Freedom Stories: what I’ve learned from filming Australia’s asylum seekers

Freedon MuralAs an independent documentary maker, my journey through asylum seeker terrain began in 2002, when I was researching a documentary on the history of the township of Woomera. That research eventuated in Welcome To Woomera (2004), the first of what’s turned out to be a trilogy of films I’ve made touching on the situation and lives of asylum seekers in Australia.

From those films, and the years working on them, I’ve noticed certain patterns and gained first-hand insights.

My second film, Hope (2008), was a collaborative documentary about the life of the late Amal Basry, one of a handful of survivors of the SIEV X people-smuggling disaster of 2001, when 353 people drowned en route to Australia. The third film – Freedom Stories (2015) – was completed in February this year and premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in June.

Much of my 25 years of filmmaking has been preoccupied with the question of how it is that good or ordinary people can end up doing bad things, and the effects on those to whom those bad things are done. In Black Man’s Houses (1992) and Least Said Soonest Mended (1992), I pursued this theme in situations as diverse as missionary efforts to “civilise” Aborigines in the late 1800s and – in my own family’s case – the removal of my sister’s child for adoption in the 1960s “for her own good”.

My research for Welcome To Woomera in 2002 involved the entire span of the South Australian outback town’s existence, from its inception as a base for weapons testing during the Cold War to its role, at the time of my research, in detaining “boat people” from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran under Australia’s unique policy of indefinite mandatory detention.

Woomera has always been that place that every country seems to need, where not very good things are done, out of sight of the populace, by perfectly nice and ordinary people, on behalf of the nation’s security.

By the time we began shooting Welcome To Woomera, the detention centre was closed, most of it having been burned down by the inmates, but there were still women and children living in community detention in the town. I met some as they attended the Sunday inter-faith service at the local church. One young woman had attempted suicide after two-and-a-half years in detention and its attendant dissipation of hope. This horrified me.

But what struck me with equal force was that, in different circumstances, she could have been my next-door neighbour. I could detect no significant difference between her hopes and dreams and my own – except that she bore her suffering with more dignity than I could ever muster. We were forbidden by the Department of Immigration from recording detainees’ stories but as the detention centre was now empty we were allowed inside to film.

While wandering around what remained of the place we came upon some old single-storey brick buildings. On the ends of these were large, beautifully painted murals, the legacy of a brief “Prague Spring” moment when a more benign manager had given the inmates paints and brushes to occupy them.

In these pictures, kites flew through a blue sky, ducks took off from a lake into the sunset, palm trees waved in the breeze, city lights glinted on the horizon, and in one the Titanic was gliding by, unaware of its impending fate. These symbols of freedom didn’t look to me like the work of fanatics, terrorists, jihadists or even illegal queue-jumpers bent on taking everyone’s jobs. They looked like the genuine dreams of a peaceful world that ordinary people such as my suicidal friend and I shared.

They stayed with me, those murals. As the years rolled on, I often wondered who painted them and what had become of them. A decade later I embarked on making Freedom Stories with those murals in mind. I wanted to explore the current lives of people who’d spent time in detention back then, some as children, followed by years on temporary protection visas, before finally becoming Australian citizens.

As the ethnographic filmmaker David MacDougall wrote in his book Transcultural Cinema (1998), the “shock” of the transculturality of film is that, through the particularity of discrete images and stories, the universality of human experience is evoked. Although from different cultures and backgrounds, my documentary participants and I inhabit the same world, and this cohabitation is a source of commonalities as much as it is of differences. That was my hope.

By collaboratively listening to former asylum seekers rather than the histrionic voices around them, perhaps I could help return to these vilified people the humanity of which they have been ever more crudely stripped over the years with the seeming assent of fearful sections of the populace. We no longer empathise because they have become solely “them” and not at all “us”.

I had met lots more former asylum seekers in the intervening years through the making of Hope and travelling with it to screenings around the country. So it was no surprise to me that this common humanity shines through in Freedom Stories.

But what has surprised me is how magnanimous the film’s participants generally are towards the rest of “us”, despite the punishing “welcome” our country gave them and the psychological scars that many still carry. I believe this lack of bitterness is partly a result of the many acts of kindness that they experienced from some Australians who, for example, wrote to them in detention and helped them on their release.

One participant in the film is Amir Javan, who was a jeweller in Iran and now works in real estate. He spent four-and-a-half years in detention while the government appealed and re-appealed his pending release all the way to the High Court. When I ask him in the film why he smiles so much, he tells me what he learnt in detention is that we must all care about each other.

Another common trait among the former asylum seekers I’ve met is their enthusiasm and determination to contribute to their new country. It’s a truism to say these are the very people we need in Australia but it’s so. I don’t want to idealise those people. I think part of the reason for their determination is the feeling that they must prove themselves, to demonstrate that they are not the usurpers and opportunists that many claim they are.

Whatever their motivation, some are inventing ways of creating jobs that the rest of us haven’t thought of, including opening up new trade with Asia and the Middle East – countries with which they are already familiar.

Arif Fayazi is from Afghanistan, via Woomera, and when I ask him in the film about the risks of starting a new business venture, he replies: There is no greater risk than the one I took getting on that boat. When I came here I started from scratch and if this business fails, I will start from scratch again.

These are admirable characteristics, but one’s fear now is that if the offspring of these new Australians, who went through so much, are not adequately embraced by our education system and the like, the magnanimity and enthusiasm for progress that their parents are demonstrating may evaporate.

Indeed, this is what we are starting to see among – although in very small numbers – alienated youth who are flirting with extremism, despite their parent’s determination to escape from such. That’s the fear that I now see in the eyes of many of those I have got to know.

Freedom Stories will screen exclusively at Cinema Nova, Melbourne – for one week only from 23 – 29 July. Details here.

Freedom Stories: what I’ve learned from filming Australia’s asylum seekers
Steve Thomas is Lecturer in Film and Television at University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Image: The Freedom Mural, painted by inmates of the Woomera detention centre, circa 2001 –  courtesy of Screen Australia