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.
Several 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 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.
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19 May 2016
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".
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.
22 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.
24 August 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!