‘Island of the Hungry Ghosts’ condemns refugee detention

Gabrielle Brady, director

10/25/2018.- On Thursday 25th October, the Time of History section screened the documentary Island of the Hungry Ghosts, the first feature film by Australian director Gabrielle Brady, which depicts the situation of asylum seekers held in Australia’s first detention centre.

The competition film is a project “lasting four years, with many collaborations”, about detention and waiting in a lush natural environment. On Christmas Island, millions of red crabs migrate from the forest to the sea each year, protected by the inhabitants. On the same island, thousands of asylum seekers remain indefinitely detained in a high security compound. Poh Lin, a therapist specialising in trauma who lives there with her family, is witness to the decline of the detainees. The film depicts a natural environment in constant movement and a contrasting site showing the two faces of the island: “the utopia of the island’s beauty, and then chaos”.

Following the premiere of the feature-length documentary in Spain, a discussion was held with the director, Gabrielle Brady, who explained how the story began: “I have a friend who had been on the island for three years, and I was living in Indonesia. I went there as a tourist and at the end of the holidays she said she had to show me something. We took a machete and walked for an hour through the jungle, until I saw the prison. It was very shocking”. The idea was to make a film about the feelings of those who arrive: “the atmosphere of being in a place you’re not familiar with; suddenly you’re in a wood, then in a prison, and you don’t understand what’s happening. It’s a reflection of what’s happening with the refugees”, she explained.

The director commented on the current situation of refugee flows in Australia and around the world: “it’s something very ancient, a cycle, something political which is happening every year in every part of the world. It’s shameful, and we’re not learning anything from the past”. Christmas Island houses the first and largest detention centre in Australia for people who are not authorised to enter the country. “The idea of the authorities was to put it as far away as possible from the population”, the director said in relation to the choice of site, adding that the situation has now become normalised: “in Australia everyone knows about it, but after so long, people have now accepted it”.

The film’s condemnation of the situation mixes with the emotion of the refugees’ statements; it is a story which aims to “view people as people and break down the distance which the government has tried to put in the way, bringing people together in a more humane way”.


The short film Siostry by Polish director Michal Hytros was also screened. The film explores the oldest cloistered convent in Poland, where twelve nuns in their eighties continue their daily routine on the other side of the wall. “I had to make a documentary to get into film school in Poland, and, while we were discussing my work, one of the teachers realised I had a problem with the convent and that I had a reason to make the documentary about it. That’s how the project came about”, Hytros explained.

“In Poland, we don’t have such a long cinematographic tradition, and it is important for me to show you my film and see if you like it”, added the director. He began the short film three years ago, because despite filming taking only a week, it took two years to obtain permission to film inside the convent. “We spent several days with the nuns each week, with a small handheld camera in order to get to know each other. After a lot of insistence, the Mother Superior granted us permission”, commented the director, telling the audience that she herself had “insisted that the whole filming team were men”.

Posted in 63rd Seminci.