Gabrielle Brady’s documentary explores Christmas Island, the home of an Australian immigration and refugee processing centre, and a native population of red crabs (visually revisited numerous times) that swarm across the island to the coast every year to breed. On reviewing the film during its theatrical run, I said the following:
“Outrage is an easy feeling to muster, especially in the face of something that seems inhumane and worthy of it. It is harder to communicate humanitarian injustice in a way that brews a diffuse and lasting pain in the gut, generating a poetic pathos that stirs our empathy and sympathy. It is this feat that ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS achieves.”
Gabrielle took the time to discuss the film with me following a session chaired by her at the Scottish Documentary Institute.
Jim: I think to start off with, let’s just talk a little bit about the film and how it came about. Did ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS premiere at Tribeca or did it just win an award at Tribeca?
Gabrielle: It premiered at Tribeca. Actually, it was a bit of a double premiere. So we, at the same time we were showing at Visions Du Reel, Nyon for our European international premiere, which was actually the exact same time as Tribeca. But, you know, with festivals needing kind of certain titles, it was a “world premiere” at Tribeca but they were being shown at, more or less, the same time at both festivals.
Jim: How did you come to making the film? Because, obviously, Christmas Island – certainly to me, having not been to Australia or even that part of the world – itself is quite far from Australia. How did you find yourself coming to that subject matter?
Gabrielle: So, I came to the story when I was actually living in Indonesia. And my good friend, Poh Lin Lee, for those who have seen the film, is the main character of the film, the main person that we follow in the film, was living on Christmas Island and had been working there for around three years. And we are really good friends. And for once – beforehand I’d been in Cuba and she’d been in Africa and we’d been really far apart for a long time – we were actually geographically closer for the first time in quite a few years. So, she invited me and my partner across for holiday to Christmas Island.
As you said, it’s actually very far from Australia but it’s very close to Indonesia, it’s only a 45-minute flight. So we took a flight across, and really the intention for that time was to be as tourists. And Poh Lin had said to me, you know, “Let’s just enjoy this time, I don’t really want to talk about work too much.” And so we were just there to see each other and enjoy each other’s company. We spent the time on the island as tourists seeing this very beautiful, idyllic side of the place – and it is a paradise. You know, on one hand, it is extremely beautiful.
At the end of that time, Poh said to me, “There is something I need to show you.” And so we went in the car, we took a machete, and on this island if you go anywhere, you really need a machete. It’s very overgrown and dense and wild. We took a machete and we drove up to a lookout point, and we took the machete and we cut out our way through the jungle. At the very end of that – it seemed to take forever – we finally came to the other end and a lookout point.
“We were overlooking this huge prison detention centre. And it was just one of those moments of sheer horror for so many different reasons. But just to see that structure in the middle of the jungle, it was so clear that it had been built to be hidden, that it had been built to become invisible, that we weren’t meant to see it.”
We were overlooking this huge prison detention centre. And it was just one of those moments of sheer horror for so many different reasons. But just to see that structure in the middle of the jungle, it was so clear that it had been built to be hidden, that it had been built to become invisible, that we weren’t meant to see it. And just to imagine all of those people that Poh Lin work with that were in that place at that time and weren’t able to get out, it was a really kind of uncomfortable and disconcerting moment for me. And it really kind of hung around.
But the film itself really was born out of ongoing conversations between me and Poh Lin, both of us each through our different intentions and reasons kind of wanting to respond to what was going on and seeing, was there a possibility for a film? But that moment has really hung around with me as like one of those little seeds that don’t really kind of go away too quickly. And I’d continue to think about it.
Jim: So, coming back to the time where basically you’d hacked through the jungle with the machete, am I right in saying that scene that inspired then presumably the sequence in the film where Poh Lin does exactly that?
Jim: I’ve seen you speak about this before, but I just want to get a feel for how you decide when you want to insert these slightly more staged elements. Because I think they really add a lot to the film, and what I felt like you were trying to convey, but they’re not necessarily what somebody might conventionally think of as ‘documentary’. So, how do you weigh up when to do that in the film?
Gabrielle: Yeah, that’s a really important question. I mean, I think one of the really key intentions that both me and Poh had from the beginning was that if we’re going to make a film, it can’t look or feel like…first of all, it needs to deviate away from this more conventional idea of, you know, a ‘refugee film’. And when I say that, I mean perhaps just one person’s journey and, you know, more of a message-driven film. These more kind of conventional narratives that we’ve seen a lot of.
