Director Gabrielle Brady’s first film, Island of the Hungry Ghosts illuminates the struggle of refugees detained on a remote island. The magic of documentary filmmaking comes alive in this film.
Set on remote Christmas Island, Island of the Hungry Ghosts follows Poh Lin, a trauma counselor, who works with asylum seekers detained on the island. Poh Lin, her husband, and two young daughters live on the island, treasuring the landscape and learning about its complex history. As much as Poh Lin, her family, and her patients are subjects of the documentary, so is the island. Brady’s ability to show the connection of the island to her human subjects and the way they interact is the key to understanding this film. “I wanted to create a little bit of a horror film. A creeping feeling of being watched, but also this is a film about the island at the end of the day”, says Brady.
Brady creates that “creeping feeling” by playing with the theme of time. The movement of time and its effect on the island creates a thunderstorm of sensation. Time affects Pho Lin and her ability to treat her patients. Time affects the migration of the land crabs that inhabit the island. Time affects the local islanders’ rituals to the ‘hungry ghost’ spirits of Christmas Island. Time affects us, as we try to understand how fast and how slow it passes.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts understands pace. In some moments it’s complete frenzy, a camera chasing after a figure sprinting in the distance. Other times the atmosphere is gentle, as land crabs are dancing back and forth across the road. The parallels between the migration of the land crabs, the original inhabitants of Christmas Island and the migration of refugees, seeking asylum on the island ground the documentary in reality. It is a powerful statement made with no words.
Brady’s intention in telling this story was to understand, “How close can you get to somebody? How can you rip away the distance?” She wants to put a human face to this situation to create awareness and empathy for the asylum seekers detained on the island. A documentary of this nature is not without its opponents and Brady is not shy in speaking of the risk involved in making the film. You can feel an element of danger present in many of the frames. Against the wishes of some, Brady felt she had to tell this story, and lucky for us, she did.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts was awarded Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.