“Surreal And Unimaginable”: Film-Maker Lucas Shrank On The Stories Behind His Powerful Manus Island Film

“One of the biggest issues I see here in Australia is the amount of misinformation that is spread from a government level. Unfortunately, the mainstream media seems to do a better job of perpetuating this misinformation rather than fighting against it.”

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Despite the excessive red tape shutting us out of the system, there has been a slow drip-feed of stories emerging from inside Australia’s offshore refugee processing centres. Squalid living conditions, restricted movement, claims of inadequate medical facilities, mistreatment of gay asylum seekers and the constant fear of violence is an everyday reality for the men, women and children housed there. The stories that have emerged so far have consistently made international headlines, drawing damning statements from both The United Nations as well as American NGO Human Rights Watch. When these stories do reach the public conversation back home, outrage soon follows — but political action and positive change rarely seem to factor into any of our conclusions. And still, more stories emerge.

After a successful crowd-funding campaign earlier this year, Lukas Schrank’s short documentary, Nowhere Lines: Voices From Manus Island, is premiering this weekend at the Melbourne International Film Festival; it fleshes out one of these horrific stories using gritty, comic book-style animation. Schrank, a filmmaker who works between London and Melbourne, based the film on a series of phone conversations with two Iranian asylum seekers inside detention centres. The production process was, in part, a covert operation. “The first phone call took around four months to happen, and it came at an unexpected time,” he says. “I had no idea how the interviews were going to turn out.”

The heavy restrictions placed on asylum seekers inside the centres made any communication not only difficult, but dangerous. The two men Schrank had gotten into contact with decided they wanted to be a part of the project, but only under the pseudonyms of Karim and Omar. “They have always been very trusting and supportive. It was initially quite hard to describe the nature of the film to them, they are already in a situation that is surreal and unimaginable,” he says. “So to add the fact that some guy in Australia is animating them, that took a bit of explaining.”

What followed was a series of clandestine conversations in which Karim and Omar gave Schrank the details of their journey to Manus Island. Both Karim and Omar are fleeing persecution in Iran. Karim had twice attempted to enter Australia via boat: the first time, the vessel sank, killing one of his close friends; the second time, the boat was lost at sea for over a week, eventually being located and herded towards Christmas Island by the authorities. “Almost all of what Karim spoke about is what’s portrayed in the film,” says Schrank. “He wrote down his story and then had his friend translate it into English for him to read out over the phone. I think this gives his voiceover an interesting edge — it sounds almost matter-of-fact, as if the tragic events he speaks of have somehow become a normal feature of his life.”

The film focuses on the Manus Island riots of February 2014, which resulted in the death of Reza Berati. Karim and Omar still feel the emotional impact of the tumult which, in a cruel twist of irony, once again left them in a near-constant fear for safety. “To have your friends die in a struggle for survival like this is one of those things that is unimaginable for most people,” says Schrank. “In terms of the after-effects, Omar put it very simply. ‘If I go back to my country, I don’t know what might happen to me; but if I stay here, again, I don’t know what might happen to me. In my country, I had neither safety nor security, but I had a good life. Here, I have neither safety nor security, and it’s no good life’.”

While the film points out the utterly inhumane conditions of Australia’s asylum seeker policies, it also brings to light the inefficacy of the media reporting on it. These stories are too often painted in broad strokes, encompassing the political, the social and the budgetary concerns of the system. For Schrank, the film is a way to combat the resultant detachment most Australians feel about offshore processing centres. “This is an unfortunate affect of the way things are reported in the news,” says Schrank. “We hear about these issues through statistics and political rhetoric; it’s easy to forget that there are real people whose lives are being affected by the situation.”

“One of the biggest issues I see here in Australia is the amount of misinformation that is spread from a government level. Unfortunately, the mainstream media seems to do a better job of perpetuating this misinformation rather than fighting against it.”

Part of the problem is how difficult these stories are to tell; through his promotion of Nowhere Line, Schrank received some flagrant backlash against the film’s content. It was a stark moment, giving him horrible insight into some of the voices that are making themselves heard in our public discussion. “This debate is incredibly polarised, so most of the backlash I dealt with was quite extreme racism, rather than a constructive discussion on policy,” he says. “Again, it comes down to the great deal of misinformation.”

The dissemination of misinformation can take insidious forms, particularly in the language used by politicians — an Orwellian style of communication that becomes increasingly apparent the more official statements you read through. “Just by referring to people as asylum seekers or ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ you can set a [foundation] that these people are criminals or have done something wrong. In reality, they are well within their rights set out in the UN Refugee Convention,” says Schrank. “The expression coined by Winston Churchill — ‘A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on’ — is an unfortunately accurate summary of this whole debate.”

A screening at MIFF is a huge get for any young filmmaker — but the success of the film is bittersweet. Until Karim and Omar are able to settle down in a cinema and watch the film for themselves, their story remains unfinished. “This is one of the saddest things about their situation, and probably one of the hardest for them to deal with. After almost two years in detention, they have no idea what will happen to them.”

Nowhere Line: Voices From Manus Island screens at Melbourne International Film Festival on Sunday August 9 and Saturday August 15 — buy tickets here.

Sean is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, who has been published in FilmInk and Beat magazines. He tweets from @ssebast90