Putting island in doc

Gabrielle Brady on the challenges of shooting Island Of The Hungry Ghosts

by Amber Wilkinson

Poh Lin Lee with her daughter. Gabrielle Brady: 'I think Poh Lin's naturally a very poetic and receptive person and instead of being so inside of it and getting hung up on every little policy change, she was constantly seeing this ‘big eye’ view, which was really seeing it for what it was'
Poh Lin Lee with her daughter. Gabrielle Brady: 'I think Poh Lin's naturally a very poetic and receptive person and instead of being so inside of it and getting hung up on every little policy change, she was constantly seeing this ‘big eye’ view, which was really seeing it for what it was' Photo: Chromosom Film GmbH
Gabrielle Brady’s debut documentary feature Island Of The Hungry Ghosts takes an unusual approach to its subject – indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Australia’s Christmas Island – marrying first-person testimony about the experience to an exploration of the natural landscapes and animals on the islands, in particular migrating land crabs.

Brady’s long-time friend, trauma counsellor Poh Lin Lee stands at the heart of the film, acting as a conduit for the testimony of asylum seekers but also experiencing reflected trauma about their experiences herself. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the strongest interrogation of the reasons for the detention centres comes from Lee’s young daughter Poppy, who Brady says provided inspiration for the project.

“That’s how the film even began,” Brady tells me from New York, where the film had its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival this week. “Before it became clear that Poh Lin would be the main character, I was spending a lot of time with Poppy, her daughter, who’s actually my goddaughter. I was spending time with her basically because I was babysitting her but also I was wondering how it would be if she was a character in the film.

Gabrielle Brady: 'For me a film grows from a place – it’s how I connect to an idea, the location first and then the human stories or drama inside of that'
Gabrielle Brady: 'For me a film grows from a place – it’s how I connect to an idea, the location first and then the human stories or drama inside of that' Photo: Grace Gelder
“She’s such a tenacious, curious smart little girl. She has this way of questioning and she’ll question everything and she won’t give up. She’s relentless. There was this point when we were dropping someone off at the detention centre after an outing, when they were still allowed out and she was asking where they were going and why and had they done something wrong. She just couldn’t understand it. She invited them to stay at their house overnight, because she was meeting kids as well that were going back. This was so confronting for her, she just couldn’t make sense of it. No matter how Poh Lin would try to explain it, it wasn’t making any sense and she was hurt by it. The way she would describe it was like seeing it for the first time. So, this was the seed. It was already horrific but it was also so normalised and just having a kid trying to discuss it in a way that is so obvious but you’ve all overlooked that in your adult intellect, we were like, ‘This is crazy’.” Another seed was also sown during a visit to see Lee and her family on the island.

“At the end of that trip, Poh Lin said, ‘I want to show you something’. She drove us up, we had a machete and we cut our way through this long piece of jungle, that you see in the film and arrived at the lookout point for the detention centre. It was just such a chilling moment because we had just been experiencing the beauty of this place so it was such a contrast.

“So, at that point, we started talking and I started thinking there could be the possibility of a film and Poh Lin had started thinking there was a possibility that people might want their stories recorded because she was really aware that the counselling service eventually would be shut down. I think she was worried that those stories would get buried. There was very little coming out of the detention centre.

“For me, seeing the island, and experiencing the island, I then could feel how there could be a film. So, when we started researching it was with her clients. But then, early on as I started to think about how will this work dramatically, whose story is this and how do we see this play out? One side is the island’s story. But the way that I’ve come to understand the story and be profoundly moved is through Poh Lin, and I thought, ‘I think that’s how the audience need to receive this story.’