If we’re going to make a film, it has to be something that moves to another direction and sees it in a completely new way, especially in the context of Australia where the situation with offshore detention centers is a theme and an issue that has been in our media, and within our consciousness for a long time now. And people have become really exhausted as well of talking about it and seeing it. So, it needs to be something that captures people’s attention in a very different way.
But also, I was really wanting to move away from any image we’ve ever seen of this place. It had to be something completely unexpected. The narrative, the images that we’ve seen of this island in the media had been, you know, people on a little boat out at sea arriving to a jetty, being taken in little buses, and seeing people behind fences. So those images were all very distant, very cold. They weren’t about bringing us closer to someone and the experience or the truth of what was happening. In fact, it was doing the opposite.
“I was really wanting to move away from any image we’ve ever seen of this place, [which] were all very distant, very cold. They weren’t about bringing us closer to someone and the experience or the truth of what was happening. In fact, it was doing the opposite.”
So this film really needed to be about bringing us much closer to the experience, much closer and more intimately to the people inside of this experience. So every decision was centred around that – and less so about is this a hybrid form or is this a documentary form? It was a different kind of consideration, I guess. But, in saying that, I think a lot of the less traditional documentary scenes were also very much born out of the context of the time and responding to the context of the situation.
And so the context of what was happening in terms of the ethics and people safety, we’re talking to how I would go about the form of the film. So, for example, with the therapy scenes that we see in the film, at the beginning, I was going into the actual therapy space and spending time and meeting people and conducting interviews. But that became apparent really quickly that, okay, how are we going to maintain contact with people? And if we can’t maintain contact with people, is this real permission?
Like we see in the film, people just disappear. How will we maintain contact with people to know that we have a real sense of permission? So that brought up this idea of permission. And in terms of like our ethical engagement with people, this didn’t settle well for Poh Lin or I. it wasn’t something that we could go on with. We didn’t have a real sense of permission.
And also, it was incredibly risky to be filming within those rooms where there were guards waiting outside and there was the risk of people going back into the detention centre, their emails were being monitored. So, we were concerned about how we would do it. And I was really curious to film the therapy scenes for a lot of different reasons, one being that it’s a space where it’s spontaneous for everyone.
Kind of in the space of therapy as opposed to a director interview, I don’t know what’s going to happen or I have absolutely no control over it. Poh Lin, the facilitator in that space, has no idea what will happen. The person who is in their therapy session also has no idea what will happen, so it’s a very spontaneous space. I thought that could be a really interesting cinematic space for us to explore.
I think something Poh Lin mentions is that it also helped us to move away from this idea of people sitting down to tell their one dominant narrative, which when you’re seeking asylum, that’s what you’re asked to do. You’re asked to tell people, why are you coming? What happened to you? What happened back home? You’re forced to tell that one worst story of your life, that one narrative.
And that was something, for Poh Lin and also for me, that we wanted to move away from. We weren’t wanting to replicate what the system was already putting in place with these people. So, the therapy, entering that space was born out of those ideas, but how would we do it? How would we do it when we couldn’t maintain contact with people while they were still on the island?
So, we had the idea that we could experiment with building the therapy space on the mainland in Australia. And that when Poh Lin’s clients had left the island and were now on mainland Australia, within a very short timeframe that we would then film the therapy sessions.
I say it was an experiment because I really didn’t know it would work, and this was because of the way it was filmed. It was very much therapy, number one, filming, number two. So, I was not pre-talking to people and offering any direction or saying if we could just speak about this or this – no. This was somebody arriving, entering into that space, and whatever it was that came up in that session with Poh Lin was what it was.
Jim: And you were purely observational?
Gabrielle: And we were purely observational in that space. There was no interaction. There was no pre-planning around that. We just had to be spontaneous to what came up. And what was surprising, of course, for me I don’t know for anyone else, but it was that these situations from the detention centre were still so strong and so real and so present, and it was like we were still there in people’s memories.
And from that time I was able to stay in touch with those people who’ve become really close friends. And they were able to be involved in the editing process and see their session and tell me, “Yes, this can work. Can you take this part out? I’m not comfortable, this name can’t be used.” So we were in conversation around that, and it wasn’t just something that we talked and were never able to see that person again.
