FREEDOM STORIES, Australia, Colour. Directed by Steve Thomas. 99 minutes, Rated PG (mild themes and coarse language).
The recommendation comes first. This is a documentary which all Australian should see.
We often say that we shouldn’t categorise people in any way, especially which with prejudicial epithets. In the last almost 20 years in Australia, advocates for migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, have insisted that the only way to appreciate these men, women and children, is to get to know some of them. Several years ago there was a fine film, Mary and Mohammed, set in Tasmania, about a local group of women who made quilts for those kept in the local detention centre, who got to know actual people, who overcame fears and prejudices and were greatly supportive of these newcomers to the country. Filmmaker, migrant Hong Kong director, Clara Law, became involved with those in detention in Baxter and corresponded with some of the men, eventually visiting and producing the film Letters To Ali. Robyn Hughan, had experiences of Afghan refugees and discovered Sister Carmel Wauchope and her visits to the detention centre at Woomera and made A Nuns New Habit.
Steve Thomas has been making similar films over the last 15 years. In this project, he contacted a number of migrants, principally from Afghanistan but also from Iran and Iraq. He went to visit them, got to know them, through interviews and sharing their lives with them and made brief films about them. They are gathered together in this film, examples of Freedom Stories. And what is pleasing about the film is that as we, the audience, get to know this group of people, ranging from Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, to Adelaide, and go back to visit them and are able to share in the follow-up to the stories and the good things that happened since the first interviews.
Steve Thomas himself does not intrude but often we see him carrying his camera, see him in the mirror reflections or window reflections, as well as the sound engineers he brought along for the filming. This anchors the stories in reality.
The first person to be introduced is Mustafa, a refugee with his family at the age of ten, the boat capsizing after catching fire, and the group rescued by the Australian Navy. He spent three years in Nauru and then three years on a temporary visa. We find him working in a garage in Canberra, doing an apprenticeship, talking with his younger brother who was born on Nauru, and, finally, see him get his diploma and the support of the owner of the garage, Ned, who gave Mustafa his chance. Mustaffa had also become engaged to a young woman from Finland – with the dilemma as to where they should settle, in Finland or in Australia.
Then we see Shafiq Moniz, who is painting his house, meticulously, because he says his perfectionist. He spent almost a year in Woomera, then three years with a temporary visa. But, he is an artist and we are shown many of his paintings. We also see the now-abandoned huts at Woomera and the outside walls which were painted, many of them with his paintings. Eventually, he was able to bring his wife and daughters to Australia and build a house (painted, meticulously). In his more recent paintings, he uses the motif of an umbrella, indications of climate change, indication of protection from outside dangers…
By way of contrast we see Sheri Shoari, who carried her children to the refugee boat, settling in Australia, in Adelaide, after three years of detention in Curtain and Baxter. She is more than robust woman, especially when we see her caring for her 26-year-old son, Ali, who has cerebral palsy and needs constant care. Her older son, Mohamad, explains how he was traumatised by his time in the detention centre and tends to be introverted, a reader and thinker, not yet able to mix comfortably. Whereas the youngest son, Hamid, ten at the time of arrival, joined the army, plays soccer locally and has ambitions to become a coach. One of the important things is that Sheri has some ambitions as well – to become a truck driver and, when we return to the story, we see her in action with her supervisor, going up the 18 grades for her licence.
Reyhana also spent several years in Woomera. Her daughter wants her to be interviewed and Reyhana, working at home, but on the Internet, became an advocate of women’s rights. We later see her working in the office of the Migrants Resource Centre, meeting migrants and refugees, caring for their needs.
Ahoam came from Iraq, a primary school teacher, emigrated with her father and husband, and has tried to develop her teaching skills and her work with IT, making many applications for teaching in education at large in Australia but not accepted. She now works at an Islamic school, but she is still studying and hopes to make some progress, making a huge decision to change her name to a more acceptable Australian name.
Amir Javan is a particularly friendly man, a diamond dealer back home but, after 4 ½ years in detention, being rejected and his case finally going to the High Court. He is now a real estate broker in Sydney, but he is seen coming to Melbourne, to help a young friend, Parviz, also from Iran, move, someone he had befriended in the detention centre.
Other stories include that of Jamilah, arriving as a girl, now studying, and, a surprise when Molly Meldrum appears in the film, supporting a skilled worker in tiling who did all the work at Meldrum’s Melbourne home, especially with all the antiques, statues et cetera that Meldrum brought back from Egypt.
The film is released in cinemas but would be available for groups, for example parish groups, to see and discuss. There are more stories than are in the feature film. There are two websites and the stories will be adapted to brief the television screenings as well as on-site viewing.
From a Catholic point of view, the film can definitely be recommended, and, amongst the advisory Advisory Committee is Sister Brigid Arthur, Brigidine sister, long committed to social action and social justice.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released July 23.