A Refugee Drama
Updated: Dec 3, 2018
A film by the Australian government aimed at preventing refugees from coming by boat reflects the soft power of television drama.
A longer version of this post, titled "The Nineteenth Language," was originally published in Mercer Street: Essays From The Expository Writing Program, 2016-2017; NYU College of Arts & Sciences Press.
In the early years that followed America’s invasion of Afghanistan, when the Taliban’s defeat seemed imminent and the country’s freedom ensured, before it was our longest war and when there was hope in the region, Saad Mohseni, an Afghani entrepreneur who had been living as a refugee in Australia, returned to his country to launch Tolo TV, one of its first television networks. He had hoped that television, illegal since 1996, would liberalise his country. Though in a nation at war, where advertising revenue can’t pay the high costs of small-screen drama, Saad Mohseni turned to foreign governments, who saw soft power in television production.
There are now television networks that are almost completely dependent on foreign aid funding. Shows like “Eagle Four,” a thirteen-part, action series released in 2010, which hoped to give a much needed facelift to the Afghani National Police, are funded by the U.S. embassy. Production investment comes with the condition that the shows carry messages that the financing countries deem good for Afghanistan—like democracy, women’s rights, and national unity—or good for themselves. They aim to change attitudes by appealing to emotions rather than force.
In 2015, the Australian government paid an Afghan media company $6 million to make a film that would never be shown in Australia. Instead, it would be distributed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Indonesia—countries from which the majority of refugees to Australia flee. The film, Journey: The Movie, begins with Arab men and women dreaming of a rich and distant Australia, follows them as they pay people-smugglers to get them there, and ends with a sinking boat. The Australian government staked its money on a telemovie it hoped would deter them from ever coming.
Watch the film to the end and you see them drown. One by one, see them disappear into the ocean below. A mother, holding tightly onto her son, flails to remain afloat. A young man named Nadeem swims over to help them. He reaches them, holds onto their bodies until, slowly, the mother dies.
The image fades to black, then back again. Nadeem is alone, buoyed by a child’s life vest around the lifeless son. The boy was only three or four, his hair had a youthful wave; he wore a red flannelette shirt, blue jeans and white Velcro sneakers. He looked eerily similar to Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach only six months before the film’s Afghan debut in late March 2016. In the photo, Aylan wore a bright red top, blue shorts and Velcro sneakers about the size of my palm—I could have held his whole body along the length of my arm.
This dead boy, captured by Turkish photojournalist Nilüfer Demir’s, made his way into newspapers and onto tables as parents ate breakfast, was imbedded online, shared and retweeted, and ended his long journey in front of the eyes of world leaders. Despite a barrage of statistics that outlined the over 2,400 refugees who had fled countries like Syria and drowned on the Mediterranean in the months before the picture was taken, it was Aylan and the emotional truth of his death that humanised their plight and rallied people’s attention.
It made them—people, presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, and religious leaders—sad, they said. It’s time to do something about the deaths at sea, they added.
The day after the photo of Aylan was released, Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister of Australia at the time, noting that his government had already solved the problem, offered veiled advice to European leaders:
If you want to stop the deaths, if you want to stop the drownings you have got to stop the boats… We saw yesterday on our screens a very sad, poignant image of children tragically dead at sea in illegal migration… Thankfully, we have stopped that in Australia because we have stopped the illegal boats.
When the Labor Party was in government between 2007 and 2013, before being defeated by the Tony Abbott’s conservative Liberal National Coalition, around 1,100 asylum seekers drowned en-route to Australia. Since the Coalition’s election, only three have drowned. Abbott, through a series of varied policies and border protection measures, had indeed “stopped the boats” and refugees are no longer dying in Australian waters.
Journey was made to stop the boats before they even leave. It changed the context of Aylan’s inescapable heart-aching and inverted its message; the death of a little, refugee child becomes not a call to Western action, but to refugee inaction. At a Senates Estimates Committee hearing, the head of Australia’s border protection operation aimed at preventing the maritime arrival of refugees, Major-General Andrew Bottrel, explained that the film was a small component of a “very comprehensive strategic communications campaign." The campaign is designed, the Major-General continued, “to, essentially, deliver four streams of messaging, highlighting the realities of hazardous sea journeys.”
Projects would be delivered in eighteen different languages to achieve their maximum potential in source and transit countries. Only Australians who understand Arabic, Dari, Farsi, Pashto, or Urdu would be able to fully grasp the film’s message—but that message was never intended to influence Australians. My government created a film in the languages that potential refugees would understand. Not only did the characters come from their countries, they looked like them, shared similar stories and spoke in their voice.
On March 30th, 2016, I signed my name to a Freedom of Information request for an English-language transcript of Journey: The Movie. As a result of many similar requests, the government conceded. One scene, now translated, stood out. Three nights before their little boat sank, the mother holds her young son’s hand and tells him a bedtime story of a crab who, each morning, watches a heron carry excited fish to a very “special pond” nearby. But when the heron would take too long and come back with a full stomach, the crab became worried. The fish, it turned out, would never make it to the pond; they’d always be eaten along the way.
Most Australian’s, who don’t know the language, wouldn’t understand the mother’s story as a metaphor for the hopelessness of refugees putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers. But it didn’t matter to the film’s intended audience that most Australians were excluded; to those potential asylum seekers who might recognise themselves in the characters, Journey’s message was one of inclusion and empathy: This could be you.
