This piece is the second installment in Eloise's MIFF 2018 Festival Diary. Last week's entry can be found here, and their final entry will published on our website next week!
ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS
Directed by Gabrielle Brady
A therapy session with Poh Lin
an asylum seeker plays with a box of sand
When Poh Lin asks her to tell her what it feels like she pauses for an interminable moment, rubbing the sand between her fingers, and then says
quietly: “the sound reminds me of waves”
The documentary, centred on Christmas Island, lyrically weaves multiple strands into a complex net:
- Poh Lin, her therapy work with asylum seekers detained in the detention centre, and her life with her partner and two children
- The Malaya-descended inhabitants of the island who perform rituals to appease hungry ghosts of the first settlers who did not receive a proper burial
- The migration of the island’s oldest residents, the red land crabs
- Drawn to the ocean the full moon
This island is haunted innumerably
Ghosts crash over one another like breakers
Brady substitutes explicit argument for deft lyricism
Our world has heard empathy’s polemic, yet nothing changes
Our world instead bloated with pernicious prejudice
That grows and grows
Yet stays the same
Same shit, new day
We tried polemic, can we give poetry a go?
A green forest teeming with crabs
Sea blasting through rock
A kite filled with flame
Offerings for hungry ghosts
Small gestures chafe against large wrongs
“It is not illegal to seek asylum,” Poh explains to her patient when she says: “I know we came here illegally”
I am crying in the cinema
Maybe to cure inertia we need to be moved
The polemic is something less than its parts, a machine that squashes artfulness as it sharpens to its point
Persuasive language at its basest amplifies cheap prejudice:
Refugees become queue jumpers, economic migrants
Boats filled with desperate people become “illegal maritime arrivals” on the radio as Poh Lin drives home from work
People become illegal
Their life-or-death circumstances becomes “I can’t disclose that information”
Bureaucratic euphemism dismantles humanity and deadens poetry in the same cold breath
“May you all be reincarnated into a better life,” says a man who has come to visit unmarked graves
And you can feel the beneficence of that wish rippling through all layers of the film
In Poh Lin’s office, there is a sandbox filled with tiny pawns
Where patients enact
A man speaks about his mother, how he loves her
How last time he saw her she was injured
Couldn’t stand up
But trying to act strong
She smiled at her son and waved
The sand swells with grief
The crabs are a constant, silent presence
Some are as old as a grandfather, Poh Lin says to her daughter
On a camping trip in the lush forest
Which feels like a guilty reprieve
From the uncertainty: Poh Lin’s appointments cancelled
The fate of her patients, scattered, unknowable, in the wind
Her frustration mounts as she makes another phone call
And a man is “transferred” despite her professional advice
What do they remember, the crabs?
Are they a symbol, an undercurrent, or just an ancient nuisance?
People get out of their cars to gently rake them off the road
They are shown more compassion than the people imprisoned here
In one scene Poh cuts through a thicket of jungle
To demonstrate to Brady the detention centre below
A prison pillowed by deep forest
A grey alien form
At the end of the film Poh, exhausted, explains to her daughter why they must leave the island:
“I came here to help but I don’t think I can help”
If you open your door to watch the sinking ships on the horizon, do you invite despair to blow through you like an icy wind?
What good is a house riddled with rising damp?
What use are good intentions if they amount to shit?
If one life is a grain of sand
A lonely fleck
Combined, do we make the sea’s roar,
or an insipid stirring as the tide pushes out?
Eloise Grills is an award-winning writer and comics artist specialising in hybrid visual-written form—she's like a more sexily literary Dr Moreau. She recently won the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Nonfiction. In 2018 she was awarded a Felix Meyer Travel Scholarship, was a finalist for the mid-year Walkleys, and is currently shortlisted for TheLifted Brow and RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction. Her debut comics chapbook, Sexy Female Murderesses, will be published by Glom Press later this year. She tweets and grams as @grillzoid and edits memoir for Scum.