Movie Review: Mary Meets Mohammad

I have to think very long and hard about whether or not what I experienced today is something I’ve experienced before. Today I sat in a movie theatre with around 75 or so other people, and not one single person moved from their seat until after the movie’s credits had finished. When the credits finished, the hushed theatre broke out in a round of applause before people started to make their way out the door.

Such is the power of this film to make you think, to make you examine your own attitude towards an issue that remains very topical here in Australia – asylum seekers.

When refugees take it upon themselves to migrate to Australia outside of the official channels, they are detained until their case can be investigated and assessed. They are asylum seekers, looking for protection from persecution in their home countries. If their situation is found to be legitimate, they are eventually allowed to stay. If not, they are deported to their home country. The debate in this country is mainly focused on where/how they are processed and how long it takes.

Mary Meets Mohammad tracks the meeting of two vastly different cultures.

The first is that of Mary, a 71-year-old Australian woman who belongs to a knitting group in a community near the detention center. The group decides to knit woollen hats (called ‘beanies’ here) for a group of asylum seekers who are sent into mandatory detention here in Tasmania.

The facility they’ll be living in is new and the movie opens with a community meeting in the area where the asylum seeker detention center is to be established. Tension in the community is high. Tasmania successfully accepted hundreds of temporary refugees from Kosovo in the late 1990s. This time, with the refugees all being men from Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan – and despite the fact that these men will be living in detention, with big fences surrounding them – there’s a lot more fear in the community.

The filmmaker interviews a number of locals living close to the detention center and it’s confronting to see the prejudices evident in people’s words. It’s these sections of the film that were the most powerful for me. This documentary was made in Tasmania. What you in see, the prejudice, fear and misinformation, is a reflection of the community that I live in. It’s not confined to Tasmania, but it’s all the more confronting because whilst this isn’t me, my wife, our friend Sarah who we saw the film with or many of our friends, it is still US as a collective. The reflection is difficult to take in.

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As you can see in the trailer, Mary’s initial attitude towards the asylum seekers is that they’re heathens and cowards. She declines participation in her knitting group’s charitable act at first. Eventually, she’s part of the group that visits the detention center to deliver the beanies and it’s here that the changes begin. Mary, like most of us, is open to learning the truth about what are generally a desperate group of people.

At one point, Mary meets a group of old friends from the local Seniors Group and a discussion ensues about the asylum seekers. The opinions shared by her Seniors friends are caustic, almost offensive. You can tell that Mary is doing her best to remain calm amidst their misinformed claims. More importantly, however, is the implicit understanding in Mary that this is how she used to think. As viewers, we’re confronted by the film as a mirror to society. This scene is Mary’s personal mirror as to how she used to be, how she used to think.

Mary’s main point of contact inside the detention center is a young Afghani named Mohammad. He fled Afghanistan to live in Pakistan with his family and they remained there, facing genuine threats from the Taliban, while Mohammad made his way to Australia.

Mohammad is eventually released into the community and the friendship between he and Mary is genuine, unexpected, and touching.

Mary meets Mohammad is an important film that all Australians should see. Unfortunately, it’ll most likely only be seen by a relative handful. The filmmakers are hoping to raise enough money to take the film on tour around the country. It’s a real eye-opener; a film that forced me to examine my own thoughts on the issue and a film that will educate you on the reality of who these people are.

The Tasmanian experience is much more humane than the situation faced by asylum seekers sent elsewhere by the Australian Government. What you see here will embarrass you in terms of Australian prejudice, but it doesn’t shock you the way the film might have if it were focused on Australian detention centers in Manus Island or Nauru.

My own thoughts – Australia does need to address how it processes asylum seekers. It needs to be faster and more humane. I can understand the need for it to be an ordered process and I understand the need to prevent people from jumping on rickety boats that are prone to sinking on their way here. But there’s got to be a better way and there’s got to be more understanding in the community.

I could make some minor complaints about the film dragging in some areas, but that would deflecting the point. This is an excellent piece of work and I hope as many eyes see it as possible.

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22 Comments

  1. “It’s a real eye-opener; a film that forced me to examine my own thoughts on the issue and a film that will educate you on the reality of who these people are.”

    What were your thoughts prior to the film..? You have mentioned a few of your thoughts as they are presently after having seen the film, but I struggle a bit thinking that (prior to the film) you wanted the process to be slow an inhumane..? 😉 I guess there is more to this question than just a matter of processing/logistics?

    1. I have to confess a certain level of ignorance, which I only realised after I had seen the film. No, of course I didn’t want it to be slow and inhumane, but I didn’t realise the depth of the grass roots resentment towards asylum seekers. I don’t tend to get to involved in this stuff, so I hadn’t given it so much thought.

  2. ***************************************************************************************
    ‘My own thoughts – Australia does need to address how it processes asylum seekers. It needs to be faster and more humane.
    ***************************************************************************************

    Swade, in accepting more refugees than any other single country on a par capita basis, your country has already done more than its fair share. I don’t think it can be faulted in any matter concerning refugees.

