Refugee documentaries – preaching to the converted


Still from Nowhere Line, an animated Refugee documentary by Lukas Schrank

As it is Refugee Week, I’ve been reflecting on how my support for refugees and asylum seekers is shamefully passive. I was reminded of this after attending a viewing last Saturday of Julian Burnside’s refugee documentary, Border Politics. Then on Monday I was one of 67 people who devoted the evening to a public viewing in Buderim of the refugee film, Constance on the Edge.

‘Constance on the Edge’ charts the struggles of a mother and her six children on a journey from war-torn South Sudan, via a decade in a Kenyan refugee camp, before being settled in Wagga Wagga, NSW. Constance suffers culture shock, adding to existing (and so-far untreated), post-traumatic stress. She has difficulties fitting in to a rural town, encountering unexpected racism. She also voices frustration that the help refugees receive, well-meaning as it may be, is not always what they want or need.

During question time someone asked how we could ensure more people get to more refugee documentaries like ‘Constance on the Edge’ and develop some empathy for refugees. As he said, the 67 people in the room already know about the issues and how much work needs to be done.

The debate about Australia’s asylum seeker policies resides within disparate echo chambers. First there’s the chamber of humanitarian outrage, where we gather to watch refugee documentaries, drop gold coins in the donations bucket and froth about our disappointing government. Then there are those who do have compassion but feel/believe that the government is right to take a hard line with asylum seekers. Perhaps they have never asked themselves why, merely trusting in their political masters to do the right thing.

While I fully support the expatriation of refugees from offshore detention, an increase in the refugee intake and a more relaxed attitude in general, a few hundred people protesting in King George Square or waving banners outside Peter Dutton’s electorate office is not going to make much difference. Many people who are bothered by the government’s attitude to refugees thought things would change when Labor won the election. Not only did Labor not win, the party’s position on refugees is quite similar to that of the LNP, with the exception that Labor would have entertained New Zealand’s offer to resettle people from Manus and Nauru.

Today I’m asking myself the same question I put to you – how many refugees do you actually know? Had anyone over to lunch recently or for a sleepover? I know a few local people who have opened their homes to refugees, linking up with local support groups like Buddies and Welcome to Maleny. The latter organised the viewing of Border Politics, part of the Sunshine Coast Refugee Action Network’s film festival. This film, co-produced by BBC Scotland, owes a bit to the style of outspoken US film maker Michael Moore in that it tells its story regardless of another point of view. The opposing stance is depicted in carefully chosen media clips of Donald Trump and others defending their position (John Howard is shown stating: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

This much-used quote comes from a long election campaign speech in 2001 amid the Tampa affair and the ‘children overboard’ claims.

Human rights barrister Julian Burnside certainly got around the place making this film. It revealed some things about refugees I did not know, namely the decision by outlying Scottish shires like the island of Bute to welcome as many refugees as was practical. Burnside also visited the Greek island of Lesbos, which at one stage in 2015 was literally awash with refugees arriving ad hoc from mainland Turkey. Many locals just reacted as they would if one of their own had been tossed out of a boat and was in danger of drowning. They gave food and shelter and helped them find their feet, all in the name of humanitarianism.

The problem with Border Politics, as is the case with many of the refugee-based documentaries doing the rounds, is that it preaches to the converted. It simmers with outrage and absolutely ignores the opportunity to engage in a debate with intelligent but conservative people who are wedded to the government line that an open door policy is an invitation to terrorists to set up camp and destabilise from within.

Some refugee documentaries, like Orban Wallace’s ‘Another News Story’, try for another angle. ‘Another News Story’ turns the camera on the news crew and film-makers. They, after all, are the ones who capture stark images like the photo shown in Burnside’s documentary of a toddler lying dead on a Mediterranean beach. As The Guardian’s Charlie Phillips wrote: “Film crews are shown asking refugees the same things over and over, then moving on to the next story. Their intentions may be honourable, but the scrum to get the most emotional pictures feels unpleasant and desensitising.”

Phillips lists documentaries which have real shock power, notably Gianfranco Rosi’s Oscar-nominated ‘Fire at Sea’ and Daphne Maziaraki’s ‘4.1 miles’, a 28-minute documentary which shows coastguards rescuing refugees arriving on Lesbos.

Australia’s ‘Island of the Hungry Ghosts’ gets an honourable mention. I have seen this film, which deals with the personal struggle of a trauma counsellor working at Christmas Island’s high-security detention centre. Christmas Island counsellor Po-Lin is herself traumatised by the experience of counselling traumatised refugees while battling the indifference of centre management.

The documentary has a twin purpose – to chronicle the annual migration of red crabs from the jungle on one side of the island to the open sea on the other. The analogy is not wasted. h

Documentaries like those mentioned involve us in a passive way, while actually making a decision to go and work with refugees, as many volunteers do, is probably more effective. Many of these films are in limited distribution, tagged on to film festival programmes or being shown to like-minded people who have donated money to make the viewing affordable. But some can be found and viewed for nothing via YouTube or Vimeo or streamed for a small fee.

Some refugee documentaries are hard work: ‘Border Politics’ is harrowing and so too Ai Weiwei’s ‘Human Flow’, a three-hour tour of all the world’s refugee hotspots. Here’s the trailer – the movie is available for streaming or download through Amazon.

Some use comedy to get the message out, for example, ‘The Merger’, (a struggling rural AFL club recruits African refugees to bolster the team’s efforts). When the proportion of refugees living among us is less than 0.25% of the population, we need insights like these to remind us that people escaping wars and persecution are settling here. They need our help, even the small things (like the CWA lady in Wagga teaching one of the African women how to knit).

While Refugee Week (an Australian initiative now in its 20th year) ends tomorrow, I recommend tracking down at least one of the movies mentioned here. They give voice to important stories which are not in general circulation, and that in itself is commendable.

Further reading/viewing:

FOMM back pages

‘Nowhere Line’, Lukas Schrank’s 15-minute award-winning animated documentary about Manus Island.

Get the Kids off Nauru Now”, a song I wrote and a video made in October last year




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