How two strangers made a landmark movie together

For online composite image, Behrouz Boochani and Arash Kamali Sarvestani

For online composite image, Behrouz Boochani and Arash Kamali Sarvestani

chauka at Manus Island IMAGES SUPPLIED via Michael Gordon Pub date 4th Sept 2014 THE AGE

chauka at Manus Island IMAGES SUPPLIED via Michael Gordon Pub date 4th Sept 2014 THE AGE

Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani in Melbourne, June 2017. Photos by Arnold Zable SUPPLIED via Maher?? Mughrabi for THE AGE Weekend Features 27th September 2017

Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani in Melbourne, June 2017. Photos by Arnold Zable SUPPLIED via Maher?? Mughrabi for THE AGE Weekend Features 27th September 2017

Refugee Behrouz Boochani from Iran, on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, on Tuesday 11 April 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen (Embargoed for feature by Michael Gordon)

Refugee Behrouz Boochani from Iran, on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, on Tuesday 11 April 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen (Embargoed for feature by Michael Gordon)

Refugee Behrouz Boochani from Iran, on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, on Tuesday 11 April 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen (Embargoed for feature by Michael Gordon)

Refugee Behrouz Boochani from Iran, on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, on Tuesday 11 April 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen (Embargoed for feature by Michael Gordon)

This weekend, audiences at the London Film Festival will watch a film about the men detained on Manus Island. Behind this film lies a tale about a friendship and a creative partnership, formed across oceans, between two people who are yet to meet.

In mid-2016, Netherlands-based Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani planned to make a film about children and their feelings for the sea. At the same time, he began hearing of the immigration detention centres on Manus and in Nauru, and the children marooned there. He asked himself: Would these children view the sea with love, or as a prison?

Sarvestani tried to find an asylum seeker on Nauru willing to interview the children about their relationship to the sea. No one wanted to take it on. The detainees feared for their families and their refugee status. They believed they risked being penalised for taking part.

"As I read and learnt more about the centres I was shocked," says Sarvestani. "I thought, I can't make a film about kids anymore. It is more important to make a film about the camps."

Sarvestani came across an article by Kurdish-Iranian journalist and writer Behrouz Boochani, who has been detained on Manus Island since August 2013. Boochani fled Iran in fear of his safety due to his writing in support of Kurdish rights and culture.

"I am thinking about people in Manus and Nauru camps, especially kids," Sarvestani messaged Behrouz on August 5, 2016. "I don't know how humans can do this kind of thing to other humans. I would like to do something. I think there should be a fiction movie, or documentary shot inside the camp. I know it is impossible for me to come there. Maybe with a small camera we can do it."

"We got to know each other in voice messages on WhatsApp," Sarvestani recalls. "We discussed films, creativity, life in the camp. He was excited when he heard that I had done a workshop with the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, whose movies he loved.

"WhatsApp was a good way to establish our relationship. The delay between messages gave us time to think about our answers. I began to know Behrouz's moods and more about the terrible life of the men imprisoned on the island."

There were numerous discussions about the technical challenges, and times when the problems encountered in transmitting quality images seemed insurmountable. But the deepest issue in the early days was trust.

The creative partnership, and friendship, was sealed when Sarvestani assured Boochani they would work as co-directors, with Boochani as cameraman, filming on smartphone, and Sarvestani as his cinematic mentor and co-writer.

During his years of captivity on Manus, Boochani had sent many images and information to journalists, often with little or no acknowledgment. He was overjoyed in finding a partner offering to work with him on an equal footing.

The collaborators worked with a sense of urgency. Boochani filmed the scenes within the camp clandestinely. Images and edits flew back and forth across oceans. The film evolved in tiny WhatsApp packages.

"We were excited by the collaboration," Sarvestani says. "Behrouz was smart. He got everything quickly. He understood what I meant when I said 'treat each frame as a painting'. He quickly saw how the editing and the soundtrack enhanced the impact of the footage. This freed us up to talk about the story."

