Down Under Berlin is proud to present Gabrielle Brady’s extraordinary multi-award-winning documentary, Island of the Hungry Ghosts, in attendance of co-producer Julia Niethammer.
Premiering at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and taking home the award for Best Documentary, Brady’s debut feature has impressed and moved critics and festival audiences around the world. Tackling one of the most important global human rights issues today – and an especially bitter aspect of Australian political and social discourse – this exquisitely shot documentary was made with support from the UK’s BFI Film Fund, Germany’s Film- und Medienstiftung NRW and Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, and Screen Territory.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts is a hybrid documentary that moves allegorically between a natural animal migration and a chaotic and tragic human migration. Every year on Christmas Island, an Australian territory located off the coast of Indonesia, millions of land crabs move from the jungle into the ocean to lay their eggs. Poh Lin Lee is a trauma therapist who lives with her family in this seemingly idyllic tropical paradise. Every day, she talks with the asylum seekers held indefinitely in a high-security detention centre hidden at the island’s core, attempting to support them in a situation that is as unbearable as its outcome is uncertain. As Poh Lin and her family explore the island’s beautiful yet threatening landscape, the local islanders carry out their “hungry ghost” rituals for the spirits of those who died on the island without a burial.
The film came about after its director visited her friend, Poh Lin, and her family at their home on Christmas Island. The two Australians had first met while living and working in Mongolia in 2007, and since then both have continued to travel, live and work in various far-flung corners of the world – for Brady, this includes Cuba (where she studied directing at the Cuban International Film School), Indonesia, the Australian central desert and Europe. Lee had come to Christmas Island to support people who had run afoul of Australia’s law against arriving in the country and claiming refugee status. Over Lee’s time there, conditions for the detainees declined drastically, leading to her clients’ mental health deteriorating before her eyes. Taking a short flight from Jakarta, Brady was at first dazzled by the island’s lush beauty, until at the end of her trip she and Lee joined three young asylum seekers from Afghanistan on a brief outing from the centre (a liberty that was later cut).
After an afternoon of joking and singing and exploring the island, she says, “when they were taken back to the centre there was just a very deep and heavy silence. It was so hard to let them go and not be able to do anything about it.” Afterwards, Poh and Gabrielle walked through the jungle to a lookout from which they could see the whole centre: “The stark contrast of the beauty I had experienced on the island and then this kind of horror I saw in front of me really marked me … This planted a seed for the beginnings of the film idea.”
The stunning, but threatening island setting is crucial to the film – Brady explains that its “double face … was a really interesting contrast for me”, as was the island’s unusual, almost allegorical history – with no indigenous population, everyone living there is a migrant, or descends from European colonists or indentured labourers from Southeast Asia who arrived from the 19th century. Both Brady and Lee agreed that the film should avoid the kinds of images familiar from media coverage, and so the detention centre became “more of a psychological presence … a kind of pulsating force that emanates from the jungle.”
The filmmaker was also curious about her friend’s challenging role as a therapist in this place, and deeply touched by “the way Poh had of grasping what was happening and [her] way of engaging with it”. It is this that led to filming therapy sessions with actual asylum seekers as a way to honour their stories. Poh Lin says that she “had a hunch that the filming process could be developed to be in itself therapeutic”, while Gabrielle says that she saw this choice to present what she calls “the epitome of an intimate space … against the vastness of the island” as a counter to media representation and government policies that were all about “creating [an image of] people seeking asylum at such a distance.”
Awarding the Best Documentary prize, the Tribeca Jury called Island of the Hungry Ghosts “a film that moved us deeply, impressed us immensely and made us feel we were witnessing nothing less than the emergence, fully formed, of a major new cinematic talent”. The film has bagged a heap of honours from festivals around the world, including the Buyens-Chagoll Award for humanist film at Switzerland’s Visions du Réel 2018, a Special Mention at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the Human Rights Award at International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam 2018, and the Grand Jury Prize for the International Competition at Mumbai Film Festival, along with a whole host of gongs at the Ozflix Independent Film Awards 2019 and a nomination for the 2019 Deutscher Dokumentarfilmpreis.
We’re honoured to bring this beautiful and compassionate film to Berlin for the first time. Don’t miss it! Join us at Moviemento on Friday night, the 27th of September.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts
"Christmas Island: Off the coast of Indonesia, on an isolated island in the Indian Ocean, land crabs migrate in their millions from the jungle to the sea. Here, the natural migration and the chaotic and tragic human migration intertwine. The island is paradise and hell at the same time as the same jungle hides an Australian high-security detention centre where thousands of asylum seekers have been locked away indefinitely. Their only connection to the outside world is trauma counsellor Poh Lin Lee, who is attempting to support them in a situation that is as unbearable as its outcome is uncertain."
Gabrielle Brady | AUS, DE, UK | 2018 | Documentary | 94 min | English, Chinese, French (with English subtitles) | Berlin Premiere
Screening on 27 September 2019 at 8pm @ Moviemento Kino, followed by a Q&A with co-producer Julia Niethammer.
View the entire 2019 festival program here.
We’ll see you at the movies!
All images © Gabrielle Brady
Helen Rydstrand is an Australian freelance editor and researcher living in Berlin. When not helping out with Press & Communications for Down Under Berlin, she’s lounging by the Landwehr or trying to get used to real winters.