offshore detention

Go See the Secret Manus Island Documentary Shot on a Smartphone

'Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time' shows what life is really like for detainees. It's both boring and brutal, as its director explains.

by Katherine Gillespie
14 June 2017, 3:29am

Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time is a documentary shot in secret from within the Manus Island detention centre, but it's not an exposé. Nor does it have to be. Australia's offshore detention centres are widely reported on. We know what happens on Manus and Nauru already, and the Australian public hasn't exactly been swayed against offshore detention policies by revelations of human rights abuses. The Australian government continues to defend them—even after settling in a $70 million class action lawsuit compensating nearly 2000 Manus detainees for physical and psychological distress. So Chauka is an attempt to do something different—to put journalism aside and use art to tell the story. And in this way the film's co-director, Arash Kamali Sarvestani, hopes to offer something new.

"When you're faced with this kind of story, you have to weigh it up. You either show the visible violence or the invisible violence. You either show blood and fighting and shouting, or you show all of those same things in another way," the Iranian-born and Netherlands-based filmmaker says. Sarvestani trained under legendary Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, and a mutual love of that director's work was what bonded him with his Manus Island collaborator, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani. Boochani has been detained at Manus for the past three years. Using a smartphone, he filmed hundreds of hours of footage and painstakingly sent them over to Sarvestani in small increments—high speed internet is hard to come by in a detention centre.

"We found each other's ideas were closely related," Sarvestani explains. "He didn't know much about filmmaking at first but he liked Kiarostami's style. He is a writer and journalist and has lots of knowledge about what is happening around him—he realised I was the person who could help make what he had been thinking about for a long time."

The day-to-day activities of Manus security guards are captured throughout the film

The duo settled upon the bloodless approach when making their film. Rather than violence, most of Chauka focuses on the banal—the long and restless hours spent watching local Manusian children play by the beach on the other side of the detention centre fence. Pacing security guards. Shots of lush green palm trees and a gentle ocean. The strange surreal sense of being trapped in paradise. Birds singing.

"That was the first thing we talked about," says Sarvestani. "I said to Behrooz that I want to see the real life of the camp. And he said that's exactly what I want too. He told me how an Australian journalist once asked him, 'Do you laugh there? In the camp?' and he replied that 'Of course, what do you think of us, we're human!'. There's always something to laugh or cry about. We wanted to show something real."

Boochani, right, interviewing his friend about 'chauka'—a solitary confinement facility on Manus

The film is lo-fi for sure, although Boochani makes the most of his smartphone camera medium. It portrays small and devastating moments, and the feeling of dread creeps up on you in a clever way that's mostly imperceptible. Watching a detainee make a frustrated weekly call home to his family, who are unable to fathom the fact that the Australian government has locked them up indefinitely—a wife who believes her husband must be lying to her and living it up in Sydney, because the situation he describes simply cannot be possible. Hearing a man emotionlessly describe his experience being locked up for days in solitary confinement, his crime unknown.

Those solitary confinement facilities on Manus came to shape the film. There are four of them, but the one particularly notorious building is nicknamed "Chauka"—after a bird native only to Manus Island. "Behrooz told me about how Chauka is the name of a bird that is part of the identity of these people. So I thought, let's make something about this. And the movie went in that direction," Sarvestani explains. The film's title is a sad riff on the contradictions of life in detention. "It's about how the name of the bird that is spiritual for the locals is terrifying for the refugees. And time—it's something that has lost meaning for the people in the camp. It's not something that makes sense to them anymore."

A detainee tells Boochani about how his family have forgotten him

Most of the documentary takes place before the detention compounds on Manus began to close, following last year's Papua New Guinea Supreme Court decision that the facilities are unconstitutional. So you see glimpses of how life begins to change for the prisoners, whose fates are still more unknown than ever. They're free to roam the island, but not to leave it; Sarvestani says that contact with the detainees is actually more difficult than ever. "At the start of making the movie the communication and internet on Manus was easier than it is now. If at this point I wanted to make a documentary it would be impossible. Even text messages barely work."

While life is changing at Manus—for better or worse, no one knows—the aftermath of several tragic events clearly still shape life on the island. Chauka is particularly concerned with the death of 23-year-old Iranian detainee Reza Barati in 2014. Barati was killed during rioting at the Manus detention centre, and his ex-roommate appears on camera still totally traumatised by the event. But the details of Barati's murder—he died just five days after the Australian Government announced their hardline "PNG solution"—are deliberately obscured.

"When you see the movie you should go to your computer and google, 'What's Manus?', 'What's this policy?'. Because a lot of these things are unknown to people. Why did Reza die? What happened? Why?," Sarvestani says. "We could have given access to these answers but that is not our job."

Detainees singing

Its directors hope that viewing Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time is a thought-provoking, and even meditative, experience. Something to feel not in the moment, but afterwards. "Kiarostami liked to make something that feels at the time a little bit boring, but at the end of it, when you leave the cinema, the movie actually starts forming in your mind. We tried to make the movie like that. Make some questions for people. I actually wish we didn't have to do a Q&A after the movie, because I think people should go away and just think about it."

Sarvestani is an artist who believes in the rhetorical power of art. Boochani is a journalist who has exhausted all other options for telling his story—speaking to Australian media outlets and making daily postings about life on Manus on a public Facebook page haven't helped much so far. Both are hopeful that this documentary will help people see offshore detention in a new light.

Manusian children through the fence

"At the beginning I wasn't that optimistic—I was sure that the movie wouldn't change Australian policy, but I was not sure whether it would change the Australian people's way of thinking. But now i'm a bit more optimistic about the people. It won't change the policy, but some people might change their minds. After the first screening we will see the reaction. For now we're talking about something unknown," Sarvestani says.

I wish I could share this optimism, but I guess I'm a jaded internet journalist who has written about Manus and Nauru for too long. Still, if all else fails, Sarvestani and Boochani hope that the documentary will at least receive international media coverage and help put pressure on the Australian government that way. Bleak to hear it said out loud, but it rings true.

"International media is important. I remember when [coverage of offshore detention] was on the BBC, there was more feedback in Australia than when the ABC reported on it. I think because Australia is very far away from other parts of the world, the Australian politicians can do whatever they like and people internationally don't know what's happening. If this was happening in Germany or Italy or France or the Netherlands, all the people in Europe would realise in one second. Then I think people inside the country will be like 'Oh, we should think about it more. What the government is doing.'"

Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time is screening at Melbourne's ACMI Cinemas from June 16—18.

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Manus Island
PNG solution
Malcolm Turnbull
Peter Dutton
Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time
Abbas Kiarostami