Eva Orner is an Australian filmmaker now based primarily in Los Angeles, who began her career working in Australian television in the 1990s. She moved to New York in 2005 and soon after began working as producer on a number of documentaries with Alex Gibney, including Taxi to the Dark Side (2007 – for which Orner shared Best Documentary accolade at the 2008 Academy Awards) and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr Hunter S. Thompson (2008).
Chasing Asylum (2016) is Orner’s second film as a director, coming after The Network, which was made in 2013 and tells the story of TOLO TV, Afghanistan’s first independent television station. Chasing Asylum examines the devastating effects of asylum seeker policies imposed by successive Australian Governments. Both major political parties, the nominally conservative Liberal National coalition and the nominally progressive Australian Labor Party, have crafted progressively more draconian policies over recent decades. The centerpiece of these policies is the ‘Pacific Solution’, requiring asylum seekers to be transported to detention centres on island nations in the Pacific Ocean, rather than allowing them to enter Australia to have their claims processed. The race to the bottom between the political parties culminated in ‘border protection’ legislation passed in 2015 which made it a crime, punishable by two years imprisonment, for anyone working for the Department of Immigration to disclose any information obtained while doing their job. As a result, health workers, aid workers and other contractors are sworn to secrecy, unable to report on anything they see or hear while working at the Australian Government’s offshore detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island in PNG.
By stymieing any testimony emanating from the detention centres, the Australian Government has effectively erected a veil of secrecy around their operation. Lukas Schrank’s short documentary Nowhere Line: Voices from Manus Island (2015) 1 circumvented these limitations by matching animated visuals to moving oral testimony garnered from detainees. Orner’s film goes a step further, using secretly filmed footage to present grim, fleeting images of life within the detention centres. The necessity of using hidden cameras leads to a certain style: the image is never free ranging, always occluded, partial, disorienting. These images are at the heart of the film, which also includes interviews from asylum seekers in various countries, journalists and refugee activists.
Senses of Cinema spoke to Eva Orner about Chasing Asylum in June 2016, just after the film’s Australian theatrical release.
This film at its centre deals with a veil of secrecy around offshore detention in Australia. Why is it left to you, an expatriate filmmaker, to expose this?
It all began for me in 2001 when John Howard imposed his ‘Pacific Solution’ as a response to the Tampa incident 2. There was this fear and panic and confusion about the basic facts and figures within Australia then. I was living in New York in 2007 when Kevin Rudd got in and stayed up all night drinking champagne with friends cheering knowing that he had promised that the camps would be closed. Then I reeled in horror a few years later when they were re-opened by the same administration. In 2013 the rhetoric of [new Prime Minister] Tony Abbott’s Government was really harsh and moronic, his whole campaign was reduced to “stop the boats, stop the boats, stop the boats”. When I was talking to friends in Australia who are smart and well read, some of them were using terms like “illegal asylum seekers” and “queue jumpers” and that’s wrong. There is no such thing if you are a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, which allows anyone to come to Australia in any way, including by boat, to seek asylum from persecution.
So I was thinking: someone needs to make a film about this. I was waiting for someone to make a film about it and nobody was making the film that I thought needed to be made. But I can now see why it hadn’t been made: it’s an impossible film to make. It’s about places you’re not allowed to go to, people you’re not allowed to talk to, and if you do get into these places and get footage now, it’s a criminal offence punishable by two year’s jail time. So I’m the idiot for making it!
Yes, Chasing Asylum relies a lot on footage of detention centres from unnamed sources to flesh out interviews and titles providing factual information. Was this always the format you envisaged? How did you get the footage?
Everything about this film was tricky. I can’t talk about the process of getting the footage without putting my sources in danger. I contacted people and got them to do it for me – I can’t discuss it further. It was very hard because I never knew what I was going to get and I knew I needed to humanise asylum seekers and refugees because we’ve been denied seeing who they are and hearing their stories. It took a lot of time to find people and earn their trust, both the whistleblowers appearing on camera and those who got the footage. I didn’t know how good our secret footage would be and it didn’t come in until very late in the process.
I filmed in Australia and then I went to Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Indonesia and Cambodia to film as well, and quite a lot of that is in the film. The film is a combination of archive materials, secret footage that we have collected and I guess commissioned and there is a lot of shot footage as well. I had an idea in my head of the things I wanted to hit but so much was out of my control. All the people in the film who talk about Reza Barati’s death and the riots, 3 they’ve all returned to the places they fled from because they couldn’t stay in Manus any more because they were terrified after the riot. I interviewed them in Iran and I interviewed them in Farsi and I didn’t even know what they were saying in a lot of detail until months later when I got the transcripts because when I shoot I don’t want my interpreter to interrupt the flow too much, so you’re never completely sure what you’ve got.
This type of documentary filmmaking is very fly by the seat of your pants, which can be really terrifying because you come back and you think you’ve got something amazing, but until months later in the edit you don’t know if it’s going to work. The biggest thing for us was that a couple of our key whistleblowers didn’t come into the picture until quite late in the edit and it took a long time to cut. We didn’t change things but the emphasis shifted a little bit onto the whistleblowers.
There’s something about actual footage that is always so powerful in galvanizing a response. We continually see this, from Rodney King to Abu Ghraib. While not as graphic, the images here are deeply dispiriting.
Yes, showing will always be more evocative than telling and the footage on its own is very powerful, matching the stories. I haven’t done anything to it. We didn’t have permission to shoot the refugees in the detention centres, so we had to artfully mask their faces. We didn’t mask the guards, on the basis that we as taxpayers employ them, so we have a right to show their faces. Anybody who sees the film will also see the footage of drawings made by children in the detention centres. My family was affected by the Holocaust, 4 so I’m wary of making comparisons, but the children’s drawings look remarkably similar to those drawn by children in concentration camps during the holocaust.
