Chauka, please tell us the time

Honi talks to Dutch filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani and Manus detainee Behrouz Boochani who secretly filmed a feature length documentary about life in detention.

This review is from our continuing coverage of Sydney Film Festival over the next month. Check out the rest of the content here

If you’ve seen Behrouz Boochani before, it was probably in a grainy video question on Q&A: “I’m talking to you from Manus Prison. Australia exiled me by force three years ago. What is my crime?” he asked Malcolm Turnbull.

“I am a refugee who fled injustice, discrimination and persecution. I didn’t leave my family by choice. Why am I still in this illegal prison after three years?”

The short question was followed by minutes of rationalisations from Turnbull: queue-jumpers, people smugglers, deaths at sea, border security. None of which responded to the question or to the man who asked it.

While Turnbull pragmatically explained the policy, supported by both major parties, that sees 1202 people locked away on Manus and Nauru, Behrouz sat in the Manusian prison.

It is this erasure of the people imprisoned by Australia on Manus that Chauka, Please Tell Us The Time is trying to remedy. The documentary, filmed secretly on a mobile phone, comes from a collaboration of Iranian-born Dutch documentary filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani and Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian refugee currently detained on Manus island.

For the most part, very little happens. Manusian children watch silently from outside the fence, smiling. A refugee called Kaveh calls home during the few minutes he is allowed on the phone each week. Behrouz’s feet rest against the background of a beach — an Instagram-worthy shot if not for the fence separating him from the sand.

“It is a hard film to watch,” Arash admits.

Which is true, but not in the way you expect. It is not a violent picture of the jail that Chauka captures, but rather the psychological purgatory in which it keeps its detainees. “We want to say how it is hard for refugees who have been imprisoned for four years and don’t know how many more years they have to endure this remote prison,” Behrouz says.

“It’s hard for me to say this but unfortunately it’s the reality of Western culture and thinking about refugees. In Western culture refugees are seen as different people. In the movie we want to say that the refugees are people the same as you.”

It is perhaps just that fact — the characters are so normal, daily life is so boring — that makes the film so confronting. “This is a different story of jail than filmmakers in Hollywood would make,” Arash explains. “But jail is not interesting, jail is the most boring place in the world.”

This realisation inspired the film’s title. The Chauka bird, which adorns Manus’s provincial flag and is spiritually significant for Manusians, is heard constantly in the background of the film. Its calls, at different times of day, are used by Manusians to tell that time. “It tells the time but time has no meaning for these people anymore,” Arash says.

“Time goes really crazy in these places,” he explains. Though he has never been in jail, he says that his experience in the Iranian army was similar.

“I had one of the worst experiences of my life. Time didn’t seem to pass. I thought ‘Oh God, I should kill myself, or I should blow off my finger and maybe they will release me. And for me it was just 2 months; these people are there for 4 years without having committed a crime. Listening to Behrouz the same thing happened, after 5 months of torture there is just nothing.”

It is also the name of the detention centre’s solitary confinement prison. Never shown in the film, different detainees describe the experience: deprived of food, kept alone, threatened with rape and assault by security guards. The ironies here prove too much for Arash. “They are using the Manusian identity to torture refugees. Why would you use the word ‘Chauka’ for solitary confinement, when it is the most important bird for the people of Manus?”

The process of creating the film was painfully slow. “Lots of people think that it was just this really brave person who sent me shots to edit. But it was a really strong relationship with Behrouz and I,” says Arash. “I think ‘Chauka’ is the result of deep understanding between us,” Behrouz agrees. “And if we could not understand each other so well we could not have created this movie.”

The pair used Whatsapp to send low quality shots from Manus, often taking hours. “I know it’s hard for people to imagine what I mean when I say the internet is too slow here,” Behrouz says. “I had to stay awake until the morning to find a time when the internet became good enough to talk with Arash and send some of the shots.”

Often, this meant Behrouz would have to travel into the island’s central town to gain internet access. This exercise was dangerous for Behrouz, as it is not safe for refugees outside of the camp following several refugees being beaten by locals. “The local people, if you go as a tourist, are really lovely people. But Manusians are afraid of refugees, they aren’t welcome,” says Arash.

“Sometimes I had to try for a month to take a special shot and sometimes I did not feel safe while I was filming,” says Behrouz, but he also admits that “fear is part of his work.”

“If the system knew I was making a movie, it would have made trouble for me, and that was very hard,” he says. This hasn’t changed since the film was released, with worries of backlash from the security guards that control daily life for detainees; “at this moment when I’m talking with you I don’t feel safe in this island.”

For Arash now, who speaks fondly of the admittedly “weird friendship” that he has developed with Behrouz over Whatsapp, it is difficult to comprehend that Behrouz is still detained on Manus. The experience of showing the movie without his collaborator, he explains, is bizarre. For once he seems lost for words. “It is really, really nasty that he can’t have this experience. How can the government do this to a person? It is his right to be there with me. I still don’t believe it,” he says.

Chauka is difficult to watch. To be, in any way, an accurate representation of life on Manus, it needs to be. Very few Australians know anything about day-to-day life in detention and the long-term psychological torture inflicted by the place is not something that can be easily condensed into current affairs specials. Undoubtedly, detainees have suffered from the constant campaigns that seek to obscure stories like Behrouz’s.

Behrouz remains cynical that the documentary will create change in Australia.

“While we were working on the project we weren’t working to change the policy,” he says. “We knew that already seven refugees had died in the islands, and international human rights organisations had published their reports showing Australia’s violations of human rights, but nothing changed.”

The effect the film will have is no longer dependent on Behrouz or Arash, but on those who watch it. “Australia does not want to accept that it is violating human rights and is deliberately sleeping,” says Behrouz. “But this movie will remain in Australian history. We made it as a record.”