Directed by Eva Orner, a producer of Oscar-winning doc “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Chasing Asylum” confronts Australia’s hardline policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore processing centers, offering a powerfully crafted plea for human rights will move many viewers to tears. Loaded with damning testimony from whistle-blowers and disturbing footage of wretched conditions inside camps on the island nation of Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, the revealing and frequently heartbreaking documentary is bound to create shockwaves on home turf and should stir up plenty of interest elsewhere. Following its world premiere at Hot Docs, the doc will receive wide theatrical exposure Down Under from mid-May.
“Chasing Asylum” is sure to receive huge local media attention following two recent incidents: On April 26, the Manus Island center was declared “unconstitutional and illegal” by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea and has been ordered to close by PNG prime minister Peter O’Neill. On April 29, an Iranian asylum seeker known as Omid died after setting himself on fire in the Nauru facility.
Orner opens the film with a concise overview of Australian immigration policies over the past 15 years. In 2001, conservative prime minister John Howard declared, “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they will come.” Since then Australian governments of all political persuasions have adopted increasingly tough measures to stop people-smugglers operating primarily from Indonesian ports. In July 2013, Australia announced all asylum seekers arriving by boat will be housed offshore indefinitely and none will ever be permitted to resettle in Australia.
As a prelude to some extremely disturbing stories, it’s revealed by former detention center support worker Mark Isaacs that university students and seniors with no experience in dealing with refugees were hired as staff on Nauru. Given no training other than “go and help and be their friends,” workers were immediately confronted by distressed and sometimes suicidal detainees with no idea about when, or if, they would ever leave. “Asking them not to kill themselves” is how one former staffer describes her main task on Nauru.
Particularly distressing are tales of children forgetting their own names, self-harming and exhibiting violent behavior as a consequence of separation from family members and having nowhere proper to play. Martin Appleby, a former prison officer hired to train security staff on Manus Island, describes living conditions there as disgusting. Later he recalls receiving death threats after voicing concerns over the welfare of detainees.
Nauru and Manus Island might be strictly off-limits to the media but that hasn’t stopped Orner and her team from obtaining heart-wrenching footage of detainees describing their reasons for seeking sanctuary and the crushing sense of hopelessness brought about by long-term detention. Hidden cameras have also captured explosive images of riots in progress and security personnel, some of them former nightclub bouncers, describing detainees as “c—s” and joking about the prospect of “shooting the f—ers.”
Carefully threaded through emotional testimonies of those who’ve lived and worked in offshore detention centers is sharp social and political analysis by respected journalists David Marr and Michael Bachelard, and human rights lawyer David Manne. Many interviewees, including several whose identities are not revealed (presumably for fear of reprisal) believe Australia’s xenophobia-fueled stand is intended to wear down detainees to the point where they give up and return home or seek permanent settlement elsewhere. A brief interview with former prime minister Malcolm Fraser (1975-’83) paints a very different picture of Australian immigration policy in the pre-9/11 world.
Orner wisely chooses not to apply fancy frills to the film’s visual presentation. “Asylum” rests squarely, and entirely appropriately, on the strength of its humanist convictions and the power of its stories. Cornel Wilczek’s haunting electronic soundscapes are applied at all the right moments.