Red crabs scuttling across closed roads. Ghosts being offered sacrifices in the form of flaming pyres. Asylum seekers arranging figurines in a box of sand.
Beings caught between worlds.
Gabrielle Brady’s Island of the Hungry Ghosts is nothing short of gnarly; it is also nothing short of gorgeous. Put together over four years, this film weaves a beautiful tapestry from stories of migration and trauma on Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean south of Indonesia.
The film’s main subject, Poh Lin Lee, is a torture and trauma counselor working for a system that’s not built to help her patients heal. Viewers are invited throughout the film to listen with Lee to the stories of these people living in a perpetual state of uncertainty. Even to those without prior knowledge of the detention center on Christmas Island, the painful complexity of the situation is apparent in Island of the Hungry Ghosts. The story unfolds around the refugee crisis in Australia.
Visually, this film is stunning. The forest teems with vibrant life, people hack through dense vegetation and red crabs contrast the green flora. Ocean waves smash into dark, jagged rocks.
Talking about these ominous rocks at one point in the film, Lee’s husband tells their daughter Poppy the story of a dragon who wanted to protect the island from humans. It becomes hard not to wonder: Why are there humans on Christmas Island? The contrast of the ruggedness of the island and detention center against the domesticity of Lee’s family life serves to highlight this question. Why are any of these people here?
In the Q&A after the showing, Lee spoke about how she and Brady worked closely with the film’s other participants and contributors to share a story about asylum seekers that was different from the one being told in the Australian media. You don’t need to be Australian to understand that they succeeded.
At one point in the film, Poppy asks Lee, “What is a ghost?”
Island of the Hungry Ghosts answers that question. Perhaps humans fear ghosts, but we also create them — through stories and silence, through laws and lore and limbo.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts will play again on Sunday, March 3 at 7:45 p.m. at The Globe.
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