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.
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.