Hope, directed by Steve Thomas. Australia, 2007.
In one of his late poems, the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus (1944-2007) wrote of “A million refugees clinging to his footsteps.” This was not poetic hyperbole. Boulus was haunted by a visceral tragedy. The invasion and occupation of Iraq back in 2003 and the sectarian civil war that followed displaced more than 4.5 million Iraqis and forced them to leave their homes. Around 2.5 million of them were internally displaced within Iraq. The rest were scattered in neighboring countries and some managed to reach other countries outside the region. These post-2003 waves of refugees fleeing death and destruction were only the latest additions to a vast Iraqi diaspora decades in the making. The 1991 Gulf War and the genocidal sanctions had forced hundreds of thousands of Iraqis throughout the 1990’s and later to escape both dictatorship and a dilapidated economy. Their trajectories and routes varied and their destinations were not always hospitable. Many of them became easy prey to the various networks of international smugglers who charged exorbitant amounts of cash in exchange for fake passports and a not-so-safe passage to a final destination. One of those many routes was by sea from Indonesia to Australia.
On the 18th of October, 2001, a wooden fishing boat carrying 421 refugees sailed from Bandar Lampung in Indonesia to Christmas Island, a favored conduit to reach mainland Australia. The great majority were Iraqis, but there were some Iranians, Afghanis, Algerians, and Palestinians. At 3 p.m. the next day the boat sank in international waters, but inside the Australian aerial border protection surveillance zone. Only 45 survived by floating in the water for 22 hours. 146 children, 142 women, and 65 men drowned and died. The survivors were rescued almost a day later by Indonesian fishing boats off Java and were taken back to Jakarta. Only seven of them eventually made it to Australia. One of them, Amal Basri, survived by clinging to the floating corpse of another woman. Her son, too, was one of the survivors, but she thought he had died and would only find out later that he was still alive. The Australian documentary film Hope (2007, written and directed by Steve Thomas) chronicles Basri’s struggle as a survivor and a refugee after reuniting with her husband in Australia. She narrates her attempts to understand not only the consequences of that disaster, but the mystery still surrounding its causes.
Two months before that boat sank another one carrying more than 400 Afghanis had met the same fate, but they were all saved. The Australian authorities didn’t allow the asylum seekers to land on Christmas Island. They were placed in detention and shipped back to Indonesia. The John Howard government was hell-bent on stemming the tide of “illegal” asylum seekers and declared that it would turn all boats back and tow them back to their point of origin if necessary. “Operation Relex” was launched to conduct maritime surveillance and disrupt smuggling operations. Twelve SIEVs (Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel) were intercepted and their passengers detained on the Nauru and Manus Islands or returned to Indonesia. The boat Amal Basry was on, named SIEV-X, because it wasn’t intercepted, was the last attempt by the smugglers. A number of the survivors, including Amal and her son said that throughout their journey there were aircraft flying above and monitoring. More importantly, many of the survivors mention two boats approaching the survivors while still floating and shining lights on them, but not helping them. The Indonesian fishermen who saved them later told them that the two boats were Australian border patrol vessels.
When Basry arrived in Australia one of the immigration officers told her not to talk too much about the incident and to forget all about it. One of the lingering questions was whether the Australian government and its agencies knew more about the sinking and were they directly or indirectly complicit? Was the sinking allowed to take place to send a message to other smugglers? A declassified cable and an article in TheCanberra Times provided evidence of a more complex narrative.
Having a very good command of English, Amal became the de facto advocate and public speaker for the survivors in Australia. She is the featured speaker at fundraisers and the annual commemoration of the tragedy. She is quite charismatic and has a natural and powerful presence on the screen as well as a sense of responsibility to tell the story. Without any prepared notes, she takes the microphone and retells her story and those of other survivors and victims. The director and Amal alternate as narrators and the former is sensitive enough not to insert himself except when necessary. As if the psychological pain was not enough, Amal discovers that she has cancer and undergoes chemotherapy. Despite the pain and the trauma, she still has a great sense of humor and is never bitter. Having had dreams of starring in a film one day when she was a young girl in Baghdad, she relishes the limelight and takes the initiative in suggesting certain scenes to the director.
As soon as she obtains her multi-year visa, she wants to go back to Indonesia to be filmed at the hotel where the refugees stayed before sailing. She and the director cannot go on the same flight and she goes a few hours earlier. Indonesian authorities deny her entry. She goes to Amman to see her daughter and then to Iran to see her other son. Her entire family comes from Iraq for a reunion and Amal has to tell her father that she has cancer. The director makes it to Indonesia and films the room where Amal stayed and the port from which the doomed boat had sailed. On Amal’s behalf and in remembrance of all the victims he scatters flowers in the water.
Upon returning to Australia, Amal is much weaker. Medical tests show that the cancer has spread throughout her body, but she is determined to finish the film and tell her story to the end. She, after all, seems to have the power and courage to confront the past more so than the others. Her son immerses himself in long hours of work as a car mechanic and doesn’t want to talk about the incident. Her husband (who wasn’t on the boat) is aloof and always busy at work. She complains in one scene that he never bothered to accompany her to any of her chemotherapy sessions. Even when weakened by the spread of cancer Amal asks the director to watch footage from her trip back to Iran and her family reunion. She wants him to include one scene in particular in the film. “It summarizes everything about Iraq,” she says. The scene shows one of her nephews crying upon learning that he has to go back to Baghdad where he won’t be able to play and run around without the fear of being kidnapped or killed.
Amal had initially wanted her body to be buried in Iraq, but she changes her mind towards the end of the film. “Iraq is finished. I want my children to have something here in Australia.”
The editing has a few glitches and the aesthetics are understated, but the extraordinary Amal Basry and her persona carry the film all the way. Hope is a powerful document/ary about the harrowing traumas refugees have to endure and survivors have to live with. It is also an unforgettable reminder of the resilience and hope (amal, in Arabic) of immigrants.
I watched the film at the 2010 Harlem International Film Festival in New York City this past weekend. Alas, the auditorium had a total of three spectators.