a Down Under
"Film-makers Tahir Cambis (Exile in Sarajevo, Sydney Film Festival 1997) and Helen Newman's brand-new documentary is a free-wheeling expansive study of democracy, western civilisation and the relationship between America and Australia."
"The film also analyses the intersecting of Australia's refugee policy and the war on terror. It poses a plethora of questions: What does it mean to be an Australian? Where is our global respect for humanity and human rights?"
"It looks at the relationship between the media and money, nationalism and government, and how fear was used to change election outcomes. ANTHEM spreads the parameters of its context around the globe--Afghanistan, America and Australia and back again."
"This film will incite indignation, shame, anger and sadness. It will also nurture compassion, caring, and hopefully a conscience for those who would benefit from finding one. ANTHEM doesn't just shake the fence, it completely destroys it." (From the Sydney Film Festival website)
"ANTHEM doesn't just shake the fence, it completely destroys it"
Channel Nine Movie Guide ANTHEM - A feature length documentary exploring the story of refugees seeking asylum in Australia at a time of global crisis, hardening government policy and public fear and uncertainty. Through this exploration the film poses the broader question of where Australia is heading in the 21st century.
Politics or prejudice
Should we worry that some of Australia's documentary makers are eschewing any notion of objectivity? Gabriella Coslovich reports on a trend with old roots.
There was no doubting one viewer's response to the Australian documentary ANTHEM at Melbourne's recent film festival. Moved by the sprawling film's angry cry against the war on Iraq and the Howard Government's treatment of asylum seekers, a man stood up at the end of the screening and asked, "but what can we do?"
His frustration was palpable. The documentary had so touched the Melbourne web designer that he decided to offer his services to the filmmakers free. "I have a two-and-a-half- year-old son and I can't see any reason why he gets to have a happy life, and that's fine, but there are children behind bars, in detention centres . . . it just makes no sense to me," Minty Hunter later told The Age.
If the numerous sighs, tut-tutting and shaking heads were any indication, Hunter wasn't the only person affected by ANTHEM's assessment of the Howard years. With American filmmaker Michael Moore's barefaced attempt to blow George Bush out of the White House monopolising the spotlight, it has been easy to overlook the homegrown documentaries that match Moore's polemic zeal, if not always his humour, nor box-office cachet.
Armed with digital cameras and a passion to expose the human rights abuses perpetrated in the name of war, border protection and patriotism, Australian filmmakers such as ANTHEM's Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman make no apologies for personalising politics.
"(The film) is a call to arms on all political fronts," says Cambis, who wants to stimulate debate about Australia's future. "Who the hell are we and what kind of democracy do we believe in?"
Like Fahrenheit 9/11, ANTHEM disregards notions of objectivity. Cambis, who made the Emmy award-winning Exile in Sarajevo, and Newman, a political activist who is new to film, leave no doubts about their agenda. New York's Variety magazine described the film as a "kind of Down Under Fahrenheit 9/11".
With lines such as this, it's easy to see why: "In the '80s he warned of an Asian invasion, in the '90s he warned of an Aboriginal land grab, now the perfect enemy - Muslim invaders." No prizes for guessing to whom Cambis is referring.
To many, such blatant partisan political statements would distance ANTHEM from the documentary tradition. Yet, that "tradition" has never been limited by notions of objectivity. Styles vary from the personal exposes of Australian filmmaker Dennis O'Rourke, who puts himself firmly, sometimes explosively, in the story (The Good Woman of Bangkok), to the propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will.
"No one is going to look at ANTHEM and think they're getting a balanced perspective. But they're not getting a balanced perspective from the newspaper or television either," says human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, who appears in the documentary.
Newman and Cambis in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Picture: Supplied
"Newspaper and television reports of the refugee issue, in my opinion, are grotesquely skewed to the Government line," he says. The unbalanced coverage justifies opinionated filmmaking that challenges prevailing views, he argues. "I would be upset if people discussing the imprisonment of innocent people did not have a strong point of view. Film is the medium of today and the documentary is an interesting and effective mode of discussion. It's the new forum for ideas. Anything that helps restore a level of public discourse is desirable."
