The Australian government has spent $6 million on a bizarre feature-length movie to warn away potential asylum seekers from the Middle East. Josh Drummond sat down with a Farsi-speaking interpreter to watch it.
It’s dark in The Spinoff offices, late on a Sunday, and I can’t find the light switch. What little light there is comes from the sunset streaking through the west windows. Muted Auckland traffic hums outside. On the office floor is a puddle from a leak in the roof, in which swim a couple of Canon camera batteries, before I liberate them.
It feels a curiously appropriate place to watch a piece of modern propaganda. Together with a Persian interpreter who has volunteered to help out, I am watching Journey, a film financed by the Australian Government at a cost of AUD $6 million. Its purpose: to deter asylum seekers from attempting to travel to Australia.
Spoiler warning: no-one makes it to Australia and nearly everyone dies.
I first discovered the existence of Journey thanks to a disgusted tweet by David Farrier.
Intrigued, I did a bit of Googling. “The Department of Immigration and Border protection paid the Sydney-based Put It Out There Pictures $4.34 million to produce the movie,” said the Sydney Morning Herald. “It paid a company called Lapis Communications a further $1.63 million for to promote and advertise it, bringing the total to $5.97 million.”
The website of Put It Out There Pictures (who were, intriguingly, previously known as Jesus TV Pty Ltd) says they have “developed a reputation for creating film and television for a new frontier.”
“Led by writer/producer team Trudi-Ann Tierney and Muffy Potter, the company creates screen content that sparks audiences to see the world through a new looking glass.”
This is another way of saying that they make propaganda, for clients and acronyms including “the US State Department, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), United Nations, British Embassy, USAID, World Health Organisation (WHO), and US Department of Defence.”
So, Journey was funded by the Australian Government and shot by a propaganda outfit-for-hire. It’s slated for screening in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, a few other middle and near-eastern countries, and anywhere with YouTube. That’s right – if you’d like to watch Journey yourself, you can. It’s freely available, in a number of languages, including Persian (Farsi) and Urdu. Curiously, there are no plans to release the film in English, which makes for a very low likelihood that many of the taxpayers who paid for it would ever see it. As an Australian living in New Zealand, with a still-valid Australian passport, I felt it was my patriotic duty to see that those taxpayers got their money’s worth.
[Update: After the initial viewing of this film, the JourneyTheMovie YouTube channel quietly released a version of Journey (uploaded on May 2) with English subtitles, despite initial reports that there was no English version planned. It’s embedded at the end of this article.]
Journey begins in Tehran International Airport, where Sera is waiting for a plane with her young son, Amir. “Do you want me to tell you a story?” she asks him.
Sera tells a tale about some fish who live in a very nice lake. One day, a visitor arrives. It’s a pelican, enemy to fish everywhere! But, oddly, he comes under a flag of truce. He and the fish have a mutual interest. The pelican warns them that there are fisherman coming to the lake, and they’ll take all the fish! But, says the pelican, there’s hope…
The story is interrupted, and we meet Sera’s brother Nima. She tells him that she’s worried about leaving Iran and getting smuggled to Australia. Nima tries to convince her. “It’s the right decision,” he says. “There’s nothing left for you here.”
In a dank Sydney cafe, three men meet, and one places a phone call to a couple of well-to-do sorts who are shown shuffling money and sticking it in a safe. These guys, my interpreter explains, are people smugglers. “Can you promise me that Nadim will get here safe?” one of the Sydney men asks them.
Then we meet Nadim, a good-looking young Iraqi bloke from Basra, with a guitar and a comfortable home which he wants to leave in order to be smuggled to Australia for some reason. His nice girlfriend cries, and his nice mum gives him food for the trip. “Call me every day,” she says. As he leaves, his mother holds a Qur’an in one hand, and throws water after him. “It’s a custom,” my translator explains, laughing. “You pass under the Qur’an, they throw water after you. It helps you come back. My mum still does it for me when I go somewhere.”
