Culture

Film

Gabrielle Brady’s ‘The Island of Hungry Ghosts’

By Lauren Carroll Harris
This new hybrid documentary casts Christmas Island in a hypnotically strange light

Rarely do I see the work of a debut Australian filmmaker and think: “Yes, this person will go on to make a rich body of work.” Gabrielle Brady’s first feature documentary, The Island of Hungry Ghosts (2018), elicited that thought: it is a film fertile in ideas, symbolism and visual metaphor; it speaks profoundly to some essential quality of being alive in Australia right now, and points to a future of filmmaking for its creator.

Brady stakes her action in a distant field of terror: Christmas Island, which has housed asylum seekers for most of the past 18 years. A man hauls his body over a tall fence in the thick of night; running through an emerald jungle, he screams. Sometime later, while driving to work at the community hospital, a trauma counsellor, Poh Lin Lee, hears news of a body found at the base of the nearby cliffs. In an actual therapy session with an asylum seeker, Poh Lin uses a box filled with fine grains of white sand and figurines as a therapeutic tool, and her client arranges the contents as she talks through her despair. A cast of red crabs, on a mission to breed and deliver their eggs to the sea, are shepherded across the island by workers in hi-vis suits, who close down roads. And we learn of earlier unhappy waves of migration in the island’s fraught history.

“The first people who arrived on Christmas Island 100 years ago were not given a real burial,” says one of the island’s 1843 residents. “So we need to pray for them. They are in the world of humans. They are the ‘hungry ghosts’. If you are on the road and you see a white shadow crossing, it’s probably a wandering spirit moving through.”

Chinese-speaking citizens burn plates of rice and other offerings to make the island’s hungry ghosts happy, so that they might move on to some other, more serene realm. We slowly approach gravestones that poke out of wild jungle, etched with Chinese characters. They are tombstones without names. Visitors chant: “Blessings to everyone’s safety. Blessings to the spirits. May you all be reincarnated into a better life.”

Most of the world was unknown to Europeans for most of history, and Christmas Island was not spotted by them until December 25, 1615. Terra pura, pure soil. The island’s first ongoing community of inhabitants was from China, Malaysia and Singapore, the hungry ghosts indentured as miners by the British Phosphate Commission and the United Kingdom Colonial Office at the close of the 19th century. In 1958, and with compensation provided to Singapore for loss of phosphorous commerce, the island become an Australian territory.

The Australian Border Deaths Database has marked 2017 deaths associated with Australia’s borders since January 1, 2000. Of those deaths, more than 600 occurred on or near Christmas Island, which since 2001 has held asylum seekers, who are mainly on their way from Indonesia, on Phosphate Hill, formerly the site of the mining lease. In that year, the Tampa controversy off the island’s craggy cliffs provided the template for Australia’s divide-and-rule political strategies ever since. In October 2018, Christmas Island Immigration Reception and Processing Centre was closed. In February 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his government’s plans to re-open it, a decision recently revised in the 2019–20 budget. The island’s community, mainly comprising those of Malay, Chinese and Anglo heritage, is uniquely marked by these shifts and abuses in migration, colonisation and mining.

The sequence of events that led Brady to make The Island of Hungry Ghosts began with a visit in 2014 to her friend Poh Lin, who had moved there to work two years earlier. Brady tells me over the phone that after two idyllic weeks swimming, diving and hiking together, Poh Lin said to her, “There’s something I need to show you.” They drove to the island’s lookout point, and waded into the jungle with a machete. An hour later, they arrived at a cliff, and below them was the dark, squat detention centre. The experience is recreated in the documentary, the buildings like a malevolent mirage.

“I don’t know how to describe it,” says Brady, “but it was a very shocking moment. There’d been nothing visual … to remind me of what was happening in the detention centre. It was at the end of the island, on the other side from where people live. I had the strong sensation it was built to be hidden and to keep these people and stories invisible.” This is how Brady came to make a documentary without access to the detention centre. She visited the island multiple times over the next two years.

Still, Brady’s guiding question was, “Will there be enough to tell a visual story?” Brady, who lives in Berlin, says, “One of the intentions I held very strongly was to deviate from any image we’d ever seen before of asylum seekers on the island … We’ve been bombarded with the same imagery – a person at sea, someone on a jetty being patted down, someone behind a fence from a distance. They’re very static, very dry, very cold, and they’re very distant images.”

Perhaps the richest quality of Brady’s documentary is the hypnotic strangeness with which the island’s self-contained ecosystem is shot. In cinematographer Michael Latham’s compositions, the monsoonal forest seems sentient, and we sense that it bears the grief of those who have unwillingly passed across it for the past century. Even in still shots, every leaf and branch of the island’s flora quakes slightly, and the natural world is an active, watchful force in the narrative. All the while, the red crabs – the island’s custodians – continue going on about their business.

For that reason, with its eerie shots of coastal mountains, The Island of Hungry Ghosts is more reminiscent of Picnic at Hanging Rock – a mystery alive with the mythical power of geology – than Chasing Asylum (2016), the most recent major documentary on Australia’s refugee abuses, made by filmmaker Eva Orner and featuring grainy, horror-like footage secretly recorded in offshore camps. Like Brady, Orner found that compassionate social workers had little power in the bureaucracy beyond calmly asking their clients to not kill themselves, as Anwen Crawford wrote upon that film’s release. But where Chasing Asylum critiqued the human costs of detention, The Island of Hungry Ghosts questions its psychic cost.

Brady’s film also sees cinema as a set of forms to be innovated and curved and moulded. It is made of delicately obtained permissions, negotiated layers of access, and intermingling dimensions of drama and documentary in the rich tradition of hybrid non-fiction cinema. A rich tradition – but not in Australia, whose documentary culture is wrapped around the broadcast structures of the ABC and SBS. Aesthetics follow institutional forms.

Little surprise then, that Brady’s creation, transcending the conventions of reportage, has been overlooked, misunderstood in the country it is addressing. Critic David Stratton, writing for The Australian, complained that the film did not include enough explanation of its locations and other factual details. But talking heads and long verbal sequences are for journalism, and not necessarily for film. And just as documentary cinema is not a genre, realism may not be for our times. “I wanted to address it not journalistically,” says Brady, “because that’s only how we ever see the crisis. I wanted to rupture what we think we know of Christmas Island.” From that mode of thinking, she avoided using archival footage, and made her own vision of a lonely, isolated place, with nature as her primary metaphor.

The film’s hybridity is not its only singular quality. It is unusual, in Australia, to hear the language of politics and protest fuse with that of dreams, psychology and spirituality. Poh Lin seems at times more a mystic than a counsellor. Her job is to connect, sometimes through translators, to people who have been forced from the through lines of their lives and ancestral lineages. One detainee, imprisoned for the last 17 months, describes to Poh Lin a recurring childhood dream in which he was a kite or a bird, and flew untethered: “We are humans. We have to protest.”

Across these scenes, an expansive narrative emerges. Brady traces Poh Lin’s journey of hopelessness as she comes to realise the futility of her job in the community hospital. Fewer clients arrive each day for therapy; they are “transferred” without notice. “I love these people,” she says, “but I can’t be complicit.”

One senses that progressive Australian people have come to think of their own opposition to successive governments’ inhumane detention policies as similarly futile.

Lauren Carroll Harris

Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and the television critic for Radio National’s The Screen Show.

The Island of Hungry Ghosts

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