Australian filmmakers offer asylum

Mike Walsh

David Goldie, Sohail Dahdal

David Goldie, Sohail Dahdal

What are we to make of the decisive role that the policy to turn away refugee boats appears to have played in the return of the Howard government? The strength of passion occasioned by this issue, and the astonishing effect that it has had on our electoral process, gives it a great urgency. How do we understand what this means about Australia?

The swift capitulation of Labor to Howard’s policy saw a consensus among both major political parties that to champion the cause of the refugees was electoral death. On election night, Kim Beazley, speaking from the depths of his own compromise, employed the metaphor of bleak angels and good angels as some sort of grandiloquent codewords for racism.

In the centenary of Federation, it is apt to invoke historical precedent. The manipulation of fear of the ‘Asian hordes’ seems a constant in our political process. For all the rhetoric of multiculturalism and reconciliation, when push comes to shove, we know who’s going to get the shove.

What’s particularly interesting is the way public opinion on this issue has been managed through handling the visual media. The government has been at pains to keep television cameras and microphones away from the refugees, so that they remain as abstracted representatives of preconceived ideas. Visual media have the power to give them a voice, to transform them into real people acting out of despair and courage.

It is significant, therefore, that the debate over asylum seekers has been taken up so swiftly by the major government-funded media institutions. SBSi has commissioned a new series of Tales from a Suitcase featuring Afghani Muslims. The Australian Film Commission’s one fully funded documentary for the year deals with refugees. The AFC, in collaboration with ABC Online, has also funded a refugee project as one of 4 web-streamed projects on the ABC site.

Project 1: Tales from a Suitcase

The third series of Tales, to be broadcast on SBS next year, is to be directed by Andrea Dal Bosco and produced by Will Davies of Look Films. While the first 2 series dealt with migrant experiences in the periods from 1946 to 1959, this one will centre on oral histories of Afghani Muslims talking about their Australian migration experience.

Davies sees the material as being vitally important to current political debates over refugees: “People are dying and being kept out when we should be opening the doors. Australians generally do not understand the Afghan people, their history, suffering or present predicament. A series like Tales can tell individual stories that paint a broad picture of the Afghan migrant experience and through personal, often very private stories, we get to hear and hence understand their situation.”

The background of the series has been a style that Davies calls “pure Oral history.” In order to foreground the immediacy of the experiences of their subjects, the filmmakers have, in the past, refused archival material to establish context. They have used only edited interviews illustrated sparingly with visual material such as photographs, supplied by their subjects. In this series, however, Davies claims to be searching for more evocative visual material to augment the oral history.

“This is the strongest and most confronting way to tell history”, says Davies. “Though we obviously edit their interviews, we do so to tell their core story and to help in the broad matrix of experience we are looking to expose across the series. What we produce (and this comes out in every episode we have made) are very human, very revealing stories that general approaches to history pass by as insignificant and unimportant. To us, the individual is the most important and this is who we want to celebrate and empower through the window on the media we can offer.”

Davies sees the importance of this approach as its ability to make people see the issue in a new frame of reference: “All we hear about are queue jumpers and economic migrants. These poor Afghan people are desperate, they have nothing, are powerless, stateless and destitute, and we turn them away. The media must come to their aid, tell their story, correct the imbalance in the media now.

“What we hope to achieve is that the audience will get a far clearer picture of the Afghan people, their experience and their wish to live in peace in Australia. We want to have their situation understood and have Australia feel the shame they should for how they deal with these people.”

Project 2: Escape to Freedom

Four documentaries were recently selected for the new web-streaming project to be hosted on ABC Online. The project is part of an ABC/Australian Film Commission initiative that aims to challenge conventional documentary forms through exploiting the possibilities of the internet.

One of these projects, Escape to Freedom, will be produced by Goldie Dahdal New Media, and will deal with Australia’s response to the plight of refugees. David Goldie, who along with Sohail Dahdal is overseeing the project, stresses its importance: “As a country, our attitude to immigration, and to refugees in particular, strikes to the heart of what modern Australia is all about. We are the second most multicultural country in the world, so immigration has played a fundamental part in the past 200 years in who we are and what we are.”

Goldie says that the aim of the project is “to examine the experience of being an asylum seeker and the process that they must go through to be accepted to settle in this country.”

It will endeavour to do this by employing the possibilities opened up by new technologies. “The traditional approach to documentary filmmaking will be tipped on its head,” claims Goldie. “Online documentaries add 2 important things to conventional doco; one, is making it accessible to a wider international audience, especially a younger audience; two, it’s interactive, which allows the viewer to view it their own way, and interact with the documentary in ways traditional documentaries cannot.”

The genesis of the project was with designer Dahdal, who has a great deal of interactive and general new media experience, but lacked a traditional filmmaking background. Goldie aims to combine the multiple possibilities of interactive pathways with a strong sense of narrative. He believes that interactivity must work hand in hand with “a bloody good story to hold the viewer.”

Project 3: Anthem

While the Australian government has been spending large amounts keeping refugees away from journalists and redistributing them throughout the South Pacific, its peak film industry body, the Australian Film Commission, has committed $250,000 to fully fund a feature-length documentary on the issue. Anthem will be directed by Helen Newman and by Tahir Cambis, whose film Exile in Sarajevo won several international awards including an Emmy.

Newman and Cambis’s work has grown out of a concern with the hardening of attitudes towards refugees in this country over the past 2 years. They began taping with Kosovo refugees at the time refugee havens were becoming detention centres.

As a former refugee himself, Cambis is particularly interested in the construction of “empathy between audience and refugees” as well as civil rights issues that extend beyond the refugee question.

The filmmakers are planning to travel to Pakistan soon to begin tracing the paths taken by refugees from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan as they make their way through Indonesia to the variety of detention centres that await them in Australia, and now the South Pacific. Anthem will foreground both the institutional and individual aspects of this crisis. It will look at the role of Australian government, of the judiciary and of the media, but also attempt to give a human face to the refugees, who have been demonised or abstracted by government and media.

In the lead up to the election, the visual media were marked by the absent and unclear role they played. We have seen refugees only as indistinct figures through a telephoto lens, as sites for all the darkness that Australia has within it. Let’s hope that these projects redress some of that balance. While Australia has one of the most conservative fictional film industries in the world, this issue should bring to the fore the strength and courage of documentary film production in this land of asylum.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 13

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001