Film Review: Chauka Please Tell Us the Time

Chauka Please Tell Us the Time, reviewed by Arnold Zable

Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, detained on Manus Island since August 2013, has been a PEN International imprisoned writers’ case since 2015. The international campaign on his behalf has been spearheaded by PEN Melbourne. Boochani has produced a growing body of work, in a range of genres, exposing the horrors of incarceration of asylum seekers on Manus Island. The 900 men have been detained for over 4 years, with 1200 men, women and children, marooned in detention on Nauru, as part of the so called ‘Pacific Solution’ to the influx of asylum seekers seeking refuge in Australia by way of boat.

Boochani has filed many stories both in Australian and international media.  He has provided information, liaised with journalists worldwide, written poems, produced photographic evidence of abuses, and is completing a book on his journey and experience of incarceration on Manus Island, to be published by Picador. Boochani has also shot a full-length film, on smart phone: Chauka Please Tell Us the Time, in restricted and distressing circumstances. Boochani co-directs the film with Amsterdam based Iranian filmmaker and editor, Arash Kamali Sarvestani.

The collaboration itself is an extraordinary story. Far removed from the action, Sarvestani, in Amsterdam, anxious to make a film involving refugees and the sea, locates Behrouz Boochani online, and becomes his film making mentor. They work together across a vast distance, to create a poetic, hypnotic film, which is both a work of great artistry, and a damning indictment of a brutal policy.

The smart phone camera roams through the centre, and beyond, and conveys the torturous ordeal endured by the 900 men endlessly waiting, aimlessly pacing, enduring the heat, the erosion of hope, and destruction of the spirit.

The many visual and aural threads include tense phone-calls back home, hinting at family breakdown and the unbearable pain of separation: ‘I am parted from my child,’ one asylum seeker laments in his three-minute weekly call. Referring to a child born after he fled his country, a detainee says: ‘I haven’t had a chance to hold him, touch him or feel his presence’.

We hear the incessant whirring of fans, the dentist-like drill of the fumigation apparatus. We witness the wasted lives of these men, their loss of agency: ‘I have no control over this’, says one. ‘Look mum, please don’t cry. Please don’t cry. Look mum, I am stuck here’, pleads another.

Boochani pans over the cramped living spaces and the tiny cubicles, partitioned by sheets and tarpaulins to create a fragile and claustrophobic privacy. We hear the comments of broken spirits: ’I prefer to be dead because I have nothing anymore…no one is waiting for me, and I am waiting for no one. I have lost everything.’

There are startling, surreal-like images—rows of empty white plastic chairs leaning against the wire through which you can see the unobtainable sea; the exuberant, beautiful faces of Manus Island children, dancing just beyond the wire, images of cats, contrastingly free, at home in any space within and without the wire.

The soundtrack compliments the imagery—with two recurring sounds in particular—a haunting Kurdish folksong, sung by one of the inmates, and the chirping of the chauka bird. The folksong is a lament, a cry of longing, and the birdsong, a homage to Manus Island culture.

The central thread of the film, around which all the others are woven—is the chauka, a bird that is sacred and central to Manus Island culture. The bird can be heard on the soundtrack and is glimpsed from time to time. The theme of the chauka, and what it symbolises is a brilliant conception.

Through an ongoing conversation with several Manus Island men, we begin to understand the deep significance of the bird, and the ongoing colonial history of the island. We come to see the cruel irony—the name of a bird that means so much in Manus Island culture, being used as the name for a high security prison within the wider prison, which, for a time, was a place of isolation, and punishment.

We come to understand that the appropriation of the chauka, as a name for a place of such abuse and suffering, is obscene, and reflective of the neo-colonial attitudes and system on which the offshore detention system is based.  Also interwoven is an eye witness account of the murder of Reza Barati in February 2014, and disturbing footage of a detainee, who at the end of his tether, has self-harmed, and is carried, at night, to an ambulance.

The mesmerising rhythm, the recurring imagery, the glimpses of Manus Island culture, the bird song, the sound of the sea, and the intermittent silences, have a powerful cumulative effect. When we briefly see, at film’s end, Australian Prime Minister Turnbull trying to justify the brutal policy for which his government is responsible, he is condemned by his own words. He tries in vain to justify the horror, and is revealed as a man in self-denial, representing a government that is in self-denial.

Boochani’s inclusive vision is enhanced by the respect he shows for the Manus Islanders. The mobile phone camera lingers on scenes of island life and culture. Boochani allows the voices of Manus islanders to be heard. The people of the island are stuck in a vicious dilemma, co-opted into the offshore processing system through their desperate need for work.  They are on a lower rung in the camp hierarchy, with the Australian government firmly established at the apex.

Chauka Please Tell Us the Time is driven by a unique, poetic vision. It is filmed and directed two men, physically worlds apart, sharing an eye for life’s beauty, its injustices, and cruelties—and by a man who has personally suffered these injustices.

Boochani is at heart an artist, who works intuitively, and instinctually. He, and his distant partner, Arash Kamali Sarvestani, allow the images, the sounds, the snatches of conversation, to speak for themselves. They transcend the severe limitations of the circumstances under which the film was shot, to give us a glimpse of hell, juxtaposed against the island’s tropical beauty and fragments of its indigenous culture.

They have documented a specific time and place, and helped expose the horror that is indefinite offshore detention, whilst remaining true to the paradoxical beauty of their artform, and their deeply humanistic vision of life.

Since its completion earlier this year, the film had been on a remarkable journey. This has included a world premiere in the Sydney Film Festival in June, where it was received to critical acclaim, and three showings the same week, at the ACMI cinemas in Melbourne. Sarvestani was a guest of the festival, and introduced the film in both cities, participating in panel discussions that included Behrouz Boochani, online, from Manus Island.

The film continues its unexpected journey. It is to be shown at a range of festivals both throughout Australia and internationally. Meanwhile, Boochani and his fellow 900 detainees, continue to endure their exile, in limbo, without an end in sight.  On July 19, an Australia wide-vigil to mark the fourth anniversary of the reintroduction of the Pacific solution—with upwards of 2000 men, women and children still being held on Nauru and Manus Island—punished for the 'crime' of escaping persecution and seeking a new life, in safety and freedom, for themselves and their families.

Arnold Zable is an Australian writer, novelist and human rights advocate. He is immediate past president of PEN Melbourne, and with fellow writer and refugee rights advocate, Janet Galbraith, spearheaded the campaign to have Behrouz Boochani’s case adopted by PEN international.