Mary Meets Mohammad
Review by Nigel Tapp
Mary Meets Mohammad is not simply another documentary demanding an end to indefinite mandatory detention for asylum seekers in Australia. What it shows is that, with time and access to the true facts, prejudices can be beaten and opponents turned into supporters. Armed with the truth, many people are willing to question the way we treat those who seek asylum.
The 81-minute documentary – by Hobart filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick – centres on a young asylum seeker, Mohammad, and his friendship with Mary, a pensioner. They meet when Mary’s local knitting group begins visits to Tasmania’s first detention centre at Pontville, just outside Hobart.
There were very strong feelings in the community when it was announced that asylum seekers would be housed at Pontville.
Opposition built around hysteria whipped up by various media outlets and right-wing commentators. Half-truths quickly became accepted as facts.
Despite Mary’s objections, the local knitting group decided to make beanies for the male asylum seekers. Mary, 71, could be considered typical of her generation. She also reflects a view not uncommon within the wider Australian community.
A committed Christian, Mary spent most of her life in rural and regional Australia and collected some prejudices on the way.
She had heard all the untruthful stories about the “cushy” ride asylum seekers get from the federal government – “housing, bucket loads of money and even cars,” she opined. Quite frankly, Mary had no time for them.
Mary could not accept Afghan men were fleeing to Australia, when Australian soldiers were dying in the defence of their country. In her view that made them cowards. While admitting she had never met a Muslim, Mary expected them to be “a pack of heathens”.
If the knitting group wanted to make beanies for the men that was fine, but Mary was not going to be involved.
Mary agreed to accompany three other knitters to deliver the first lot of beanies to the men and hears Mohammad’s story. She is moved by it and begins to look at the whole issue in a new light. Mohammad is a Hazara – the ethnic minority in Afghanistan often targeted by the Taliban – and had lived with his family illegally in the Quetta region of Western Pakistan for more than two decades.
The family opened a shoe store but one day Taliban supporters came and shot his two eldest brothers and warned that anyone who did business in the shop would suffer the same fate. Mohammad’s family knew it was time for him to leave.
For more than 18 months Mohammad was bounced from detention centre to detention centre, as far west as WA and south to the outskirts of Hobart.
Mary begins to see Mohammad as just another person, even if she is still a bit wary of his beliefs. She comes to acknowledge that he and his friends deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
Putting them behind wire is not the answer. Caging humans is just not humane, she argues, only a few weeks after describing them as heathens. It is ironic how disgusted Mary becomes with some fellow pensioners on a bus trip when they begin to express the same racist views she had demonstrated at the beginning of the documentary.
When Mohammad is released into the community, their relationship continues as he visits Mary’s home to help with the gardening. Mohammad is also happy to cook a meal for Mary and her friend Joy, proudly telling them that he has been taking lessons over the telephone from his wife.
Mary admits that the entire experience was one she needed to have so she could really understand the difficulties asylum seekers face.
“I never imagined any of these people from Afghanistan would have come into my house,” she said.
“I have grown to think a lot of them and them of me.”
One of the most telling parts of the documentary comes near the end. Mary tells Mohammad she initially refused to knit any beanies for the asylum seekers, much to her shame. With that she hands her friend a blue beanie she has knitted.
That was touching enough, but it is followed by Mohammad’s remark that it is the first gift he has received in detention.
Anyone interested in hosting a screening or who would like to find out the screening schedule can visit http://www.marymeetsmohammad.com/ or can search Mary Meets Mohammad on Facebook.