“I knew that a lot earlier than Poh Lin. In a way, I forgot to tell her that because we’re such good friends. At some point, she said, ‘You’re filming a lot with me’ and I said, ‘You’re the main character’. Then we sat down and had a conversation about it and she came to her own understanding of why she would be okay with that. But, for me, it was because she faced her own conflict inside this bigger conflict and she had a way of seeing the situation. I think she’s naturally a very poetic and receptive person and instead of being so inside of it and getting hung up on every little policy change, she was constantly seeing this ‘big eye’ view, which was really seeing it for what it was. That was what we wanted to do with the film, take a huge leap away from the very specific anchoring point and Poh Lin as a person helped us to do that.”

One of the challenges of the film, which was four years in the making, was in terms of the therapy sessions that are included. With many of those involved still in a uncertain position as regards their status, Brady had to find a way of shooting the film that was both true to the emotions for the people involved but also ethically responsible.

She said: “In the beginning, we were meeting with people. The counselling room is in a place a little way away from the centre so we were able to semi-covertly meet with people who people that Poh Lin and her colleagues would introduce us to. We would meet them again and again and we befriended them. At that time, people were allowed out of the detention centre for afternoon trips. Maybe just once or twice in their whole three-year stint on the island but in these settings as well, we were able to meet people.

“But the thing is, that’s just meeting people. I really wasn’t feeling comfortable. We were filming if people were okay with that and I think a lot of those people were at such a stage where they thought, ‘We don’t know what else to do so we want our voices to be heard. No one’s hearing us, no one’s knowing what’s going on’. But we were also wondering how that would be with permission. It was a really long journey to get where we got, some of the sessions were filmed at that time and we had to keep in touch with people via the internet, via email. Also in the film, you’d have seen covering identity because that person still isn’t in a safe position. With some of the other sessions, Poh Lin decided, ‘I can’t ethically do this if they are being taken straight back into detention’. So on some of the sessions, as soon as they left detention and went of the mainland, we filmed it there.

Gabrielle Brady: 'The biggest rule for Poh Lin was: Therapy number one; filming number two'
Gabrielle Brady: 'The biggest rule for Poh Lin was: Therapy number one; filming number two' Photo: Chromosom Film GmbH
“We experimented with it because we didn’t know how it would work for the dramatic structure. The biggest rule for Poh Lin was: Therapy number one; filming number two. So, we were not able to have any involvement, it had to come from the person in therapy. So, there was no directive, no ‘can you talk about this’, absolutely not. They were taken in, there was a full therapy session and, if we were asked to leave, of course we had to leave. So, this was how we created the intimacy of the therapy but it’s also ethically how we went about ensuring that it was a therapy session and it wasn’t a recollection or something done for the film.

“There’s also the sense of permission. Somebody can give their permission in the moment but if they’re going back into the detention system and their situation becomes more precarious… Quite often people on Christmas Island weren’t able to have much connection and they were being monitored, their emails are being monitored, so it was incredibly dicey and we were not prepared to put people in that position. We thought it’s too much of a risk and the situation is too tumultuous, so we thought, ‘How do we get around this, but still allowing a platform of a real session’. For me, it meant that I could keep in touch with people and that’s what we did through the whole editing.

“We filmed with a lot of people over different stages. We did that so that if someone dropped, we weren’t putting the pressure on two or three people. People went into it knowing that at any point until the final edit, they could pull out. During the edit, I would send clips of their interviews or their therapy sessions and they would give me feedback. It was really inclusive and I think that’s the only way that you can make a film like this.”

Brady says the people who we see on screen are no longer in the detention centres but their situation is still precarious, leading her to be very cautious even now the film is finished.

She added: “In fact, they’re not even on visas, so at the moment, we’re trying to figure out if we can even show the film in Australia because, before they’ve sat their visa interview it’s just a really risky situation for them and, at the moment, the immigration minister in Australia has incredible powers. He can pinpoint certain cases and he has the authority to essentially send somebody back without having to go through the court or appeal system. So, I’m taking the lead on what people want but we’re also being incredibly cautious. It’s really sad because it’s the place it needs to be seen the most but we can’t because people’s situations are so precarious.”

