This week, Eva Orner’s documentary Chasing Asylum won the AACTA Award for Best Feature Length Documentary. (An award Orner can add to her shelf alongside her Oscar for 2008 film Taxi to the Dark Side.) That award acknowledges not only the quality of the film, but the importance of its message: the need for this kind of full-throated advocacy for asylum seekers and refugees.
Orner’s film succinctly and incisively details the ordeal facing asylum seekers who arrive on our shores, people fleeing persecution, violence and death only to face a politer brand of such injustices in “offshore detention.” Men, women and children guilty only of hoping for a better life are faced with indefinite detention, sexual abuse and a whole litany of mistreatment. You don’t have to trust my word, nor Orner’s; just last year, the UN found that our country’s treatment of asylum seekers violated the Convention Against Torture.
Much like Ava DuVernay’s 13th – another vital documentary from this year – Chasing Asylum is pitched at an audience who may not have much familiarity with the historical, economic and political context surrounding the situation. It’s perfectly suited for the high school classrooms where it will find its home (my school, for instance, has already incorporated it into its humanities curriculum). That accessibility means that anyone already engaged with the issues will be familiar with much of the content. Regardless of your prior knowledge, the personal stories told here, by refugees and aid workers, will leave you feeling disturbed and disgusted by our capacity for inhumanity.
The film lacks the formal inventiveness of 13th. DuVernay cleverly elevated her talking heads and stock footage with a linear narrative that degraded into uncertainty as it approached the present day, reflecting the unclear future facing black Americans. Chasing Asylum is a slog: a seemingly endless list of institutional and individual injustices. There are snippets of secretly-filmed footage from the camps themselves. But there’s nothing as damning as 13th’s montage of African-Americans murdered by police officers here; the truly stomach-turning stories remain just that.
The lack of images might limit the potency of Chasing Asylum, but it’s a sad indictment of the effectiveness of government – Labor or Liberal, take your pick – policies that prohibit journalists or filmmakers entering asylum seeker camps. It’s difficult to believe that our populace would so flagrantly embrace the abuses of human rights if we could truly see what was going on. Orner is limited within her visual medium to showing glimpses of graffiti, or an authoritarian confrontation between a guard and an asylum seeker (whose only sin is to wear a hat to the mess hall); the murder of Iranian Reza Barati is repeated, but its brutality remains imagined and, thus, easily denied by those who just want to “stop the boats.”
Arguably, the Australian film industry itself – as much as it might want to celebrate films like Chasing Asylum at handsomely-catered awards ceremonies – is just as complicit in this veil of denial. While the scale of the cruelty has accelerated over the last few years, this suffering is not new. Where are the films telling the stories of these refugees, these men and women who escape from the most terrifying scenarios only to be imprisoned and abused and even murdered? The few that are made – like, say, 2013’s Mary Meets Mohammad – tend to disappear into obscurity. It’s telling that an Australian article titled The Eleven Films About Refugees You Have to See included zero local films.
This is, again, a consequence of government policy as much as individual filmmakers. Australian cinema is deeply dependent on funding from bodies like Screen Australia (and state-based equivalents) that are unlikely to support films even implicitly opposed to a policy inexplicably supported by both major political parties. (Note the absence of a Screen Australia tag from Chasing Asylum’s credits.) This might explain why shows like, say, Go Back Where You Came From (admittedly, a television series rather than a film), explicitly include perspectives from both sides of the debate.
Filmmakers like Orner – Oscar win and all – are forced to scrape together funds from independent studios and crowdfunding sites to secure a limited release, while Ava DuVernay has the comparative luxury of Netflix funding and releasing her similarly politically explosive documentary. Real resistance to Australia’s shameful behaviour requires the kind of social mobilisation that films like Chasing Asylum can inspire. Hopefully it’s not the last film on the subject we’ll see in our cinemas; hopefully the stories of injustice heard here will be the last. But, when it comes to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, hope is in short supply.