Breaking the silence

By Christie-Anna Ozorio

Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe
Ros Horin
Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF)

Trigger warning: sexual violence; child abuse.

There are two kinds of top documentaries.

There are those that are fantastic because they are insightful and educational. They can be so inspirational that viewers sometimes make material changes to their lives as a result. For example, after I watched Fed Up, which is an exposé on the amount of sugar in cheap and/or “lite” foods and its impact on poor American families, I gave up sugar for four months.

Another kind of fantastic documentary changes the way that you see other human beings. This is what Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe is. It is the type of film that you do not forget. It lingers at the edge of your consciousness for weeks and months after you watch it. It is not necessarily an example of breathtaking cinematography or a masterpiece in journalism. In fact, it is not revolutionary in many aspects, but what it lacks in grandiosity it makes up for in the power of its subjects and its sincerity.

The documentary follows four women as they participate in the creation of a theatre production about their lives before they became refugees. Each has a tragic past, including experiences of violence, child abuse, and rape. Director (of both the film and the theatre) Ros Horin sought the women out through a refugee counselling service in Baulkham Hills, Sydney. The film follows the theatre production from infancy to scripting, through to rehearsal, and finally to performance, and is interspersed with interviews with Ros, the women, and their families as well as footage of the conflicts that they fled from.

It’s a documentary that every Australian should watch, because it is on Australians that the effect of this piece of cinema could and should be most powerful.

Part of this is because the documentary specifically centres on former refugees. The most comprehensive survey into Australian attitudes shows that almost half of all Australians believe that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are “illegal immigrants” seeking a “better life”. Each of the women profiled in the documentary fled wars and conflict on the African continent – violence that most Australians will never witness in their lifetimes. Yordanos, for example, watched her father beat her mother to death before leaving her as an infant on the streets to fend for herself. She fled on foot across the Sahara desert after she was forced to fight as a child soldier for ten years in the Eritrean war of independence against Ethiopia.

These women sought refuge from a country that, despite only accounting for 2 per cent of the total global refugee intake, has a third of the population who think boats carrying refugees or asylum seekers to Australian shores should be turned around and sent back to their port of departure. Further, 75 per cent of Australians believe that these people should not be granted permanent residence in Australia.

Yet these four women now live permanently in Australia. In Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, we watch them in their homes providing for their families; at their workplaces; and participating in social life. Their children attend Australian schools. Yarrie, who grew up in a refugee camp in Guinea, is an ambassador for UNHCR and is studying International Relations and Development at university. Rosemary, from Kenya, is a community liaison officer with the NSW Police.

The true power of this documentary comes from watching and therefore participating in the process that Yarrie, Yordanos, Rosemary and Aminata undergo as they create this theatre of their lives.

Another reason the documentary is essential viewing is that these women are all survivors of horrific sexual violence. Reports of sexual violence in Australia have reached a six-year high and four out of five victims are female. The sexual violence that these women experienced in their childhood and/or adolescence is not far removed from the experiences of many Australian women. At least one in five Australian women experience sexual violence from the age of 15 (and a large estimate of sexual assault cases go unreported).

The true power of this documentary comes from watching and therefore participating in the process that Yarrie, Yordanos, Rosemary and Aminata undergo as they create this theatre of their lives. It is not easy to watch and it should not be.

Yordanos drops in and out of the production as she struggles with the agony of recalling her experiences in rehearsals, which is akin to reliving the experience all over again and enflaming an emotional wound that is barely scabbed over. Her ordeals illustrate some of the most horrific things that can ever be done to another human being.

Yet it would be reductive and a disservice to the objectives of the film to solely reduce these woman to products of their past trauma. Their trauma is certainly central to the film, as its purpose is to highlight the realities that 90 per cent of refugee women have experienced. But, more importantly, it is illuminating the process whereby a person can heal.

The cathartic power of theatre is evident in the months that lead up to their performance, and all of the women except Yordanos appear to gain strength through the process. After sold-out performances in two Sydney theatres, the production is invited to the Women of the World festival in London, but Yordanos is unsure if she can do it. The emotional toll manifests physically; it is impossible not to feel shock and concern as you watch her physical appearance deteriorate over the course of the documentary. But in a heart-wrenching scene at her family home, her teenage son explains to Ros how inspired he is by his mother’s story, and how he believes that sharing her story with as many people as possible is a powerful gift.

This unscripted, unmediated sincerity is what the documentary does so masterfully and effortlessly. The richness and depth of each woman left me always wanting to know more about them. The film’s enduring legacy lies in how it captures these women’s many dimensions.

In terms of the Australian psyche, this documentary is emblematic of how we should relate to our fellow citizens. They carry scars that are not visible from the outside. Ignorance might persuade some to pre-judge and assume that these “illegal immigrants” came to take jobs and live the high life, and it is possible that had Ros Horin not pursued this project, not even the families of these women would have ever known of their horrific experiences.

Many Australian women who experience sexual violence often do not come forward with their experiences. This documentary is all about sharing those experiences. It is an incredibly cathartic process, not just for these women and the people who worked with them, but also for the viewer.

When the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) screening ended and the applause had subsided, the audience at MIFF was treated to a Q&A with Yordanos and Ros. A quick scan of the room behind me revealed tear-streaked faces and emotionally exhausted faces. When Yordanos was asked a question about any advice she may have for sexual trauma victims, she took a long pause before she answered. When she did, it was with honesty, authority, and eloquence. She exuded vulnerability but also an inner resolve that was impossible not to admire. As she spoke of the hurt and pain that she suffers every day, the audience collectively leant forward to absorb every word. It was clear how instructive her experiences were to them, how close to home her trauma was.

Ros and her team have gone on to take this documentary nationwide, to schools and to as many theatres as possible. Currently, it is only being shown at select theatres in Victoria and NSW, and one in WA, and the team is crowdfunding to raise $500,000 in order to do so. Their goal is to use the documentary to educate frontline workers about the trauma of rape that so often prevents refugee women from fully functioning in public life, and to help women begin the process of breaking the silence around their own experience of sexual violence.

On a larger scale, I also hope that whenever someone watches this documentary, the part of them that may have scorned refugees who flee to Australia in search of “a better life” will remember these four women and their experiences, and think again.



Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

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Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.