Sunday, 13 January 2019

REVIEW: The Island Of The Hungry Ghosts (film) - HOME, Manchester.

'Island Of The Hungry Ghosts' is a 2018 documentary film by Gabrielle Brady which explores the experience of Poh-Lin Lee, a torture and trauma counsellor who uses ‘sandplay therapy’ to help her patients discuss their experiences and feelings, as she works with asylum seekers who are kept in a detention centre on Christmas Island (a territory of Australia). Christmas Island, which was colonised by the British in the late 19th century and used workers from China, Malaya, and Singapore to work mining phosphate for export, is perhaps most famous for the annual red crab migration in October and November, where the red crabs who live in the island’s forest make their way to coastal areas to breed. Brady’s film, which has already won awards at film festivals, is a microcosm of the island and its relationship with migration: a mixture of beautiful shots of the island’s forests with an evocative score by Aaron Cupples and an intricate sound design set against the scenes of Poh-Lin’s therapy sessions with migrants who have fled terror in their native lands and are finding more trauma in the detention centre.

The film opens with a shot of one of Christmas Island’s rainforests, as the camera slowly tracks through the trees and the sound of the forest at night rings out. All, it seems, is calm. The tranquillity of the forest is shattered as the sound of a chain-link fence being rattled rings out and the film cuts to show hands through the links as someone climbs over the fence and begins to run. The slow, steady camera movement of the establishing shot is replaced by a frantic hand-held style (if you suffer from motion sickness, this is one film to avoid) as the camera follows the figure as they run away from the fence – and the detention centre which looms behind it – and into the forest. Occasionally, the figure is lost by the camera, it jerks too far down or lags behind, as the sound of the runner’s breath becoming ragged and panting begins to dominate the soundtrack before the figure lets out a scream and runs deeper into the forest. This opening is certainly arresting and works to draw the audience in, although it is clearly a reconstruction of an event rather than a ‘as it happened’ recording. The following scene, showing Poh-Lin driving to work with the radio on in her car broadcasting a news story about a migrant escaping the detention centre and falling to their death, acknowledges that the opening is intended to be a fictional interpretation of a very real event. From here, the film begins to open out into the several strands which make up the film’s narrative: there are the therapy sessions which Poh-Lin holds with the detainee migrants and the scenes of her at home with her husband and children; scenes depicting the red crab migration and the rangers on the island who work to direct traffic or close roads off to ensure the crabs aren’t harmed by human beings driving around the island; scenes exploring the spiritual beliefs of the island’s Chinese population (of whom Poh-Lin is one) who burn offerings and clean gravestones to honour those who first came to the island and died without proper burial, whose spirits are “trapped between homes, trapped between worlds” and are the “hungry ghosts” which give the film its title.

Stylistically, the film dispenses with much of what audiences have come to expect from documentary films: there are no ‘talking head’ sections and the film lacks a voice-over explaining who people are. Instead, the audience is drawn into the film through the visual and aural tools of filmmaking: moving shots of the crabs as they walk through the forest and across roads, with forest rangers making bridges for them or sweeping them out of the way on oncoming traffic so that they can give the crabs “a chance to migrate and do what they gotta do,” as a ranger tells a trainee; close-ups on the faces of Poh-Lin and the migrants she talks to bring the audience into the intimate therapy sessions where the migrants are encouraged to feel sand from the Christmas Island beach and use toys and models to populate a scene; the moving camera that explores the forests and coastlines of the island revealing the turbulent sea from where the migrants make their perilous journeys in boats from and where the crabs are migrating to. There is a constant tension between the beauty of the visuals of the nature of the island and the charming scenes of Poh-Lin and her family on days out in the island (including one where Poh-Lin’s husband and one of their daughters encounter a huge crab which Poh-Lin estimates is at least seventy years old) and the frequently harrowing accounts of the migrants who tell of being separated from their friends and families in their countries of origin and then within the detention camp when they claim asylum. In one of the therapy scenes, a man tells of how he was separated from his mother when they arrived at the camp and how the cramped and humid conditions were affecting her to the point where she could no longer comfortably stand up to greet him when he was allowed to visit her. To see her like that, he tells Poh-Lin (and the audience) was like hell: “Hell is where you see your family suffering and you can’t do anything.” Perhaps the most chilling account of all is from a migrant who is never shown but whose testimony is played out over shots of the figures Poh-Lin uses in her therapy: the migrant talks of sewing his own lips shut in protest at the way he and his fellow migrants have been treated.

As the film goes on, the audience sees Poh-Lin struggle to do her job: frequently, the migrants she has appointments with are moved without warning, so she is unable to continue working with them, or even those who do regularly come seem worse off each time. The breaking point comes when her manager informs her that one of her clients has self-harmed while in the camp. The film’s narrative ends with Poh-Lin and her family preparing to move to France, where her husband is from, with Poh-Lin symbolically throwing the sand she used in her therapy sessions back to the beach as the crabs complete their migration. The imagery is clear enough but it would be foolhardy to simplify the parallels between the differences in how the human population treat the migrating crabs versus how they treat migrating humans; the use of the crab migration is there to offer relief from what is often a bleak film.

Island Of The Hungry Ghosts is a very powerful film and seems to have been granted a cinema release tour in the UK at a rather opportune moment, with stories in the news of a ‘migrant crisis’ where, like the detainees in the Christmas Island camp, migrants are arriving illegally on boats and reports from the US of the current government separating migrant families at the border with Mexico. Documentary purists may take exception to the film’s ‘hybrid’ approach to telling its story, with the use of reconstructed ‘dramatic’ scenes to emphasise the narrative drive of the film, but it would undoubtedly be a weaker film without them. It’s not always an easy watch but the film is haunting and lingers on in the mind long after the final credits roll.

Reviewer - Andrew Marsden
on - 12/1/19

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