Australian filmmaker Gabrielle Brady had one of the smash hits of this year’s festival circuit with her haunting feature, Island of the Hungry Ghosts.
Her debut feature-length film took home six wins and eight nominations from festivals all over the world, making it one of the most lauded documentaries of 2018.
Brady’s life is as fascinating as her work. For the past ten years she’s been a genuine globetrotter; living between Australia, Cuba, Indonesia, Mexico and Mongolia.
No stranger to travel, Brady’s fascination with migration and multiculturalism led her to develop Island of the Hungry Ghosts, a poetic exploration of the refugee experience in Australia.
Set on Christmas Island, an Australian territory off the coast of Indonesia, the film follows Brady’s friend Poh Lin in her day-to-day work as a trauma counsellor for asylum seekers detained in a high-security detention centre.
The film’s title refers to the “hungry ghosts” rituals in which locals make offerings to spirits who perish on the island without a proper burial. It’s said that these disaffected spirits aimlessly wander the jungles at night, not too dissimilarly to the wandering souls detained in detention centres with no clear notion of what their futures hold.
The dire refugee situation is explored through the lens of Poh Lin’s work, while also delving into Lin’s personal struggle dealing with the emotional burden of her role. Juxtaposing this human tragedy is another massive migration phenomenon taking place on the island: the migration of the Christmas Island red crab.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts won Best Documentary Feature at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival and recently screen in Australia for the first time at the Adelaide Film Festival and Antenna Documentary Film Festival. It is a work that haunts audiences with a prescient message and painful depiction of human suffering.
We got the chance to sit down with her and talk about modern cinema, migration and struggling to pay the bills as an independent filmmaker.
“Island of The Hungry Ghosts” started out as a short film for The Guardian. What was the genesis of the project?
“Yes, so, actually it was a little bit of a situation with like the chicken and the egg, like what came first.
I was already developing the idea for a feature-length film, then you know one of our producers, the Australian producer Alex Kelly had contacts at The Guardian, and got me into contact with Charlie Phillips – head of documentaries at The Guardian – with whom we discussed the idea of making a shorter film alongside the feature.
So the short didn’t come up first and then the feature grew from it. The short was actually made alongside the feature film. So at the time, I was thinking, oh well this is quite an undertaking, but then, of course, the director side of me kicked in and I was like, ‘hey I get to make two films, like, that’s fantastic!’
Of course, you know, the extra budget could help us as well.
It was a happy experience and it was cool because it was kind of using the same material to make totally different stuff. To me the short film and the long film, they’re completely different beasts.”
Your friend Poh Lin plays a central role in the movie. How did you convince her to become a movie star?
“It’s such a long story, I think I’ll try to make it short. The film would not exist without Poh Lin. She is not only the central character but she was also a huge collaborator on the project.
Really I was just visiting her as a tourist, I was doing my major at the time and of course, she lives on Christmas Island, we were on the beaches, we were diving you know, swimming and enjoying the place.
And then at the end of the trip Poh Lin said ‘I need to show you something’ and we went to the top of the hill and she had a huge machete and she cuts away through this very dense jungle and we rise to that point where we were overlooking at this high-security detention centre, and it was one of those moments fixed in my memory, it was a really chilling moment.
At that point, we started to talk about the project… Poh Lin had reached a point where she wanted a record of what was happening on Christmas Island and I was supposed to seek for a film project.
It made a lot of sense after we talked about the possibility of the film that Poh Lin would be the person to introduce all these elements on the island.”
Had Poh Lin always been camera friendly?
“Poh Lin had never done anything quite like this before, this is a brand new experience for her. I know Poh Lin has a very poetic, a very unique way of seeing the world, and she’s a person with a lot of conviction.
So for me, I’d already convinced myself that she’d be someone that people would really watch and attach to, but we also went on a journey of having a lot of rehearsals, acting exercises, performance exercises. We were working with a range of tools to make sure that you know, Poh Lin would feel comfortable.
And I think that our friendship meant that trust was already set. And in a documentary, that is what you spend years in a place for. You are building trust, so that was already established.
In your view, what measures can the Australian government take to avoid all this mess and alleviate the drama of refugees arriving to the country?
That’s a hard question. The intention of this film was to create a kind of record of things you’ve never seen before. I think that half the problem in Australia is that people think of immigration as people coming in, arriving in boats and the little images of vessels coming in the distance, or images of migrants arriving through the shores and being patted down and taken to these detentions centres.
There are images we’ve seen for years and years that are not provoking any sense of action anymore. People often say to me in Europe or America, like how do we not know this situation happens. No, we know these detention centres exist. We’ve been looking at this for years. We know all the details.
The problem is, we’re looking at it, but we’re looking right past it. So the intention of the film is to bring people closer to reality. Bring the pictures of the people that are at the heart of the problem.
So I think my answer is that you know, the intention of the film is that we get closer to people and that we get closer to the feeling that we’re all connected. The film tries to kind of reconnect to our humanity, to get closer to it and realise there’s this beautiful woman and her son going through this ordeal that in another lifetime could be really good friends with you on Instagram.
The aim of the film is to bring people closer, because where it all begins is with the attitude in our minds and hearts and then if our message is strong enough and we’re loud enough, governments will have to respond.
In the current state of the industry, when getting theatrical distribution is becoming increasingly harder for smaller films and you see many YouTubers making more money than independent filmmakers, how can one make a living out of independent films?
“They say the first film is like the “credit card film” in the sense that, the filmmaker is kind of paying for the film with their credit card and hoping to pay it out later.
And you know, there was definitely a lot of that, especially at the beginning of the film when we ran out of money. Now this film was never about any money, but I certainly knew we needed money to make it, and at the end, we were fortunate enough that we found production partners.
But you know, I got told ‘don’t expect to make any money off your first film’, and I think everybody says that and I now see yes, that’s actually the truth.
This was a low budget project film and that meant that everybody on the project, every single crew member, everyone involved in the film really wasn’t earning what they should have earned, and they really did it out of the love of the project.
Although there’s something really beautiful about that, I feel more in the mindset that it’s important that people get paid right. You know, this is our livelihood, not a hobby.
So I’m still trying to figure that out. My fiancé is also a filmmaker. He also makes documentary films and at the moment the way he’s able to pay rent and clothes and stuff is doing some commercial work on the side.
So I think, we hope that we’d be able in the near future to just focus on our film projects moving forward and not have to be in such a dire situation, but I’m mean, I know I’m painting a bit of a bleak picture, but you know, it’s hard.
While we were making the film we lived in a caravan for a year and a half in a trailer park. So yeah, there were very real sacrifices that had to be done to get the film made.
But I think when you’re fixed on an idea you have to do it no matter what. Now the question is how we should do it a little bit more sustainably?
I’m still trying to figure it out.”