Shot in secret on Manus Island by one of the detainees with a smartphone over a period of several months, Chauka Please Tell Us The Time offers the public an uncensored look inside the infamous detention centre that for years the Australian government has restricted from media access.
Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani had been locked up inside Manus for three years by the time he began filming this documentary. Having fled Iran in order to escape from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, he has committed no crime, yet his imprisonment continues.
Taking a leaf out of the book of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who while under house arrest in Iran, made This is Not a Film and smuggled it out to the Cannes Film Festival, Boochani has gone one step further, filming covertly under the eyes of prison guards, and smuggling his film out to co-director Arash Kamali Sarvestani.
The first image we see in the film is an idyllic tropical beach. It looks like paradise. Then the camera draws back and we realise we are seeing the beach through the wire of a fence. The camera pans around and we get the full view of endless fences and rows of metal storage containers that house the prisoners. The searing heat is palpable and the baking containers are the only form of shade in sight.
If you’re bracing yourself for shocking footage never before seen, then it’s best to adjust your expectations. There is no hard, incriminating evidence that would help bring a swift end to this barbaric system, just a lot of sad, dehumanised men telling their horrific stories of injustice, abuse, hardship and alienation.
These conversations are interspersed with scenes that show Janet Galbraith back on the idyllic part of the island, talking to two Manusians about the Chauka bird. Manus Island is the only place in the world where you can find this bird, and it has a loud call that it uncannily announces at the exact same time every day.
At first these scenes seem like nothing more than relief from the harsh images inside the centre. Slowly though the conversations shift towards the naming of the punishment room inside the centre known as Chauka, and how these two local men feel about having the Australian guards name such a terrible place after their native bird. We also get to put a human face to the locals on Manus, who are often demonised by the media and public for their treatment of the detainees as much as the guards.
It isn’t until the end that we see the kind of upsetting incident within the detention centre that we were fearing all along, before the final scene that, despite all that’s come before it, provokes audiences the most – Malcolm Turnbull on Australian television blaming the whole sorry debacle on Kevin Rudd before slipping into a pile of lame political rhetoric that is slowly faded out.
This may not be the incendiary rocket you may be expecting, but it is an essential work that documents one of our nation’s darkest acts. And in pure filmmaking terms, Chauka is a remarkable technical achievement.
Chauka Please Tell Us The Time is currently screening exclusively at ACMI