But others are not convinced documentaries that present a strong political argument to the point of inciting action, advance anyone's understanding of world affairs or encourage insightful debate.
"If you see yourself as a side of the defence or prosecution in an argument, I wonder how much of a difference you really do make," says the ABC's respected Chris Masters, a reporter with Four Corners for the past 21 years. "The reporting that does have an impact on world affairs is reporting that is fair and balanced.
"We have no choice but to be accurate," says Masters. "We may need to defend what we say in a court of law. As a professional journalist I accept the responsibility to try to understand the facts and to be fair and objective. It often mitigates against good story-telling . . . the difference between a good storyteller and a con-man can be very slight.
"One of the things I wonder about when I see Mike Moore's documentaries is . . . are they about informing the public, or are they pandering to the public's prejudices?"
Masters was reporting on human rights abuses in the country's detention centres back in March 2000, before the issue had become a major media topic. One of his stories, A Well Founded Fear of Persecution, aired on the ABC three months before detainees stormed the fenceline of the Woomera detention centre.
Yet there is a widespread perception that the mainstream media have let us down, and that journalists, even those aiming for balance and accuracy, are failing to make an impact - or being drowned out by right-wing voices with regular pulpits in newspapers or radio.
Those who champion documentaries with a pointed message, argue that when economics matter more than morality, filmmakers who seek to personalise the fate of asylum seekers or question the wisdom of a "war on terror", play an important role.
To some, balance is not a paramount concern - as long as filmmakers are aiming for an emotional truth, present a coherent argument and do not distort facts. For those who are passionate about social justice, impartiality isn't an option. Curtis Levy, who co-directed the timely The President Versus David Hicks with Bentley Dean, sees nothing incongruous about documentary makers having a strong point of view.
"We both have a strong sense of social justice and that's why we deplore what's happened with David Hicks, and that's why we are at odds with the Australian and American governments, who don't believe in social justice. But I would not say that that's a lack of balance. I would just say that that's a different set of values."
Tom Zubrycki, whose poignant documentary about asylum seekers, Molly and Mobarak, was initially banned from screening at Parliament House late last year, agrees. "Very few Australian filmmakers have very, very strong opinions that they convey through documentaries in a polemical fashion," he says. "In that sense, Tahir (Cambis) is closer to Moore than any other Australian documentary maker. There is nothing wrong with strong opinionated work, there should be more of it."
Making documentaries in Australia is not for the faint-hearted - the $6 million budget spent on a film such as Fahrenheit 9/11 is unheard of. ANTHEM was made for $300,000, The President Versus David Hicks for $385,000, and Clara Law's Letters to Ali, which has a cinema release next month, was entirely self-funded and relied on the support of friends, such as composer Paul Grabowsky, who gave their services free.
"Probably 95 per cent of Australian documentaries rely largely on government funding, which would make it very difficult for anybody to make a Mike Moore-style film in Australia, unless they were able to get the kind of independent funding that Moore has," says Levy.
"I don't think there is a resurgence of the political documentary in Australia, not compared to a few years ago. I think there has been a certain intimidation, particularly at the ABC. It used to be much braver in terms of showing certain documentaries."
Filmmakers are particularly nervous about an issue that has received significant coverage on Media Watch recently , involving the ABC's refusal to sell footage of politicians including Peter Reith and John Howard commenting on the children overboard affair and the refugee issue, without first gaining their approval.
The footage was not released to filmmaker Judy Rymer on the grounds that her documentary, Punished not Protected, was a partisan video, clearly making a political statement. Filmmakers see this as a dangerous precedent. While the ABC insists that such incidences are rare and that no pressure, political or otherwise, influenced the decision, Media Watch's executive producer Peter McEvoy believes it "smacks of bureaucrats being hypersensitive to the concerns of politicians".
