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 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. The film primarily follows Poh Lin Lee: a torture and trauma counsellor who works with the (often indefinitely) detained asylum seekers and migrants, but in a medical context outside the framework of the immigration system. Her homelife and professional frustration is juxtaposed against the natural flora and fauna, the religion and spirituality of the island’s inhabitants, and her sessions with the detainees.
ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS takes a very poetic and artistic approach to communicating the plight of not only the detainees, but the ripple effect this has on those around them, as well as how unintuitive the nature of the system seems. When Poh Lin Lee’s young daughter asks innocently “How many minutes?” those in the centre are detained for, that basic innocence resonates in the brief silence that follows. Sessions with the detainees are anything but clinical, despite the hospital-like environment. They are shot in a way that communicates the lasting impact of the memories being described. Recounting tales of fleeing home, or even the lack of kindness shown during their detention, they are encouraged to display these memories using toys and a sandbox. Using the imagery of childhood, depicting each of these in the film conveys a sense of a stolen innocence and life.
The hungry ghosts of the title are no longer the spirits locals seek to placate and help move on to the other world. It is the detainees themselves: an empty feeling has been bred within them, their sense of joy and humanity slowly ebbing away within the grey concrete walls jarring against the natural landscape. Hungry for progress, hungry for some sort of humanitarian justice, hungry to simply feel human.
The restlessness of a contained human spirit is brought forth with lyrical visual metaphors throughout – white ocean spray crashes against the island, a turbulence reflected in the sound design and score. The efforts to allow migration of the crabs and the deference to them ironically contrasts with the roadblocks and bureaucratic opacity that frustrates Poh Lin.
For such an emotive, topical subject it is remarkable the approach ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS not only takes, but succeeds with. There is no swelling of outrage. There is no demand to contact a politician. There is no call to action. There is the image of a crab scuttling into the undergrowth, asking you not to contemplate the political or societal ramifications of how we treat fellow humans. Rather, it allows another cost to be evaluated – what price is there on seeing another human suffer, and adopting – not by choice for some – a response that slowly saps their hope and depletes their soul? No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main. Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.