A- A A+

Inside Nauru nightmare

Tim Kroenert |  18 May 2016



Chasing Asylum (MA). Director: Eva Orner. 96 minutes

With Papua New Guinea's Supreme Court of Justice finding last month that the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was unconstitutional, the shamefulness of Australia's border protection policies was once again laid bare.

As if we needed further proof, on the heels of those developments comes Chasing Asylum, a new documentary from Australian filmmaker Eva Orner. Orner served as producer on Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, about American interrogation practices during the war in Afghanistan. Now she turns her eye to the experiences of detainees on Manus and Nauru.

Asylum seeker advocates will be familiar with the facts and arguments that the film articulates. What sets it apart is its wealth of hidden camera footage caught within the grim confines of the centre on Nauru, and Orner's conversations with detainees and social workers who bore witness to the dire daily reality there.

Chasing AsylumSeveral of these social workers admit to being naïve and under-qualified upon arrival.


"Ultimately the film's strength lies in human faces and stories."


One recalls her shock at learning she would need to be familiar with a type of knife used to cut down hanging victims. Others detail incidents of attempted suicide and cases of self-harm, which were commonplace, even among children. It's sobering stuff.

Taking a wide view, the film traces the (d)evolution of border protection policies under five successive prime ministers. Human rights lawyer David Manne reminds us that despite government rhetoric it is not illegal to seek asylum. Journalist David Marr offers a potted history of the UN convention on refugees.

But ultimately the film's strength lies in human faces and stories. After presenting footage of the riot on Manus during which 23-year-old Reza Barati was killed, Orner visits with Barati's family. She also spends time with the parents of Hamid Kehazaei, the Manus detainee who died after not receiving proper treatment for a cut to his foot. Chasing Asylum thus rebukes the abstract 'issue' of border protection with flesh-and-blood reality.

This is invoked no more powerfully than by the words of one asylum seeker witness to the death of Barati, who breaks down while describing the scene. He didn't know Reza personally, he says, but that's not the point: he knew he was human. 'It was very important that he was a human being.' If only our political leaders would take such a simple and profound view.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.

Chasing Asylum is screening as part of the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival around Australia during May, ahead of a theatrical release later this month. 

Review originally published in The Melbourne Anglican.



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Further reading: Madeleine Gleeson, OFFSHORE, New south Press; now on sale. If you are looking for a laugh, do not buy this. This is our Australia doing "unto to the least of my people".

Damien STAPLETON 19 May 2016

Thank you for this review - I look forward to catching this documentary; an important reminder of an ongoing, collective act of national bastardy.

Barry G 19 May 2016

I saw this film at its 2nd showing with a full audience present. Nothing surprised me but I got a whisper of what it's like to live a life of endless uncertainty piled on top of trauma/s. The guards' conversations e posed how dehumanisation works there and the perpetual entrapment the refugees live within is unconscionable. Not in my name ... Remember this when voting.

Mary tehan 22 May 2016

Thanks for drawing attention to this film, Tim. I found it absolutely harrowing seeing people living without hope simply for doing what our ancestors did. And some of my countrypeople, New Zealanders, are also now being detained in a similar way, I imagine. Words fail me!

Cecily McNeill 24 August 2016

Similar articles

Sherpa Spring challenges Western privilege on Everest

Tim Kroenert | 31 March 2016

If Peedom was expecting to find signs of a growing sense of self-agency behind the docile facade of the legendary 'Smiling Sherpa', she couldn't have predicted a rawer or more tragic scenario against which it would play out. Predictably the turn of events does not sit will with the Western climbers and tour operators, who feel that the outlay of time and money, not to mention the 'bucket-list' imperative to conquer the peak, entitle them to proceed. Polite facades peel away to reveal ugly attitudes.

Icelandic farmers like rams to the slaughter

Tim Kroenert | 07 April 2016

When a remote valley in the north of Iceland is struck by an outbreak of scrapie - a fatal, degenerative disease that affects sheep - Gummi, Kiddi and their farmer neighbours must face the prospect of conducting a mass slaughter. This is very much a communal crisis, and a consideration of the socioeconomic hardships of traditional Icelandic sheep farmers in modern times. But it's also a teasing-out on the personal level of Gummi and Kiddi's emotional and practical responses to this turn of events.

Humanity found in ritual amid death camp horror

Tim Kroenert | 03 March 2016

In the history of the Second World War and the deathly screed of the Final Solution, the Sonderkommando cuts a pitiable figure. These Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz and other death camps who were forced to perform the logistics surrounding mass murder - the carting and disposal of dead flesh - though patently victims, were viewed by some as collaborators. Son of Saul provides an immersive and impressionistic extrapolation of this ethical and actual horror.

Changed by faith in a miraculous child

Tim Kroenert | 06 May 2016

Despite its epic scope it is also deeply intimate and, dare I say, spiritual. Roy regards his son with a mixture of stern, protective love, and helpless wonder. They are joined in their quest by Roy's childhood friend Lucas, a state trooper converted to Alton's cause after literally seeing the light in his eyes. Also by Alton's mother, Sarah, who of all the cohort has the most direct experience of the 'sense of awe' that ultimately unfolds from the 'mystery' of Alton's story.

Eye on the messy ethics of drone warfare

Tim Kroenert | 24 March 2016

With more than 30 dead in Brussels just a few short months after the horrors in Paris, the Western world again confronts an assailant in ISIS who deals in fear and bloodshed. In contemplating our responses to such attacks we recognise the historical and current geopolitical realities that have bred the ideologies that fuel them. This messiness is the stuff of a new British film that arrives in Australia this week, which explores the plight of those who might be 'collateral damage' in the hyper-technological 'war on terror'.