Stop the Boats
Directed by Simon V. Kurian
In 2003, Susan Sontag wrote Regarding the Pain of Others, the last book before her death. In it, she moved radically away from her seminal work On Photography, setting out to question what role images may play in preventing, or stopping, pain, horror and atrocity.
“Let the atrocious images haunt us” she declared. “Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: “This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.””
I imagine, in this spirit, that Sontag would approve of Simon V. Kurian’s powerful 2018 documentary Stop the Boats, a film which uses the three-word slogan that so readily falls from the lips of our politicians and our media, to explore the heavy implications of our offshore detention policies.
Stop the Boats begins in Sydney, as Djamileh, an Iranian refugee, travels to Villawood Detention centre to visit her husband. He has been detained for nearly five years. “I feel like I’m helpless” she laments, “the worst part is, you never know when it will end.”
Stop the Boats features many diverse voices, among them Kurdish prize-winning author and Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani, children trapped on Nauru, Iraqi refugee and surgeon Dr. Munjed Al Muderis, psychologists, activists and medics, lawyer Julian Burnside, journalist Ben Doherty, and MP’s Sarah Hanson Young, Andrew Wilkie and the late Prime Minister Malcom Fraser.
Dr Munjed Al Muderis, orthopaedic surgeon and Iraqi refugee, describes his trip to Christmas Island in the film, travelling with 165 people cramped on a small boat, and then arriving and being treated like animals, tagged with numbers and stripped of identities. “The detention centre was hell on earth” he describes, “simple as that.”
This process of referring to people by their boat number rather than their name is heartbreakingly narrated by a child, Sania (name changed), who has been detained on Nauru for 4 years. Her voiceover despairs over shaky shots of the detention centre, “we are not numbers…we are humans with a heart too.”
“Nobody wants this life” she cries, “to die every day over and over again…Either let us free or just kill us.”
Stop the Boats gains rare access into these offshore detention centres, and the camera is privy to the mouldy tents and abhorrent conditions. We see children playing with rocks, bodies huddled in boats, and Behrouz Boochani sitting on a plastic chair, gazing out at the other side of the fence and singing songs – to where there is the ocean, and, with it, freedom.
A former medical officer on Christmas Island and Nauru describes witnessing children faced with deprivation, fear and self-harm. Working in these places conflicts with her values – to be part of a policy designed to do harm. Tragically, stories like these are no longer new. The Guardian’s 2016 exclusive The Nauru Files exposed just how disturbing life in these centres is. We are now in a position where we cannot say we did not know. We do know.
What is striking, though, throughout Stop the Boats, is the underlying question it seems to ask powerfully, urgently, of the viewer: When we look back on our nation’s history, what will we see? What is the legacy we have created? And do the ends really justify the means?
Forced migration is becoming one of the great challenges of the 21st century. It is a global problem for which we must play our part in forming a global solution. There is a powerful moment in the film when refugee advocate Phil Glendenning declares, “30 years from now an Australian Prime Minister will rise in the Parliament and will offer an apology to the children, and their families, who were in detention for the damage done to them today.”
Stop the Boats should be compulsory viewing for Australians. We are at a crossroads now, and Stop the Boats provides the urgency needed to encourage politicians to stop viewing refugees as pawns in a political game, and exposes us to the humanity of refugees, and to their suffering.
When Behrouz Boochani’s friend Salim committed suicide in 2018, he wrote for the Guardian that he hoped, by us witnessing Salim and his suffering, that people “would be so moved that they would put an end to the torture, that they would understand what they were doing to us. Everyone could see what he was going through…”
Stop the Boats, by shedding light on our detention policies and the voices of those implicated by them, is not afraid to shock and disturb its viewers. To pull back the political curtain and show the suffering as it is.
And of us, it says – look. Look what we are complicit in.