One film is the story of a Jewish father’s ‘secret’ life and the family he never spoke of after fleeing Nazi Germany. The other weaves together footage secretly shot on a mobile phone by a Manus Island detainee that chronicles daily life for asylum seekers.
Both, premiering at the Sydney Film Festival, are stories of forced migration, of the myriad ways that people deal with the trauma it can cause, and how its effects can ripple through generations.
UNSW’s Su Goldfish, writer and director of The Last Goldfish, and Iranian-Dutch director Arash Kamali Sarvestani, co-director of Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, will discuss their films at a panel event on 13 June as part of the Festival. Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian detainee who shot the Manus Island footage, is expected to join via audio link. They will be in conversation with Stephanie Hemelryk Donald, Professor of Comparative Film and Cultural Studies at UNSW and ARC Professorial Future Fellow.
After a sold-out Festival screening on 8 June, The Last Goldfish has had an extra session added on 20 June at Dendy Newtown. The film is in the running for the Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Australian Documentary.
In her new home, a friend of Goldfish suggested that her surname sounded Jewish. When she asked her father “Are we Jewish?”, it was as if she had pulled a stray thread that caused the whole garment to slowly unravel.
Yes, he had been Jewish but he wasn’t anymore. Persistent probing loosened more threads. He had only just escaped the Nazis by fleeing to the West Indies. He had lost almost all his family in the concentration camps. He drew a family tree but insisted no one was left, telling his daughter “You are the last Goldfish”.
“Whenever I came close to getting anywhere, he would always shut down the conversation,” Goldfish says. “I think he thought if he said one thing, it opened the door to a thousand other questions.”
People who had been through deep trauma, she learned, either spoke about it a lot or didn’t talk about it at all.
The idea to make the film coalesced after Goldfish interviewed her father for a film assignment in 1996: “He took lots of photos and had all these home movies so I was asking him about that kind of personal documentation,” she says. “But what I was really after was the gap in the documentation. The photos went up to about 1937 then the home movies and photos from Trinidad start in the 1950s and there’s this gap in between.
“Showing him photos and talking about them drew out some of the stories and he told me things I’d never heard before that were terrible,” she says.
For the panel event, she hopes to read some of her father’s writings about being interned in a work camp.
“It’s about all that uncertainty and being trapped in a place where you’re surrounded by barbed wire and the way people dealt with it. Some people killed themselves and some grew vegetables and some people survived OK and some were traumatised,” she says.
Dealing with internment is also at the heart of Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time, shot in secret by Behrouz Boochani on his mobile phone. The Kurdish journalist, who has been detained on Manus Island since 2013, used Whatsapp to send low-quality shots to Arash Kamali Sarvestani in The Netherlands, a process that often took hours.
The film’s name derives from the Chauka bird that sings at certain times of the day and allows locals to tell the time. Chauka is also is a section of the detention centre where people are held if they are deemed ‘non-compliant’.
The film captures the tedium of daily life in detention, the anxiety caused by solitary confinement and the psychological suffering when one has no control over their future.
Goldfish says: “If my film could do anything to help rescue Behrouz from being in such a terrible position where he doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him, it would make the whole process worth it. I’m trying to bring to it the hope that these things do pass, but these people must be freed.”
What: Meet the Directors – Stories of Refugees and Forced Migration
When: 13 June, 5.45–8pm
Venue: The Treasury Room, Sydney Town Hall
Details: Free, register here