Onscreen, Nadim’s girlfriend runs after his car, and throws herself to the ground, weeping, in slow motion. Nadim doesn’t look back.
These introductions set the tone for the rest of the film. Most of the core cast are portrayed as comfortable, middle-class types. We do hear lines like “things have been so bad lately,” but there’s little evidence of it. Nadim is a guitar-toting troubadour who longs for adventure. Sera doesn’t want to leave but feels pressured into it by her brother. These characters just kind of feel like undertaking an impossibly arduous, expensive and dangerous journey to a mysterious country far from home. Perhaps this is because the film is intended for screening in countries which might not take kindly to more accurate descriptions of what life is like for those who seek to leave, but it also ties in neatly with Australian Government lines about “economic refugees.” So far, so propaganda.
But soon we’re whisked to an Office of Dealing With Refugees in Jakarta, and things get weird.
I say “Office of Dealing With Refugees,” because that’s the closest thing to it in English and neither I or nor my interpreter has a clear idea what the place depicted actually is. A UN building? A consulate? It appears to be a refugee processing centre of some kind, and the guards appear to be Indonesian, but it’s impossible to say who runs it, or even what nationality the staff is. They mostly speak in English for this scene, so I can easily follow it in all its Kafkaesque glory. We catch up with a couple of characters who haven’t been important enough for me to mention until now; Najib and his brother, whose name we don’t catch.
“We have nothing left,” says Najib’s brother. “Nothing to go back to. We’ve risked everything to come here. We’ve lost everyone. Our father worked as a translator for the foreigners. He was murdered by the Taliban. They shot him twelve times, sir. Twelve times. And my mother and sister. When they came for us, we were not there. So they killed them instead. We have one brother left, but he went to Germany three years ago. He was trying to get us over there, but… we cannot go back, sir. We should just die right now if you make us go back.”
“Okay,” says the bloke behind the desk, in a sort-of English accent. “I now have a record of your claim, and we can begin to process your application for refugee status. Do you understand?”
“Yes, how long will that take?”
“I really can’t say. It could take many months.”
“How many months? Three months, six months?”
“I can’t give you an exact time, but we’ll let you know once we’ve made the evaluation.”
Najib snaps at the officer.
“It is one year since we first came here! We’ve waited that long just to meet with you! How much longer should we wait?
“I’m sorry, but as you can see, we have many people to process.”
Najib hits the desk with his fist. Frustrated, he and his brother go to leave, but on the way out they stop by a different desk where an agitated man unleashes a fusillade of words.
“What’s the problem here?” Najib asks the woman behind the desk.
“I’ve just explained to him that he can no longer register as a refugee in Indonesia for resettlement in Australia,” she says. Like the others, she wears no official insignia, but there’s just a hint of Straya in her voice. It’s the closest that the film will come to to portraying an actual Australian.
“What is he supposed to do? Where should he go?” Najib asks.
“He can be resettled in a number of other countries?” suggests the woman, with an upwards inflection. “Just… not Australia. I’m sorry.”
I stop the film at this point. It’s one of the most peculiar and telling scenes of the whole piece – it’s strikingly honest about just how useless it can be to try to seek asylum through official channels. I ask my interpreter if they know what the deal is. Perhaps I’ve missed something?
“I don’t know!” she says. “It’s confusing, isn’t it?”
It’s not until later that it dawns on me that this scene is not the subversion I’d suspected. It’s entirely the opposite. As with the rest of Journey, the message is clear:
It doesn’t matter how just your cause is. Whether you’re trying to get to Australia through bureaucracy or boats, it doesn’t matter – we’ll stop you. Go home. Don’t have a home? Go anyway. You won’t make Australia home.
In its efforts to make people smugglers the boogeyman, Journey neatly sidesteps a key problem with Australia’s refugee policy: that seeking asylum is entirely legal. People smuggling isn’t, of course – but arriving in a country without a visa as a refugee, with the intention of claiming asylum, is not only legal, but protected under the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Australia is a signatory.
