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Known as a fearless documentary filmmaker, Eva Orner has shone a light on tragic situations in Iraq, Kabul and Nauru. In her latest work, she turns her attention to the problem of mobile phones. ‘If I think it’s compelling, important, interesting, worthwhile, that overtakes everything else.’ By Emily Bitto.

Oscar-winner Eva Orner on what drives her

Documentary filmmaker Eva Orner.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Eva Orner is a woman with secrets. Several times during our conversation she tells me she cannot discuss a particular topic because of the implications, legal or otherwise, for herself and others. “I can’t really talk about that,” becomes a refrain. The Oscar-winning documentary-maker is in Melbourne for the launch of her latest project, It’s People Like Us, a short documentary about mobile phone use, funded by the Transport Accident Commission. The project must have felt a bit like a holiday for Orner, I can’t help but think, after films such as Chasing Asylum, Out of Iraq and Taxi to the Dark Side that took her to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and placed both her and her subjects in extremely risky situations.

We are in the top-floor room of a boutique hotel watching It’s People Like Us. In the scene playing, Orner follows Melbourne traffic police booking some of the thousands of drivers who use their phones while driving each day. “My reaction normally to seeing police is feeling nervous and scared,” she says, laughing. “Because I have done things with my filmmaking that can get me in trouble with the law. But I found these guys fantastic. They weren’t bitter, they weren’t angry; they just wanted to stop people being so dangerous.”

Orner has a formidable presence, no doubt necessary for someone who does the kind of work she does. The first question she asks me is whether I have seen her previous films. It’s a fair question, albeit one that takes me aback slightly. When I arrive, she has just finished in hair and make-up for a day of press. Her appearance is characterised by a kind of austere glamour: she is dressed in cropped black pants, a military-looking green jacket, immaculate white leather mules and severe black-rimmed glasses. The effect is softened by her long blonde hair, her frequent laughter and her kind gaze. She makes eye contact often, and speaks ridiculously fast and with contagious energy; there is a forthright confidence about her and I would guess that it has helped her out of dicey situations. I take a seat beside her on a charcoal-grey sofa while her new film screens and a PR person makes calls in the background. There are platters of cut fruit and pastries on the bench behind us. The way she jiggles her foot, in its elegant backless shoe, the way she constantly twists the rings on her fingers, conveys a certain restlessness or perhaps frustration with these repetitive promotional duties. All of this is a far cry from Kabul or the detention centres of Manus Island and Nauru. For someone with her drive and passion for social justice, I wonder how she maintains her patience with the everyday privilege of life in Melbourne or Los Angeles.

My conversation with Orner raises a question I have often pondered: What is it that makes certain people shun, or perhaps sacrifice, the security of an “ordinary” life for a life of insecurity and risk? “Unconventional” is how Orner describes herself and the choices she has made: “I’m not married, I don’t have children, all very happily,” she tells me. “I travel a lot, I’ve moved cities a number of times. My work is certainly not conventional: it’s challenging, it’s risky, it’s financially unstable. I’m filming in a lot of crazy places. I’ve only been home for, I think, five-and-a-half months in the last three years.”

While filming The Network in Afghanistan, Orner contracted an illness that left her debilitated, in and out of hospital, for two years. She experienced “moments of PTSD” for which she has had to seek treatment. “You have to acknowledge that this kind of work can rock you,” she says, “and make you lose your footing.” She is quick to add, though, that she has it easier than many. “I just had some friends staying in LA from London who I know from Kabul, and they were all hardcore war correspondents over there for, like, five years. I’m sort of the pussy in the group. But I know so many people who’ve been long-term war correspondents and, you know, they’re not okay.”

I ask Orner whether part of what drives her is a thrill-seeking streak, but she flatly denies this. “No, I don’t think I’m an adrenalin junkie; I don’t think it’s about that.” Instead, she sees her motivating factor as that of telling stories. This is her life’s work. “It’s completely storytelling,” she says. “If I think it’s compelling, important, interesting, worthwhile, that overtakes everything else.” Speaking of her period of illness in Afghanistan, she sobers: “I was very, very sick. Somebody said to me, ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ And I thought, ‘That’s so weird, I never even thought about doing that.’ When you’re in it, you’re just in it. That’s probably something to do with personality. You just want to tell the story and see it through to the end. There’s a commitment there and I think that drives you.”

From where, I wonder, did this commitment to storytelling come? Orner grew up in Melbourne, in what she describes as a “really nice, middle-class” family. “I had a fantastic time,” she says of her upbringing. “I went to a great school, got a university education … It was lovely.” But dig a bit deeper into her history and the picture becomes at once clearer and more complex. Both of Orner’s parents are Jewish immigrants who came to Australia in the 1950s. All but one of her grandparents were killed in the Holocaust. “My maternal grandmother – after whom I’m named – Eva – was gassed at Treblinka before her 30th birthday.”

