Two Recent Australian Documentaries: Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) and Another Country (2015)

Australia, like a lot of Western countries, has a demonstrable problem with white nationalism and racism, and a number of recent documentaries directed by women have addressed this issue head-on. This racism, a holdover from the colonialist politics of the British (the country only gained its independence at the start of the 20th century), is directed not just towards the indigenous Aboriginal population but also towards those seeking refuge and asylum from nearby conflict zones (this latter dealt with admirably by Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts). An increasing number of feature films, including those by Aboriginal filmmakers like Warwick Thornton as well as (rather more eliptically) beDevil (1993) by Tracey Moffatt, have examined some of this prejudice historically and as it functions today, and it’s also the subject of director Molly Reynolds in Another Country, which follows the experience of prominent actor David Gulpilil (probably still best known as the boy in Walkabout, and from his appearances in the Crocodile Dundee films). It’s worth noting here that, while I wouldn’t want to sideline his troubling personal history (which includes alcoholism, violence and domestic abuse), it is undoubtedly deeply tied into the conditions still experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia, and some of this comes across powerfully in the documentary.


Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) [Australia/Germany/UK, certificate 12]

The IMDb page for this movie offers the following precis: “Millions of crabs journey across Australia’s Christmas Island in one of the planet’s largest land migrations.” And yes, we do see some of this in action, and it’s very impressive. The filmmaker Gabrielle Brady and her DoP use a number of techniques to introduce these creatures. At first the movement of one of the distinctive red crabs is just a glimpse, hidden by foliage, making us wonder what we’ve seen, what lurks within the dense green bush on Christmas Island. And then we start to see them as almost like some kind of plague of creatures, but this quickly gives way to a sense of their place within a broader ecosystem, and also the dedicated work of conservation workers to ensure their survival, cheerfully creating little makeshift bridges for them across streams, or brushing them out of the way on trikes while leading little processions of cars, that wend their way comically hither and yon along the roads to avoid these scuttling creatures. The largest ones are particularly enormous, and there’s a wonder not just to seeing them, but to seeing how unflappable Poppy, one of the small children at the heart of the film, is when shown one (I’d be terrified).

But of course, that’s just one aspect of the film, an important counterpoint and something of a metaphorical relation to the real story going on here, which is the Australian Government’s detention centre for asylum seekers and refugees, all of whom are kept here for indefinite periods that can stretch up to years or even a decade and many of whom have already been proven to be ‘valid’ refugees and are just awaiting some form of official processing. The filmmaker approaches their stories somewhat elliptically, undoubtedly due to the touchy legal frameworks that surround these people and their cases (especially in an environment where even discussing the conditions of these centres is illegal for their employees, as we hear on the radio at one point during the film). And so it’s through counsellor Poh Lin Lee, who is working with victims of trauma, that we hear any of their stories, that we witness their reality and listen to their experiences, none of which are particularly pleasant when it comes to the conditions of the island’s detention centre. The callous official disregard to the detainees’ deteriorating mental health and their repeated ignoring of Poh Lin and her colleagues’ recommendations gradually result in her abandoning her work.

The documentary comes at the material by blending both these therapy workshops with some actual victims of Australia’s policy towards refugees (which I believe were filmed later on the mainland). It also weaves in scenes of Poh Lin with her multilingual family on the island, exploring its lush greenery and vegetation, and the backdrop of the red crab migrations — animals which are very much protected and enabled by the government, unlike the humans we hear from. It’s a compelling hybrid technique that relies a lot on the sound design and artful filmmaking practices that suggest some fruitful place between straight documentation and a sort of horror/mystery narrative recalling the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, as one example (his name came up in the director Q&A at the screening I attended). It’s beautiful and provokes many questions about not just how it’s made, but the circumstances that surround the stories of the people, and the actions of Australia itself in meeting the disadvantaged peoples of the world.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gabrielle Brady; Cinematographer Michael Latham; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 10 January 2019.


An Aboriginal man

Another Country (2015)

A calmly measured narration by Australian Aboriginal actor and artist David Gulpilil provides the backdrop to this documentary, beautifully filmed, about his remote community in the Northern Territory, which is largely cut off (like so many such towns) from the rest of (colonial white-settled) Australia. The community faces all kinds of problems, most of them brought on by the historical convenience of its creation, the way different tribes are brought together and then kept down by bureaucracy, chronic under-investment and policies that can’t help but seem racist in origin. Quite what can be done is another thing, but Gulpilil is passionate about holding onto indigenous culture and ways of life, and that comes through clearly.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Molly Reynolds; Writers David Gulpilil, Reynolds and Rolf de Heer; Cinematographer Matt Nettheim; Starring David Gulpilil; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 7 June 2018.

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