The crabs run free
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Justinian in Asylum seekers, Critics' Corner, Miss Lumière, Refugees

Christmas Island reopening for business ... The lives of detainees laid bare ... Australian policy at its most primitive ... Miss Lumière reviews Gabrielle Brady's film Island of the Hungry Ghosts ... Trauma counselling curtailed by the dead hand of Canberra ... How we make them suffer ... From phosphate to fear 

After Prime Minister Scott Morrison's recent myth-making Christmas Island Medivac stunt, it's a relief to witness the reality, thanks to independent filmmaker Gabrielle Brady.

Her haunting portrait of the human cost of Australia's asylum seeker "policy", Island of the Hungry Ghosts, shot at a distance from the island's high-security offshore detention centre, is a breath of fresh air amid a sea of political expediency.

The film opens with an unknown man climbing a fence and running wildly though the jungle, his breath quickening into screams before exploding into one long howl of anguish. 

It serves as an apt metaphor for both our treatment of asylum seekers and your reviewer's response.

We learn later that this man, an escaped detainee, has plunged to his death from a cliff at the island's edge. 

No such fate awaits the infamous red crabs of Christmas Island, which are protected in their annual migration across the island's roads to the sea by a happy-go-lucky chain-smoking ranger.

The crabs, in their gruesome thousands, feature strongly in this disturbing film, which presents the island itself as a malevolent presence, home also to the restless "hungry ghosts" of Chinese labourers who toiled in the phosphate mines and who are buried in overgrown, unmarked graves.

We follow some of their descendants' efforts to honour them with offerings and prayers. 

Brady weaves these strands together via the compassionate lens of her close friend, Poh Lin Lee, whose work as a trauma counsellor for detainees becomes increasingly frustrated by an indifferent bureaucracy.  

Filming took place over four years and captured Lee's family life on the island and her response to the cruel and uncertain situation her patients find themselves in.

It's an intimate examination of the powerlessness of those who try to help the dehumanised.

These inhabitants are carefully nurtured on Christmas Island

We are reminded of recent laws that made it a criminal offence for doctors, teachers and counsellors to speak publicly about what they witness at Australia's detention centres.

Lee's counselling sessions with a number of detainees (brilliantly recreated with asylum seekers on the mainland) reveal why. 

They are raw and devastating. As one young man says:

"Hell isn't just fire ... it's seeing your family suffer, your friends suffer ... and not being able to do anything."

Another asylum seeker describes the utter feeling of hopelessness knowing that what happens next will only be worse than what has already happened.

Yet another speaks of sewing his lips together, and wanting to sew his eyes shut.

The detainees have become part of the island's "hungry ghosts", forever suspended in limbo.

If there can be poetry in persecution and eloquence in suffering, this is it. It had Miss Lumière squirming with shame.

Thankfully, Brady is no polemicist, preferring to let her camera (cinematography by Michael Latham), her sound (music by Aaron Cupples), and her subjects tell their stories. 

In one chilling scene, which Brady actually experienced on her first visit (as a tourist) to the island, we see Lee hacking her way through the jungle before coming to a hilltop clearing.

Spread out below is a great, grey collection of low-slung buildings, surrounded by barbed wire and massive lights - looking exactly like a concentration camp.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts is a passionate, important film, made with skill and empathy. 

It is beautifully composed and full of horror. Much like Australia's offshore detention policy. 

Exclusive to the Golden Age Cinema in Sydney and not to be missed.  

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (
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