A new documentary written and directed by ECU industry liaison Alan Goldman (MAA 2011) tells the story of four refugees who spent years in remote offshore detention camps run by the Australian government.
Finding Freedom was mainly shot by the asylum seekers themselves following their release from bare-bones lockups on tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean.
“As a filmmaker, I feel a responsibility to raise awareness of the human rights violations happening under the radar,” Alan says. “To push audiences to question their beliefs and ask ‘is this how a civil society behaves?’”
The Telus Original Documentary premieres Tuesday, Feb. 14, on Telus Optik channel 8 and Mar. 3 on streaming service WaterBear. Finding Freedom includes interviews shot by ECU research technician Sean Arden and animations by artist Jocelyn Geo Tang (BMA 2021). The Silo Entertainment production was produced and executive produced by Mel D'Souza.
The idea for the project came years ago while Alan was visiting Australia for work on another film. He heard from locals about the offshore detention camps — an issue that international media had largely ignored. He was “horrified” by what he heard.
“It just seemed so unbelievably barbaric. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Alan tells me. “And I felt like I was very naive. I simply hadn’t thought this kind of thing was actually going on.”
The camps were a species of offshore prison – part of an Australian policy to warehouse people who attempted to make unsanctioned landfall by boat. As he dug deeper, Alan discovered the widespread use of such detention camps.
In the film, Guardian foreign affairs correspondent Ben Doherty calls the current era the “age of displacement.” In recent decades, more people have been forced to leave their homes than ever before in human history, he says.
But Alan felt it would be a mistake to focus purely on statistics. With help from organizations in Australia and abroad, he connected with four former detainees. Amir Taghinia, Ali Dorani and Negar Rezvani were each given a phone, a lighting kit and sound gear. They recorded their lives as they began resettlement in Canada, the U.S. and Norway.
A fourth subject, “Amin,” appeared in an interview but requested anonymity due to ongoing fears for his safety.
“I was really interested in personalizing their stories. I wanted them to have agency in how those stories were told,” Alan says. He hoped doing so would make people “less comfortable” with the policies used by rich western countries to keep asylum-seekers from entering.
Amir, Ali and Amin each spent years on Manus Island, a remote landmass off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Amin’s detention was nearly double that of the others, having spent 3,285 days in the camp. Negar spent 2,737 days in detention on Nauru, a tiny island nation where women, children and families were sent.
Each of the film’s subjects is now working to rebuild their lives in their adopted countries. Private sponsorship programs such as MOSAIC were key to making that possible. But the effects of detainment are not so easily left behind, Alan says. Amir, Ali, Negar and Amin each struggle with the impacts of lasting trauma. Healing from that trauma will be the fight of their lives.
“There is no ‘them and us,’” Alan says. “They’re human beings. People need to know that whatever you think about immigration policy, this is what happens to a human being.”
Nor are the stories in Finding Freedom solely playing out overseas. The same policies affect people worldwide, including in our own country.
Canada has a migrant detainee population of roughly 9,000, including 100 infants and children, according to Efrat Arbel, associate professor at UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law. Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary general of Amnesty Canada, says no time limits exist for such detentions.
Until recently, detainees were often held in correctional facilities in British Columbia and across Canada. Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have campaigned successfully to change this policy. Quebec and Ontario, however, have yet to put an end to the practice.
“We should reexamine these policies and ask ourselves, is this okay? Are we okay with this?” Alan asks. “I’m not okay with it.”