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Behind the documentary that made it out of Manus

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Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time is a film that breaks the silence. Shot on a phone and smuggled out of Manus Island detention centre via slow internet connection intermittently, it is the product of a collaboration between detained journalist Behrouz Boochani and Netherlands-based Iranian filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani.

Chauka is an unprecedented work, not only because of the circumstances surrounding its clandestine execution, but also because the final product is more than an explosive exposé. The directors' shared love of film minimalism, in combination with the insight afforded by Behrouz's own lived experience in the centre, has resulted in an intimate and poetic call to action to end to off-shore detention.

Behrouz spoke to us from the detention centre in May.

Chauka is a native bird and a symbol of Manus Island. It is also the name of the solitary confinement section of the detention centre. Even though this confinement is now closed, the name still evokes fear and anguish in all the refugees of Manus. Why did you choose this symbol to be the title of the film?

First I want to say that Chauka is not only a bird or the name of a solitary confinement unit. Chauka is a concept, and it’s a culture. This is a deep and fundamental concept for understanding the movie. We deliberately made it with Chauka as the structure and narrative. I think that this narrative is the strongest part of the film.

We are saying that there are two kinds of Chauka. In the thinking of local people Chauka is beautiful and it’s their identity. They love this bird and this culture and are living every day with this concept. But the prisoners think Chauka is equal to torture and suffering. We wanted to put these two Chaukas on the table to let people choose one of them. Be sure that people will love the beautiful Chauka not the ugly one. It’s the reality of being human that we choose beauty not ugliness.

But from a political perspective we can see how the politicians and Australian government are using this island and the beauty of this island for their own political aims. We can see that the thinking of the Australian government is still based on colonialism because they used the name of the beautiful Chauka for a place to torture people. In other words Australia is destroying the Chauka concept and customs for its own political ends. But there is more to find out in this movie. It has different layers based on philosophical, cultural and political understandings. It’s not a simple movie.

In the film the flow of time is marked by recurring images. A kitten who visits you in the detention centre, the eyes and smiles of Manus Island’s children seen behind the bars, your feet leaning on the bars. The silence in particular reveals with deafening power the torture of living in a detention centre. Why did you decide not to present scenes of violence?

I have been living in this prison for four years and have experienced different kinds of torture. I have witnessed a lot of bloody nights and violence, including self-harming and beatings of refugees by security guards. But, after a long conversation, Arash (Co-director Arash Kamali Sarvestani) and I decided to focus on the main kind of torture which is torturing people with the concept of time. We could have included some footage of violence in the movie but we decided it was not the story we wanted to tell.

The refugees don't know how many years they have to stay in this prison because the imprisonment is unlimited and indeterminate. Arash and I wanted to focus on this indeterminate time, and we decided the best way for us to do that was with the Chauka bird. This special bird sits everyday on a coconut tree and sings, and the local people compose their daily life with its singing. When the Chauka is singing the local people know what time it is.

Also the Chauka in Manusian culture is known as a bird that can talk with people, and the elders interpret its songs. The bird has the ability to make predictions, and the elders know what Chauka is saying about the future. So in the film we focus on Chauka not only as a bird but also as a custom and a cultural concept through which we can explain how hard it is to be in prison for an unlimited time. The custom around Chauka has this capacity to describe our situation.

Why did we refuse to use shots of violence? Because we believe in a kind of cinema that uses silence as a main element. I believe in a kind of cinema that takes people to a world where they have to think deeply. I don't believe in cinema where you have to provoke people by using action shots, or even music, to excite people or play with their feelings. I think that we don't have this right to play with the audience by using action shots or music.

In the documentary your voice and story are barely heard. The camera focuses rather on what you see, hear and perceive. What motivated this choice?

Actually the camera is my eyes and it's trying to take people to the lives of the refugees. It means the audience are with me and they can see the prison with me. I have lived with these shots for years and they are my understanding about life. For example, there is a shot in the movie where a butterfly is trying to go outside of the fences but it cannot find a way. This shot is a part of my life. A lot of times I experienced this.

When I was in Delta prison, which is one of the compounds inside the detention centre, every morning I would go near the fences and smoke there. Sometimes I could see a butterfly that was trying to go out. I would stay and smoke some cigarettes and watch the butterfly until it found its way to freedom. Sometimes for an hour I would just watch that butterfly. The movie is my life and I believe in a kind of cinema that describes life. I can say I experienced all of these shots and I only took shots from my life. For example, the cat behind the fences, or the time when I'm singing for the kids on the other side of the fence and they are dancing with my singing.

