Island of the Hungry Ghosts
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…all the more powerful for being so quiet and unhistrionic.
Director Gabrielle Brady has made a moving little documentary about refugee detention centres, in this case Christmas Island. Island of the Hungry Ghosts has a number of strands that reverberate with each other metaphorically. Firstly, Christmas Island is famous for its red crab migration, where literally thousands of the little crustaceans teem annually to the sea. We follow the park rangers as they smooth a path to the ocean. They even erect temporary road signs to warn cars that the crabs have priority (not that there is much traffic).
If only we spent as much care with the human inhabitants of the island. Brady also films the trauma therapist Poh-Lin Lee, who patiently listens to refugee accounts. Using ‘sand box therapy’ she gets the refugees to recount their perilous voyages in the hope of exorcising some of their trauma.
Lastly, there is issue of Malay-Chinese who visit the island to allay the suffering of the titular ‘hungry ghosts’ – ancestors of the early migrant labourers who worked on the island and did not receive a proper ritual/burial.
All three strands concern the need for justice and care. Like the crabs, the refugees cannot go forward, only sideways. Their future is blocked. They have little hope of being accepted. At times, their stories (even when Brady is tactful enough to let some details remain unfilmed) are almost too hard to bear. One wonders how Poh-Lin Lee feels listening to these accounts, day after day, and indeed she does seem to despair at not being able to change their outcomes. Her programme is itself under threat.
The true cruelty and human cost of the so-called ‘Pacific solution’ – the internment in camps of desperate people who have struggled to come and get a new life in Australia – is constantly in and out of the news. However, Brady could not have predicted that her film would be so suddenly and unfortunately contemporary. At great financial cost, the government says it is going to re-open Christmas Island as a detention centre following the debacle over getting sick refugees off Nauru.
As indicated, Brady’s low budget film is all the more powerful for being so quiet and unhistrionic. It has been doing the festival circuit but is now getting a small theatrical release. Hopefully it will continue to move people and raise awareness.