediterranean and other seas, Orner also touches on the global dimensions of the challenge—the current estimate of 60 million refugees worldwide is the largest number since World War 2.
The visual narrative is interwoven with a recurring image of a boat making its way through choppy seas, the foredeck crowded with asylum seekers chasing the elusive dream of freedom and refuge. As in many of the scenes, the camera acts as a probing witness, revealing the world through the eyes of those on the high seas, mid-journey.
The text inserts—highlighting basic facts and figures—are distinguished by their clarity, as too are the comments of journalists David Marr and Michael Bachelard, refugee rights lawyer David Manne, and former prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser—in one of his final interviews.
In just its first month of release, the film is reaching a wide audience throughout Australia, with international release imminent. It comes at a critical point. So many lives are being destroyed. So many are being driven to madness. Even now, when the centres have been opened, each day of confinement upon isolated islands fraught with tension is another day closer to total breakdown.
Chasing Asylum is a powerful indictment of Australian Government policy. In the longer term it begs the question—how can this policy be changed? What global, regional and local arrangements can do justice to that basic human right to asylum, a right recognised by refugee conventions drawn up in the wake of mass displacement after World War 2? How can the punishment of innocents be prevented? Questions that challenge us all.
Links to the Website and Facebook page, with information about screenings, reviews, upcoming events, how to organize and host showings, and commentary from many sources.