The condition of the documentary: that it is about the past. To take one example, a comment made on Twitter regarding Australia’s concentration camps voicing the (messianic) hope that ‘one day’ there will be a documentary about all this – one in which the audience hears survivors interviewed, relating the horror of that time past, which is now. But surely this expectation arises only after a lulling, decades-long rhythm of Saturday night World War Two documentaries, and that another condition – a tradition – of the documentary is to leap Yves Klein-like into the dangerous now, into the thing that is everywhere and yet invisible. Except that nowhere is invisible anymore because everyone carries around a film camera in their pocket, and this knowledge is the tenderly constructed shiv at the heart of this film.
Is it integral to the documentary that it circle around an absent centre – the elegised subject or recalcitrant interviewee – that it rehearse the story about not getting the story – or is this merely a convention, like a put-on accent? The absences facing the film Chasing Asylum are the militarised environment of the remote prisons, the enforced media blackout, the criminalisation (two years gaol) of whistleblowing, and the government’s silence and evasion. And yet the film shows that the government has overextended itself in trying to draw a veil of silence over the entire South Pacific. It has failed, and the people involved know, even if they don’t know how to end what is happening. The dejection of those imprisoned is as if Dutton, in an act of massive, transnational narcissism, were trying to reduce the population of the camps to a state as evacuated of creativity and life-energy as himself.
The film makes an ending (to what is, let’s face it, institutionalised psycopathy) more thinkable. The view that the documentary is only ever retrospective or recuperative, that it cleanly parcels off the past, is a conservative one. It is the glints of truth that remain: the metal fencing that surrounds the prisons (and which seems at the centre or the edges of almost every shot from inside), with spaces just too small to insert a finger or toe to thereby climb (someone designed this). Just seeing these for a few minutes in a film made me enraged; even a solid stone wall of the nineteenth century variety, it seems, would be less cruel.
‘There will be documentaries made about this.’ Indeed. But conceiving of the documentary in this way delimits its power to the talking head remembrance and the archival footage, to the (relatively) comfortable retrospective position after the ideologies have changed and these wretched camps have been dismantled. This film is an extremely artful attack move. It is a documentary that knows it is in history, not outside of or beyond it.
– scribbled 31/5/16