Filmmaker Clara Law makes an impassioned plea for human rights in her adopted country in “Letters to Ali.” Documentary about an Aussie family’s cross-county journey to help a teenage Afghan refugee is an inspirational account of the positive difference ordinary people can make. A strong commercial showing is indicated domestically, where immigration policy is a hot topic. Easily accessible docu is assured of extended fest exposure and should also notch sales in selected offshore markets. Australian release is skedded for Sept. 23.
With the same kind of candor that distinguished Agnes Varda’s “The Gleaners and I,” Law makes a vibrant and sharply intuitive detour into documentary following her artfully composed Australian dramas, “Floating Life” and “The Goddess of 1967.” Opening with images of leafy Melbourne suburbia where she lives with partner Eddie L.C. Fong, Law uses simple intertitles to recall her migrant experience and contrast her spacious new “house with more rooms than people” with the couple’s cramped past in Hong Kong.
Law imparts just the right amount of detail to establish the legitimacy of her observer status and involve auds in the personal diary structure before switching her attention to a much less fortunate new arrival.
Fifteen-year-old Afghan Ali (not his real name) languishes in an Australian government detention center after fleeing the Taliban. Moved by media reports about the suffering of long-term detainees, Dr. Trish Kerbi, partner Rob Silberstein and their four children correspond with Ali for 18 months. Determined to meet the boy, the family embarks on a road trip to Baxter detention center in Port Hedland, Western Australia, some 5,000 miles away.
Kerbi and family come over as the epitome of ordinary, fair-minded folk whose concern for the welfare of a child prompts an extraordinary demonstration of compassion. Filming everything with off-the-cuff immediacy and injecting her own heartfelt reflections, Law etches a memorable portrait of a family prepared to voice disapproval of their government’s mandatory detention of refugees — in this case an unaccompanied minor.
High-spirited clan’s charge through forbidding deserts of Central Australia is exhilarating, both visually and emotionally, and the mutual trust between subjects and filmmakers is plain to see. However, audience expectations of finally seeing the boy are scuttled by laws forbidding cameras inside detention centers.
Analysis of the broader political picture is wisely downplayed for most of the running time, though the film does allow itself a couple of well-timed breakouts. Commentaries by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (1975-83) and immigration minister Ian Macphee (1979-82) draw sharp distinctions between current government policies and the bi-partisan welcoming of refugees and asylum seekers in the wake of the Vietnam War.
Produced on a next-to-nothing budget with pro-bono assistance from crew members and companies, “Letters to Ali” is never less than technically pro. Fong’s inquisitive camera captures a memorable succession of metaphors in the outback and special kudos are due Paul Grabowsky’s delicate, sparsely employed piano score. For its world preem at the Melbourne fest, docu was projected from a DVD; a 35mm transfer is in the works.