You’ve touched on how central the testimony of whistleblowers is to the film. One young man, Greg Lake, could almost be a stand in (albeit very articulate and by his own admission very privileged) for Australians unaware of what’s occurring in detention centres. He talks about having his eyes opened and perspective changed by witnessing what was going on.
I think both Greg and also the security guard Martin challenge the expectation that only younger or more liberal people would be upset by what’s happening. It’s powerful to see white men, and in particular a white, middle aged man whose career is as a prison guard, be so shocked and traumatised by the experience. Greg is a huge hero in Australia – he was a very young man who ran Christmas Island and Nauru and he’s really turned around and works with refugees now. He’s come to a couple of screenings and I say this about all the whistleblowers who appear in the film: when you look back over history it’s so often the whistleblowers who change things in the world that are wrong and they usually risk everything to do it and it usually takes a long time for them to be acknowledged.
The whistleblowers are the real heroes of the film, I couldn’t have done it without them. At a lot of the screenings I’ve attended around Australia people come up to me and say: “I worked on Manus or Nauru and thank you for making this film.” I generally ask them if they’d be interested in speaking out and not one of them has said yes. I totally get why they don’t want to talk, I don’t make any judgment here. Over the last 15 years that the camps have been running there’s been thousands of people working there and just a handful have spoken out, that’s how scared people are. So I cannot overestimate the power of the whistleblowers in this film.
There’s such contrasting moments in the film, it must have been a tough job to sort through and edit the material. The footage of the guards dismissing the detainees just before the riot at Manus is jaw dropping stuff; then later in the film you have interviews with the parents of Reza Barati and Hamid Kehazaei. 5
Yes, I really have to give a big shout out to Annabelle Johnson my editor. I was so busy shooting and was getting so much footage and we collaborated a lot and I’ve given her a co-producer credit for a reason. In documentaries editors play such a big part in putting the story together. She was tireless. I remember when we got back the footage of the prison guards saying those terrible things. She had to go through all the material we shot with a fine toothcomb and some of it was hard to understand and she worked a lot with our translators and I think it was a massive job and a massive challenge. She’s done an extraordinary job. We had the great Jill Billcock as an editorial consultant and she and Robert Connolly, my Executive Producer, recommended Annabelle to me because I haven’t worked in Australia for so long I didn’t know anyone. I wanted someone young and fresh with a different approach because I thought it would be a different kind of project. We were so lucky with people like Jill and Rob and Tony Ayres. He’s a friend and he came and looked at early cuts and gave notes. I feel like it was the film that a lot of people really wanted made so we were the recipients of a lot of generosity.
I understand you kick started the funding of the film via crowd funding. How did that work and what are the prospects for distribution of the film?
It’s all privately funded, which is a completely different way for me to make a film. Because of the political theme, I didn’t want to go to ABC or SBS (Australian Government broadcasters) for funding, as they are all under Government scrutiny. The crowd funding campaign was a great way to start the ball rolling and to get publicity for the project, but it was less than 10% of the final budget. The rest is rich people and foundations donating and it’s been overwhelming because it wasn’t a cheap film to make. It’s great when people come on board for this type of project because what you need is complete independence.
The film premiered in April in Toronto at Hot Docs and was also the opening night film for the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival in Melbourne for its Australian premiere, before getting theatrical release in Australia. Other festivals have now picked it up. It’s done well at the box office in Australia, it’s been topical because of the election. Local communities in regional cities and interested groups have also been booking out cinemas for independent screenings. Dogwood Distribution in England has just picked the film up and we’re getting good European TV sales.
Finally, in your broader career, you worked for some time with the incredibly prolific Alex Gibney. What has been the impact of that experience?
I went to the US in weird circumstances, I’d had a good career here making documentaries and working in television and with scripted projects as well. I went to the US in 2004 and I met Alex coincidentally and he’d just finished Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), which was sort of his break out film. It was his first feature film as a director and was enormously successful and he was looking for a producer. So we worked together for two years and did five films (including Taxi to the Dark Side, Gonzo and Herbie Hancock: Possibilities (2006). Chasing Asylum is sort of like Taxi to the Dark Side Australia! I was in the airport from LA coming from Hot Docs where the film premiered, en route from Toronto to Australia and I got an email from him saying he’d seen some of the reviews and he was really proud of me and was so glad I made the film. That’s big praise because Alex is not the most effusive guy in the world. It’s funny also because we make very different films. His films are quite heavily narrated and I’ve now made three films as a director and I’m not a narrator. I don’t want to narrate, I want my characters to speak – it’s just a stylistic thing. I learned a lot from him though, he’s a good guy!
- Viewable at https://vimeo.com/152158702 ↩
- Then Prime Minister John Howard’s Liberal Government refused permission for the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter that had rescued 438 Afghan refugees in international waters, to enter Australian territory ↩
- Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed during a riot at the Manus Island detention centre on 17 February 2014. Two local men, a security guard and a Salvation Army worker, were convicted of Barati’s murder, although accusations continue that other security guards were involved: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/apr/19/reza-barati-men-convicted-of-asylum-seekers-to-be-free-in-less-than-four-years. ↩
- Three of Orner’s grandparents died in the Holocaust, and her Polish parents settled in Melbourne post WW2 ↩
- Hamid Kehazaei was a detainee on Manus island who died of a bacterial infection, having not received appropriate and timely treatment for a cut to his foot after Australian public servants second guessed medical advice that he be evacuated immediately for treatment ↩