Film and Book Reviews

Refugees not faceless statistic but 'incredible, resourceful people'

FILMTim Kroenert speaks with the creators of the film The Staging Post

By Tim Kroenert

July 6 2017Four years ago Australian filmmaker Jolyon Hoff was living in Jakarta when government policy in his home country took a new, hard-line turn against asylum seekers arriving by boat. He decided it was high time he put a human face to this ‘issue’ that had so vexed Australian governments for more than a decade.

So he travelled to Cisarua, 70km south of Jakarta, to the staging post that housed many of the refugees who hoped to find a new home in Australia. “It was a long and winding road, we took a left-hand turn, down a hill, around the corner, across a bridge, and my Indonesian driver stops and goes ‘There, that’s a refugee.’ ”

Jolyon introduced himself, and the man invited him into his house, where he spent the afternoon quizzing the man’s cousin about her experiences. “I said I was a filmmaker, and she said you must come back and meet my brother, who’s a photographer.” Two weeks later Jolyon returned to meet Hazara refugee Muzafar Ali. He was blown away by what he saw.

“He had taken these stunning images of remote central Afghanistan and the people who lived there,” says Jolyon, “these incredible, gallery quality images of a world I’d never seen.” Muzafar, it turned out, was born in Afghanistan but spent his childhood and gained a basic education in Pakistan. Upon returning home he obtained a job with the UN, which, before deteriorating conditions in the country forced him to flee with his family, afforded him the opportunity to travel within the country.

“I shot those photos with a lot of patience and love,” Muzafar says, “and shared them on Facebook and Twitter, because I didn’t want to keep them only with me. Hundreds of thousands of people left Afghanistan, and for a long time they did not see it, so I wanted to show pictures of my country. It was my responsibility.”

Muzafar introduced Jolyon to Khadim Dai, a 17-year-old Hazara who had befriended him at Cisarua, having recognised him from his social media activity. “His school had been blown up, his classmates killed,” recalls Muzafar. “He was waiting for someone to tell his story. I said ‘You tell your story.’ So he had started to film.”

Young Hazara Afghan, Khadim Dai, filming segments for The Staging Post.

Jolyon was struck by Khadim’s footage, as he had been by Muzafar’s photographs. “He’d been filming on his mobile phone. As a documentary filmmaker you’re always trying to represent the real through the manipulated image. I saw in this footage an intimate, authentic portrayal of the life of the refugee.

“We connected on a creative level,” says Jolyon, “not on a level of, I’m coming in to help. We all had something to give. And we decided we’d make a project together.”

The result is The Staging Post, a documentary which premiered during Refugee Week. Directed by Jolyon and with Khadim as director of photography, the film observes in real time several stories that unfold in the camp, putting flesh and faces to the refugee ‘issue’.

Muzafar sets about trying to encourage a sense of community among the refugees, some of whom will face up to a decade in the camp before being resettled. Khadim offers various slice-of-life digressions, including filming a soccer match between women in the camp, a sight that would have been rare or non-existent in their home country.

Most importantly, against the explicit advice of the UNHCR, the men rally others in the camp to contribute resources and labour to establishing a learning centre for children. This would be such a success that it would force the UN to change its advice, leading to the establishment of several other learning centres based on the same model.

The women of the camp were the heroes of this revolution. Many of the men, Jolyon explains, feared that to become involved would imperil their resettlement. So it was the women who took the lead.

‘They were so brave to step up,’ says Jolyon.

Muzafar adds with pride that among the first teachers were his sister, wife and sister-in-law. “They became a team, all the women came and said we want to be teachers.” Like the soccer players Khadim documented, this was for the women about “exploring new horizons, experiencing new freedoms, and playing their role in society”.

Today, Muzafar lives in Adelaide with his wife and daughter; Khadim made it to LA where he is working on a film about the lives of LGBTIQ refugees. Meanwhile The Staging Post stands as a tribute to the work of three friends to bring a sense of purpose to human beings who have fled terror only to find themselves in limbo.

“Refugees might seem like an issue,” says Muzafar, “but in fact they are incredible people, resilient and resourceful, with the capacity to do amazing things. What they need is a small spark in their life to become the change they want to see.”

You can find or organise your own screening of The Staging Post at https://www.thestagingpost.com.au/