With less than 2,000 residents, Christmas Island – an Australian territory located in the Indonesian Ocean – has a detention centre where thousands of individuals are held indefinitely. As well as these facilities, the island is also known for its annual red crab migration, in which over 40 million crabs make their journey to the sea to lay their eggs. These two astonishing parts of the island unite in Gabrielle Brady’s remarkable Island of the Hungry Ghosts, a documentary centred around a trauma counsellor and her restricted attempts to support and help the detainees through intimate, gentle, narrative therapy. Poh Lin Lee, the therapist and hero of the documentary, is shown enjoying cherished family moments with her husband and two young, inquisitive daughters; a stark contrast to the painful stories we hear in her therapy room; ones of lives lost, families separated and dwindling mental health and hope. Brady highlights the plight of the crabs and the local residents’ sensitive approach to them and the extreme measures taken to ensure their migration is protected. Meanwhile Lin Lee’s children sit and watch food sacrifices being made to ensure the ghosts of the island’s original settlers are satisfied. The treatment of both the ancient spirits and the scarlet crustaceans sit alongside horrifying stories from therapy patients whose own plights have left them detained. Lin Lee is trapped at every turn by corporate red tape as she attempts to locate individuals who haven’t shown up for appointments, all the while her countless professional recommendations are being ignored by those in charge of the location and daily welfare of her clients. It’s a painful and excruciating thing to witness; a pastoral expert unable to support or improve the mental health of those who frequently sit in front of her.
Poh Lin Lee’s therapy involves asking her clients to interact with a tray of sand – an array of miniature objects and characters at their disposal should they wish to use the sand to create a scene. Brady’s cinematography is intense – under-saturated and often relying on facial close ups. It’s a tender approach to the rawest of situations; with red crabs warming the cool palette every few minutes. A meditative journey through young family life, narrative therapy, and island traditions, Island of the Hungry Ghosts is as painful as it is beautiful. Silent tears cascaded down my cheeks frequently, as I soaked up every moment of deep sorrow, nonsensical institutional policy and charming childhood innocence. Don’t be fooled by the film’s stillness – at its centre is a fierce anger. Brady’s metaphorical use of the crabs is far from subtle but doesn’t grow tiresome, particularly as the crabs are frequently brought to us in meandering, silent and reflective sequences. The film’s score is exceptional, carrying the film’s central pain; rich with drones and whines, mournful and morose. For Poh Lin Lee, the tragedy of the stories she encounters weighs heavy, increased by her exhausted efforts to confront the system that makes her time with patients obsolete. In her frustration she explains that she’s never worked anywhere else where patients receive therapy but continue to see a decline in their mental health. This one truth captures the film in a nutshell. When human intervention is controlled to the point that it is defunct, what hope can there be for the detainees who are, day by day, losing their vital sense of self and belonging. Island of the Hungry Ghosts is a haunting and exquisite piece of filmmaking – one that makes you equally proud of, and disgusted by, our treatment of one another as human beings.
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