Interview with Angus McDonald (Director of Manus)

Hi Angus, thank you for agreeing to speak to me. First of all, I’d like to ask how you first became interested in the migrants held on Manus?

Thank you for inviting me. I was aware of Australia’s offshore detention policy in 2013 but not in great detail, like many Australians. My deeper interest began after the migrant crisis in Greece in 2015 & 2016. I lived in Greece during my first 6 years out of art school 20 years ago and many of my friends from that time had been in touch describing the largely compassionate response from local communities on Greek islands that had experienced those massive arrivals beginning in 2015. After travelling there and witnessing that for myself, and experiencing increasing discomfort about the inhumane way Australia was managing a relatively small number of boat arrivals in comparison to Greece here, I decided to take some action and advocate for change to our policies through film making.

Why do you think more attention hasn’t been given to the horrible situation that the migrants on Manus find themselves in?

There are several reasons, but chiefly it’s because the public never gets to meet and genuinely grasp the personal situations of those on Manus who arrived here by boat asking for our protection. They are isolated and invisible to the Australian public and so are their stories. Although some media organisations such as the Guardian have been reporting on Manus and Nauru for many years, the mainstream media has only begun reporting on the situation relatively recently. Media access to these offshore centres has not always been easy either, particularly in relation to Nauru. This lack of access has suited the government, essentially dehumanising the plight of those held offshore and allowing our political leaders to perpetuate the policy through fear mongering and falsely labelling those who are held there as being criminals, illegals, queue jumpers etc who represent a tangible threat to our society and our way of life. This is all completely disingenuous and has been done for political gain. It must be said that part of the Government’s rhetoric has targeted the racial and religious make-up of those seeking asylum as well, particularly in relation to those who are Muslim. A large swathe of the Australian public has been content to accept this utter fiction or remain disinterested.

Do you think Australia’s immigration policy will ever change?

Yes, I think it will change eventually. The current offshore regime has been operating 6 years now and the mental health of those on Manus and Nauru is at breaking point. The policy violates the human rights of those detained, it is ludicrously expensive, and it is only a matter of time before someone else dies at the hands of this policy if action is not taken (although I am very sad to say this). There has also been a growing awareness amongst the public in the past year of the indecency of the policy although we don’t seem to have reached a tipping point yet. I also say yes because the needless cruelty of this policy has only added to the human suffering of innocent people and not solved anything. It is only a question of time before the sheer pointlessness of knowingly harming powerless people at great expense to the taxpayer begins to wear thin on the public when there is no evident purpose for it. To say it like this seems cold I know- the fact is that there is simply no justification to treat any human beings in this fashion in the first place. It is deeply shameful, contravenes our obligations under the Refugee Convention and has not only damaged lives, including women and children on Nauru as well as the men on Manus, but has also deeply eroded our national decency. However, I express it in these prosaic terms to simply make observations about the unfortunate way this policy sits with a large proportion of the Australian public. The final and most compelling long-term reason I say that, yes it will change is much more deep-seated. The underlying issue of managing forced migration sustainably is going to be one of the great humanitarian challenges facing the world this century. There are more forcibly displaced people fleeing conflict and persecution now than there have ever been in human history- more than 68 million people have currently been forced to leave their homes. As climate change begins to impact on the geo-political stability of many countries, those numbers are only going to rise. So, the cruel and ridiculous regime that Australia has adopted where it believes by transferring and indefinitely holding a few thousand innocent and powerless people under wretched and inhumane conditions and keeping them out of sight will somehow make the problem go away is breathtakingly short-sighted. There are humanitarian solutions to managing this issue that respect the dignity of those seeking protection. In the end, those approaches are the only ones that can provide solutions, that are sustainable, that can rebuild lives- and the only ones that a liberal democracy can honestly defend.

How effective do you hope the film will be in changing the minds of people who might be supportive of Australia’s current immigration policy?

I hope it will contribute to changing the minds of people who are either indifferent or poorly informed about the policy through letting the men on Manus tell their own stories. I think Australians generally are nation of decent people but on this issue, we have gone missing and this is largely because of the political artifice created around boat arrivals which has been believed by a large section of the public. It is much more important to me that those who support the current policy of the Government see the film than those who already believe it is wrong.  It’s the supporters of this broken policy who I want to reach.

Have you been in touch with any of the participants in the documentary since filming it?

Yes. I have been in contact with several of the men after the filming. They were supportive of the film because it gave them the opportunity to express their views directly and it has been a privilege for me to be in contact with some of them. I did not travel to Manus to shoot the footage for the film myself. It was captured by a journalist called Olivia Rousset who travelled there secretly at the end of 2017 with two other people. Oliva stayed overnight filming and recorded about 12 hours of footage before she was forced to leave after the authorities learned of her presence. I then created the 13 minute film based on what she brought back.

The mental health situation is critical on Manus right now since the recent Federal election in Australia returned the government who is the author of this policy. Their re-election has crushed the hopes of the men there and there has been a massive spike in the number of incidents of self-harm and attempted suicide- reportedly more than 90 in the past month. So although some have left Manus since this film was shot 18 months ago, more than 500 remain and for them, the situation has only got worse with no end in sight.

Why do you think Australia has created an immigration policy that is as harsh as it is?

That’s such a good question and a complex one as well. It’s difficult to answer it fully without also considering the parallel attitudes we have to our indigenous first Australians, our out of step attitude to climate change, our prejudices around sexual orientation to name a few main issues. It’s all tied together. However specifically in relation to asylum seekers, there was a political turning point in 2001 when a Norwegian freighter named the Tampa rescued 344 asylum seekers at sea who were on their way to Australia when their craft got into trouble. The government ordered the freighter containing the rescued asylum seekers to turn around. It didn’t and those rescued were detained. This led to court action in Australia by lawyers on behalf of the asylum seekers. The judgement in their favour was handed down in the afternoon of September 11, 2001 and later that day, as we all know, the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York took place. After that, everything changed. All Muslims were terrorists, asylum seekers were illegal and John Howard’s Liberal conservative party in Australia won government using asylum seekers as a wedge issue proclaiming that “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”. Since that time, the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat has been a contentious political issue and it was successfully adopted again by the Liberal National party in 2013 when the current offshore policy regime was restarted and consigned those men on Manus who are the subject of the film, to their long and brutal fate.

What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?

I hope that audiences will understand that those on Manus are human beings not so different to us. That they are people that want the same things that we do for themselves and their families. It’s only that circumstances outside their control have forced them to flee. I hope that people might be able to begin to put themselves in the shoes of those on Manus and ask what they would hope for if they came to a country like ours, escaping danger and looking for support and safety. Would we consider the way Australia has treated them acceptable if it had been us?

What has the reception to the film been like?

It’s been overwhelming and that is gratifying because the more people who learn about what is happening on Manus and the more light we can shed on their plight, the greater contribution we can make to ending this policy.

How does this film compare to other films you’ve worked on?

This is my first standalone film and the first that I’ve entered in competition although I have been working with film on this issue for two years now. So have little to compare it to at this stage! I have been a painter for 20 years and only began film making in 2017. I have found the experience confronting but have learned a significant amount about storytelling through the process.

What future projects have you got planned?

In general, I am continuing to advocate for change to this policy in a number of ways including through film. Film-wise, I’m developing a longer feature length documentary on the same issue of humanitarian approaches to refugee protection set in the middle -east.

You can read my review of Manus here. Thanks to Angus for agreeing to the interview. 

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