    ****************************************************************************************
    When the credits finished, the hushed theatre broke out in a round of applause before people started to make their way out the door.
    ****************************************************************************************

    I personally saw Australian moviegoers doing that in 1983 when I watched “Return of the Jedi” in a Melbourne cinema, and was impressed by such a spontaneous display of courtesy and appreciation to the filmmaker. Is such practice uniquely Australian or a Western social norm shared by the Americans and the British?

    1. “Swade, in accepting more refugees than any other single country on a par capita basis, your country has already done more than its fair share. ”
      That surprising statement raised my eyebrows a little. In fact, it’s just a rumor. This article (www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1294102/At-a-glance-Who-takes-the-most-asylum-claims) states the following:
      “Australia was 68th on a per capita basis and 91st relative to national wealth.”
      Another puts Australia more generously at 20th place per capita (http://www.stubbornmule.net/2009/10/asylum-seekers/).

      Wish I could see the movie, but I doubt it will make it to the USA. Could it be online some day?

        1. In spite of the numbers he claimed, his claim is laughable. As of 2011, Australia was barely better than the USA at 0.98 refugees per 1,000 population. Compare that to other western countries like Germany at 7.22, Norway at 8.24, or Sweden at 8.81. Then there are other non-western countries like Jordan at 72.88. I guess Australian politicians are like American politicians, they just make up numbers that sound good.
          Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/jun/20/refugee-statistics-unhcr-data

          1. From where I stand, Norway and Sweden are not capable at handling more refugees.

            We need more people with higher education, but what we get are mostly illiterates and people who are on the receiving end of social benefits rather than contributing to the society. (source: http://www.hegnar.no/okonomi/article725638.ece)

            There is a practical economic limit to how many we are able to help.

            So… Who do we help? And how?

          2. In reply to Rune (no “Reply” button), I have to agree, sadly. Being that my mother was Swedish, and my grandfather emigrated here around 1910, I follow Swedish news and see all the problems they are having. Australia’s refugee ratio is probably a more realistically sustainable number. It seems though, both the US and Australia are nations of immigrants who displaced the native population, often in rather disgraceful fashion.

  3. Steve thanks for posting this story as it is part of the more complex side of Australian history. Whether it be the wrong-doing to Aborigine children or the story of the way Britain, during WWII imposed its errant will on Australia with the infamous story of the Dunera Boys. This was a dark story of how German and East-European alien (mainly Jewish refugees, even some actually born in England citizens were rounded up and sent to Australia. The voyage so disgusting that there was an outcry in Britain but these internees were soon forgotten in the Outback camps to nearly the end of the War. I want to stress that this was a British disgrace rather than Australia’s. I wanted to bring up the past before I delve into the present situation which I am now contemplating.
    http://youtu.be/aMtThP_tcqM http://youtu.be/tNtd91zuea4

  4. I’ve written to the people behind the film asking if there’s a way people outside Australia might be able to see the film (family members in Canada also asked about it). If there’s an outlet for download, I’ll do another post on the site.

  5. Sadly Steven, Australia isn’t alone. This sort of thing has happened for thousands of years, and shows no signs of ever going away.

    “FUD” (Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt) may be a new acronym, but has been used for millenia by mankind to spread hate around the globe.

    The US treatment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII was a disgrace, as have been countless other acts of cruelity against others in this part of the world, ever since the “white-man” set foot on the North & South American continents.

    I used to tell our previous two DOGS that they and their kind should take back the planet from the damn humans, because ever since those f*&$ing monkies started walking upright, all they have done is make a mess of the place. And it still continues to this day.

    1. Actually, the city of Södertälje in Sweden alone, accepted more Iraqi refugees than the the US. What we do need now is a lot of resources in order to bring these into the society and workforce. Average time from immigration to a having a permanent job is 7 years in Sweden, I believe it is less than a year for Canada.

  6. Hey Steve,

    I’ve just bought a new computer and finally I can read your site again – was hit and miss before! That’s a great review and sounds like a really interesting movie. If nothing else, I can confirm that Oz is taking in a lot of Irish people – about 20 of my friends have moved there in the last couple of years. Sorry about that..! But in all seriousness, I’m putting this movie on my ‘to see’ list.

    Cheers,
    Geoff

  7. Of course, here in the U.S., we have at least 13 million people (likely more) who have crossed our southern border illegally. So I guess that involuntarily, we’re hosting quite a few people. How do those numbers compare with the Iraqui refugees in Sweden? I understand the difference between political asylum and people swarming in to try to find economic opportunity—but numbers are numbers and it’s a matter of how many people one nation can absorb, especially when social services are granted. As for asylum—-we gave that to a couple guys who ended up bombing the Boston marathon. Seems that we need to examine our system to qualify those seeking help—-to understand their needs and possible intentions. As for the movie—-I hope some theaters in the U.S. give it a shot. It sounds exceptional.

  8. I visit at a local detention center on a regular basis. One of the guards shared with me how ashamed he was when taking small groups on excursions that people will hurl verbal abuse at the guys, making the visits extremely unpleasant for both the men in question, and for the decent people amongst the guards. One occasion they have had to bundle the guys back into the vans to protect them. The whole discourse has become toxic and hateful.

    1. Very sad to hear, Victoria. Don’t know why people can’t live and let live, esp here in a place like Tassie.

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