London Film Festival 2016

Chasing Asylum review: An unmissable exposé that blows the lid on Australia’s dirty little secret.

Chasing Asylum review by Sacha Hall, LFF 2016.

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It’s my nation’s dirty little secret.  A secret so powerfully disturbing that even today, the Australian Government continues to do everything in its power to ensure that the extent of human rights violations occurring in Australian Government funded offshore detention centres, remain within the confines of those detention centres.

To truly understand the extent to which our Government eschews its human rights responsibilities, let me quickly note a couple of things. Firstly, you may have noted my carefully worded ‘offshore detention centres’.  It is our Government’s continued position that because the Republic of Nauru and Manus Island detention centres are not situated on Australian soil, our country is not in any violation of any human rights abuses (and despite being found to be in violation of the United Nations Convention against Torture AND having Manus Island declared unconstitutional and illegal by the Papua New Guinean Supreme Court).  The second thing to note is that there is no admittance into either centre: not for opposing and independent MP’s and definitely, not open to national and international media.

If not for the dedication of whistle-blowers willing to recount, document and leak truths concerning the devastating cruelty, trauma, poor living conditions and physical and psychological abuse inflicted upon asylum seekers in these centres, the extent of the human cost of our hardline policy on ‘stopping the boats’ would never have been exposed.

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Directed by Eva Orner, an Emmy and Oscar award winner for her work on Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side, Chasing Asylum is a sobering exposé on the real impact of inflicted inhumanity and asylum limbo at Australian offshore processing centres.

Centred primarily around Nauru and Manus Island detention centres, the film begins on a smuggling boat to show audiences the harsh conditions endured by fleeing refugees hoping to reach Australia; it’s a foreboding image that contradicts the perceived ‘safe’, ‘respectful’ and ‘humane’ country refugees are attempting to reach.  With a concise explanation of Australia’s escalating hardline approach to illegal Immigration over the last 15yrs using archival news clips, maps and title cards, the film shifts itself to raw cut footage secretly filmed by support workers stationed on Nauru.

A hot, remote and harsh-looking, militarised tent city, the centre itself is surrounded by restrictive high fences, never ending security personnel and largely untrained and inexperienced support workers. Secret footage primarily shot using a low-fi phone recorder is interspersed nicely with fixed, close-up shots of some of the whistleblowing support workers who respectfully recount their experiences and details of the cramped living conditions on this extremely hot island.

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From learning how to use a Hoffman knife to cut down hanging refugees to the workers’ naivety of the problems and squalid conditions in the centres, one can’t help but feel anger and disgust at not only the Australian Government but at the obliviousness and lack of affirmative action by Australia’s citizens.  Chasing Asylum is essentially a name and shame film and rightfully so.

Without centre access, government support, and new whistleblower laws that impede the seeking out and talking to of key players, Orner, along with editor and co-producer Annabelle Johnson, do a fabulous job of documenting a shocking yet sobering sweep over the real impact and heartache of asylum seekers and of those stranded as a result of successfully stopping people smugglers and their boats.

Heartbreaking stories of seeking sanctuary, the hopelessness of being left in limbo, children forgetting their own names, of riots and distressing consequences of familial separation becomes almost too much at times.  More so, when Orner looks at the other side of the coin and former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s positive and championing immigration policy for refugees during and following the Vietnam war. ‘It was the right thing to do’ Fraser explained in his last interview before his death in 2015, ‘Especially considering we had been involved in the conflict’.

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It’s a sobering thought and ideal considering Australia’s continued military involvement in the middle east.

Ending with a thankful acknowledgement by the Vietnamese community at Fraser’s funeral, this image, combined with the footage and stories that were shared before it, will surely leave you with a tear or two and a renewed sense of right and wrong.  It may also leave a different impression of the land down under; one that’s less like heaven and more like hell on earth.

Chasing Asylum review by Sacha Hall, London Film Festival, 2016.

Chasing Asylum screened at the London Film Festival, 2016. It is awaiting a UK release date.

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