In one very heart-wrenching scene of Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts, one of the refugees says “I think Hell is not just fire. Hell is somewhere you see suffering, you see your families suffering, you see your friends suffering. You can’t do anything”. It is this hell that Brady documents for us in this hard-hitting documentary set in Australia.
Christmas Island, Australia sees one of the largest migrations on Earth, that of millions of crabs. It also houses a dirty secret, a high-security detention facility for people seeking asylum in Australia. Island of the Hungry Ghosts follows Poh Lin Lee, a counsellor who provides psychological counselling to these detainees by listening to their stories.
Poh has a very unique way of getting to open up her patients. She gives them a box filled with sand and asks them to use toy figurines and place them in the sand and tell their story. It is during that process that patients open up about their experiences of suffering while and after reaching Australia to her. The stories start to become so disturbing that they affect Poh’s psyche as well.
Although there have been many documentaries and films on refugees in the recent past as the issues are more relevant than ever, Island of the Hungry Ghosts cements its place within that genre. It doesn’t just tell a story of detained refugees but it says it in a way that is artistic, yet very disturbing. The former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, announced in 2013 that people arriving via boats seeking asylum in Australia won’t be allowed to settle there as refugees. That announcement has had dire consequences for people who face the extremes, coming from as far as the Middle East to the Australian coast only to get detained indefinitely by the government.
Not only do the detainees have to go through terrifying experiences like their boats drowning or watching other asylum seekers get eaten by deadly sharks on the Australian coast, but they are also often separated from family members (even children) and are kept in inhuman conditions which takes a toll on them both physically and mentally. It is the description of these conditions and experiences that in turn affect Poh. She understands how her job of assisting these people is basically make believe. That in spite of her best efforts, the detainees don’t get any better. They continue to live in the hell and watch themselves and their families suffer. It is not a counsellor that they need, but proper government reforms which allow them to live peacefully after running away from the horrifying conditions at home.
As Poh continues to hear the harrowing stories of the detainees one after the other, Brady shows us another aspect of the island, the migrating crabs. Millions of crabs migrate from the jungle to the sea and the government goes out of their way to take care of them. From assigning people to assist the crabs in crossing the roads by building bridges with timber pieces to closing roads when the crabs are migrating in millions, the director hits home her objective by showing us the stark difference in treatment of crabs and humans shelled out by the Australian government.
The film also gives enough time to its original inhibitors who are largely descended from Chinese labourers who were brought to the island to work on phosphate mines. They tell the legend of the “hungry ghosts” residing in the island and the rituals performed to satisfy the ghosts, who they believe are people who didn’t get a proper burial and whose spirits roam the island. This serves as both as a backstory as well as adds an important aesthetic element to the documentary.
Director Gabrielle Brady does a stupendous job in her debut feature which is an extension of her short film titled The Island which came out last year. Brady makes a very gutsy choice here by choosing to not make the documentary information filled and instead deal with the psychological effect of detention in the minds of the detainees and the trauma counsellor, Poh. She shows us how the counseling sessions are just a facade to let the detainees think that they have mental health facilities available to them. The cinematography of the film is stunning and very poetic. It focuses on the detainees intensely during their sessions, bringing out their pain to such an extent that the audience can feel it while at the same time wide shots of the “burning ritual” to please the ghosts or the migrating crabs provide an intensely aesthetic look to the film. The music rightfully complements the cinematography and the story whenever needed.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts is a story that needed to be told to bring this system to public scrutiny, to shame it and to hold the people who inflict such pain to fellow humans accountable for the grief, loss and hurt suffered by the thousands only seeking a better life.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts won the Grand Jury Award at the 2018 Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival.
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