Gabrielle Brady / Germany, UK, Australia / 2018 / 94 mins
As part of Edinburgh International Film Festival
This documentary about Christmas Island concerns two forms of migration – one involving forty million red crabs moving from the jungle to the sea and the other, the darker, more harrowing issue of human migration, namely at the high security detention centre on the island, where asylum seekers to Australia are permanently detained. The film also follows trauma counsellor Poh Lin Lee as she attempts to support the detainees whilst also exploring the island with her daughters.
This is a quietly powerful documentary that uses first-hand testimonies from asylum seekers about the physical and emotional impact of their previous lives and their journey to Australia to convey the importance of Lim’s job as well as the harshness of Australia’s immigration policies. In addition, the uncertain status of the asylum seekers is effectively compared with that of the first Chinese migrants to the island, who did not receive proper burials. This is shown through the coverage of the Chinese community burning offerings to the migrants, who are said to wander the island as “Hungry Ghosts” due to the improper burial.
Brady also provides an insight into how Lee’s job affects her emotionally, showing how the government’s hardening attitude towards asylum seekers results in her patients being unable to turn up for sessions, whilst also showing how her therapy sessions benefit the asylum seekers by allowing them to tell their stories. In addition, scenes showing Lee with her husband and two daughters further humanise her situation, a particular example being when she tries to explain her job and the detention centre to her children, which further highlights its brutal nature. The inclusion of sequences involving the island’s crabs also provides an ironic contrast – whilst their migration is allowed and encouraged, the migration of asylum seekers is restricted and criminalised.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts is an extremely moving documentary which effectively contrasts the brutality of immigration detention with the unique natural world of Christmas Island.