Gabrielle Brady: 'I was more interested in these bigger feelings you get from seeing the crabs in motion and the stasis of people'
Gabrielle Brady: 'I was more interested in these bigger feelings you get from seeing the crabs in motion and the stasis of people' Photo: Chromosom Film GmbH
In between the segments featuring very emotional testimony, including feelings of despair and even self-harm that some of the asylum seekers feel they have been driven to, Brady returns repeatedly to the island itself, including some of its earliest human migrant arrivals, who talk about laying the spirits of the dead to rest and its even earlier settlers, the land crabs.

“There were a lot of reasons for the inclusion,” said Brady. “One was, I think, for me a film grows from a place – it’s how I connect to an idea, the location first and then the human stories or drama inside of that. So being on the island, it’s so dark and full of threat yet it’s so beautiful. So there’s this kind of yin-yang of beauty and horror and it really does feel like it’s populated by ghosts. That feeling was always there from the beginning, so when I started meeting people and understanding through Poh Lin the stories that were happening I had a really strange sensorial reaction being on the island. Either it would be a really confronting thing of being haunted or a really cathartic feeling of being on the beach and letting what I’d just heard kind of wash away. So, it was organic, and that word gets overused, but it was being there and seeing my own experience of the island talked to those stories and how they helped me to see a bigger perspective. How they gave me a haunting sensation.”

She adds that the crab migration parallel was “almost too obvious” and something she was determined not to labour too much.

She said: “For me, it was an incredible metaphor. It sits there. On the island, people have only been arriving for 100 years, the crab migration has been happening for hundreds of thousands of years, it’s one of the oldest animal migrations on earth. So suddenly there was this crazy contrast. I think from the beginning the idea was to not create too much of a dichotomy between the two storylines because it would have been really easy to have told the story of ‘the care taken’ and ‘we don’t care’ and that would be it.

“That’s too easy. The crabs need to be cared for and I’m also a nature conservationist. I was more interested in these bigger feelings you get from seeing the crabs in motion and the stasis of people.” The music draws on many of the emotions Brady outlines, as Aaron Cupples’ score has a haunting, otherworldly quality. Brady had worked with Cupples before on a short film, so she knew what to expect and she was keen to work with a musician rather than someone traditionally schooled in compositions. “I wanted something as haunting and unique as all the other elements,” she said: “This was a huge part of the film and I wanted it to grow out of the island. We watched a lot of sci-fi, a lot of horror and a lot of mystery films. Then he did his own research on Christmas Island. It has a huge Indo-Malay community, so he was getting inspired by gamelan music and we were looking at some old Mandarin opera. We used a lot of reference points.

“He goes right to the very beginning. So, he handmade all the instruments to create a very specific sound. At one point, he had a giant string with a bow tied up in his studio, from one side to the other, that he would pluck to make these incredible sounds. He’s obsessed and I love that.”

Brady also says the film was a learning experience for her, refusing to tell me how much footage she shot over the three or four months she was filming, adding “it was too much”.

She said: “Complete rookie mistake, especially because the editor is also a very obsessive person and she said, ‘We will watch every single minute’ At a point when we were watching an hour of tracking shots of a mushroom in a jungle, I was like, ‘Gabrielle, on your next film, you will never do this again.’”

The good news is that there definitely will be a next time. Among the films Brady is working on is a film set in Mongolia, currently in its very early states.

“It’s interesting because I met Poh Lin there 10 years ago,” she said. “I lived there for two years and I recently went back last year to do some more research. I’m working with a family who are in the midst of being pushed out of their nomadic life. They’re being pushed into the city like more and more families are because of this phenomenon called the zud that basically is on the rise because of global temperatures rising. It’s the biggest migration of people on earth, at the moment. As one of the last nomadic places on earth, it’s going to have huge impacts for the families and people of Mongolia. It’s going to be a bit of a sci-fi though. A scif-fi documentary about one family who will be migrating to the city.”

Read more about the film on the official site

The film will screen at Edinburgh International Film Festival in June.

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