For the constantly surveilled, to take the camera in hand and turn it on one’s self and surrounds is a powerful act of agency. Chauka, please tell us the time is a collaboration between Kurdish journalist, asylum seeker, and public face of the resistance on Manus Island Behrouz Boochani and Holland-based Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani. Shot in secret on Manus by Boochani, using a mobile phone, and edited abroad by Sarvestani, it screened last night in a special event hosted by ACMI and the Refugee Action Collective. The audience also had the privilege of communicating with Boochani by phone, mediated by the writer, activist, and friend to Boochani, Arnold Zable. Boochani’s capacity to think clearly and with compassion in the most inhuman circumstances is remarkable.
Shamefully, as we speed towards the culmination of 2017, we cannot yet celebrate an end to the suffering inflicted on asylum seekers by the Australian government – and so this exposé of the system’s secrecy and brutality is more urgent than ever.
The film offers no narration or explanation, and still, through voices and images, a narrative emerges. Crucially, it is those seeking asylum who create their own story. Boochani is the film’s attentive ear and its steady hand, and he knows the strengths and weaknesses of filming on a phone. The camera trains on images and lingers: feet in thongs leant against wire that separates from the sea; a man in a red shirt, squatting down, smoking; a kitten grooming itself; curious local children giggling and dancing as they peer past wire into the compound.
The people of Manus Island, who the Australian government has forced this situation on, are treated with nuance and compassion by Boochani and his collaborators. Images of joyous independence day celebrations are spliced with scenes of the detention centre’s banal brutality: a standoff between guards and detainees; the flashing lights of an ambulance as a man lies bleeding from a desperate act of self-harm.
Two local men tell an Australian journalist about the sacred bird found only on Manus, the Chauka; they are horrified to learn that it is also the name of the secret confinement compound where so-called troublemakers on Manus are brutalised and humiliated. Often, the only trouble people detained there have caused is being a witness to violence and murder.
Boochani’s dedication to his work as a reporter and a creator is fundamental to this unique project. It can never be forgotten that this film was made at risk of further violence. We may never have known the confinement wing Chauka existed if it wasn’t for his tireless investigation, including waking friends to snatch an interview, asking painful questions and always always witnessing, listening, believing.
These vivid conversations are punctuated, throughout the film, by the arrival of the fumigator. Men walk past, pulling t-shirts over their noses and mouths, as a man in full protective gear passes with his hose. It’s never clear what, exactly, the fumigation targets, but the white smoke fills every passage, crawls along the fence and makeshift buildings, rises up into the sky, obscuring everything in a white fog so that guards, asylum seekers, tropical foliage, fences, birds, the sea – all become invisible.
Chauka is a response to this obscuring, to the desire to dull and hide the faces of these men from Australian eyes. Instead, the lives of these men have been documented, and thus rendered painfully sharp.
Over a series of phone calls one man – white t-shirt, bowed head, clutching his phone card – pleads with his family to understand that he would call them every day if he was allowed, would spend hours on the line if his time wasn’t cut short. That he hasn’t chosen to be separated indefinitely from his wife, and new son, born two weeks after he fled Iran, and his ill father. Their inability to believe his situation only underlines its absurdity. Why would anyone choose this? I’m sunbaking on the beach, he says bitterly.
This man was punished in Chauka for being witness to a murder – that of his friend Reza Barati, who was bashed over the head by guards. Another had his throat slit by an unidentified guard is left with sixteen stitches, nerve damage, and constant threats from those meant to uphold the camp’s security.
Yet another man recounts the six days he spent holed up with forty others – an experience that changed his sense of who he is. Unable to go to the toilet, they slept crowded on a concrete floor in a tiny room, and then, when taken out to wash, it was in the ocean, escorted by guards with guns.
Ocean and sky are poignant symbols throughout Chauka, please tell us the time. Images of the sea surrounded by wire, fenced off from those seeking freedom, remind us of our government’s strange project – to ‘secure our borders’, as Malcolm Turnbull claims at the film’s startling end. Like Manus, Australia is an island surrounded by water. How do you secure water? Water finds the cracks.
Unlike the people at its centre, this film has been set free – it flows around the edges of a broken system, with a life of its own: potent, uncontainable, and somehow, despite everything, beautiful. Boochani and Sarvestani have created a compelling firsthand account of the pain, humiliation, and violence inflicted on ordinary men suffering in a hellhole drafted by Australian bureaucracy. The men on Manus are ‘not angels’, Boochani told the audience by phone from Manus. They are people.