Jim: Interesting to hear you speak about it. Because the other question I had about the therapy sessions was you said it would be quite an interesting cinematic setting. And I think one of the key things that came through for me in that is the focus on the sandbox with the children’s toys and reenacting moments in their lives or talk about them. When did you make the decision to put an emphasis on that? Because it works really well as a device, I find, but what was the creative process for how you chose to focus on that?
Gabrielle: Yeah. I mean, I think even like with the idea of these more non-traditional documentary approaches in the film, a lot of them were born out of what was happening at the time. And so, for example, with the sand play, that was also inspiring to me in terms of other approaches in the film, in terms of some of these more reenacted or staged-feeling moments.
So, the sand, it wasn’t that it my decision. It was that the practice that Poh Lin does, as well as the spoken narrative therapy, is the sand therapy. So, that organically was already there as Poh Lin’s work. But apart from that, of course, I was so interested in it because instantly we were taken into a visual world with what she was doing with her clients. And so, I was incredibly curious about that.
And when we started talking about it, or when I started asking her would it be possible for us to film those scenes, her first response was, “Well, I would need you to do a sand therapy first so you know what the experience is like, and then we can start to talk.” And so I did a sand therapy session with her, and that was really…I mean, it was in incredibly insightful.
And I think it was…I guess I saw a way of being able to kind of be in someone’s experience, again, without them having to try to find the words of what it is. We see it, and film, it’s a visual form. It’s not a podcast, it’s not audio, we’re looking for images, as well as sound, that takes us into someone’s inner landscape. And I think Poh does that through her work. And I was really curious for us to be able to observe that as well as a cinematic tool in the film.
Jim: So I knew there was a short film, but I must confess I only watched it a couple of days ago because I found that it was through The Guardian. I didn’t realise that you made the two of them almost at the same time, basically. Did that affect how you did things at all? I noticed that the short film has a lot more context at the start about the detention centre, where it is, how people find themselves there. Whereas, with the feature you kind of go straight into it.
Gabrielle: Well, I mean, I think, so the way we kind of came to do that was, we engaged with The Guardian at a point where I was already making the feature. And it was a way that we could support making the feature, but also, it was an opportunity to make two very different films, which I think most directors would be really excited about, how do we make these two very different forms or at least somewhat different forms of the same story?
So, when I went to shoot on the island, I had it in mind. I’d already been speaking to The Guardian and we had an approach to the film in mind. And so, as you see in the short film, we interact with Poh Lin directly. She’s speaking directly to the camera. So there’s a direct relationship with her. And we are also giving a lot more context in terms of text cards and, of course, the way it’s structured.
So, I was able to keep it quite separate in that sense because that was a very creative difference. The scenes we were filming with Poh Lin speaking directly to the camera were always for the short film. And so many of the other scenes, you know, most of the other scenes were for the feature.
I guess where it got really difficult was in the edit. But the way we kind of managed this was that I engaged with an editor, Sally in Australia, and we cut the short first. I guess the difficulty about this was trying to imagine what I would use for the feature, and trying to create something that would be very different from the feature not yet knowing what the shape, or the fate, of the feature was yet.
So I was really having to imagine what might not be used to the feature or what…you know, because I really wanted two very distinct different versions of the story for a lot of different reasons. One thing that really helped was having two totally different editors in two different lands. So we edited in Australia, me and Sally over, I think it was about a month, and we only watched a very select amount of material. I probably pre-selected about 10 hours or something like that, and we made the short that way.
And then for the feature, that editor in Germany didn’t ever watch the short film, and we watched all the material from beginning to end. And it was a much lengthier, much more kind of engrossed process. But that was a very clear way of keeping my head clear with the two versions. And at some point during the process of watching the material when we were editing the feature, I was able to, in some way, forget the structure of the short so I could start from scratch with the feature.
But it also helped. I got a sense of the material in making the short, and I got a sense of the way some scenes were talking to each other. And it was also kind of helpful to get a sense of how the feature was going to look. But really important to work with two different editors.
Jim: I can imagine because I was wondering about that.
Gabrielle: It would be absolute nightmare. I think it would be impossible. That would be such a hard task.
