Island of the Hungry Ghosts shines haunting light on Christmas Island refugees

Poh Lin Lee with one of her daughters.
Poh Lin Lee with one of her daughters.

AN unnervingly quiet tension permeates Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts. The documentary chronicles the experience of Brady’s friend Poh Lin Lee on Christmas Island, when the filmmaker comes to visit her.

Poh is a torture and trauma counsellor at the community hospital on the island, doing what she can to patch together the lives of broken refugees.

She comes armed with a sandbox of island beach sand. The refugees, previously having a level of freedom in the beautiful environment, are essentially incarcerated in the detention centre. Now they are being picked apart from family units for movement to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The counsellor has her own form of bureaucratic torture simply organising counselling sessions, where she uses figurines to draw out these people’s experiences and mental state. It is a thoroughly desolate process.

Trauma counselling.

Often their greatest anguish is simply a confusion and rising anger about slights against their innate dignity: people held together for long periods suddenly separated, touching through wire for perhaps the last time.

It is a process without end, seemingly designed to maximise distress and disorientation. As one inmate says: “Wait and watch for the next worse thing.”

Meanwhile, the island’s red crabs are on the march to the ocean and there are elaborate processes in place to ensure their safe passage.

Red crabs on the march.

The island’s human inhabitants have their own processes and cultural norms. Offerings are given to the spirits of those who came to the island and died without proper burial. Appeasing and soothing these hungry ghosts is very important to the spiritual path of the locals.

Brady never embellishes. As with the crabs, the aim is to unrelentingly find a way to a particular place. It makes for unsettling viewing because that place is no place any sane person would ever want to go. As testament to a shameful Australian policy, this is a valuable document. As a film, it is pure torture.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts (PG)

Written and directed by: Gabrielle Brady

Reviewed by: Martin Turner

3.5 stars

Limited screenings this week