Taking us inside Australia’s detention camps, tonight’s documentary CHASING ASYLUM is one of the most distressing – but important - films I have seen this year. It’s a film we all need to watch and subject matter we need to act upon, especially if we are to change the way first world nations everywhere react to people in need.
A harrowing 90 minutes in length, CHASING ASYLUM tells the story of Australia's inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, examining the human, political, financial and moral impact of current and previous policy. It features appearances from many of Australia’s former prime ministers and politicians, and confronts the country’s shameful, hard line policy of detaining asylum seekers in offshore processing centres, effectively demonstrating how damaging and terrifying the places really are.
Crammed with damning testimony from brave whistle-blowers and disturbing footage of the truly wretched conditions inside camps on the island nations of Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, the frequently heartbreaking documentary created shockwaves on its home turf when it first aired, and unsurprisingly, stirred up plenty of interest elsewhere. It’s impossible not to be moved to tears at least once I reckon, and its incredibly moving yet minimalist delivery is a credit to its director, Academy award-winning filmmaker Eva Orner. Orner, who produced Alex Gibney’s also very affecting TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, focuses on the human cost of Australia’s hard line policy of offshore detention by using secretly filmed footage from places where no cameras or journalists are allowed. Orner and her team gathered heart-wrenching footage of detainees describing their reasons for seeking sanctuary and the sense of hopelessness brought about by long-term detention. Terrifying hidden camera footage also shows riots in progress and security personnel, some of them former nightclub bouncers from the Gold Coast, describing the centres’ residents as “c***s” and joking about the prospect of “shooting the f***ers”.
Equally as disturbing are the interviews with some of then university students with no experience in dealing with refugees that were hired as support staff on Nauru. Given no training other than to “go and be their friends,” these workers were immediately confronted by distressed and sometimes mentally ill detainees who had 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, and that included during conversations with adults and children. One support worker recalls being told about needing training on how to use a Hoffman knife. Asking why, she was told it is to cut people down when they’re found hanging. Others tell tales of detainees setting themselves on fire, stitching their lips and eyelids shut, and more. Allegations of the physical and sexual abuse of children are rampant, and graffiti scrawled above a line of payphones merely says: ‘“kill us”.
Orner won an Oscar for producing 2007’s TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, which was an investigation into torture practices conducted by America in the name of the “war on terror”. CHASING ASYLUM also shows us a government that bends the law to its own ends and even goes above it. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers has been found to violate the United Nations Convention Against Torture and has recently been ruled illegal by Papua New Guinea, yet change is slow, if at all.
It’s the small details in this grim but important film that make it so powerful, and so hard but essential to watch.
CHASING ASYLUM premieres Thursday 14 September at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel
Watch the trailer here
Remote record here