Clara Law’s Letters to Ali is a documentary about a family’s relationship with a 15-year-old Afghan refugee, “Ali”. Trish, her husband and children begin writing letters to Ali while he is being held at the Port Hedland detention centre. They soon embark on an 8000-kilometre road trip to visit Ali, and Law and her husband Eddie Fong join this “long march” to capture it on film.
Crucial to the telling of this story is an emptiness that gives the film’s themes the weight they deserve.
The film doesn’t make an argument about the “refugee problem”; instead, it analyses its components by laying them out as a series of questions, making them the locus of richer viewer interpretations. In several key montage sequences, questions are posed in text superimposed against shots of the Australian landscape, asking such things as “What does family mean? What is fear?” Onscreen text distances the viewer and while answers are discussed in voiceover, the questions aren’t resolved. Moreover, their juxtaposition with images of the Australian outdoors makes these sequences especially open-ended and problematic.
Open signs like these are nothing new. Gilles Deleuze makes it clear that all texts and signs are naturally “open” anyhow. It’s just easier to close them down by applying ready-made ideas to our interpretation.
Deleuze challenges us to acknowledge the fundamental openness of signs by directing us toward what he describes as the empty space in every text [la case vide] (1). This is the “breathing room” necessary for differentiating a text’s component parts, and that underpins a rich and detailed interpretation. Importantly it’s not a negative space. If it was then the implication is as follows: texts, necessarily, would be missing something and ready-made ideas, poured in from outside, fill the void; for example, what Godard would describe as the idea of “blood” for the colour red.
A positive emptiness at the heart of texts means interpretation is very different. It’s not about filling in what is missing. It’s about seeing what’s right there in more clarity (unobstructed by ready-made ideas). And since it is not an emptiness that can be filled, interpretation remains fundamentally open.
Law’s montage sequences show the empty space positively glowing. Image, text and voiceover aren’t harmonious. Questions aren’t resolved. Their juxtaposition with “postcard” shots of nature make what are otherwise simple and familiar questions ambiguous and poetic. Image, text and voiceover don’t seem to fit together, and so it’s hard for our interpretation to settle on a single idea. The empty space is the virtual buffer keeping the image’s components separate, maintaining their difference.
This empty space is at the core of Letters to Ali, like it is at the core of all texts, but Law draws attention to its positive power. Ready-made ideas don’t dominate in our interpretation. Law’s film makes it difficult for that to happen. In the final sequence Law is quite literal in her intention. The film races towards a climax: we are anticipating – hoping for – a resolution regarding Ali’s future. But Law doesn’t offer closure. We see, framed through a car window, the massive Australian skyline at sunset. Law’s voiceover directs us to two distant yet huge clouds in clear relief against the expansive sky. It is “a mother dragon bringing her child home”, she says. Of course, closure isn’t actually possible given the lack of resolution of Ali’s situation, but it’s clear that Law rejects outright closure anyhow by offering this sequence at the film’s end. The meaning Law draws from the clouds is unexpected, creative, personal, non-literal and poetic. What she quite clearly offers as “closure” to the documentary is the openness of meaning.
This is an important moment in this film, and in Australian cinema as a whole. The outcome is simple yet perfect: the discussion started by Letters to Ali remains open and debate about the crises of asylum seekers remains ongoing.