Freedom Stories (2015)
It’s time for their voices to be heard! Award winning filmmaker Steve Thomas, Hope (2008), steps away from the heated debate that usually surrounds topics such as asylum seekers and refugees for his new documentary Freedom Stories, a film that takes an intimate look into the lives of the ordinary people who came to Australia from the Middle East, in about 2001, seeking asylum from the oppressive regimes of their counties, some only children at the time. Arriving around the topical Tampa ‘children overboard’ affair, which lead to the implementation of stricter boarder protection measures such as the ‘Pacific Solution,’ whereby ‘boat people’ were taken to mandatory detention centers in remote places such as Woomera in South Australia or Nauru, languishing there for years, only to be granted temporary protection visas, further prolonging their limbo. Fourteen years on and director Thomas speaks to a number of these asylum seekers, each with a unique story to tell, one that highlights the astounding resilience of the human spirit. Through these interviews, Thomas explores how these ‘boat people’ have succeeded in building new lives for themselves in Australia, ordinary folk who found themselves imprisoned by the extraordinary political discord at the time of their arrival.
Narrated by Thomas himself, the director explains that the idea for Freedom Stories arose whilst working on his previous feature, Hope, a documentary about the life of the late Amal Basry, one of the survivors of the SIEV X people smuggling tragedy of 2001, whereby 353 people drowned on the way to Australia. To some degree, Freedom Stories is a very different film, it’s a rather inimitable experience with a lot more to take in; thankfully, Thomas keeps the flick modest and simple. With relatively rough ‘amateurish’ production values — crew and equipment are seen in several shots, little effort is made to hide the boom mic, and banal Microsoft Word Documents pop up in transparent overlays — the coarseness of the project kind of works in its favor, as the laid-back filmmaking approach keeps several of the subjects at ease, particularly a hesitant interviewee, Reyhana Akhy; we hear Thomas promise that he’ll show her the footage he intends to use. Additionally, the picture’s rawness adds a personal touch to the project, turning the feature into an intimate, respectful and very real experience.
For Freedom Stories, Thomas speaks to a diverse range of asylum seekers who fled from countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, all with different personalities, aspirations and dreams. There’s Arif Fayazi, who runs his own construction company in Melbourne, recalling his first job tiling the swimming pool at Australian icon, Molly Meldrum’s Richmond home; a humble apprentice mechanic from Canberra, Mustafa Jawadi, whose family was detained on Nauru for three years, where his younger brother Amir was born; and Sheri Shoari, a single mother with three children — one who has cerebral palsy — as she prepares to get her qualifications as a truck driver. Although the conversations generally revolve around topics such as family, work and lifestyle, several speak about the conditions they endured while locked away, some even talk about their experiences in centers during the height of the riots. However, during these discussions, deeper observations come to light, as depression, anxiety and other ongoing problems become evident. Iran jeweller-turned-Sydney-real-estate-agent, Amir Javan, takes his job incredibly seriously, but something feels slightly off; Sheri stays positive while revealing the implications that the ordeal has had on her family, largely her eldest son Mohammad, who spends the majority of his free time reading in isolation; visual artist and house painter Shafiq Monis reunites with his daughter Mahidya after being separated for ten years, but Mahidya claims that her father essentially feels like a stranger. Each story bears both heartbreak and hope, sadness and positivity, but all serve as a testament to these people’s strength and perseverance.
Shot during intervals of six months to a year, Thomas displays how each interviewee’s story has progressed over time. Alas, nothing is neatly resolved as these stories are forever continuing. Furthermore, the picture lacks a main antagonist or a real sense of focus, as every case is more-or-less given equal screen time, with the film dragging, feeling a tad too long at some points. Freedom Stories also skirts around several important issues in relation to the asylum seekers debate, particularly why various immigration policies were put into action in the first place. Avoiding such matters, the film is rather one-sided and light on political content, offering little insight into how to fix the situation at large, sidestepping any discussion about alternative solutions.
It’s surprising to note that given everything that’s happened to these people, most exhibit a sense of acceptance towards the adversities they’ve had to suffer in order to make Australia their home, all showing signs of appreciation for their new found lives while contributing to society. In the end, Freedom Stories — which is being released on multiple platforms in Australia — is just that: a portrait into the world of the people who were detained in Australia during the year 2001 and the repercussions of their confinement. Director Thomas tackles the project skilfully — without ever toying for a narrative — sincerely portraying these subjects as individuals — byproducts of their harsh environment — whilst embracing what makes them human, just like you and I. You see, when the ‘boat people’ came to Australia they were identified by their number, but the empowering nature of Freedom Stories seeks to give them a voice and a name.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
For more information on the Freedom Stories project, check out their website!