In April this year I went to the FREEDOM STORIES Sydney screening hosted by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) two months before Refugee Week, with a slight feeling of dread at what would surely be a depressing expose of the impact of Australia’s inhumane policies and treatment of asylum-seekers. Two months later I made sure I saw it again at Palace Cinemas in Leichhardt as a fundraiser for the Asylum Seekers Centre in Newtown, Sydney.
The film starts in a typical Aussie mechanics’ garage in suburban Canberra with the first of the refugees, the very calm and gentle Mustafa Jawadi an Afghani refugee, now an apprentice mechanic. A customer arrives during the filming to collect his car and wonders if they are making an advertisement. Mustafa very sensitively reminds the film-maker (director and camera-man) Steve Thomas, that they have not yet asked this customer for permission to film. Thomas keeps filming and gets permission to continue. He asks the customer if he was aware that Mustafa was a refugee from Afghanistan and he says ’Yes. I think I knew that.’ Thomas continues, ‘And did you know that he was detained on Nauru at the age of 10 for three years?’ ‘No I didn’t know THAT’ he says turning to Mustafa ‘Yes’ says Mustafa. ‘He’s a pretty good mechanic. That’s all I know.’ This understatement sets the tone for the whole film.
Over the next hour and a half, we witness a sensitively nuanced series of very personal stories without any hysteria or sentimentality. The complete lack of hectoring or complaining coming from these former refugees is very humbling.
Among the many astounding stories is that of Sheri Shoari – do NOT mess with this woman. Sheri is a single mother with three sons, including Ali who has cerebral palsy – when they fled Iran, she carried Ali for kilometres strapped on her back. On arrival they were held in the Curtin and Baxter Detention Centres for 3 years before settling in Adelaide. Thomas finds out that Sheri has alwayswanted to be a truck driver and has already obtained the first two of four licences which will qualify her to drive road trains. Thomas innocently observes ‘You could just be a taxi driver?’ The split second expression on Hamid’s face and Sheri’s prompt but genial dismissal of this idea is priceless ‘No, no taxi too small – I want a truck.’
Amir Javan from Iran now works as a licensed real estate agent in North Sydney. After fleeing Iran at the age of 27, Amir spent four and a half years in the Curtin and Baxter Detention Centres. He was released after his case went to the High Court and then spent a further two and a half years on a temporary protection visa. He suffered appalling mental cruelty for nearly 7 years – yet his major statement to Steve Thomas was about the plight of children in detention. He paused when asked about the impact of detention on refugee children – it was not what he said; it was the way he hesitated and wiped his hand down his face in distress before he began to say very simply how utterly inappropriate it was for any child to be there. Amir goes down to Melbourne during the film to help the young 15 year old boy he mentored in detention, Parviz Avesta (now an adult) to move house. They are not related but they are brothers for life.
There are many silences in this documentary as Thomas waits for his non-English speaking background subjects to think about their answers and manage the trauma of their memories. He doesn’t interview one person at a time but builds each person’s extraordinary story by re-visiting them two or three times during the filming. Each person interviewed, reveals their particular type of human (and humane) bravery and resilience in the face of mindless political and bureaucratic cruelty (my words, not theirs).
All the participants were chosen as established or successful asylum seekers and all calmly (so shockingly), said that the experience of being put into detention instead of being welcomed into Australia had a negative impact from which they are struggling to recover. They cannot forget what happened to them – but the vast majority have survived it better than most of us would believe possible. As Arif Fayazi (seen in the film with one of his clients, Molly Meldrum) says stoically ‘A lot of bad things happened to me. I’ve seen a lot of terrible things in my life. I just trying to forget it.’
The gift of this documentary is that it reaffirms your faith in humanity, not in politicians or power-mad bureaucracies. I walked out ashamed that Australia could be this stupid – punitive mandatory detention is a disgraceful breach of the United Nations Convention on Refugees. We need to stop vilifying asylum seekers and offer them proper humanitarian processing in Australia by Australians, and stop this cycle of bi-partisan cruelty.
*Cathy Bray is a Sydney poet, reviewer and member of Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children (GADRC) NSW and one of four Grayndler Grandmothers who organised a screening of FREEDOM STORIES via FanForce at Palace Leichhardt Cinemas during Refugee Week, 8 days before the 2016 election as an information night and fundraiser for the Asylum SeekersCentre in Newtown, Sydney.