Island of Hungry Ghosts is a documentary unlike many others. It is incredibly cinematic, with obvious care and precision apparent behind the camera, while the music that surrounds it is also very atmospheric. Island begins with an interesting contrast: after a brief, arresting introduction of a person sprinting through trees, his desperation aided by frenetic camerawork, the gears are suddenly ratcheted down after the title is shown, the pace becoming akin to that of the movement of the baby crabs soon featured, with many long, stationary takes.
A powerful documentary that takes a second to connect the dots, Island of the Hungry Ghosts won the award for the best documentary at the festival. It stunningly connects the situation of detainees on Christmas Island where those seeking asylum from war-torn/violent countries are detained indefinitely; baby crabs slowly migrating from the beach inland, and Chinese mythology.
At the detention centres, families are routinely separated, the most basic of human rights are ignored, and furthermore, the Australian government has introduced laws that literally punish workers of any type talking about anything that is happening within the centre. This situation interlocks with Chinese beliefs of ghosts being lost spirits stuck between worlds, not unlike those on Christmas Island who have nothing nor no one to tell them when or if they will be freed. They too are lost.
The brief commentary on the migration of baby red crabs again intertwines into this narrative; their difficulty in migrating inland an obvious similarity.
The three themes are weaved together perfectly to create a powerful image of the detention centres located on this small island located off mainland Australia. Much like the baby red crabs who make the dangerous migration inland, only to be flattened on roads or to fall prey to the nature they must crawl through, the detainees on Christmas Island have made a long and dangerous trip from their native countries only to suffer from disease and horrid conditions.
Psychologists talk about how hard their job is, as they try to help these people mentally, but they know of the uncertain futures of these people, painfully watching each patient degrade further no matter how hard they try. They know that each session their patient won’t have made any progress. Some detainees talk about having sewn their lips shut in protest of the conditions. It sounds like a terrible place.
These centres are a dark, ugly stain on the country, and it unfortunately doesn’t look like change will arrive any time soon. Moreover, these issues remain disgustingly under-reported. This, and Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time from last years festival, will hopefully shed more light on the inhumane detention centres, but one can’t help but feel like that they won’t receive enough attention to make any kind of difference. A depressing reality.
An incredible cinematic experience about an issue that is desperately needs more attention worldwide. This easily deserves a full six-pack, as do the poor, confused, innocent and starving detainees.
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