Sometimes, it is the mainstream media that inspires filmmakers. The trigger for Clara Law's documentary Letters to Ali, which has been selected for the Venice and Toronto film festivals, was a long, heartfelt letter first published in The Age two years ago. The first-person piece, by Trish Kerby, recounts the correspondence she and her family had with a 15-year-old, unaccompanied Afghan boy, a detainee at the Port Hedland detention centre. Law was so moved by the article that she and husband Eddie Fong packed their DV camcorder and travelled 6000 kilometres through the vast Australian outback, following Kerby and her family on the long drive to Port Hedland to try to meet "Ali".
Their document of the journey and Ali's fate is quietly devastating.
Law's impulse to make Letters to Ali was a sense that something was not right in the lucky country. "Very simply, I was not happy with . . . the way the country had been dealing with the asylum seeker issue. It had been on my conscience for a while," says Law.
On the issue of objectivity, she simply says: "It is basically a lie to think that documentaries can just be objective."
Letters to Ali will be released nationally on September 23. ANTHEM was rejected by the ABC and SBS and has failed to find an Australian distributor.
 See the following Media Watch episodes:
Variety Magazine, New York USA
by RICHARD KUIPERS
A Down Under "Farenheit 9/11," ANTHEM places contemporary Australian political and human rights issues under the microscope and doesn't like what it sees. Documakers Tahir Cambis and Helen Newman focus on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and argue the conservative government's immigration policies are directly related to its alignment with the U.S. in the war on terror. Still seeking a local distrib or broadcaster, ANTHEM should win slots in fests, perhaps prompting a local theatrical run in lead-up to Oz elections, expected before year's end.
Narrated in personal diary form by co-directors Cambis and Newman, pic unabashedly flies the flag of liberal humanism. But while it makes some disturbing observations, pic is too chaotically structured. Narration readily declares its single-minded approach to the subject matter, but overall impact would have benefited from responses by official solons. Still, ANTHEM is a timely docu that will generate discussion on vital topics and is sure to generate strong pro and con responses from audiences.
Filmed over three years, docu started as an inquiry on national identity and Australia's relationship with mother country England in the wake of the 2000 Sydney Olympic games and a 1999 referendum in which voters rejected the idea of an Australian republic. Events of 9/11 and subsequent commitment of Australian forces to Iraq shifted docu's focus to Australia-U.S. relations and the perceived impact of those ties on domestic immigration policy.
Cambis and Newman argue that mandatory detention of refugees and stringent, frequently protracted processing of new arrivals has provoked latent racism; and toughening up of border protection policies has permitted human rights violations to flourish under the cloak of national security. Most sensational charge leveled at Australian government is one of crimes against humanity, as determined by its own constitution.
Docu is most vital when taking up the cause of refugees awaiting the outcome of visa applications. Secretly filmed testimonies of families suffering effects of long-term separation and the suicide of an Iraqi detainee are edited with inflammatory intent alongside government reps expressing the official line of protecting the community from potential terrorist infiltration.
Fires of controversy are further stoked with eyewitness accounts of the deaths of 353 refugees on the boat SIEV X while en route from Indonesia to Australia in October 2001, and the failure of an official inquiry to explain the tragedy.
Catalog of domestic incidents and issues is guaranteed to raise eyebrows and temperatures on both sides of the political divide, but the film is made less effective by a surfeit of distractions. Docu travels to Kosovar refugee camps, post-war Afghanistan and the streets of Baghdad.
Although human interest stories in earthquake-ravaged Afghanistan carry undeniable emotional clout, a cohesive essay fails to emerge. Scattershot references to anti-globalization rallies, media manipulation and sundry other causes also clutter the picture. The unwieldy edit is clearly the legacy of too much information from too many spheres being crammed into the running time.
Mini-DV lensing is rough-and-ready, yet camera never fails to capture essentials and audio is crystal clear. Video reviewed was minus final color grading, sound mix and a few inserts of narration.