Jim: Especially if you’re trying to make a very different style of short to style of feature as well
Gabrielle: Yeah, it would be so cruel to ask that from an editor. “Okay, now we’re going to go in a completely different direction, and you’re going to make another film from it.” Maybe some could do it. I don’t know. That would definitely be a difficult task.
Jim: Is the film being shown in Australia?
Gabrielle: So the film premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August last year. And I was there with Poh Lin. We both came across from Europe. And her boss, Chris, who features in the film was also there. And also many of her clients that feature in the film were also there for the screening. So, it was a really significant screening for us, if not the most significant, having the actual participants from the film witness the film with an audience. But we actually weren’t showing the original film.
So, to be able to show it in Australia, I had to make a second cut where all the people that are shown in the therapy space or the people seeking asylum weren’t showing in full face, just their eyes were shown. And this was part of the discussions with the legal team, and of course, with the participants themselves about keeping people safe. And still, at this point, it was just too risky to be disclosing people’s identities.
Jim: Would they still have applications going at the time that happened?
Gabrielle: Still pending. That’s right. All on bridging visas. But it was a kind of incredibly kind of intense and cathartic experience for people to see themselves and see their stories in relation to an audience. And it was a packed house. And it was kind of an incredible experience.
On the second screening, we had somebody ask a question at the end in the Q&A, so we’d had some really interesting questions. And then the next question came in, and a man had his hand up and then…he got the microphone and he said, “So, did you get permission from the department?”
And my first reaction was, “What department?”…”Did you get permission from the department in which you needed to get permission to make this film?” And my first response was, “Well, we…” – you know because we filmed a lot with the crabs and in the jungle on Christmas Island – “We did get permission from the parks and recreation team on the island, if that’s what you mean,” of course, knowing what he meant.
“So, there was definitely some strange moments in the Q&As in Australia and some tense moments.”
And then another person put their hand up said, “No, no, what we’re saying is, did you get permission from the Department of Immigration?” And at that point…and they were very hostile in the way they were asking the question. And at that point, Poh Lin took the microphone, and I think she said something along the lines of, “We didn’t seek permission from the system. We were seeking permission from individuals,” and the whole crowd just went silent.
So, there was definitely some strange moments in the Q&As in Australia and some tense moments. But we’re about to launch the cinema release in Australia and, obviously, we’re really hoping that this starts to promote a lot of dialogue and discussion around the issue of offshore detention centres.
Jim: Why do you find yourself at the Scottish Documentary Institute?
Gabrielle: Actually, I’m pretty kind of lucky I’ve been to Edinburgh now three times in the last short while. We had the film showing here at the Filmhouse just a few weeks ago as part of the UK theatrical release. Then I was invited back through the Scottish Documentary Institute to do a bit of a master class, or they call it a master class, but really just a chance to discuss a little bit about the film with students and film professionals here, which was great.
About half the audience had seen the film and half didn’t. So, it was a really great chance to go through some of the scenes and really dissect the scenes in terms of how it was made. And, you know, it’s great with a room full of film people because you can get really nerdy about technique and about all of the film elements. So, it was wonderful. It’s been a really great stay and I’ve been really excited to come back.
Jim: And film played at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year, of course.
Gabrielle: Yes. And then it was at the Edinburgh Festival last year. I was here for that, back again for the cinema release and then, back again now. So, it’s becoming a bit of a second home for the film and for me. It’s been wonderful. And actually, all of the audiences that we had in Edinburgh were incredibly engaged. Tamara from Take One Action Film Festival was during the Q&A. And so it was just very involved. And I think both screenings just happened to be full houses when I was there.
Jim: So, what are you working on right now? Are you working on a new film?
Gabrielle: Yeah. In the pipeline is directly after I’m in Australia for the theatrical release of this film, I go to Mongolia. And I will be doing about five weeks of research there, possibly shooting a little something, but it’s very early to talk about. So I’m going to leave it with an air of mystery, but I’ll be working with a nomadic family who lives outside of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city there.
It’s a place where I lived in 2008. It’s actually where I met Poh Lin, the main character of this film. We were both working there in very different areas. So, I’ll be going back there to do a bit of research for my next film project.
Find out more about the film at its website and Gabrielle Brady’s. An audio version of this interview was broadcast on EH-FM as part of the Cinetopia show.