Shaming Australia: cinematic responses to the “Pacific Solution”

Stephanie Hemelryk Donald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


How might it be possible for audiovisual productions across a variety of media platforms to render the experiences of refugees and forced migrants, and particularly their subjection to state-sponsored abuse, in ways that are both ethically defensible and aesthetically compelling? The question was prompted, for me, by viewing a number of works provoked by the Australian government’s political responses to the “refugee crisis” since the “Tampa affair” in 2001—the occasion when Prime Minister John Howard refused to allow the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa to enter Australian waters, because it was carrying 433 refugees rescued from a precarious fishing vessel that had run into trouble. In thinking through the issue, my main critical focus is on Eva Orner’s documentary film about the detention of asylum seekers on the Pacific island of Nauru, Chasing Asylum (2016), the making of which Orner has chronicled in an eponymous book subtitled A Filmmaker’s Story. As well as situating Orner’s film in the context of earlier Australian films about refugees and detainees, I contrast its approach with that of Dennis Del Favero’s short installation piece, Tampa 2001 (2015), which offers a nonrepresentational alternative to the conventional documentary strategies of Chasing Asylum. All the works discussed reveal how inextricably, if often counterintuitively, the two dimensions of aesthetics and ethics are intertwined.

My emphasis in this article is not on the traumatic nature and consequences of the events that all too often befall asylum seekers. Rather, I am concerned with two things. One is the relationship between representational strategies and the reality of those traumatic events. This topic is often framed, at least in the literature on documentary film, in terms of “indexicality”. This concept, derived from the semiotician Charles Sanders Peirce, refers to the fact that, although it bears the trace of the reality it represents (through the mechanical or digital capture of light), a photographic image cannot in itself reveal the nature of that reality, or guarantee the truthfulness of the representation (Cowie 30). Put simply, my first question is about the truth claims implicit in Orner’s film and Del Favero’s installation: given the limits of photographic indexicality, what “reality” can they claim to reveal or create? My second question concerns the implicit ethical contract between artist and audience: not so much truth claims, as the claims a work makes on its audience. This is the concern that lies behind many of today’s discussions about “testimony” and “affect” (see, for example, Richardson; Gregg and Seigworth). Here again, my focus is slightly different. I am interested in the ways in which spectators and audiences are invited to respond to images and sounds that attempt to communicate complex and traumatic refugee stories of dispossession or disappearance. This change of angle allows a move beyond the simple, and sometimes simplistic, notion of “refugee voice”. Instead, it opens up the possibility of a more considered set of expectations about aesthetic judgements, and about art as a political practice of humility and revelatory not-knowing.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)70-90
Number of pages21
JournalAlphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media
Publication statusPublished - 2019
Externally publishedYes

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