Film and Book Reviews

The daily dire reality faced by asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru

FILM

By Tim Kroenert

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 seekers 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. 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.

Chasing Asylum screened as part of the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival around Australia during May, ahead of a theatrical release.

Rated MA.