As a father and daytime carer of a young daughter and six-month-old son, Sarvestani did much of his work with Boochani at night. "Many conversations took place between midnight and three o'clock Dutch time," Sarvestani says. "It was also the best time for internet connections with Manus Island. Then I slept for a few hours, and at 6 o'clock my daughter kicked me out of bed."

Sarvestani was split between his day-to-day life as a family man, and a dark zone which he entered at midnight.

"I began to feel like a detainee myself," he says. "At that time a few things were happening that gave the men on Manus Island some hope. The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea said the camp was illegal and should be shut down. I could see how Behrouz and the men became happy. Then when they saw their situation did not improve, they were down. When the US deal was announced, they were up and down again.

Dutch-based Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani with his two children.

Netherlands-based Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani with his two children. Photo: Supplied

"They felt that people were playing around with them, torturing them. Every night I felt I was there with them.

"I have lovely kids, and that helped me not be totally depressed. But I heard a lot of bad things and I couldn't do anything about it. I still feel it."

Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time was completed in just six months, with some extra shooting during post-production to fill in gaps in the storytelling. Despite the technical restrictions, the 90-minute documentary is a poetic, hypnotic film, as well as a damning indictment of a brutal policy. It conveys the ordeal endured by the 900 detained men, imprisoned and marooned in the prime of their life. They are seen endlessly waiting, pacing, stuck in limbo, enduring the tropical heat, the whirring of fans, the erosion of hope and destruction of spirit.

Fumigation at the Manus Island detention centre, from the film <i>Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time</i>.

Fumigation at the Manus Island detention centre, from the film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time. Photo: Sydney Film Festival

Boochani films his fellow detainees making calls home to loved ones. The conversations capture the unbearable pain of separation: "I am parted from my child," one asylum seeker laments in his three-minute weekly call to his wife.

Referring to a child born after he fled his country, he says: "I haven't had a chance to hold him, touch him or feel his presence."

"Look mum, please don't cry. Please don't cry. Look mum, I am stuck here ??? I have no control over this," pleads another. The men's despair is underscored by the recurring strains of a haunting Kurdish folk song, sung by one of the inmates.

The smartphone pans over the cramped living spaces, the tiny cubicles partitioned by sheets and tarpaulins to create a fragile and claustrophobic privacy. We hear the comments of broken spirits: "I prefer to be dead because I have nothing any more ??? no one is waiting for me, and I am waiting for no one. I have lost everything."

A detainee who has self-harmed is carried from his compound at night in footage from the film.

A detainee who has self-harmed is carried from his compound at night in footage from the film. Photo: Supplied

There are surreal images - rows of white plastic chairs leaning against the wire through which can be seen the unobtainable sea; the incessant drone of the fumigation apparatus, its plume of smoke enveloping the centre. The men's plight is contrasted with images of exuberant Manus children dancing just beyond the fence, and by close-ups of cats roaming freely within and beyond the cyclone wire.

There is an eyewitness account of the murder of Reza Barati in February 2014, and disturbing footage of a detainee at the end of his tether who has self-harmed and is carried from his compound at night to an ambulance under glaring lights.

The central thread of the film is the chauka, a native bird sacred in the local indigenous culture.

The central thread of the film is the chauka, a native bird sacred in the local indigenous culture. Photo: Alamy

Boochani allows the voices of Manus islanders to be heard. The central thread of the film is the chauka, a native bird sacred in the local indigenous culture. The tiny bird is glimpsed flitting beside the wire fences, and its distinct call is heard on the soundtrack. The chauka is a symbol of the island and locals can tell the time from its regular singing.

In conversations between two islanders and writer Janet Galbraith, who was on Manus at the time of filming, we learn how much the bird means in the indigenous culture. The men are dismayed that the high-security prison within the camp - feared by the inmates as a place of solitary confinement and punishment - has been named after the bird. In their view the island is being used as a dumping ground for another country's problems.