Claiming asylum is simple, in theory. First, you must be persecuted in your country of origin to the point where it is impossible for you to remain there. Assuming you survive this, you must then travel to another state. Then you say something along the lines of “I wish to claim asylum”. Once a genuine asylum seeker is within the sovereign borders of the state they’re claiming asylum in, it’s legally hard to deny them the right.
So states that prove attractive to refugees (that is, states that are neither overtly corrupt nor war-torn, and are relatively free of minority persecution) try very hard to fix it so asylum seekers won’t show up at all. All the major Western powers play the game, but no-one is better at this systematic denial of human rights than Australia, which is the only country in the world to strictly mandate the detention of asylum-seekers. Since the Howard government’s “Pacific Solution”, Australian policy has been to deter or intercept asylum seekers and lock them up, offshore, for processing. Various implementations of the Pacific Solution, in fact if not in name, have continued under (much of) the Rudd/Gillard Labour government, and have been expanded on by the Abbott/Turnbull Coalition government. If asylum seekers are found to be “genuine”, they’re given the chance to be resettled in countries that Australia has essentially paid off to take them, like Cambodia and Papua New Guinea.
This solution has been savaged by virtually every human rights body in existence, and it’s illegal under international law. PNG’s Supreme Court has, at the time of writing, just found its offshore processing arrangement with Australia to be unconstitutional – and Australia has already made a point of saying that none of the asylum seekers interred in PNG’s Manus internment camp will ever reach Australia.
Even ignoring qualms about the policy’s legality, humanity, or effectiveness, the fact can’t be avoided that it’s bloody expensive. Offshore processing alone has cost Australia around a billion dollars a year from 2013 on. It makes the six mil spent on Journey look like an absolute bargain, no doubt sold to officials as a game-changing, innovative, fence-at-the-top-of-the-cliff final solution to the problem of getting oppressed people to stay at home and die without causing a fuss.
Journey continues, and we catch up with Belal, a kid who’s in a low-rent prison that resembles my uncle’s garage with the car parked outside. Belal gets hold of a phone and manages to speak to his mum. She’s worried. He says he’s going to Australia, that they’ll accept him because he’s young. Turns out he tried it on once already but got turned around. Now he needs money to pay a better smuggler.
Then we’re back with Najib and his brother, who for the sake of accuracy if not brevity we’ll call Mr. Voice of Australian Refugee Policy. They chat about how, without Indonesian visas, they don’t have any job prospects or money. Najib, of course, wants to try for Australia. Mr. Voice of Australian Refugee Policy suggests he needs to be less reckless. “By boat you’ll never be able to reach Australia,” he explains. He’s clearly seen the movie already.
Back in Pakistani prison, Belal and an old bloke who’s taken him under his wing stage a prison break that could be a gag from Austin Powers – someone pretends they’re sick, the inmates rush the single guard who shows up, and they all bolt over an easily-scaled wall. Belal and his old mate make it, and so does a bearded guy whose inexplicable prison-break MO is to run around laughing as loudly as possible. Don’t forget about Crazy Laughing Guy; we’ll be seeing him again.
A few largely pointless scenes later, we arrive at a shitty barn somewhere in rural Malaysia, or maybe Indonesia. The whole gang is here – Sera, Nima, and Amir turn up, and so does troubadour Nadim, guitar in hand. Sera’s not happy. “What sort of mother am I, bringing my son into this?” she asks. Upset, she wanders outside and yells at the camera in slow motion for a bit. But soon enough, she’s back in the barn, where Nadim unleashes his guitar. He leads the group in a traditional Persian travelling song, called “Safar”. In English, Safar means travel – or Journey.
