Behrouz Boochani’s novel No Friend But the Mountains (2018) and his collaborative film with Arash Sarvesanti, Chauka Please Tell Us the Time (2019) are vivid and poetic descriptions of Australia’s offshore immigration detention industry. Much more than descriptions of this murderous system, these works constitute artistic and philosophical resistance to the system—a system that Boochani calls Manus Prison Theory. These works of art transgress the system through their open and respectful representations of the living milieus of Manus Island as they exist, beyond the colonial grip of the Australian regime of immigration detention. The relationship between Chauka birds, the jungle of Manus and human beings in this novel and film are revealing of Boochani’s philosophy of life—Chauka birds, the Manus jungle and human beings are not objectified in Boochani’s art; they are subjects and they resist and exceed Manus Prison Theory.
Boochani has published widely in Australian newspapers critiquing the immigration prison on Manus Island, however, he believes that journalism is an inadequate form of resistance to the system that he calls Manus Prison Theory. Its language of evidence and truth is “too weak” to depict “the reality” of the immigration prison (Boochani quoted in Capobianco, 2018). In contrast, he thinks that art can and does resist the system. He tells his friend and collaborator, the poet and activist, Janet Galbraith: “I believe that it is through creative resistance that we can keep our identity and individuality as a human in front of this system” (Galbraith, 2019: 194). To maintain a human identity and individuality in Boochani’s terms is not to assert a kind of human exceptionalism. The humans celebrated in his art for resisting the coloniality of Manus Prison Theory are engaged in profound relationships of solidarity with one-another and with living beings of the jungle of Manus Island, especially with Chauka.
In the grip of the system
Manus Prison Theory consists of a myriad of processes of micro-controls and macro-controls applied to every aspect of the men’s lives in Manus Prison by the corporate and government organs of Australia’s immigration detention industry. The men’s names are replaced by numbers, their bodies are caged within the overcrowded and filthy confines of the prison, they are given insufficient and poor-quality food, and their capacity to communicate with people outside of the prison is hampered and blocked. The prisoners must submit to countless bureaucratic processes, not only in applying for asylum, they must also apply to see a doctor. They are even required to apply for a medicine as basic as aspirin. To get food or cigarettes the men are compelled to queue up for hours. Boochani writes:
Breakfast, more than any other meal, is a twisted game. On many occasions there is practically nothing available to eat; nothing can be found. A few officers sit on chairs. After they tick off our numbers, they direct us to a vast array of empty trays and chefs fitted out like professionals. When we reach them, we realised nothing is provided, nothing to eat. The trays are empty, licked clean. When a prisoner gestures to his hungry stomach in anger and yells out that he is hungry, he receives the following polite answer: ‘Unfortunately, breakfast has run out.’ When that prisoner, now in a rage, screams at the top of his voice asking the reason why the chefs are standing in their positions, he receives just another polite answer smack in his furious face: Unfortunately, we have been ordered to stand in these positions for another hour. I apologise, we are fulfilling the duty assigned to us. We have no idea.’. (No Friend But the Mountains, 204)
As the novel makes clear, these games and bureaucratic measures are designed to produce human suffering, they are designed to discipline the prisoners into relating with one another, with staff and the guards with enmity (No Friend But the Mountains, 136). These processes are a form of torture. They are destructive of the men’s very existence as human beings.
Health services in Manus Prison are run by a private corporation called International Health and Medical Services that takes bureaucratic torture to an extreme. In an article published in The Saturday Paper, “Manus Prison Theory” Boochani suggests that an exemplary instance of what is done to prisoners seeking medical treatment is demonstrated in the feature film I Daniel Blake (2016) which is set in the United Kingdom and made by the acclaimed British filmmaker Ken Loach. In the film, Daniel Blake is recovering from a heart attack and major surgery. It opens with Daniel Blake in his flat waiting for a telephone interview, and when he receives the call, a bureaucrat asks him a rigid set of questions and judges him to be ineligible for financial support because he does not fit the narrowly defined criteria of eligibility for a living allowance. He has no income and is too sick to work and so appeals his assessment of ineligibility. This leads him into a maze of bureaucratic processes: of applying to go on waiting lists, of a struggle to fill in complex online application forms, and a series of appointments with bureaucrats that lead to further waiting lists and more appointments. Daniel Blake dies while fighting for benefits.
