Island of the Hungry Ghosts
Written and directed by Gabrielle Brady, the beautiful, haunting documentary Island of the Hungry Ghosts is a disturbing and poignant exploration of Australia’s remote Christmas Island and the traumatic lives of migrants detained at its primary refugee detention centre.
The title suggests a horror film, and with its ghostly soundtrack and darkly vivid imagery the piece is unequivocally spooky. Unlike the fictional genre, however, is the true horror of lives destroyed in secretive prisons where people fleeing war and genocide are detained indefinitely and subjected to the harshest treatment. The “hungry ghosts” are the spirits of the many bereft and desperate who have died on that island, often by suicide, while mostly Chinese local inhabitants partake in rituals to help these lost souls find their way home.
As outside knowledge of detention centre activity is forbidden, the asylum seekers’ plight is only disclosed via undercover camera, through their interactions with torture and trauma counsellor Poh Lin Lee. Intensely moving, personal accounts within the therapy sessions are descriptions of days of darkness at sea, fellow travellers drowned or devoured by sharks, families ripped apart, and inhumane abuses endured in custody. A talented therapist, Lee is wracked with despair as the immigration system’s relentless damage to her patients counters any help she gives them.
Every year 40 million baby land crabs migrate from the island’s jungle to the coast, echoing the naturalness of the migratory instinct. A cruel irony is that officials close roads and maintain protections for the red crabs in stark contrast to their treatment of human migrants.
Dramatic, poetic visuals and sound simulate a symphony of wild forces rising up in anger and defiance at humanity’s cruelty, as nature is alive with shadowy jungle scenes and the eerie groaning of trees, wind and geysers. Intuitive close-ups reveal essence. Rock formations suggest Renaissance sculptures and with prayer-like whispering evoke ecstatic cathedralesque spirituality. Yet it is a vista also untamed, pagan – moody, long, lingering shots and roaring sonority with ominous but disquieting sensual panoramic images recall Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
While Lee’s responses to questions from her little girls also inform amid the island’s secretive oppression, much is imparted via non-verbal elements, conveying an essential emotional rawness and intimacy with the subject. A revealing, thought-provoking, stunning film, Island of the Hungry Ghosts shines a light on a crucial human rights issue hidden away by bureaucracy on this isle of anguished spirits.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts is released in select cinemas on 11th January 2019.
Watch the trailer for Island of the Hungry Ghosts here: