MARY MEETS MOHAMMAD. Doucmentary film by Heather Kirkpatrick. 83 minutes. Rated PG (mild themes).
There will probably be no surprise to find that when Mary meets Mohammad, there will be a meeting of minds and hearts. However, the surprise was all Mary’s.
With so many headlines highlighting refugees and asylum seekers, many Australians have been stuck with the names as labels, rather than as seeing the refugees as persons. This documentary is a contribution to understanding and appreciation by doing that most ordinary of things, showing people meeting one another, getting to know one another as persons, and breaking through prejudices.
The film begins with the Australian Federal government’s decision to build a detention centre outside Hobart, at Pontville. It shows the various stages of building, as well as local citizens meeting, objecting to the very idea of a detention centre, claims made about the nature of the refugees, especially as potential terrorists because they are Muslim. The nearest neighbours, sheep farmers, are asked about government consultation which was proclaimed as having happened. They are definitely stating that they were not consulted at all. And the farmer has some harsh things to say, not wanting these people bringing their problems to Australia.
[Somebody remarks that Australian and American forces have not been able to defeat the Taliban, what are the Hazaras expected to do!]
Factual information is given about Australian policy, information about detention, and information about SERCO who manage the centre.
But then the film becomes quite domestic, showing people that most audiences can identify with (especially older people): the Bridgewater knitting Society. The women decide that they will knit beanies for the anticipated refugees. They become enthusiastic, and liaise with the local Anglican priest and Bishop. There are also two young women, volunteers for visiting refugee centres, who are trying to cut through red tape in order to visit some of the internees. They are required to have the exact names of the people they want to visit and are turned back when there are inaccuracies in the names. The Anglican priest promises to use her influence in getting accurate names.
The volunteers are enthusiastic women in their meeting with the knitters and their talk to camera, communicating their feelings about their work, about the detainees, and preparing visits for the Bridgewater Society.
Amongst the knitters is 71-year-old Mary, a widow, living alone, and quite definite in her not wanting Afghan refugees around the place, let alone in her home. However, she is curious about the stories she has heard about detainees and their luxurious lifestyle – the farmer’s wife quoting three course meals, spas… Well, Mary goes, finds that the men are different from what she was expecting. She continues to visit and becomes very friendly with a Hazara Afghan refugee, Mohammad. Because there was no filming for the media inside Pontsville, some of Mohammad’s conversation is presented as text on screen.
Eventually, Mohammad receives a temporary visa and is released into the community. He is invited to a holiday house owned by Joy, the leader of the knitters. Mary happily goes as well. Again, we see ordinary scenes of Mohammad, in the parks and gardens, talking with the two women, reminiscing about his home in Pakistan, where he lived illegally and could not go to school, his wife still there, though his ringing her for cooking hints for the ladies, his period of mental disturbance. He has a prayer mat and prays, with Mary saying that he seems to be more open to other religions than she is. There are meals, going fishing, conversations between friends, with Mohammad seeing Mary as his Australian grandmother.
It might seem that this is what we should expect from a film like this – but, considering some of the statements of the Tasmanians wary of the detention centre as well as apprehensive about the men themselves, the scenes may well come as a surprise to some Australians, as they would have to Mary before she met Mohammad.
There is a warmth about the film as well as strong campaigning on behalf of the detainees, especially the point of the 90 day limit on detention. And a note to say that the visa for Mohammad’s wife to come could take several years – and one wonders why.
This is a film with a definite point of view, but one worth watching and sharing.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.