It is so easy to watch Journey, to read the radio plays and the graphic novels that came before it, and think of empathy as a natural by-product of witnessing people plagued by misfortune—not realising that empathy had been carefully constructed. In its strategy of deterrence, my government wasn’t just emphasising empathy, they were doing their best to control it.
When Trudi-Ann Tierney, an Australian filmmaker, was contacted to make Journey: The Movie, she had been living and working in Kabul for sometime. After Saad Mohseni left Australia and began putting together Aghanistan’s first soap opera, “The Secrets of This House,” Tierney was asked to work on it. “I suddenly got this vision of a wild frontier,” she tells Richard Fidler in an interview on the ABC. “I kinda romanticised the whole thing.” She soon became the Head of Drama, through which she oversaw foreign government funded “positive messaging.”
“Propaganda you mean?” Fidler butts in.
“Yeah, basically propaganda,” she replies. She continues:
I always thought of propaganda as a very dirty word until I started peddling good, positive propaganda... When you’re preaching about the dangers of making homemade bombs and, you know, women’s rights, that’s propaganda according to the Taliban.
Tierney separated the political message and its interpretation from what she saw as an objectively empathetic one. “This is about people, not politics,” she has said. But it is politics. Journey was commissioned by Australia’s immigration department. Its entire interpretation was predetermined by a government fixated on “anti-refugee” politicking.
It is impossible to separate the political context that created Journey from that which launched the invasion in Afghanistan and militarized Western immigration policies: the modern War on Terror. Three days after then Liberal Prime Minister John Howard introduced mandatory offshore detention of refugees on September 8, 2001, the 9/11 terrorist attacks compounded Australian maritime-refugee policy—which predominantly affected Muslim asylum seekers—with terrorist panic.
“The Lucky Prime Minister,” an article published two months later in Asia Week, notes Australia’s burgeoning exploitation of national security and border protection:
Howard was in Washington on Sept. 11, when the two airliners struck New York's World Trade Center. Just minutes after the atrocity, he addressed a press conference called to hear his report on talks with President George W. Bush... Suddenly, Howard has become leader of a nation at war and a man considered able and willing to protect Australia's shores from any Afghanistan-fuelled invasion of refugees.
Terrorists emerged as the new enemy, one whose boundaries and movements were as imprecise as the modern, Arab refugee. America put potential terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. Australia put refugees in Naura and Manus Island, mandatory, off-shore detention facilities. Both were torture.
In response to Prime Minister Howard’s 2001 militant posturing of refugee policy, then Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, resisted only one proposal. Voicing concern, while also acting as a mouthpiece for bipartisanship, Mr Beazley refused to support a bill that would render “lawful even the murder of an asylum seeker by an Australian official." Howard seized the opportunity and painted the Opposition as soft on border security. The Liberal party, doomed to be defeated in the November federal election, stuck to their fear-stoking convictions, spoke in one unified voice to regain the trust of the Australian people, and won in a landslide.
In Journey, I watched the faces of scared refugees on a rickety boat look out across the vast emptiness of the ocean ahead and dream of Australia, not as invaders, but as human beings with aspirations uncrushed by brutality. “It’s beautiful,” says Nadeem, whose only possession is a guitar his grandfather gave him. All he wants to do when he gets to Australia is become a musician.
Nadeem’s is a face and a voice that I understand, but that runs so contrary to the culture of fear and indifference that I am used to from my country. “It’s scary,” another refugee tells Nadeem as they survey the horizon, faded like a mirage. “I can’t swim.” When they drown, I am not encouraged to stop their boat, I am not heartened that my Navy, inspired by America’s, is now turning them back; I feel how many felt when little Aylan’s boat sank, his brother and mother died, and he washed up on a lonely beach; I feel like we could have helped but didn’t. Who knew that a movie made to deter asylum seekers would make me want to have them even more?
In Journey: The Movie, Trudi-Ann Tierney offered more nuance than Australian politicians were ever willing to acknowledge. She adopted, at once, the voices of the refugees wanting to come and the politicians telling them to stay. The film told a truth my politicians had failed to concede: that the people we don’t want coming to our country—be it from moral grandstanding or fear of an Arab invasion—are indeed people.
And yet I am still left with the nagging feeling that an image of a dying child and even more dying adults taken by journalists or recreated by Australian filmmakers doesn’t amount to refugees having their own voices heard. Tierney was just another outsider, another foreign influence dictating the airways, controlling an empathy that wasn’t her own. She created fake people with real problems, which did nothing to help the autonomy of the refugees suffering in Australia’s mandatory, off-shore detention facilities in Nauru and Manus Island: the musicians, the doctors, the happy and the hopeless.
Evidence suggests that “soft power” programming has not affected the reach and effect of the Taliban in Afghanistan, who have gained ground in recent years. By all accounts, this season of war has been one of the worst. Money, media, safety, elections, and peace had been provided by foreigners, and now many are failing as thousands of people continue to flee to countries that don’t want them. Saad Mohseni was able to leave. And so too did Trudi-Ann Tierney.
Television remains in Afghanistan, though mostly it is foreign-made or reality TV, the type of “reality” that distracts from real-life and is cheaper to produce than drama.