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A collaboration between a journalist held on Manus Island and a filmmaker in Holland shows life in detention in all its stark monotony. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Filming ‘Chauka’ at Manus Island’s detention facilities

Behrouz Boochani in a scene from Chauka.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Last year, an Iranian-Dutch filmmaker, Arash Kamali Sarvestani, made contact with Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian-Kurdish journalist detained on Manus Island. Sarvestani had a proposal: if Boochani could film life inside the camp, he would help direct and edit the project. “It was amazing because our vision for the project was the same,” Boochani tells me. “We found out that we both like Abbas Kiarostami, who was one of the greatest film directors in the world. We talked a lot about [him] and how we could make a film inspired by his work.”

Boochani began work, using his phone to secretly film life inside – and sometimes out of – the camp. The secrecy – and slow internet connection – meant the collaboration took many months. “The project was completely secret,” Boochani says. “Nobody could know except the few actors in the film. The guards are always suspicious of me. All parts of the prison are covered by CCTV cameras. If they knew I was making a movie, it would have definitely made trouble for me.”

More than 13,000 kilometres away in Eindhoven, Holland, Sarvestani began receiving short clips from Boochani. Sarvestani then made suggestions. “We had a rather long time of audio communications to exchange our ideas,” he says. “I shared my artistic views with him and he told me about the history and real life of experience in the camp. We started taking first shots. Some shots needed a retake, some of them needed a change. In parallel, I was sending him some early edited versions of the movie and through this he got a good understanding of how his future shots will fit into the final result.

“Meanwhile, we were working on a number of storylines and different characters in them. That is why, although I have shot zero minutes and he has not edited any part of the movie, our efforts are highly interconnected and we share all parts of it. A traditional definition of production roles does not apply to this movie. The movie is produced out of conversations and it was discussed while it was produced.”

That movie is titled Chauka: Please Tell Us the Time, and The Saturday Paper has seen it before its public release. Its artistic success might be in capturing the suspension of time. In Chauka, only the arrival of ambulances distinguishes the days. There is no dynamism in this film, except, perhaps, that found in one detainee’s phone calls home. “Do you think you suffer more than me?” Kaveh asks his wife. But even these conversations repeat themselves. We witness a few of them, conducted over months. We can hear only Kaveh speak, from a stark room with a graffitied table, but can infer the other side. His wife wonders where he is, why he doesn’t call more often, if he cares about their young child. Kaveh asks why they keep having the same conversation with the precious few minutes they have to speak. “Every time I call you are crying or [asking me] to explain about all these miseries.” One’s declaration of pain is read as a dismissal of the other’s. They’re both hurting, but are stuck in a loop of mutual incomprehension.

So are the Manus locals, it seems. An Australian journalist speaks with two of them, who are appalled at the treatment of the detainees but also express fear about their settlement in their own poor province. The detainees are “too plenty” and have arrived “with their own professions” – the two men are concerned about the effects on their employment.

At one point, the two men point to some nearby islands and relay the stories their elders told them about World War II. They speak of the Japanese planes that brought “fire and bombs”. The implication is that the camp is another bewildering foreign imposition.

In Chauka, the days bleed into each other. “The movie is not supposed to be an action movie with an exciting story line,” Sarvestani told me. “That is because the life in a prison – especially for such a long time – is by no means an exciting experience.”

We see a procession of shots: of concrete courtyards, plastic chairs, ceiling fans, fences, a fumigator’s smoke. No footage is repeated – only the tableaus. We return again and again to grimy sheds and stories of torture, until the lens seeks relief by resting upon the nearby beach. Then we see shots of the horizon, unobstructed by fences, and these shots suggest freedom until you realise the trick: the camera’s depth of focus contracts to reveal the metal perimeter.

The film is a poem about the self-effacing monotony of indefinite detention. It has an equally monotonous soundtrack, an oppressive, near-permanent buzz of insects punctuated by the squawk of the chauka bird. The chauka is a noisy honeyeater, native to Manus and the source of much local mythology. It provides both the film’s title and the colloquial name for the camp’s notorious “Managed Accommodation Area” – an isolation unit for misbehaving detainees and a site, the film alleges, of abuse. The chauka is a “small bird that speaks loudly”, a proud local says. Chauka is a little film that speaks softly.

These are fancy words for a filthy place, but the filmmaker has the instincts of a poet. Chauka is too subtle to be successful, if success is defined as images on the 6 o’clock news bulletin. The film is concerned with a coarsening banality and repetition, and its release will not influence the resettlement of these men. That is now largely in the hands of Donald Trump’s government. Officials from the US Department of Homeland Security arrived on the island this week to begin the long vetting process for the men’s settlement in America. They took fingerprints and photographs, and will return in a few weeks for interviews. The same process has already begun on Nauru. Boochani explains that, despite these developments, uncertainty still gnaws at the detainees – questions remain about the length of the process, the eligibility of some men, and Trump’s trustworthiness. 

 

Following a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees inspection of the Manus and Nauru camps, reported on by The Saturday Paper last year, grave assessments were made of the mental health of those on the islands. Psychiatrists reported dangerous deterioration – rates of severe depression and suicidal ideation were grossly high. Against this backdrop, it is remarkable that Boochani’s artistic ambition has survived. In fact, his ego and purpose have not only survived but seem to have sharpened. It is a strange film he has made, deliberately numbing, but it contains a clear logic and a consistent, thoughtful aesthetic.

Manussians say they can tell the time by the chauka’s song – its squawks come at the same time each day. The irony for those detained there is that this bird knows the time better than they do. Making the film was emotionally taxing, Boochani says. “I took my shots like stolen scenes, trying not to be seen, and that was very hard for me. The system for some time has been monitoring me as a journalist, and guards already raided and searched my room twice. I had to work secretly and that took so much energy from me because of stress. Sometimes I could not take the shots I wanted because the guards were there. Sometimes I was waiting for days to take a particular shot.”

The film is likely to feature in small international festivals – which is the preferred audience for Sarvestani. “For non-Australasian audience we want to let them know about the scope of the catastrophic situation people in those two camps live in,” he says. “I was astonished by the wide unawareness of the situation among non-Oceanic audience, even between the artistic and human rights communities.

“For the Australian audience, I regret to say that there is a wide awareness – and, to some extent, a wide approval – of the situation in the camps. So regrettably I think this film may not add anything to their information about the situations. As a democratic country Australia has had countless chances to correct its way of dealing with those refugees if a solid majority of people has risen their voice in their support. 

“I highly appreciate the sheer efforts of the human rights activists in Australia and New Zealand but it seems that none of the major political parties and their supporters has been ready to even make a distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘illegal immigrants’, let alone recognising the rights of the refugees to have their dignity being respected and to have a fair process in a fair and rather short time. This mindset needs to be changed. I hope this movie plays a role in this change but we only want to document the situation so that in the future no political leader can present a distorted narration of the events.”

Sarvestani and Boochani have never met. They hope – after some indeterminate time – that they will.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 8, 2017 as "Depth of focus". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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