“Forgive me, my bird, as I am not able to embrace you.
I know some immigrant birds. I smile at them at the crack of dawn
and I embrace them with open arms.
The man loves you,
inside a cage located between the vastest ocean and the greenest forest.”
Manus Island Poem by Behrouz Boochani
Kurdish refugee and award-winning writer and filmmaker
Since 2013, there has been a sordid undercurrent running beneath Australian political agenda. Over the last seven years, thousands of refugees, migrants and asylum seeker have suffered under a policy loaded with a dangerous, and complete disregard of humanity.
Despite a landmass that is approximately 32 times bigger than the United Kingdom, and a population of 40.3 million people fewer, Australia has refused to accept, even process, individuals within the borders of its vast mainland. Instead, when officials began intercepting boats carrying refuges on the final leg of their mammoth cross-continent journey, navigating the last stretch of ocean between Indonesia and the supposed-sanctuary of Australia, the vessels were diverted from their intended route, and escorted to surrounding islands.
Manus Island, the largest Admiralty Islands of Papua New Guinea, isolated, remote and in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with an indigenous population of around fifty thousand, became one such depository for Australia’s unwanted arrivals. On November 21st 2012, Julia Gillard’s Labor government reopened the purpose-built facility inside Lombrum base, an outpost of the Australian navy, located a short boat ride around the nearest headland of Manus Island. At its peak, there were upwards of two thousand refugees incarcerated under conditions the United Nations would go on to find a violation of human rights, with a report published in 2013 identifying every asylum seeker on Manus Island as displaying signs of anxiety and depression. And yet despite these early warnings, an epidemic of tragedy ensued: mental illness, suicides, murder, assaults and mass hunger strikes.
The stories of the men featured in this Oscar qualifying film, MANUS, were filmed during the 24-day standoff between the refugee occupants of the existing detention centre and the authorities brought in to close it down and move the detainees to other compounds, located on the outskirts of towns, down long dirt roads leading into thick jungle. Resisting further marginalisation and demanding a stop to the unending purgatory, some six hundred men refused to leave, citing fears for their safety in Lorengau where they were headed. In response, the authorities cut off their water supply, electricity and food sources, culminating in the violent and forcible removal of the men as the strikes entered their 24th day.
Completely devoid of any solution other than burying the crisis and its victims further into institutions, the authorities have failed so many. Trauma has overwritten hope and ambition, those who arrived at twenty years old, leave now as adults – weary and exhausted, disillusioned by the promise of anything better. And yet, there is still resilience, a defiance that comes from resisting the narrative assigned to them, the one which writes headlines of terrorism and tax-funded emigration for reasons none other than career prospects and healthcare advantages. Despite several years of tropical purgatory and the torment of complete powerlessness, undeserved punishment for wanting a better life and for leaving behind wherever and whatever constitutes the comparison, there remains pieces of promise: an Iranian semi-professional soccer player with resolve to play again, a doctor intending to practice his profession once more. Regardless of everything, people grip to the parts of their identity that offshore policy has sought to strip them off.
MANUS is a film that quite clearly seeks to humanise those forgotten, those that make up the numbers behind a statistic or a policy agenda, just like our Lost and Found collection. Under darkness, the filmmakers draw out humanity, civility, and kindness even in the most desperate situation imaginable. In the camp, food shortages mean equal distribution, lack of medicines mean shared home remedies, sadness is met with understanding and compassion, it is a brotherhood born out from the most basic of human responses: protection, benevolence, empathy.
And so perhaps through its own policy of segregation, the Australian government has created a microcosmic experiment, and one that has disproved its own ignorant theory. That refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are, as a result of their background, unable to integrate into a fully functioning Western society has been disproved and the opposite exemplified. In this isolated purgatory, where those of different cultures and creeds were thrown together as a means of deterrent, a higher-society has been created as a bi-product of suffering and squalor. Not higher in the way of aesthetic sophistication, but in the very basic and founding principles of civilisation, a society where we are kind to strangers, listen to others and do things for the good of the community.
Of course, that’s not to ignore the suffering, the stress-induced violence that undoubtedly punctuated the lives of those that passed through offshore detention centres, there isn’t anything positive to come from such misery. But for those who endured such inhumanity, who were denied compassion, who were ignored and deemed invaluable to society, in worst way possible these men managed to show their contribution, what they can offer to the population of Australia, even if it’s as simple as being a good citizen, a good neighbour, a friend – where in the world doesn’t need more of those.
About the filmmaker
Howling Eagle is an independent film projected created by Australian artist Angus McDonald together with a small team in early 2017.
Since then, the team have travelled through Greece, to Lebanon and to Jordan to hear the stories of displaced people, and meet inspiration people and organisations successfully adopting a range of humanitarian approaches to support them.
The series of short films titled ‘Philoxenia’ comprises episodes and interviews that provide global perspectives and focus on the widely condemned offshore processing policy of the Australian Federal Government.
In their own words, Howling Eagle hope their series will provide a greater perspective of the human dimension at the heart of this issue, and contribute to a positive change in Australia’s approach.