2001 is a distant time, even for those who have a vivid memory of the year’s events. Thinking of recent news stories of ‘boats’ and whether they should be stopped or not, it is gut wrenching to be reminded of the Tampa Affair and how history repeats itself. Steve Thomas’ latest documentary Freedom Stories does not set out to be an extra stab in the gut, but instead offers a very honest portrayal of how some who sought asylum from the Middle East in Australia have found themselves since arriving in 2001.
Only refugees did not arrive exactly on Australian shores the year after the new millennium was brought in. The same year some even thought Jesus Christ would reappear in Jerusalem. ‘Boat People’ were held remotely in detention centres in Nauru and Woomera. They slept six people to a room and Australia debated whether or not to accept them.
Hindsight is easy to intellectualise. A bad taste lingers in the mouth watching Freedom Stories that pointing out human rights violations does nothing to wash out. There is only the sense of time having slipped away as footage of the detention centre riots of 2001 mesh into every news story seen and think piece read about asylum seekers since. It is here though, that documentaries like Freedom Stories can look at the issue with a discerning eye, and remind us that, for many, life moves on regardless of morals.
One thing, a joke of sorts, links the narratives in Freedom Stories. It is hard to define because of the bad taste, but it is there in stories like that of artist Shafiq winning an art competition while in detention. The joke is still there when we see Shafiq and his daughter detailing not seeing each other for ten years out of their lives. It is there in real estate worker Amir’s constant smile and single mother of three Shari detailing the licences she needs to become a truck driver. The punchline never comes and what is akin to a joke reveals itself as the lingering bad taste.
The narratives of those profiled in Freedom Stories are almost characterless. Case Worker (and former migrant) Reyhana demonstrates her exercise routine in her backyard, moving continuously in a small circle. Shafiq talks about his home renovations. Amir shows director Steve Thomas around a recently vacated apartment he needs to inspect, making mention of the former tenants tidiness and their high likelihood of a bond refund. It is particularly in Amir’s professionalism that the audience detects something amiss. Why doesn’t Reyhana walk around her neighbourhood for exercise? Why is Amir so committed to the rules and regulations of real estate? Why aren’t they all mad as hell about their experience in detention?
It is a testament to Steve Thomas’ skill as a documentary filmmaker that he doesn’t try and answer such questions, and there is no trace of engineering on his part to any of the stories. Perhaps Thomas is familiar enough from past work on documentaries Welcome to Woomera (2004) and Hope (2008) to even think to lead the dialogue. The result is a more gentle touch than programs like SBS’ Go Back To Where You Came From, which highlighted the issue in the guise of a practical joke. The fact this is an issue is absurd, but it’s not that simple.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10