No time to wait

Anne Delaney talks to Clara Law

Letters to Ali (montage)

Letters to Ali (montage)

Clara Law says Letters to Ali, her new documentary about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, is a film she had to make, even though “I wish I never had to.” In directing the film, Law says she “discovered the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful about Australia.”

Originally Law set out to write a drama after reading an article in The Age newspaper in September 2002 profiling Melbourne doctor Trish Kerbi and her family, who were corresponding with a young Afghan refugee in the Port Headland Detention Centre: “What touched me most when I read the story that Trish wrote was that I could easily empathise with the plight of this boy, that he was away from home, he was totally cut off from his roots, that everything was so unfamiliar.”

Both Law and her partner Eddie Fong, who co-wrote, co-produced, edited and shot Letters to Ali, moved to Australia from Hong Kong in 1995. “To be so far away and not to be given any love or protection is a very, very hard thing.” Law didn’t want the film to shy away from the fact that she and Eddie are immigrants. “We knew from the beginning that we had to be part of the story.” The film begins with images of their own comfortable middle class home; unlike Ali they had lots of support, were well educated, had careers to pursue and family here in Australia. But rather than make them complacent, Law says this generated a sense of responsibility and obligation to bring this story to the screen. Law wants to contribute to a more just Australia, using the craft she knows best: “I had a lot of optimism when I settled down here,” says Law, “I don’t feel the same any more. And I can see the danger of where we’re heading if this is going to continue.”

The more Law researched the film, the more she feared the process of scripting and shooting a drama, as well as having to raise finance, would delay Ali’s story getting to the screen: “The issue is so powerful and so immediate we needed to do it now, and to do it without re-creating.” So they decided to make a documentary. Using their own funds, and with no distributor or broadcaster locked in, they started filming. “There was no time to wait; we just had to do it,” says Fong. “The bottom line was if there was no distributor we would have to distribute the film ourselves.” Fong adds that they were prepared to take the film direct to DVD and sell it via the internet.

Clara Law believes that revealing the reality of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is as important as it was to broadcast the truth of what happened on Tiananmen Square in 1989. Law and Fong were still living in Hong Kong when democracy protesters staged their peaceful demonstration against the Chinese Government in Beijing. The subsequent massacre of hundreds of demonstrators unfolded on television screens around the globe and Law remembers feeling compelled to race home every day to witness the grisly scenes. “The strength and impact of [those broadcasts] was because it was happening so immediately.”

Although shooting a documentary was simply the most immediate way for Law and Fong to bring the issue of asylum seekers to the screen, they found the process of shooting with digital video liberating after their extensive experience directing and shooting drama. Fong was extremely impressed with the quality of image they achieved with the digital medium, as was Law with its capacity to capture the spontaneous poetic imagery that is integral to the film’s aesthetics. One such image, shot on their journey to Port Headland to visit Ali, became a poignant and powerful metaphor for the film: a beautiful cloud formation after a fall of rain, which in the film Law likens to a mother dragon bringing home her young.

By the time the film was shot and edited Ali had turned 18, but the lawyer representing him feared his application for refugee status might be jeopardised if his true identity was revealed. As a result Law made the difficult decision to keep Ali’s identity secret. We don’t hear him speak and the few images we see of him have been blurred in postproduction. The effect is of an eerie, ghost-like figure. Initially she included a voice-over from Ali in a section of the film where he and Trish articulate their different feelings about love, death, family, etc. But the filmmaker was worried Ali could be identified and so summarised his comments in short haiku-like statements. In the end she believes this was a more effective way to convey Ali’s emotional states: “People are able to feel his anger, his pain and his anguish much more…You realise more the plight of these people because they don’t have a face and they don’t have a voice.”

By May this year Law and Fong had a version of the film to show distributors. They took it first to Palace, who had distributed their previous film, The Goddess of 67, anticipating it would take about a month to get an answer. After watching the film Fong says Palace “decided on the spot they wanted to do this film.”

Palace was just one of the many organisations and people who got behind Letters to Ali. The film was made using borrowed gear, donated resources, and discounted facilities. “Deep down I think [Australians] do know what is right and wrong and I think that is why we’ve got so much support.”

Ali’s legal status is still in limbo. There are times when the pain and anguish of what he’s been through manifest in depression, screaming fits and vomiting. “The damage has been done and whether it can ever be mended is really an open question.”

This article was based on an interview conducted by radio broadcaster and filmmaker Anne Delaney for Popcorn Taxi at the Valhalla Cinema in Sydney. www.popcorntaxi.com.au

Letters to Ali, director Clara Law, writers/producers Clara Law and Eddie Fong, distributor Palace Films

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 20

© Anne Thompson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2004
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