Boochani argues that the fate of Daniel Blake is strikingly similar to the fate of a number of refugees who died from illnesses contracted in Manus prison. These men had conditions that were readily treatable but they were submitted to the tortuous bureaucracy of queues and forms and waiting lists and effectively denied their access to basic and proper health care. For instance, Hamid Kehazaei died of sepsis contracted from infected mosquito bites on his legs, even though he repeatedly sought medical treatment from the private corporation on Manus. On Boochani’s reading of the film, I Daniel Blake, the system is what kills Daniel Blake and on Boochani’s reading of Manus Prison Theory’s operations on Manus, the system is what kills and mutilates the imprisoned men seeking refuge.
Why does Boochani draw on this English film I, Daniel Blake to make his argument? A reason that Boochani spells out is that Manus Prison Theory is omnipresent as a Western technique of government. There is another way to read his argument which is less explicit: this tortuous system of micro-controls and macro-controls is hostile to life. It is destructive of the living places in which it operates—on Manus parts of the jungle are cut down to expand the prison and its very existence on the island is opposed by the Manusian people. Manus Prison Theory is destructive of the lives of the people who find themselves in the grips of this system as inmates; it is also destructive of the humanity of guards and workers in the prison (No Friend But the Mountains, 313-315).
Manus Prison Theory is a regime of control that could be imposed ‘anywhere’; more precisely, the system imposes itself on a real and specific place to render it as a placeless place, to render it as an ‘anywhere.’ While Boochani does not directly address the status of Australian sovereignty’s violent foundations and continuing denial and violation of Aboriginal laws of country, there is striking commonality between the denial and violation of life through Manus Prison Theory on the island of Manus in Papua New Guinea and the denial and violation of Aboriginal Countries by the state and a myriad of corporations in Australia.
The daily operations of Manus Prison Theory constitute a system of implicit violence; it is also a system that engenders explicit violence. In a riot in February 2014, Reza Berati was beaten to death by prison guards. Two Papuan guards were convicted and gaoled, while the New Zealand and Australian guards involved in Berati’s killing have never been tried. A witness to Reza Berati’s murder, fellow Kurdish refugee, Benham Satah, says that fifteen guards were involved in Reza Berati’s murder (Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, 2017).The killing of Reza Berati is a central concern of Boochani and Arash Kamali Sarvestani’s poetic documentary, shot in clandestine on a mobile phone (Chauka, Please Tell us the Time, 2017). In the film, Boochani interviews Reza Berati’s friend, Benham Satah about the death of their friend and the sustained intimidation that Satah suffers for going public as a witness to Berati’s death. Satah is put under constant surveillance by guards (including guards that killed his friend) and Satah is sent to a notorious torture cell in the prison, where prisoners are starved, deprived of sufficient water, prevented from washing, delayed from using the toilet and so crowded in together that they cannot lie down. Many are beaten and constantly harassed. In the torture cell Satah is repeatedly threatened with death.
The torture cell is called Chauka and its name conjures up terror for the prisoners interviewed by Boochani. This name has another sense, Chauka is the name of the sacred bird of Manus. In a discussion with Janet Galbraith, two Manusian friends of Galbraith and Boochani, Clement Solomon and Poruan Malai speak about Chauka’s importance to Manusians: Chauka is only found on Manus, Chauka sings at certain times of day and has a song that tells Manusians the time. Malai says that for Manusians, “Chauka is our identity.” When he is asked how he feels about the use of Chauka’s name to designate the torture cell in the Australian immigration prison, Malai says that the Australian immigration detention industry “… is mistreating our identity, for the wrong purpose.”
Boochani and Sarvestani’s film, does not present video footage of Chauka. This can be read as a refusal to objectify Chauka in a cinematic shot. Instead, the film gives space for two Manusian men to situate Chauka in the milieu of Manus and to situate Chauka’s importance for Manusian identity.
Viewers of the film hear Chauka’s song amidst the hum of the jungle in many scenes of the film. And there is the call of Chauka weaved into the soundtrack to accompany a deeply sad Kurdish song sung by one of the prisoners. In the song, the singer addresses a lover and expresses his fear of dying far from his homeland of Kurdistan and laments his inability to return. The singer narrates a wish to be a bird and to fly back to be with his lover in Kurdistan. Chauka’s call and the Kurdish song accompany a series of shots of the prison camp and a long sequence in which Janet Galbraith walks down a track with her back to the camera (the dedication in No Friend But the Mountains is “For Janet Galbraith Who is a Bird”). In Boochani’s art, Janet Galbraith is a free subject.
