Australia's silenced refugees given a voice by filmmakers who share their experiences


As Refugee Week is marked, a series of short films made by people who also have refugee or asylum seeker backgrounds is being screened in Sydney.

Ali Al Azeez is an Iraqi-Australian filmmaker whose fictional short film Calendar tells a story of love and loss.

“As a refugee [the female protaganist] can’t leave her partner because he has told her 'I bring you to Australia so you can’t leave me like this',” he told SBS's Small Business Secrets.

By switching between scenes in colour and black and white, the film builds tension as the relationship unravels.

A scene from Calendar by Ali Al Azeez.

Melbourne-based Azeez has made eight short films including Link, an award winner at the 2015 Baghdad International Film Festival.

“The humanity message for me is focused on people who do not have a voice, and violence is without a voice, like the children of war. These children do not have a voice, women as well.”   

His latest work is part of a three-year commission called Beyond Refuge: Dialogues, produced by Western Sydney's community media arts company CuriousWorks and screening at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre this month. 

The films seek to re-define the asylum seeker narrative through a range of stories that resonate with the directors' lives and give voice to some of those who feel silenced.

Filmmaker Ali Azeez on location.
Azeez at work.

Azeez moved to Australia as a refugee in 2015. Many of his films centre on the impact of war, including Lifejacket, a fictional story about people arriving in Australia by boat and becoming trapped in limbo waiting for a visa.

“At some point, you have to take lifejacket off and start life again,” he said.

Azeez has worked with Settlement Services International (SSI), who helped screen his work through its arts and culture program and its New Beginnings Festival

“We facilitate a pathway for artists to practise their creativity,” the program's Laura Luna said. 

“Most refugees have come here with a lot of experience, and many are highly educated, so they just need a doorway to get in. We are a pathway for them to do that on a professional level.”

Ali Azeez
Azeez winning an award in Baghdad in 2015.

Azeez recently taught a series of film making workshops at the Community Refugee Welcome Centre in Sydney’s Lilyfield and is working towards his first feature film.

'Australia's hidden story'

Director, filmmaker and photojournalist Ali Mousawi is also exhibiting a short film in Casula.

My Name is Mohammed and Raghad, We Don’t Exist Here Anymore depicts the true story of an asylum seeker family in crisis.

A father and his two children are battling ill health and without access to benefits they struggle to survive on limited funds.  

The actors are also asylum seekers and refugees.

Ali Mousawi's film
A scene from Ali Mousawi's film.

“Every single time they watch the film they are crying, every single time, even me,” Mousawi said. 

“Most of the Australian people don’t know about this hidden story ... I am living in this situation and I am from a family of asylum seekers and refugees, and I know this story.

Mousawi fled Iran after being jailed for his political views and was detained in Australia after arriving by boat.

“It was very dangerous, four days without food on the boat, and no-one can help you. It’s very risky, if you die or stay alive”.

Ali Mousawi
Mousawi's film depicts the struggles of people seeking asylum in Australia.

Mousawi is outspoken on Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and the thousands of people on bridging visas, like himself. 

“The conditions living for asylum seekers is something like hell,” he said.

“The Federal Government never tell us when we getting a permanent resident visa, so we are suspended in between.  We don’t know when they are going to give us a visa or cancel our visa, they are playing with our brains.”

Cuts to support for asylum seeker services were announced in the 2019 Federal Budget, as was a change in newly arrived refugees now needing to wait one year, instead of six months, before they are required to access Centrelink's job-search program Jobactive.

Refugee advocacy groups criticised the move, but the government defended it, saying it allows refugees to focus on settlement and language assistance before looking for a job, and eligible refugees can participate earlier if they wish.

The government also earmarked $64.2 million for "social cohesion" measures to help migrants "become established and integrated in their communities".

Refugee Week is marked between 16-22 June.

Beyond Refuge: Dialogues will screen free of charge at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre until 23 June.

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