Poh Lin Lee is a trauma counsellor who lives on Christmas
Island with her family. Her job consists of assisting the asylum seekers who
have been detained in the detention centre on the remote island. This role
takes its toll on Poh, but she persists as she knows that these isolated people
need her help.
This small island in the middle of nowhere is an ocean oddity
– a relatively recent discovery in the realm of human history, with humans having
migrated there in the last century. The previous island inhabitants still
occupy the islands forests – some 40 million red land crabs whom migrate across
the island to reach the treacherous shoreline. Poh, the asylum seekers, and the
crabs are not alone, with a predominantly Chinese and Malay population of about
two thousand people making up the ‘citizens of Christmas Island’.
This is the Island of
the Hungry Ghosts.
Director Gabrielle Brady inserts moments of people burning offerings for the spirits of those who have long past and were never given a proper burial between Poh’s story and the migration of the crabs. This offering is given a greater relevance given the many asylum seekers who have died on the shores of Christmas Island, with the most notable tragedy being that of the 2010 tragedy where 48 people died off the coast of Christmas Island after their boat sank.
At its core, Island of
the Hungry Ghosts is a film about the people who help those in need. Poh’s
narrative carries the bulk of the thematic weight that makes this film so
important and powerful, while the motif of the offerings for ‘hungry ghosts’
shows the care and sensitivity that people have for those who have long passed.
Meanwhile, as the crabs make their migration across the island, people are
deployed to ensure that their journey is a safe one. A team monitors the roads
on the island, closing off each one to traffic as a new swathe of crabs forge a
path forward in earnest. In one scene, a young bloke shows his teammate how to
make a makeshift bridge to help the crabs make their way across a ditch. Later,
he sweeps the crabs aside with a broom as he guides a small convoy safely
through the migration path.
Meanwhile, Poh sits in her office helping refugees work
through the trauma of having escaped a war torn country, all the while being
kept as prisoners without any cause in a military-esque prison. She utilises a
box with sand taken from the beach to help her patients tell their story. Toy
figures are used to help provide a visual representation of their emotions.
Some opt to simply run their fingers through the sand as they talk about the
distance between them and their family. Then, like a tap being slowly turned
off, the patients start to dry up. A day of therapy is made obsolete as asylum
seekers are either moved off the island without any prior notice, or they are
denied the ability to come to therapy.
All the while, Poh diligently stays on the island, her family
by her side to support her and care for her. She carries the weight of the
grief and pain that these people in need pour onto her. Yet, there’s a limit as
to how much pain one person can carry, and come the films end, Poh can’t carry
any more. Her ability to support the asylum seekers is being thwarted by the
Australian government, their actions employed to deny the asylum seekers of any
kind of support.
One sequence, perfectly captured by cinematographer Michael
Latham, has Poh cutting a path through the rambling jungle. She is exhausted,
sweat pours down her face. At first we think that it’s because she needs to let
off steam, but at the conclusion of her journey we realise her destination was
to get a glimpse of the compound that the asylum seekers are kept in. It’s a
mammoth fortress made of gnarled metal. Ominous lights hang over the wire
fences, working as a deterrent for anyone who wants to make their way either in
or out of the facility. Poh looks over the facility, knowing that her fate is
sealed, just like the fate of the asylum seekers who call it ‘home’. The
Australian government has taken whatever agency these people had and has
discarded it like trash.
I sat still after watching Island of the Hungry Ghosts. I want to say I felt numb, that I felt
exhausted, that I felt depressed, over what I’d just seen. But the truth of the
matter is – I’ve become used to this kind of story over the past five years.
I’ve become accustomed to reading stories about people trying to help asylum
seekers and being turned away. I’ve become accustomed to the Australian way of
life – the way the government tries to gaslight Australia into thinking that
they’re doing the right thing by keeping asylum seekers locked up in far off
prisons without the necessary care, and definitely without any compassion at
I don’t want you to think that after watching Island of the Hungry Ghosts that I had
become complacent and accepting that this is the fate of the world. Far from
I was furious.
I sat on the edge of my seat stirring in a mire of anger and
The comparison that Gabrielle Brady is making is clear – how
can one community offer care and support for spirits that have passed, and
another provide care and support for migrating crabs, all the while, in the
same vicinity, a government decides that these people in need are worth nothing
and have no right to asylum? The Australian government decides that indefinite
detention is the best thing for these asylum seekers, hiding behind the narrative
that ‘lives are saved because less people are drowning at sea’, but as one
refugee states as they voice that they’ve contemplated suicide, ‘when your life
is the only thing you have a choice over, you’d probably be contemplating it
medical officers on Nauru
were removed from the island. Médecins
Sans Frontières had been providing psychological assistance to asylum
seekers, only for their services to be denied by the Nauruan government. While
Poh decides to leave Christmas Island for her own mental health, it’s clear
that she does so reluctantly. The Australian government had simply made her
role as a counsellor untenable. By denying her the ability to care for those in
need, and in turn, denying those in need the ability to move out of detention
and into the community, the government enacts a cycle of trauma that shows no
sign of ceasing.
Australia has produced many films about asylum
seekers and refugees. Eva Orner’s Chasing
Asylum takes viewers into the camps on Manus and Nauru and shows the
horrendous living conditions of those being kept in perpetuity. Judy Rymer’s Border Politics has human rights
barrister Julian Burnside travelling the world and witnessing the way society
at large is treating asylum seekers. Belinda Mason’s Constance on the Edge shows the value of Sudanese refugees in
society, how they manage to forge a life for themselves all the while
processing residual trauma from the world they escaped. Ros Horin’s The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe shows
the value of telling these stories, both for the world at large, and for those
whose story it is to tell. Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts sits comfortably amongst this group of
powerful, essential films about a worldwide, unceasing tragedy. These stories
need to be told, and it’s with great thanks to these great women directors that
they are being told right now.
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