The centrality of Chauka to this extraordinary film is underscored by its title: Chauka, please tell us the time. Chauka is the bird that tells local Manusians the time and an unlimited and indeterminate concept of time is the main kind of torture deployed by the prison (Boochani quoted in Capobianco, 2018). Crucially, in the title Chauka, please tell us the time, Chauka is addressed as a subject. One of the prisoners in Boochani’s film, describes an experience of a Chauka bird coming and sitting on the fence and singing loudly close to the men who are suffering in the torture cell. On this man’s account, Chauka’s presence on the fence is disturbing. In Boochani’s art, however, it is plausible to re-read the prisoner’s story of Chauka on the fence as an account of the bird as a witness to the men’s suffering—the bird’s song is a song of lamentation in sympathy with the men. There is solidarity between Chauka and the suffering men in the torture cell.
Chauka is also central to No Friend But the Mountains. This is searingly evident in the book’s closing pages that describe the aftermath of the February 2014 riot. The prisoners have been beaten by the guards. They are taken back to the prison compound from a football field and made to go into a tent. There are injured and bleeding men everywhere:
Chauka is chanting. The melody wanders through/
Chauka is screaming/
Screaming and chanting fuse in the voice of the bird/
Silence for a moment/
Chauka screams once more/
A harmony linked by screams/
A chain extending the furthest depths of the jungle/
Down into its darkest cavern/
Screams reverberate from the throats of all the birds on Manus Island/
All of the birds on Manus are in symphony/
All reach their climax in the voice of the Chauka.
We can hear The Hero/
His voice echoes in the distance/
He is wailing/
His grief pours over the prison, pounds down on the prison/
Chauka falls silent/
We can only hear the voice of the Hero/
The entire tent descends into silence/
All the men inside become silent for a moment/
No-one is around him/
The Hero is alone/
Chauka flies down from the summit of the tallest coconut tree in the prison to unite with the Hero/
The Hero laments/
The chant of a bird and the chant of a man/
Both chants blend into one/
This lament … of nature … this lamentation of nature/
This lament of a human. This lamentation of a human being.
The message arrives.
They had killed Reza. They had killed the Gentle Giant (354-356).
The novel’s closing passage is a profound protest against the killing of Reza Berati and the system of Manus Prison Theory. This lamentation is also a manifestation of life as collaborative solidarity in radical excess of the system. All of the birds of Manus and the very jungle itself are harmonised in Chauka’s voice and flight from the tallest coconut tree on the island into the prison grounds where Chauka unites with a wailing and lamenting human being. In their chants and in their silences, they manifest a relationship of respect, of sharing, and of participating in life.
Boochani’s art offers much to those of us who are searching for ways of being human that are in respectful relation with other forms of life and outside the grip of Manus Prison Theory.
Boochani, Behrouz. “Manus Prison Theory” The Saturday Paper. Aug 11-17 2018.
—. No Friend But the Mountains. Trans. Omid Tofighan. Picador, Sydney 2018.
Boochani, Behrouz and Arash Kamali Savestani. Chauka, please tell us the time … Sarvin Production; 2017.
Capobianco, Enza. “Behind the Documentary that Made It Out of Manus.” Australian Centre for Moving Image, 21 Dec. 2018, acmi.net.au/ideas/read/manus-island-documentary-chauka.
Galbraith, Janet. “A Reflection on Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time.” Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media, no. 18, 2019, pp. 193–198. DOI: https://doi.org/10.33178/alpha.18.17.
Moreton-Robinson, Aileen 2015. The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty. Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press.
Ravenscroft, Alison. “Anxieties of dispossession: whiteness, history, and Australia’s war in Viet Nam” in Whitening Race. Aileen Moreton Robinson (Ed). 2004 Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.
Stratton, Jon and Pereira Suvendrini “Introduction: Heterochronotopes of exception and the frontiers and faultlines of citizenship” Continuum: A Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. 23.5 2009.
Watson, Irene. 2015. Aboriginal Peoples, Colonialism and International Law: Raw Law. Routledge, New York.
 Health services in Papua New Guinea are now managed by Pacific International Hospital.
 See No Friend But the Mountains, especially Chapter Eleven (293-326).
 On the violent foundations and continuing denial of Indigenous laws of Country see especially Irene Watson, 2015. Many scholars have addressed the intrinsic and profound relationship in settler Australian xenophobia towards certain migrant groups (and especially refugees), and the foundation of Australia in the invasion and colonisation of Indigenous Nations. For instance, see Aileen Moreton-Robinson 2015, Alison Ravenscroft 2004 and Jon Stratton and Suvendrini Pereira, 2009.