The film the government paid $6 million to produce to deter asylum seekers from paying people smugglers to get a boat to Australia has just been released with English subtitles, and it reveals just how cruel Australia’s asylum seeker policies are. The feature-length film Journey, paid for by the Department of Immigration, follows the story of Iranians Nima, Marjan, Sara and Amir, Iraqi Nadim, Afghani teenager Bilal and Pakistani brothers Hassan and Najee.

They all pay people smugglers with the promise of getting to Australia, with almost all drowning after their boat takes on water, or arrested by Indonesian police. The Australian government relinquishes all responsibility for the fates of the people in the film. People smugglers are the villains, with the Australian government barely mentioned at all. It features stories of others who were on boats that were turned back, only to find themselves in Indonesian detention centres as well as those who ended up in detention camps. An official at the migration agency in Jakarta says that asylum seekers going through the official process of claiming refugee status can be settled in any country other than Australia.

There are no Australians featured in the film, and very little attention is paid to the reasons the characters are leaving their homelands. The soapie-style telemovie makes only passing mention to the unrest and injustice in the countries the characters are fleeing. Bilal’s grandfather is a shopkeeper, and when the other shopkeepers on his street are shot, he sells his business to pay for Bilal to get to Australia. The boy tells his companions that he is going alone because he is a child and it will be easier for his family to follow him.

Sara and her son Amir are leaving Iran with her brother Nima and his heavily pregnant wife, Marjan. In the course of the movie we find that Sara’s husband had left Iran years before, heading to Turkey, promising to bring his wife and son to London, but never contacted them.

Nadim is going to meet his uncle in Australia, leaving his mother and sisters behind. The film has some beautiful moments, with wide shots of the landscapes of the Middle East, but with long, lingering shots of the characters as they wonder if they have made the right move in choosing to take a boat to Australia, its message is inescapable. Throughout the film Sara tells Amir a story through the journey, a metaphor for the characters in the film being exploited by the people smugglers.

Sara, Amir, Nadim, Najee and Bilal make it to the boat, captained by Indonesian fisherman who are lured into the job by the people smuggler who stayed on land. Eventually the boat begins to take on water, and after the occupants argue about what to do and if to call for help on the satellite phone, they begin to fall overboard, one by one and in small groups, with slow-motion underwater shots emphasising the terror of being at sea. The deaths of the characters are slow, and wrenching.

The phone is lost, meaning no one knows their fate. A bird’s-eye view shot widens and widens to show the group of floating bodies in an endless sea.

Nadim clings to his guitar case that he has dragged all the way from Iraq, which he shares with Sara and Amir until Sara also surrenders to the seas. Najee, who parted from his brother in Jakarta and had earlier admitted that he couldn’t swim, loses his fight to hold onto a plank of wood. The child, Amir, is the only one to survive until another boat arrives.

The final scenes involves the families of the asylum seekers grieving for their loved ones while the final words of Sara’s children’s story narrate the story of the greedy heron who had tricked fish into thinking they were travelling to a better life, only to be eaten. The message of the film is as subtle as a punch in the face.

“Inspired by true events” reads the kicker at the end of the film, as if saying “this could be you” is too obvious. The department says the telemovie will be shown in Iraq on Lana TV, Iran on Farsi1, Afghanistan on Tolo TV and Lemar and Pakistan on PTV until July. It has spent $6 million on the production and promotion of the film, with $4.34 million going to Put It Out There Pictures in Sydney and $1.63 million going to Lapis Communications to market and broadcast the movie. According to the department, the marketing contract has four phases: awareness raising before the broadcast, launching the broadcast, social media and YouTube promotion and an impact study.

In answer to a question on notice at Senate estimates, the Immigration Department said:

“The telemovie Journey is a ninety-minute film that is inspired by true events. It portrays the journeys of people looking to travel illegally by boat to Australia. It highlights their personal situations and challenges they face along their journey. It includes the messages delivered as part of the Australian Government’s No Way anti-people smuggling communication campaign. This includes the risks and dangers of travelling illegally by boat, the lies of people smugglers, and Australia’s protection measures to preserve the integrity of its borders, including boat turnbacks.”

According to Put It Out There’s website, the production used cast and crew from 13 countries and was filmed across three nations.

While the department won’t talk about actual on-water matters to the Australian media, it’s happy to go into painstaking and cruel detail if it serves their purposes.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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