Island of the Hungry Ghosts Review
Situated in the Indian Ocean, close to Java, Indonesia, is the Australian territory of Christmas Island, which despite its pretty name had effectively become a prison for asylum seekers in search of refuge in Australia. The 2016 documentary. Chasing Asylum, highlighted the atrocious conditions for those kept in detention with little hope of leaving the island. Gabrielle Brady’s debut film, Island of the Hungry Ghosts, offers a more poetical take on the subject of migration, seen primarily through the eyes of a local counsellor.
Therapist Poh Lin Lee is employed to provide trauma counselling to detainees held in the nearby Immigration Reception and Processing Centre. Elsewhere on the island, a mass migration of over 40 million red crabs takes place every year, as they move from the jungle down onto the coastline. Christmas Island was also one of the last discovered areas on the planet and only became inhabited 100 years ago. Those first arrivals were never given proper burials and their descendants perform annual rituals in the hope of putting these wandering ghosts to rest.
Poh Lin lives on the island with her husband and two young daughters, spending her working day offering support to those affected by their time travelling to, and trapped in, the detention centre. One man tells of his journey in a crowded boat at night, where circling sharks slowly picked people off in the dark one-by-one. Poh Lin carries these horror stories home with her at night, and combined with the lack of help offered to her by the authorities, she slowly begins to feel her efforts are increasingly pointless, saying: “This is the first place I’ve worked that even though you’re doing good therapy the patients decline.”
Brady moves between time spent with Poh Lin and watching local workers help the crabs on their journey towards the beach. Roads are shut off as a constant stream of crabs pass by manmade structures, the point never being lost that the need to migrate exists in nature as much as it does for humans. The local authorities seem to do everything in their power to ensure the crabs can safely reach their location, although the same cannot be said about those trapped behind the walls of the detention centre.
The few brief stories we do hear from the refugees are emotionally charged, in particular one that recalls a protest held by some of the ‘residents’ at the centre. Distraught at their treatment, a man remembers taking a loose thread of material and using a discarded needle to sew his lips together. Pretty soon others followed suit and he goes on to say he would also have sewed his eyes shut, such was his desperation at the time. Yet, it’s not only those on the island who have been forgotten. The ‘hungry ghosts’ believed to roam the island aren’t just the spirits of the first arrivers, but also the spectres of countless asylum seekers who have died in their attempts to reach Australia.
Not only does the title of Brady’s documentary sound like the name of a Apichatpong Weerasethakul film, but the eerie, snail-paced camera pans deep inside the jungle also seem to carry the Thai director’s influence. Michael Latham’s (who also photographed the excellent Casting JonBenet) cinematography adds to the sense of disquiet that hovers in the mists above the tropical island. While it has an idyllic appearance from a distance, maybe there was a reason why it was left uninhabited for so long.
Production for the film was wrapped some time ago but recent developments add a more positive conclusion. A new coalition government led by Scott Morrison was formed in Australia in August of last year. By the start of October the detention centre on Christmas Island had been closed for good, the remaining men moved to facilities on the mainland. After ten years the right thing was finally done, but the ghosts of those mistreated so horribly there will linger on for some time yet.