Sometimes, it’s easier to ignore a problem when the symptoms or side effects of that problem aren’t getting up your nose or bashing at your front door. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.
Sometimes, you need to see, smell, hear and taste the problem, firsthand, before you feel compelled to rectify the problem, or take action. That’s why Academy Award-winning filmmaker Eva Orner decided to make her latest documentary Chasing Asylum, an astonishing film that was as hard-to-make as it is hard-to-watch.
As the 9th annual Human Rights Arts and Film Festival illuminated Australian cinema screens this year, holding up a mirror to the uneasy truths of our times, Orner’s daring new documentary made especially big waves. Chasing Asylum contains secret footage of Australia’s controversial offshore detention centres. The film examines the extraordinary tactics that consecutive Australian Governments have used to deter people from seeking asylum in Australia, and the attendant policies of secrecy that have undermined any kind of media scrutiny. As it willfully breaches that fortress of bureaucratic secrecy, Orner’s raw and distressing documentary exposes the substantial human toll of Australia’s offshore detention practices, including self-harm, mental illness, sexual assault, self-immolation and death.
Offshore detention has been the subject of heated debate in Australia for more than a decade. Frustrated by inaccurate and divisive political rhetoric around the topic, Orner felt compelled to get beneath the political posturing and reveal the ugly truth about Australia’s inhumane and unlawful response to the world’s escalating refugee crisis.
Even with her reputation for making challenging films, this documentary has been Orner’s toughest project yet. “When I started this film at the beginning of 2014, I had been waiting for somebody to make this film and I couldn’t understand why nobody had taken it on,” she said. “Now, in 2016, I totally understand. It was basically a completely impossible film to make – but we somehow managed to pull it off.”
“In a twenty-year career, it’s the hardest film I’ve done by a mile - because it’s about places that you cannot go to, about people you cannot talk to, and if you find people who work there who are willing to tell you what’s actually going on, they now face criminal charges.”
In 2015, while Orner was making Chasing Asylum, the Borderforce Protection Act came into effect. “It contains a particularly odious clause known as the Whistle-blowing Clause,” she explained. “Which makes it a criminal offense for anyone who works at the camps to speak out – so whistle-blowers now face a two-year jail penalty.“
“I think that goes hand-in-hand with this appalling policy of secrecy,” she continued. “As tax-paying citizens, we need to stand up and scream and shout and say this is unacceptable."
"More than one billion dollars of taxpayers’ money is spent on offshore detention each year and yet we don’t know exactly what it is, we can’t see it, no journalists are allowed – how can that happen in a democracy? How are people not standing up and screaming about the lack of transparency?”
Australia spends $1.2 billion per year running the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, an average cost of $500,000 per asylum seeker per year.
Orner politely declined to reveal how she obtained the secret footage of Australia’s heavily guarded offshore detention centres. “I can’t tell you how we did it. Of course I didn’t go to Nauru or Manus - because no filmmakers, cameras, or journalists are allowed to go there.”
“To apply for a visa to Nauru is the most expensive visa in the world - it costs $8000 and the only people who are allowed in are Government employees who work at the camps,” she explained. “I’m a frugal documentarian so I wasn’t going to waste $8000. You can go to Manus - but if you get anywhere near the perimeter of the camp, chances are that you’ll get beaten up and have your camera smashed.”
“The nature of secret footage is that it has to remain secret. However, the bigger issue here is that we are a democracy, and we have had a policy, on and off for fifteen years, that prevents us from knowing exactly what our policies are.”
The injustice of Australia’s offshore detention policies strikes a particularly personal chord with Orner. “My parents were born in 1937 in Poland, Jewish, so they were babies of the war,” she explains. “Three of my four grandparents died in the Holocaust and out of two really big families, less than a handful survived. My parents came here in the 50s as immigrants, and I had this lovely, middleclass Australian upbringing - living in a democracy; free, great education; and aware that bad things happen to good people, growing up in the shadow of genocide.”
"To me, the Refugee Convention has always been incredibly important because it comes out of the Holocaust," she continues. “As David Marr says in the film: It’s the world’s apology to the Jewish people for World War II. Australia was one of the early signatories – we couldn’t get in fast enough to sign it in the 50s. And we 100 per cent do not adhere to it now.”
Clearly astounded by the absence of compassion that now characterises Australia’s attitude towards people seeking asylum on our shores, Orner says, “All of this started in 2001 when a group of Afghan Hazaras came to Australia by boat and John Howard wouldn’t let them in - they ended up on Nauru and shortly after Manus was opened.”
As an Australian living abroad in America, Orner watched on in horror as Australia’s already harsh policy stance towards people seeking asylum become even more callous. “In 2013 when Abbott was elected and the boat tow-backs started, the rhetoric started getting worse,” she said.
“People didn’t seem to understand what was happening. There seemed to be a lot of confusion and I thought that maybe I could create a documentary that would hopefully be seen widely and give people a clearer understanding of what’s happening.”
“I felt like people weren’t compassionate enough, they weren’t engaging with this issue. No matter how much is written about these places, until you see them for yourself, you don’t fully understand how bad the situation could really be. I wanted to show that as well. And I think we have - I think that’s what’s shocking people.”
Orner hopes that Chasing Asylum will counteract the divisive misinformation that has swayed public opinion and start to fill in some of the gaps in awareness that Australia’s secretive policies have caused.
“There’s a lot of fatigue and people are exhausted by this [issue] - because it has been going on for a long time. But the only way we can change this, because our two major parties have the same policy, is if we all stand up. And the only way we can all stand up is if we all know about it.”
“It’s a particularly difficult time in the world,” she concedes. “I’m not being ‘Pollyanna’ about this – there are 60 million displaced people in the world, the most since the end of World War II. It’s not an easy solution. However, we’re not doing enough. We need to be doing more. We need to up our refugee intake. Noone’s saying let everybody in. We can’t solve the world’s refugee crisis - but we can certainly do better.”