The scenes in the barn are easily the best of the film. There are echoes of the Christian story here – there’s no room at the Australian inn, and everyone’s crashing in a barn. Many of the refugees are from different countries, with a history of conflict, but here they’ve all got common cause. Nadim’s an Iraqi, but he sings a traditional Persian song with the Iranian Sera. It’s a dream of multiculturalism, perhaps a preview of what life could be like in Australia, and it succeeds, if only for a moment, at being moving.
It doesn’t last long: pretty soon they’re back on the road and people smugglers are extorting everyone for more money. This sort of thing happens a lot. Later, we’ll see a smuggler ignoring his young brother’s suggestion that they don’t really need that much money and that the boat they’re planning to use isn’t seaworthy. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer. People smugglers, we’re told ad nauseum, are the real enemy – but this rings particularly hollow, given evidence that Australian Navy personnel have more than once paid off people smugglers to turn their boats back around and carry their human cargo back to Indonesia.
Finally, after many troubles and much yelling in slow motion, we are on a boat. Sera and her brother Nima have been separated (lucky Nima) but everyone else is here; Belal, who is sick and is quite clearly dying; and Najib, whose brother Mr. Voice of Australian Refugee Policy elected to stay behind. There’s also sad Sera, with Amir, and Nadim the Iraqi rockstar.
The boat journey takes up the last third of the film. The characters have got plenty of time to get to know each other a bit better, because there’s not much else to do when you’re stuck on a glorified dinghy in the open ocean. They all remain barely two-dimensional and 100 percent in thrall to the destiny they’ve been gifted by the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Border Control, but the filmmakers do take this opportunity to shade them in a bit. Najib takes pity on poor crook Belal, who tells him he left home because of all the violence. Turns out his grandad sold his shop to send him to Australia. There’s more singing, and the refugees cheer as they’re visited by dolphins. Soon, Sera takes the chance to finish off the story she’s been telling Amir.
“What is the story she keeps telling him?” I ask my interpreter. “Do you know it?”
“Yes! It’s a Persian story,” she says. “Do you want to know how it goes?”
She tells me about a lake that was full of fish.
“One day, a pelican comes up to… a lady lobster, sorry, that’s the only translation that makes sense – saying fishermen are coming to catch all the fish in the lake. The lady lobster gets upset, so she goes to tell the fish… but then the pelican says he’ll take the fish to a bigger lake, where there is more food and no fishermen! Every week the pelican takes more fish.
“Over time, the lady lobster gets suspicious. The pelican is getting fatter. But despite her suspicions, she goes with the pelican on the very last trip… and she sees piles of bones, and she realises that the pelican has tricked her, and eaten all the fish.”
So the story that Sera has been telling her son is a metaphor for the story we’re watching right now. Specifically, it’s about how people-smuggling pelicans are villains, and how the refugee-fish are all doomed. It’s a bit hard to believe, but it’s true: the propagandists have managed to put propaganda in their propaganda. To call it heavy-handed doesn’t even come close. Making things worse, Sera doesn’t seem the slightest bit self-aware about all this, continuing her story that ends with all the characters dying just in time for Journey’s characters to start dying.
The boat’s been becalmed and the lazy, stupid people smugglers have fallen asleep so the boat can begin to sink, which it does. Nadim tries to use a radio to summon help, but Crazy Laughing Man hurls Nadim, and the phone, overboard for no apparent reason.
Like every other scene of emotional import, the sinking of the boat is depicted in slow motion. Sera, holding Amir, topples backwards into the water, screaming. Crazy Laughing Man laughs his last as he strips off his lifejacket for no reason and dies pointlessly.
Najib fails to hold on to a perfectly good floating piece of wood for no reason. Soon he sinks and dies, pointlessly. Belal just disappears and, presumably, dies pointlessly. That leaves Nadim, Sera and Amir.
After shoving away a refugee who’s trying to share Checkov’s Guitar Case with him, Nadim makes his way to where Sera and Amir are floating. He scoops the boy up onto the case, but Sera’s had enough; despite her lifejacket keeping her head well clear of the water she floats away and dies pointlessly. Fade to black.