Sometimes I was waiting behind the wire to see the local kids, and I sang Kurdish songs for them. The kids were afraid to come close to the fences but when I was singing they would come closer, and sometimes they were dancing to Kurdish songs. It was amazing for me when I could see some kids from a different culture dancing to Kurdish music. It was an incredibly poetic moment for me. I was waiting to take this shot for more than a month because the kids would walk there near the fences only occasionally, but finally they came past and I could sing them these Kurdish songs.

I want to say that the movie is me watching this prison in a poetic way, and understanding there is some beauty even in the midst of the immense suffering around me. It's me sharing my life in a cinematic language.

What aspects of Manus Island’s detention centre have you explored through the camera of a mobile phone that you could not entirely capture through your work as journalist and writer?

I was working so hard as a journalist for about four years in this prison and am still working. During the same time, I have also worked with some film makers, making some short documentary films only for the media. I always say that the language of journalism is too weak to describe the reality in this prison. I know how hard it is to convey what it’s like here only as journalist. I felt that to give more sense of the experience of being imprisoned here it would be better to use a more artistic language, so I wanted to do some artistic works.

Both cinema and literature are very important and they can both describe human suffering. But they both produce different worlds. Cinema has magical elements. By taking footage inside the prison I felt it would create a different impact than if I described it in literature. For example, there is a scene in the movie where a young Kurdish man is singing when he is alone, and he is singing for Kurdistan, and conveying something about his life and his fate that he ended up in a prison like Manus. I think this scene is brilliant, or maybe I myself love it because I have a Kurdish background too. It would be very hard to describe a moment like that in literature. I, as a writer, don’t have the skill to do it. But for me cinema was a perfect language to share that moment.

There are a lot of musical scenes in the film and also dancing that we could convey in a cinematic language. I don’t believe in a kind of cinema that uses music just to provoke the audience. But the music in our movie is not like that, it is a part of life and it’s not fake music. That Kurdish guy is really singing and he is not singing for the movie. I knew that song for years and when he was upset I knew he was singing that song and I only recorded it. It’s the same with the scenes of locals dancing or the other songs in the film, and it’s the same with the father who is talking with his family. I only recorded those moments. Cinema in some ways has a magical power and I could use that to record these moments and create an artwork.

I imagine what we see in the documentary is only a fraction of the stories you filmed. How did you collaborate with Arash Kamali Sarvestani when editing the film and shaping it?

First I want to say that Arash was like a treasure for me and I always wonder how he can understand this prison so well. Even though he was in the Netherlands, Arash was living with the prisoners here, and is still living with us. He is a great artist because he was drowning in our lives in this prison and he could create this movie because of his deep imagination and understanding of what it is like.

During filming we had conversations for hours each day. We could understand each other well, and even though we have never met we were able to work together because of this understanding. For each shot Arash was with me. We talked about everything. For example, for the scene that shows the children dancing, Arash was with me at that time and we decided to take that shot together. Our relationship was deep and because of that we could think together and create together.

An amazing thing is that for a long time I was thinking about a name for the movie and I suggested some names to Arash. But at some stage he said ‘It’s better we name it “Chauka please tell us the time.”’ When I heard that I knew it was right, and that shows how well he understood this prison and the custom and significance of the Chauka bird. It means he could understand this prison and our lives here better than I could, even though I was living in this prison for years.

On the first day I talked to Arash we discovered that we both love Abas Kiarostami. And when I found out that Arash had worked with Kiarostami I felt that we had the power to do this project even in a very hard situation with only a phone. An important thing in our relationship was that every day I was learning from him. It’s valuable for me and shows we understand each other well.

What impact do you hope the documentary will have on the audience?

I hope that by watching this film people around the world and in Australia will know more about how the Australian government is torturing people in this remote island. The refugees are human beings, just the same as other people.

You can see some scenes in the movie where a father is talking with his wife on the phone. I hope that people understand this father and how hard it is for him to be separated from his wife and small baby. There are a lot of people like that man in Manus and Nauru.

Also I hope people watching this film think about Manusian culture, how beautiful it is and how kind they are, and how they are also victims under this system that is still based on colonialism. The movie’s message is about humanity and respecting different people and different cultures.

Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time will screen at ACMI on the 16, 17 and 18 June.

Co-director Arash Kamali Sarvestani will join the screenings for a Q&A session. We hope that Behrouz will also be able to join the Q&A session via Skype.