"We need to get educated and know the facts" about our government's offshore processing policy, says Chasing Asylum director, Eva Orner.
The new Australian documentary Chasing Asylum gets behind the barbed wire fences of Nauru and Manus Island to reveal terrifying home truths about offshore refugee processing. But the story doesn't end there. Director Eva Orner could be prosecuted under the Australian Border Force Act for obtaining the harrowing, previously unseen footage. Still, she's offering free tickets to the film for Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, who are yet to set foot inside the centres.
An Academy and Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, Eva spent two years investigating the ramifications of our refugee encampments, navigating Australia, the Pacific, South East Asia, and the Middle East. Without government funding or the back-up of a broadcaster, she raised the bulk of her budget via private investment. Featuring undercover footage shot inside the Nauru and Manus sites, Chasing Asylum also includes intimate interviews with whistleblowers who can no longer accept the human rights violations at both facilities.
Offshore processing policy can be a complex, inexplicable issue. Chasing Asylum clearly and eloquently pulls apart the political, social and historical conditions that have created the current climate. Reading articles about refugees' suicide attempts, listening to news readers describing riots, and familiarising oneself with all the pertinent statistics is one thing. But it barely compares to the grasp gained from watching detention centre security staff chitchat about shooting the asylum seekers they're employed to protect, as seen in the film.
Powerful statement: Eva Orner shooting her crowdfunded documentary Chasing Asylum. Photo: Supplied
Chasing Asylum premiered at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in April, and Eva notes parallels in Australian and Canadian culture.
"We're both Commonwealth countries, isolated, small populations, vast land. For… just over a decade, Canada's had a really conservative government," Eva observes. "[Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau was elected and the difference is staggering… They're pretty proud of their refugee commitments at the minute," she says of Australia's Commonwealth cousin, whose government has recently resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees, welcomed at the airport with winter coats. According to Eva, Canadian viewers at the film's premiere "couldn't believe what's happening [in Australia]."
During her expatriate years in North America, Eva watched the Lucky Country become "a laughing stock". A first-generation Australian herself, she's the daughter of Polish refugees who settled in Melbourne after World War II, when three of her four grandparents perished in the Holocaust. That's when The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed to prevent such atrocities from ever reoccurring. Yet in 2015, the Coalition's refugee processing policies were found to contravene the UN Convention against Torture. That's a far cry from ushering in over 50,000 Vietnamese refugees, as our late Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser did in the 1970s and '80s.
Over 1500 refugees are being detained indefinitely, in facilities that cost taxpayers $1.2 billion per year to operate. There are rampant reports of physical, verbal, psychological and sexual abuse affecting already traumatised men, women and children. Currently, Australia is the only country holding kids in indefinite detention, despite recent dubious claims that all children had been released. We're already closing in on recording 2000 border-related deaths this century. "This issue's at a critical point," says Eva. "People are dying and we need to do something about it. People have to stand up."
See Chasing Asylum. At times, it's hard to watch, but not as hard as actually living that life. The film is screening all over Australia, and if you can't find a nearby session, you can host one yourself.
Once you're inevitably riled up, do something constructive with your anger: sign an online petition (Eva says it does help), throw shade at your local MP, or volunteer with a refugee advocacy group. Get informed ahead of the federal election, so you know who and what you're voting for.
Talk about this issue with your friends, family, co-workers, coffee maker, everyone. Ignore those who say it's unbecoming to discuss politics. Make an exception in an election year, when humans in detention are self-immolating to remind us that they exist. "Most people don't know how to refute the 'deaths at sea' argument," Eva says, exasperated. "We need to get educated and know the facts… It matters in terms of who we are, what our legacy is, and how we're seen by the rest of the world."
An advocate for grassroots activism, Eva praises the Let Them Stay campaign that kept Australian-born baby Asha on the mainland. "A couple of hundred people stood vigil outside the hospital in Brisbane and the government caved. The baby stayed. I know it sounds naïve but… we have to get out on the streets and say 'no'. There's an election coming up and now is the time."
By making Chasing Asylum, Eva's done the legwork, achieving the supposedly impossible by getting cameras behind detention centre walls. The least we can do is go see it. You might leave better informed than our current Prime Minister.
"I want politicians to come see the film because less than a handful have ever been to Nauru or Manus. Shorten and Turnbull have not been to Nauru or Manus. So I'm saying to them in a warm, inviting way, 'Please come… I'll give you a free ticket'."
As generous an offer as this is, it seems Australia would agree that it's time for them to pay.
The Human Rights Arts And Film Festival is touring Australia. You can find screening times for Chasing Asylum and other films here.
This article first appeared on The Vocal.