'For my Friends in Detention' doco aims to promote action

Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance member Zebedee Parkes short documentary film For my Friends in Detention has been selected for showing at film festivals around the world.

The film explores the impact refugee activism in Australia has on people on both sides of the fence. It draws upon several years of observational footage, including activist Sarah’s first experience of a detection centre and her relationship with Cali, a Tamil refugee.

Parkes spoke to We are Moving Stories about the film.

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What motivated you to make this film?

In early 2011 I joined a refugee convergence, called “The Caravan of Compassion” to Leonora Detention Centre in Western Australia, which is more than a day's drive from Perth. It was the first time I had seen a detention centre, refugee children waving over fences and guards intimidating them.

It was also Sarah’s first time protesting and visiting refugees at a detention centre. Sarah is one of the main characters in the documentary. I made a film of the convergence and since then have been filming the refugee rights campaign.

There are many amazing stories in the campaign, from the protests outside detention centres and people getting arrested for the first time, to the relationships formed between activists outside and refugees in detention.

Having filmed dozens of hours of protests, meetings and social events around the campaign I wanted to make a documentary. I wanted to make something more meaningful than just protest footage spliced together with fancy editing — a film that could tap into the stories of communities formed and the reasons that drive people to be involved for years on end. I hoped by doing so to inspire others to get active in the campaign.

Why should I watch this film?

There are a lot of films about refugees and the detention system in Australia. Many do a great job of exposing and provoking a reaction to the horrific conditions. But they rarely give audiences a sense of agency or hope that they can take actions that make a difference. It is not enough to know about and even disagree with the indefinite detention of refugees. You have to get active.

This film encourages people to get active as it tells the story of why activism is important on a personal level and how it can make a difference. If you ever wonder if it is worth getting active or the energy you put into social justice causes is worthwhile, you should watch this film.

How do personal and universal themes work in your film?

Love and friendship are core themes in this film. In many ways it is a love story, but the connection, the friendship, between people protesting outside and people in detention and how they inspire each other to keep going is at the core.

There are numerous stories of refugees post-detention, saying how activism outside and the connection with those activists was the thing that gave them hope. Activists who have spent years in the campaign often say the thing that keeps them going is the connections they have with people in detention. I really wanted to explore this in the film.

Because it is about refugees who are locked up indefinitely without charge or trial, the film obviously has overarching themes of freedom and justice. However, just telling someone it is an injustice, even if they agree with you, is still not enough to inspire people to get active. But showing the positive personal effects people's actions can have is really important.

How did the film evolve in its development and production?

From the get go I had a 12-minute time limit for the film, even though I probably had enough material to make a feature documentary.

Originally I did a few treatments on different angles and people in the campaign, with a focus on a group of activist students as an entry point to the larger campaign. In the end I don’t think I used a shot of the footage of refugee activism on campus.

One interview is with Cali, a Tamil refugee who knew how to tell a story. His story — from why he had to leave Sri Lanka, to the time he spent in Australia in detention and then when he was freed and became involved with the refugee activist groups — lasted more than two hours. Interviews with another two activists lasted about an hour each. On top of that I had footage of them speaking at rallies and doing vox pop interviews.

It was obvious there was way too much footage. I listened to all the interviews and wrote the key points on cards and put them on a corkboard. There were nearly 100 cards. Then it became a struggle to build a narrative out of all the footage and hours of interviews.

It was clear we needed a specific story of the campaign, so I cut away everything that was not contributing to that. From the start the relationship between Sarah and Cali, the love story, if you like, between an activist and a refugee was the story. We re-edited the second act of the film a few times before we got it right and I had to accept cutting pieces out that I really felt the film needed.

What feedback have you received so far?

Apart from one university lecturer, who did not like the fact we used music to influence emotions or that we used a chronological narrative structure as opposed to putting all the nice stuff first then the heavy stuff next, it has been mostly positive. I was initially worried it would not make sense to people not in the campaign, but they responded really well. Most people in Australia have some idea about refugees and detention, so they have a context to the place and the story.

Has the feedback challenged your point of view?

The film has played to supportive audiences — I’m not sure how it would go in front of people hostile towards refugees. But they are not the audience I’m looking for. I want to encourage people who are already concerned to get active, not change people’s minds on the issue.

What impact would you like this film to have?

I want people to become inspired to be a part of the refugee rights campaign. I don’t think it will spark a debate over whether detaining refugees is right or wrong — I think the audience watching this film are already convinced of that. Instead, I think the core question is can activism make a difference? Is it worth being involved in the refugee campaign?

[The full interview is available at We are Moving Stories.]

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