The high-security prison on Manus has been named after the chauka.

The high-security prison on Manus has been named after the chauka. Photo: Supplied

When the film premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in May, and at Melbourne's ACMI cinema in early June, the co-directors could never have predicted what was to come.

Sarvestani attended the Sydney and Melbourne screenings as an invited guest. Boochani's application for a visa, allowing him to join his co-director, was turned down by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Writer Janet Galbraith talks to islanders in a scene from the film <i>Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time</i>.

Writer Janet Galbraith talks to islanders in a scene from the film Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time. Photo: Sydney Film Festival

The film was received with popular and critical acclaim. It has been taken up by film festivals throughout Australia and is competing in the Asia Pacific Screening Awards. In late August, it was announced that the film would be screened in the London International Film Festival on October 8 and 9. It is one of 12 films in the running for the prestigious Grierson Award, which recognises films "with integrity, originality, and social or cultural significance".

On receiving the news, Boochani wrote to the British High Commissioner in Australia, Menna Rawlings, requesting a temporary visa, which would enable him to join his co-director in introducing the film, and to take part in post-screening discussions.

Behrouz Boochani's letter to the British High Commissioner.

Behrouz Boochani's letter to the British High Commissioner. Photo: Supplied

Boochani penned his letter on the centre's official request form stationery: "I am asking you to give me visa to attend the London International Film Festival. I have been here in this prison camp for more than four years, even though I have committed no crime, and I am kept here by the Australian government who exiled me by force."

His appeal was reinforced by an official invitation from the festival's director, Clare Stewart.

The official invite from the London Film Festival to Behrouz Boochani.

The official invite from the London Film Festival to Behrouz Boochani. Photo: Supplied

"If Behrouz Boochani was free to travel," writes Stewart in an accompanying statement, "he would be welcome as a guest at the festival ???Chauka is an exceptional documentary filmed inside the Manus Island detention centre first-hand by Boochani who is detained there. It reveals much about his own experience as well as that of other detainees. It also questions the impact of the detention centre on Manus Island itself, through testimony from members of the local community. It is brave, thoughtful and urgent filmmaking and has earned its selection in our Documentary Competition in a very strong year for documentaries."

Boochani's right to attend the festival is also supported in a letter to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton signed by federal parliamentarians Nick Xenophon, Derryn Hinch, Cathy McGowan and Nick McKim.

The letter sent by MPs to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

The letter sent by MPs to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. Photo: Supplied

To date there has been no reply from either minister.

The film's remarkable journey continues. Long after those on Manus are finally released from their ordeal, it will remain a lasting document of a specific time and place, a unique insight into the everyday realities of the Pacific Solution. It captures, as Boochani has put it, "the coarsening banality and repetition" of indefinite detention.

It is driven by two men with a shared vision, separated by oceans and government policy.

Since the film was made there have been two deaths, with the apparent suicides of Iranian refugee Hamed Shamshiripour, 31, two months ago, and Sri Lankan refugee Rajeev Rajendran, 32, found hanged in Lorengau hospital in the early hours of Monday morning. He was the sixth asylum seeker fatality on the island.

In reporting his death, Boochani observed: "Another friend died in Manus Island today ??? All the refugees in Manus today are feeling very heavy with this news. There is a feeling of deep despair for this man's suffering, anger at the circumstances of his death, and a sense of powerlessness that such a barbaric system is allowed to continue."

"I have known Behrouz for 15 months," says Sarvestani. "He knows my kids now, my young daughter, and my newborn son.

"My daughter knows his voice. She knows when he is angry or sad and when I am excited about what we do.

"He is a close friend of mine. He should be here with me, in London. To share in our success. And to tell the world of the terrible crime being committed against these men."

Arnold Zable is a Melbourne writer and novelist. His most recent book is The Fighter. He has been in regular contact with Behrouz Boochani since 2014. This is the second feature in the Philoxenia series.

This story How two strangers made a landmark movie together first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.