It’s now, in the last minutes of the film, that we might reasonably expect to see some Australians – perhaps the Navy, picking up the survivors. Instead, we get what looks a bit like a fishing launch. A man stands at the prow. He waves, and the screen fades to black again.
The last scenes are a montage of weeping friends and relatives back home. The very last bit is is a dreamlike, unsettling sequence featuring Amir, and a man who may be his absent father, back in Indonesia. Sera appears too, but only in memory, or imagination, it seems. She’s shown in happier times, back in Iran, laughing and playing with her son. Clearly, this is where she should have stayed, all along. Credits: “Inspired by true stories. Produced with support by the Australian Government.”
The screening over, I walk back to my car through the dark city, feeling strange. My jaw works, my eyes burn. It takes me a while to recognise that what I’m feeling is rage.
It isn’t the film I’m angry at. Journey is best described as boring and frustrating. While they’re occasionally allowed to display some humanity, the characters are mostly wooden and unrealistic, swept away by the riptide of the film’s propaganda agenda. Lines that may as well be spoken by Australian Border Force employees come straight from characters, and things frequently happen for no discernible reason other than the plot requiring them to happen. Extreme emotion is frequently displayed through characters screaming at the camera in slow motion while dramatic music plays. It’s also remarkably joyless, even for a propaganda flick about doomed refugees. The only laugh in it is unintentional, provided by this excellently inappropriate Google ad.
It’s hard to identify many redeeming features. As far as I can tell, Journey is accurate to the experience of actual asylum seekers (as revealed in this remarkable feature and photo essay at the New York Times), but this makes it even more ghoulish when you consider who paid for it. It’s also nicely lit, I guess?
My take on Journey notwithstanding, I suppose the mark of a good propaganda film is how it affects the intended audience. You might have noticed the unsubtle #SafarIran hashtag in the screenshots, and it appears pretty active on Twitter.
I asked my interpreter how people were reacting to it. She tells me they are all pretty much saying three things: “very sad movie”, “very beautiful”, “recommend it to others”. The tweets from @FARSI1TV, she says, are from Farsi 1, which is a TV channel being broadcast from overseas for Iranian people in and outside Iran. They’ve shown the film once already, and it seems it’ll appear regularly on their channel.
The comments on the movie’s YouTube page, she says, are along similar lines. A few here are in English, and appear to be unmoderated by Put It Out There Pictures. They suggest Journey seems to be enjoying some success with both the target audience and racist Australians.
However well it succeeds as propaganda. Journey’s most notable failing as a film is how it fails to make an antagonist out of people smugglers. This is remarkable, considering how terrible people smuggling actually is. Even as a propaganda vehicle designed by the Australian government, the film can’t help revealing the true bad guy as Australia itself. By denying asylum seekers any real ability to make their claim, Australia creates the demand for the boats – and people smugglers manage the supply. On the surface, the film is merely an attempt at a moving, cautionary tale. But ultimately it exists to perpetuate the narrative that Australia’s policy on asylum seekers is about border rights and refugee safety.
This is a lie. Australian policy on asylum seekers is designed almost entirely to secure votes from a sizeable and vociferous racist contingent of the Australian public, and it continues to exist because many in the Australian body politic hold those beliefs themselves. Cracking down on “boat people” has been an electoral magic bullet in Australia since the 90s because it allows a political win-win. It garners votes while allowing Australia to deal with asylum seekers the easy, cruel way: by forcing them into a literal gulag archipelago to rot, out of the public eye.
It’s this that’s got me angry. It’s the way that every character’s pointless death (inspired by true stories!) serves to underscore Journey’s key narrative. Ultimately, the film is a 90 minute-long, six-million-dollar threat, leveled directly at the world’s most vulnerable people. Australia does not care for your kind, the film says. Stay home. If you’re on your way here, go back. It doesn’t matter what has happened to you. Come, and we’ll lock you up forever. Come, and you will die. You will die. You will die.