Sunday, April 22, 2018

Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018) Tribeca 2018

Po Lin and director Gabrielle Brady outside a Tribeca  Film Fest screening
Gabrielle Brady's ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS is a film that improves the more you sit with it and allow yourself to ponder it. This is a film that is easy to dismiss as a simple allegory comparing how the crabs are allowed to go anywhere they wish while the refugees being housed there are locked away and prevented from making any journey. However if you stop and think about what the film is you will discover that there is a great deal more going on.

The film is a portrait of Po Lin a trauma therapist working on Christmas Island. Her job is to help the refugees being kept in a near by detention center deal with the fallout of their lives both in their home countries as well as the stress of being detained for an indeterminate amount of time in the center. The Australian government is simply holding the refugees  for random amounts of time before sending them somewhere else. Worse the government doesn't really care about anyone getting any sort of help and will often simply not bring them to their sessions. Despair grows among not only the refugees but within Lin who finds her best efforts to help thwarted and her patients getting worse instead of better.

However as restrictive as the government is concerning human migration they go to great lengths to help the island's population of red crabs having people whose job it is to make sure that the crabs can cross the islands safely by closing roads, building log bridges and gently pushing them out of the way of danger.  The result we are forced to ponder who or what is more important to the authorities.

When ISLAND screened pre-festival for the New York press some people loved it and some people didn't. The less positive reactions seemed to hinge on the writers wanting it to be something it wasn't. They had their own ideas which were not Ms Brady's. Additionally several of the writers I heard speak on the film disliked that a lot of details were left out. It bothered them that they didn't know certain small details. Having seen the film I think my colleagues were, and are wrong.

To begin with the film isn't a straight on documentary.  Yes it documents what the situation is on the island but there is an edge to what is being reported. Ms Brady has reason to her style, she  is not just telling a story but  attempting to make her audience think. She is trying to get us to react and engage by structuring the film a certain way. We are supposed to feel emotionally the uncertainty of all of the people in the story. We are supposed to feel slightly dislocated and out of sorts, like the refugees and like Po Lin. We are supposed to not be passive observers but active participants.  The intentional dreamlike existence would not be possible if we met things head on.

Brady very intentionally doesn't give us all of the details. We don't know where everyone is from, or where they are going. We don't know how everything works. We are just shown Po's life and her sessions with her patients. We are left to piece together things on our own. This draws us into the film, forcing us to listen and watch for pieces of information.  The lack of a a lot of concrete information also forces us to not compartmentalize the story. This is not the story of  one time and place but something larger. The story of refugees on Christmas Island now reflects the plight of refugees everywhere. Brady has made a what is ultimately a universal film.

To be honest when I walked out of the film I wasn't instantly certain what I thought of the film. I had seen the film but I didn't fully engage with it. Walking out into the hall  outside the theater with Hubert Vigilla we ran into Susan Norget the publicist for the film. Asked what we thought of the film we begin to more fully engage with the film. Feelings for the film became more than that was good or bad but something more. I think both Hubert and myself began to more fully ponder the film as a result  since in trying to explain why we felt as we did we really had to engage with the film when all of the details were fresh instead of  going on to the next thing without truly thinking about what we had just seen.

I know in opening myself up for the discussion the film I found myself liking the film even more. As the reasons for my liking the film became clearer and I began to see the film as something greater than many others who didn't truly engage with the film. As a result I have had the film dance around inside my brain much like the ghosts of the forgotten souls of the Chinese workmen who came to the island a century ago and never left.

Whether you want it to be or not ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS is a complex film. It is a challenging and thoughtful film that requires us to meet the film head on do more than let it wash over us but think about what it is showing us.  As a result it is one of the more haunting films at this year's Tribeca Film Festival.

For tickets to the one remaining Tribeca screening or more information on the film go here.

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