Arts / Director shows trauma on Christmas Island

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Poh Lin and her daughter on Christmas Island
WHEN “CityNews” catches up with Australian film director Gabrielle Brady she’s just been on a killer trip from Berlin to Auckland.

After winning “Best Documentary Feature” at the Tribeca Film Festival this year for her film “Island Of The Hungry Ghosts”, she’s now at the New Zealand International Film Festival when we talk, but says home these days is Berlin, where Brady lives with her German partner Florian, another film director.

She’ll be in Canberra with Poh Lin, the main character in the film, on Sunday for a Q&A after the film’s screening as part of Deborah Kingsland’s “Stronger than Fiction” documentary film festival.

Frighteningly up-to-date, “Island Of The Hungry Ghosts” was shot on Christmas Island, and focuses on a young trauma counsellor, Poh Lin, who becomes traumatised by the policies and practices of detaining asylum-seekers.

Her real-life trajectory and that of the refugees are set in contrast to the ancient, inexorable migration, gently helped on their way by the locals.

One of the island’s red crabs
Underlying the narrative is the scene of unease, summed up in the Chinese islanders’ ritual placation of the ‘hungry ghosts” who wander ceaselessly.

Brady started out in her career working in commercial TV in Australia, but moved to Mongolia under the “Youth Ambassadors for Development” program, where she met and befriended Poh Lin. She’s still shell-shocked after her meteoritic success at Tribeca, where she was given a Chanel gift bag, something quite unfamiliar to a starving filmmaker who had to live in a caravan so that she could get the film done.

Her friendship with Poh Lin was cemented when she went to visit her on Christmas Island for holiday.

”Little by little our conversation turned to the idea of making a film, this was a collaboration born out of a deep friendship,” she says.

Early on, they discussed how to make a film that wasn’t just full of talking.

“There are reasons why I’m not interested in having interviews as the basis of the film,” she explains, “it’s not the way we talk in real life and I wanted to avoid putting people seeking asylum into that position of telling horror stories.”

Also, she says, in filming there should be a surprise place, and the people who participated didn’t know what would happen to them.

“We filmed with a lot of people,” Brady says.

“But later some people didn’t want to be part of it and it was designed that way… we would hold off on right towards the end… the version to be screened in Australia is an altered version, as one party (and we don’t blame her) pulled out, her case wasn’t finished.”

Large Christmas Island crabs are the central image audiences will carry away from this film.

“It was such an obvious choice,” Brady says.

“A part of the film is the island, I couldn’t possibly have made this film set in a suburb of Australia… the migration of the crabs is an incredible metaphor and stands in contrast to the detention centre, they won’t be stopped, they move by the force of perpetual motion… But the detention centre is defined by stasis.”

Also, she says, “they’re such pretty colours.”

Brady was also drawn to Christmas Island because of its mixed beauty and otherworldly feeling of threat.

Poh Lin’s father came from Penang in Malaysia where the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts was central.

“I wanted to work on different layers that were mystical, less tangible. At one point I was witness to the festival, there were so many lights,” Brady says.

The jungle itself was a haunting place and another thing was the limitations in the film, where she had  to say: “Let’s not discuss, let’s see, let’s show.”

Utopian paradise
“It looks like a utopian paradise but it has this feeling of dark energy around the coastline, potential horror, there is an increasing sense of mystery in the film… I wanted it to look ambiguous, between fact and fiction,” she says.

“Island Of The Hungry Ghosts” highlights many languages—Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, French English, a reflection of the multiculturalism on Christmas Island, so it’s disappointing to learn the tit will be dubbed in Germany.

And is it a story?

“I started right in the middle, introduced the characters and then we had to walk our way back. That’s really what happens to people, it becomes a fragmented narrative,” she says.

“Island Of The Hungry Ghosts”, Palace Electric, 3pm, Sunday August 5, followed by a Q&A with Gabrielle Brady and Poh Lin, part of “Stronger than Fiction” documentary film festival. Bookings to and details to


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Helen Musa
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