Is the film on asylum seekers too hot for distributors to handle?
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19 Mar 2013 - 3:27 PM  UPDATED 19 Mar 2013 - 3:27 PM

There is a conventional wisdom in the film culture that suggests that non-fiction films have a difficult path into theatrical distribution.

There are plenty of people who think that anything about this issue is controversial

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is one such documentary. About asylum seekers in detention in Indonesia, it tracks the story of a number of refugees – some of who end their journey here. Others are not so fortunate.

Its filmmakers told SBS Film that in Australia the film hasn't received any 'traction' at all, at least in the mainstream.

Made over a three-year period the 53-minute film, which premiered in Melbourne in June last year makes a sympathetic case as to what makes any refugee want to 'get on a boat'.

Heartfelt and passionate, the film details, via moving first hand testimony and with exacting precision, the day-to-day experience that asylum seekers must endure as they find themselves caught in a bureaucratic maze.

The film has screened overseas in more than a dozen festivals since 2012 including the UK Film Festival and the European Film Festival, where it won a major prize.

“We haven't been accepted in any film festivals here,” says Jessie Taylor, a producer of the film, told SBS Film, “and no broadcaster has wanted to screen it.”

Taylor is a barrister and well-known refugee advocate who first became involved in the issue in Australia twelve years ago – visiting detention centres weekly for years – while still a teenager.

For Taylor, the fate in the marketplace of Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is a matter of the zeitgeist.

But then, documentary filmmakers have always courted controversy and missions and advocacy have always been a documentary tradition (Michael Moore, Errol Morris, anyone?).

Still, after speaking to the key players involved in the film's production it's clear that funding structures, timing, budget, and methodology helped determine what it is, how it came to be and its audience, as much as the volatile passions that swirl around its subject matter.

On Monday, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea screened at the Parliament House theatre. This was the climax of a national tour begun in February and funded by crowd sourcing through Fan Dependent, a distributor and branch of Spectrum Films.

During its production the filmmakers agreed to accept Amnesty funding in order to complete it. A number of advocacy organisations ultimately offered support including the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Its Melbourne-based director David Schmidt explained its style as a mix of the conventional – voice over narration/talking heads and an observational form – with an editorial position that is clearly and unambiguously involved in correcting the “demonised” image of the “boat person.”

The film began as a collaboration between Schmidt and Taylor, when the pair undertook a research trip to Indonesia in July 2009. With Ali Reza Sadiqi – who came to Australia as a refugee age 15 in 2001 – the filmmakers ultimately met with 250 asylum seekers.

Soon after their return to Australia Taylor published a paper 'Behind Australian Doors: Examining the Conditions of Detention of Asylum Seekers in Indonesia.'

Taylor is seen on screen and narrates the film, but she is not identified, and the original purpose of the trip to Indonesia goes undisclosed. Schmidt told SBS that the actual filming was under close scrutiny by Indonesian authorities and much of it was done in secret. The final edit plays down these details, leaving certain issues of story and context somewhat confusingly unresolved. Asked whether these kinds of choices made any marketplace impact Schmidt won't speculate but says: “Jessie did not want the film to be about her,” adding that the pair had no interest in doing in an 'adventure film' about going under cover and “doing all this secret stuff…it's about asylum seekers.”

The filmmakers are using an ad line that reads 'The film that Tony and Julia don't want you to see', which co-producer Chris Kamen says ought not to be taken literally since “no one attempted to stymie the film during its making in any way.” It is, he concedes a “provocation” that points to the way that any conversation around the asylum seeker issue has been he says, “one sided.”

Kamen says that over the course of its lengthy production period the film evolved into “a hybrid of advocacy film and conventional documentary.” The final edit, he says, was under the influence of its subjects' co-operation, some of who declined to appear in the final film. This changed the original concept, which Kamen says, was “far more standard” in doco form. He said that the film's politics are transparent and that allows the viewer to “make up their own mind.”

Both Kamen and Schimdt say that while developing the film they had hoped for conventional paths to finance and distribute it.

“We knew the commercial broadcasters wouldn't be interested,” Kamen says. “[And] the ABC can't accept anything that's been supported by an organisation like Amnesty because it's in breach of their charter.”

He says that the Amnesty money came with “no strings attached”. That is, they did not ask or demand any input or even want to see an edit.

Given the film's position in the marketplace, Kamen says now, it was a relationship that seems distinctly ironic. 'Traditional' money would have had the film perceived as “non-partisan and independent,” he notes.

In the end, says Kamen, the filmmakers elected to “cut through the politics” of broadcasters and distributors who “don't want to deal with the political problems that might come if they were to broadcast an advocacy film.” The filmmakers agreed that given the content and intention of the film, they could not tolerate a situation where the film “sat on the shelf for years” awaiting a chance change in sympathy in the market place.

Late last year Fan Dependent approached the filmmakers. A plan was devised to distribute the film after raising a little over $60,000 via crowd funding last October. At that stage the film was already on the festival circuit and available on DVD through Amnesty.

“We planned the Deep Blue Sea Film National Tour itinerary,” Hattie Archibald of Fan Dependent explained in an email. The tour had 30 play dates, and the screening venues included cinemas as well as community centres, art galleries and university lecture halls. Archibald writes that each screening included guest speakers and input from local organisations who work with refugees and asylum seekers.

Archibald says that Fan Dependent has also made it possible for punters to organise their own 'tupper-ware party screenings' in private venues in addition to producing a version of the film for schools.

Taylor was in Canberra for the screening last Monday. She told SBS Film that the event attracted a large number of political staffers from “all sides of politics” and that many of them had requested DVDs to pass onto ministers and MPs.

As to why the issue of asylum seekers remains so volatile Taylor says that she asked former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser the same question while researching Between the Devil and the Blue Sea. “He said it was because 'governments play on racism and racial fear'.”

Taylor says she is not planning any other films right now but is working pro bono in trying “to prevent people from being deported back to Afghanistan.”

Given that the film avoids any overt and direct political commentary – its sensibility is doggedly humanist, its approach, emotional – Taylor is at a loss as to why it has not attracted more interest, but says: “There are plenty of people who think that anything about this issue is controversial.”

She is philosophical about how Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea has evolved, seeing its production and final release strategy as “inevitable” given the political climate: “You make a film about this issue and no one wants to fund it but Amnesty – and you end up crowd funding [to get it released].”


Note: Between the Devil and the Deep Sea is available for viewing online in exchange for an email via its homepage.