Australia is rapidly developing quite a reputation her at BS Towers for a slew of insightful documentaries and fictional movie making. Last year’s LFF had May Newall’s impressively insightful Gayby Baby, a movie that starkly contrasted the gross stupidity of Australian leadership with the outright friendly pragmatism of Australian school children. No such warm feeling exists in Eva Orner’s scorching analysis of the Australian government’s godawful immigration system.
Opening with a shot filmed on off the back of a migrant boat crossing a seemingly endless ocean and closing on the same shot, Orner’s movie cuts no corners and spares nothing in its journey into the black heart of good old Aussie racism. Subsequent governments have endlessly pursued the goal of ‘stopping the boats’ to the detriment of every soul involved in the horrific process of fleeing persecution for a better life. Australia officially stopped accepting any refugees arriving by boat (ie, the only practical way of entering the country for the majority of asylum seekers) in 2013, seemingly in direct contravention of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Since then, any boat carrying illegal immigrants picked up by the Australian navy has been sent to either Manus or Nauru, variously isolated tropical islands off Papua New Guinea and Australia.
Journalists are barred from the camps on these islands, which is rarely a sign of confident oversight. Using a series of courageous whistleblowers (astonishingly exposing themselves to prosecution and a potential two year jail term since legislation was brought in in 2015), Orner paints a horrifically thorough picture of the conditions in the camps and the impact the incarceration is having on already traumatised individuals.
But Orner isn’t done there. She also examines the damage caused to the largely young, entirely naive support workers who are employed by people like Save the Children and The Salvation Army (both of whom charged significant fees to work at the centres), often with absolutely no experience of working in such conditions and shipped out with no training and the only brief being ‘Mingle, see how you can help these people’. She also traces the families of dead asylum seekers back in their home countries to highlight the horrible impact of the young mens’ deaths on their parents.
Chasing Asylum is a brutal and unflinching movie, battering you with facts, direct testimony and shocking hidden camera footage taken by the young workers brave enough to expose themselves to prosecution, or in some cases worse treatment at the hands of centre managers. The movie leaves you to draw your own conclusions but, in the closing chapter as it highlights the money spent by the Australian government to effectively settle people anywhere but Australia, it’s hard not to come away believing that whatever the lines trotted out, the only reason for these policies is pure racism. ‘We have stopped the boats’ is a mantra repeated over and over by Australian politicians from all sides, blithely ignoring the boats stranded off Thailand and the scores of asylum seekers languishing in Indonesia, let alone the horrible cost to those already stranded in island prisons. Prisons surrounded by tall fencing, hostile locals and no hope of settling in Australia.
For a wealthy country to act this way is beyond reprehensible, for it to be acting worse now than it did in the 1970’s, well, that’s just plain fucking wrong. Of all the horrors faced by the asylum seekers, it’s the crushing lack of hope that comes across most clearly in the movie. To be stranded for a finite period of time would be one thing, indefinitely is psychologically ruinous. Orner is an absolute credit to her craft. Exhaustingly researched, impeccably scrutinised and elegantly put together, this movie demands to be seen and its points hopefully acted upon. A closing section highlights the number of asylum seekers taken in by Germany in recent years. As a Brit in post Brexit UK, that made for very uncomfortable viewing. Decades of increasing xenophobia around the world point to a long struggle ahead.