There is another story she tells me that suggests, from a very young age, she has also had that something else, that anomalous but necessary ingredient that seems to be common to tellers of such stories. It is what one might describe as an outsider perspective, and with it an ability to empathise and identify beyond her own group. “In the 1970s and ’80s, in the Jewish community in Melbourne,” she explains, “which is a very Holocaust-heavy community, there was this vernacular of ‘never again, never again’ about the Holocaust that we grew up with. And I remember being eight or nine years old and the genocide in Cambodia was happening, and it was being reported on the news. And I thought, hang on a minute, we’re just having dinner and chatting about our day and these people are being massacred. I remember calling bullshit, essentially.”

 

Orner has a fierce sense of commitment to, and responsibility for, the individuals whose stories she brings to the world. While discussing the risks her job brings to her own health and safety, Orner is matter-of-fact. But when she talks of her sense of responsibility for her subjects, an underlying distress bleeds through this tough persona. “It’s a lot of responsibility,” she says, twisting her rings as she speaks. “It becomes tricky when you have whistleblowers like in Chasing Asylum that you have to protect.” During the filming of that documentary, the federal government passed legislation that made it a criminal offence, punishable by a two-year jail term, for people who had worked in the detention centres on Manus Island or Nauru to publicly discuss what they had witnessed. “I never expected that to happen in my country, in a democracy,” she says. “Suddenly I was responsible for these people who had risked everything to help me tell my story.”

Orner is still close to the whistleblowers who consented to tell their stories for Chasing Asylum, and she continues to provide them with legal service. “I would never abandon them,” she says. As an aside, Orner also tells me that she managed to get one of the refugees, whom she interviewed for Chasing Asylum, into America. “He was stuck in Indonesia,” she recalls. “He was a really great kid, and he was stuck. Australia wouldn’t take him, Canada wouldn’t take him, America wouldn’t take him. And I stepped in. He arrived in America over a year ago. He lived in my house for two months, then he lived in a friend’s place for three months. My neighbours gave him a job.” When I ask how she managed this, she replies, of course, “I can’t really talk about that.”

She sees the limits of this. “I can’t do that for everyone, obviously,” she says, “I can’t have 400 refugees living with me. But along the way you come across people and you try to help them.” The same sense of fate or happenstance seems to define the way she chooses the projects on which she works. “They sort of just find me,” she says. “It’s like making friends: you meet so many people, and then you meet those people and you just get each other.” She relates the anecdote of how Thomas Keneally came across the story that became Schindler’s Ark when he got chatting to the owner of a leather goods store in Beverly Hills, who happened to be one of the Jews Oskar Schindler had saved from the gas chambers. With the narrative grasp of a consummate storyteller, Orner brings the discussion back around to her current film, to the link between these kinds of fortuitous personal connections and the impact of mobile phone technology on our interaction with the world.

“I guess that’s where we come back to phones, to what we’re missing by doing this,” she says, miming furious head-down texting. “If you go to pick up your dry-cleaning or get some shoes fixed, instead of talking to the guy you’re probably checking your phone. Think of what we’re missing, pretending we’re so busy that we can’t look at someone and smile and talk to them.” She gives me a grin. “Do you like my segue?” she asks. I thank her for helping write her own profile.

 

In a world where the lessons of history – even those as recent and stark as Hiroshima or Treblinka – seem to be slipping from the consciousness of world leaders as easily as New Year’s resolutions, Eva Orner is making it her work to keep reminding us to hold on to our humanity and our empathy at all costs. “I look at the situation now, with America shrinking its refugee intake, Donald Trump, the Muslim ban, Australia… It’s getting worse and worse and worse. When things go this badly, you have a choice: you either all get together and push really hard to make it work, or you slip off the edge.”

I ask her what she is working on next. Again, she cannot discuss it. “I’m getting a little bit older,” she says ruefully, “and I don’t really want to go and do something really, really difficult and dangerous in a war zone … But then I think, if someone called me tomorrow and had this amazing project in Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan, would I really say no? And I know, if it was great, I’d probably be into it, which says more about me than anything else.”

Her new film comes to an end on the hotel television, the words “Take Action” emblazoned across a black screen. The publicist politely interrupts to tell Eva she is due downstairs for a photo shoot. And with that, my time is up.

 

This piece was edited on October 2, 2017, to make clear that Orner contracted her illness while filming The Network and not Taxi to the Dark Side.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 30, 2017 as "Orner office". Subscribe here.

Emily Bitto
is an author. Her debut novel, The Strays, won the 2015 Stella Prize.