Nowhere Line

Samira Farah in conversation with Lukas Schrank

Born and bred in London, Lukas Schrank is a filmmaker and animator. Trained as a designer, he has slowly shifted his focus towards the moving image.

Lukas’ work deals with subtle and sensitive themes such as isolation and confinement. In 2009 he created an animation for the BBC children’s television series Blue Peter for a special episode, which was aired on Holocaust Memorial day, that followed the life of WWII holocaust survivor Freda Wineman.

Currently based in Melbourne, Lukas spoke with Right Now about his new short film Nowhere Line which uses animation as a powerful storytelling tool to address the challenging and contentious subject of mandatory detention.

Right Now: Tell us about Nowhere Line and why it is an important film to create.

Lukas Schrank: Nowhere Line tells the stories of two men who are currently detained on Manus Island. The film is narrated by the original interviews – which run alongside the animation. There is something about the quality of a phone call that adds a level of reality to the film – I want it to be clear that these events are happening now, that these men and 2198 other people are still being held in offshore detention centres.

I think this film is important to create because there is a lot of noise surrounding this subject, and I think people become desensitised to the way things are portrayed in the media. I hope that by bringing the debate of mandatory detention down to the level of a simple story, some element of humanity can be restored to those seeking asylum in this country.

Is the decision to create Nowhere Line as animation rather than a live-action film a deliberate one?

Yes. The film began its life as a graphic novel created in response to the propaganda comic the government distributed in Afghanistan and I found it quite disturbing – it seemed like a complete perversion of the medium. Looking back at the history of graphic novels and the woodcut prints that preceded them, there is a strong tradition of social commentary and the depiction of the human struggle.

Animation has the power to transcend many limitations of live-action when dealing with this kind of subject. If you recontextualise a story, you essentially remove all of the audience’s preconceptions and prejudices.

I hope that by engaging people visually, I’ll be able to tell a story which sidesteps their assumptions and retains a level of humanity that is often lost in the portrayal of asylum seekers.

Can you tell us about the two men who were interviewed and how their stories drive the film?

I can’t say too much other than what’s in the film in order to protect their identities, but I first spoke with the two men (who have been given the pseudonyms of Asad and Behnam) in October. They were both fleeing political persecution in Iran.

Behnam made two attempts to come to Australia from Indonesia. The first attempt ended in his boat sinking and tragically losing his friend Saeed. I think around 60 survivors were rescued at sea and Behnam ended up being arrested by the police a few days later and being put in prison. He managed to escape after a few days, and made a second attempt that ended in his boat being lost at sea for 8 days before it was intercepted. He was taken to Christmas Island where he shared a room with Reza Berati for a month, before they were transferred to Manus. He described Reza as a “lovely, quiet man”.

Asad was studying abroad before going back to Iran to visit his family. Like Behnam, he made his journey from Indonesia. He reached Christmas Island after three days on the 19th July. The navy held his boat offshore until the next day – when they reached the shore they found out that the 19th July regional resettlement policy meant that they would be transferred to Manus and Nauru.

During the interviews, and throughout the process of making the film so far, Asad and Behnam have both been incredibly helpful, supportive, and generous with their time. At first, they were slightly confused by exactly what it was I wanted from them – it is quite hard to explain to someone that you’re going to talk to them over the phone and then animate what they say.

I knew a lot about their condition and the brutal reality of the events they had been through before I spoke to them, but hearing it first-hand was something I wasn’t quite prepared for. I think this is the power of the phone call – it’s such a direct method of communication, to hear an isolated voice speaking only to you, through the crackling and interference of a long-distance line – I want the audience to have the exact same experience, this is one of the many reasons I have used the original interviews as the narration for the film.

Both of the men were in detention during the riots in February, which is really the focal point of the film. There were so many factors that led to the explosion of violence that ended Reza Berati’s life, and injured hundreds of others. During the interview process I realized that I had enough material to make a feature length film – so rather than trying to compress all of this into a matter of minutes, I have taken the approach of focusing on the human experience, what it would have been like to be there, the sense of hysteria and terror that would have engulfed the compound. There is sometimes a danger that by simplifying a story, it loses its integrity as a record of the truth, so I am being extremely careful with how this scene is depicted.

Do filmmakers need to be sensitive when telling stories from detainees?

Yes and this is something that has informed a lot of the creative decisions on the film. In this instance it is extremely important that anonymity is retained. Initially this seemed like a drawback but it has actually informed the structure of the film.

There are also many detainees that are suffering from extreme stress, depression and PTSD, and I think it would have been an act of exploitation for the film to be based on an interview with one of these men. It is the responsibility of any journalist or filmmaker to ensure that the act of performing an interview does not affect someone’s wellbeing or safety.

Where does Nowhere Line fit into the conversation around asylum seekers and mandatory detention?

Having moved to Australia last year I am still relatively new to the debate, and I am confronted and shocked by what I discover every day. The amount of misinformation that is spread on the subject is astonishing. I have noticed that the government’s approach is to reduce the debate to a level of simplicity that is devoid of any meaning or completely incorrect, including labelling asylum seekers as “illegals”, “queue-jumpers”, or the notion that “the boats are stopping”.

There are so many advocates, organisations and activists doing incredible work in this area, and the film Bloody UnAustralian by Eva Orner which attempts to address the entirety of the subject as a feature-length documentary. In comparison, what I am creating is an anecdote. But in any argument of such complexity, I think an anecodote – the telling of a story – can be surprisingly persuasive.

What do you hope will come out of Nowhere Line?

Part of the crowdfunding campaign for the film is raising a minimum of $3000 which will be spent helping out people in detention by sending them items that they need. We’re working with a few organisations to do this including GoodHood in Melbourne and Humanitarian Research Partners in Perth.

If the film challenges one person’s misconceptions then I will judge it as a success. I think that in order for it to have influence, people need to be able to make up their own minds. I am just focusing on making a good film and telling a story with honesty and humanity.

I want to create something that is a record of what has happened, in the hope that one day in the future when the situation is resolved, someone will watch the film and think “did that really happen?”

Lukas Schrank’s crowdfunding campaign for Nowhere Line runs till 6 February 2015 on Pozible.