Chasing Asylum exposes the real impact of Australia’s offshore detention policies and explores how ‘The Lucky Country’ became a country where governments deprive asylum seekers of their basic human rights. The film features never before seen footage from inside Australia’s offshore detention camps, revealing the mental, physical and fiscal consequences of Australia’s decision to lock away families in unsanitary conditions hidden from media scrutiny.
Chasing Asylum is a powerful documentary that actually shows what we’ve previously only been told. In 2001, the Howard government opened offshore detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island to house asylum seekers who had tried to enter Australia. Ninety per cent of these people have subsequently been found to be legitimate refugees, yet for the last 15 years, governments on both sides of politics have maintained offshore detention with a robotic promise to ‘Stop the boats’ and the assurance that no person entering this way will ever be settled in Australia. Over the years, some excellent journalism and a number of official reports have emerged, interrogating what happens in these centres. We know about incidents that have failed to be contained by the wire fences – riots, suicides, murders and health problems requiring Australian medical facilities. Yet due to the strictly enforced policy of no cameras and no journalists, Australians have never before seen pictures of what it really looks like inside.
Billing itself as ‘the film the Australian government doesn’t want you to see’, Chasing Asylum is composed of 90 per cent exclusive footage. This includes material obtained secretly by insiders and at great risk. (Whistleblowers face up to two years in jail for reporting information – including reporting incidents of child sex abuse.) Due to clandestine conditions of filming, these scenes are sometimes juddery and blurry, but the essentials are visible: the mouldy tents, the wire fences, the sewn-up lips and faeces-smeared toilets. There are disturbing pictures drawn by children who’ve lived all their lives in these colourless camps – black faces with red tears, and crayon text captions like, ‘My mum is crying and I am sad.’ Perhaps most shocking of all though, are scenes of men listlessly sprawled on makeshift beds in the tropical heat, waiting with no end in sight. Their faces are blurred to protect their identities, but also seeming to signal their fading sanity in this state of legal limbo.
Scenes from inside detention are interspersed with interviews with people who’ve worked there: social workers, managers, security guards. Some of these interviewees choose to have their identity protected, so we only see their lips or hands and hear their voices. Their testimonies are sober and without hysteria. There are also interviews with asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and Sri Lanka, many of them stranded now in Indonesia, unable to work or send their children to school, and unwilling to return to danger and persecution. Commentary is also provided by the likes of Fairfax journalist Michael Bachelard, and the very eloquent David Marr, who reminds us that the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention (thoroughly and repeatedly breached by Australia) was the world’s apology to the Jewish people for the Holocaust.
Australian director and producer Eva Orner is no stranger to tough subject matter. During her time working in the US she won an Oscar for producing Alex Gibney’s documentary Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), a film about US torture practices during the war in Afghanistan. Herself a first generation Australian who lost three of her Polish Jewish grandparents to the Holocaust, Orner makes no apology for the fact her latest film is a passionate piece of social activism that she hopes will influence policy during the 2016 Federal election campaign. She dedicates Chasing Asylum to the late Malcolm Fraser, the Liberal Prime Minister who welcomed 70,000 Vietnamese refugees to Australia during the late 1970s – and he appears in the film as the only former PM who agrees to participate.
Fully independently financed (with crowdfunding and private donations), there’s little in Chasing Asylum that’s strictly new information. But the case is made with stunning clarity and deceptive simplicity. Dangerous footage, stark facts and statistics, and convincing commentary are all skillfully woven together by editor Annabelle Johnson, with Australian editing legend Jill Bilcock serving as consultant. A subdued score by composer Cornel Wilczek is effective but never manipulative, though don’t be surprised if you cry at the scenes late in the film of German people welcoming Syrian refugees with open arms.
Some might say that Chasing Asylum is just preaching to the choir, and only those who support its politics will bother to see it. (The film is being released through Executive Producer Robert Connolly’s CinemaPlus initiative, a limited release that’s supported heavily by Q&A and event screenings.) But just as choirs need good music to sing from, and new members to sustain their numbers, so citizens need good information to inform protests and votes. This restrained but undeniably disturbing documentary provides such a service.
Watch the trailer below: