Tuesday, 18 June 2019

FILM REVIEW: The Island Of Hungry Ghosts - HOME, Manchester.


When HOME announced that it was screening ‘Island Of The Hungry Ghosts’ (Dir: Brady, G. 2018) again, after the film’s successful run in January and February this year, I leapt at the chance to catch this on the big screen. Having heard good word of mouth and resounding critical praise, I had high expectations.

Set on Christmas Island in The Indian Ocean, Island Of  Hungry Ghosts tells the tale of Poh Lin Lee, a narrative therapist working with asylum seekers as they attempt to reconcile their incarceration and the torture and abuse they sought refuge from. As well as inviting us into these intimate and often harrowing sessions, Brady cuts away to the residents of the island who work tirelessly to enable a mass migration of red crabs across the island. The parallel between both sets of migrants and the treatment of them on this same island is obvious, so Brady allows the parable to develop organically without resorting to any sermonizing.

Winner of the Best Documentary award at Tribeca, this first feature documentary from Gabrielle Brady is an unusual concoction. If this is truly a documentary it is in the observational mode with heavy doses of poetic documentary stirred into the pot. The opening shots of a therapy session suggest single camera drama with multiple set-ups and lingering close-ups which make the scene feel like a work of fiction, albeit influenced by neo-realist forms and improvisation. Indeed, many scenes suggest a dramatic contrivance; such as a camping trip, a late-night romantic dance or a phone call received in a car, but all have the verité style and authenticity of realism. So watching the film does involve wrestling with notions of ‘truth’, which forever dog the documentary form.

However, what cannot be disputed is this film’s heart and regardless of how this film arrived at ‘truth’, Brady and Poh Lin Lee have created a hauntingly truthful insight into this world. The therapy sessions are so beautifully raw, with long held close-ups on faces allowing the minutiae symptoms of stress, grief and trauma to reveal their selves in the asylum seekers’faces, humanising them painfully for the viewer. These sessions also reveal what a wonderful, compassionate talented and brave woman Poh Lin Lee is, with her storytelling therapy both an effective tool to enable people to express feelings that words cannot describe alone, but also a helpfully cinematic device. The subject of this film is indeed the plight of those incarcerated indefinitely on Christmas Island, but Brady allows Poh Lin Lee to become a subject, spending considerable time with her family and the more we see of this, the more we notice her complexity, leading a dual life with admirable level-headedness.

Aside from a remarkable subject and the expert storytelling by both subject/participant and filmmaker, Island Of The Hungry Ghosts is a captivating cinema experience. Aided by cinematographer Michael Latham, Brady has adopted a range of styles to suit the contrasting plight of the migrants on Christmas island. The handheld close ups of the therapy sessions imply the stressful, emotionally charged intensity, whilst the tight-frame reminds us that they are trapped, imprisoned indefinitely. The fly-on-the-wall intimacy continues in Poh Lin Lee’s family life and the various residents of the island we meet (cleverly including the Chinese population of Christmas Island – the original settlers and migrant community of the island, now seemingly more integrated) with handheld shots now looser, emphasising their freedom of movement and their relationship with their island environment. Finally, Latham’s camera is mounted and travelling slowly, steadily along gimbles as we track alongside the migrating red crabs, or marvel at the island’s spectacular rock formations on the stormy shores. This more-gentle photography emphasises nature’s beauty and allows us to meditate on the issues raised. Although the therapy sessions tend to use only natural sound, the footage of crabs, of ritual fires, nightscapes and the shoreline are often enhanced by Leo Dolgan’s exceptional sound team and the hypnotic soundtrack of Aaron Cupples’s score.

Island Of  Hungry Ghosts is an astonishing achievement in documentary making, capturing a remarkable protagonist, in extraordinary circumstances, amidst a beautiful, wild landscape, whilst balancing all of this with humanity and style.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 18/6/19

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