Freedom Stories is a collaborative documentary that explores the struggles and achievements of asylum seekers who arrived in Australia in 2001. Now Australian citizens, they have rebuilt their lives and are contributing to their new country.
Crosslight spoke with Freedom Stories director Steve Thomas about his motivations behind the documentary.
In 2002, Mr Thomas met refugees living at Woomera detention centre while filming his documentary Welcome to Woomera (2004). He soon discovered a common humanity that challenged much of the negative labelling he encountered in the media.
“They are very much ordinary people like ourselves, not the kind of threat to our security or ‘queue jumpers’ that asylum seekers tend to be presented as,” Mr Thomas said.
A decade after filming Welcome to Woomera, Mr Thomas embarked on a new project to examine what happened to the people detained at Woomera.
“I wanted to cover the subject from the point-of-view of resilience – how people have remade shattered lives and managed to pick up the pieces and start again,” he said.
Mr Thomas described Freedom Stories as “a bridge between the past and the present”. During the course of filming, it became apparent that most of the participants are still deeply affected by their experiences in detention. Because of this, he was eager to build trust with the participants and maintain a collaborative relationship with them.
“I regard my filmmaking as developing friendships with people. As you get to know them, you can discuss things more deeply,” he said.
“People call me a director, but I think that’s a bit of a misnomer in documentary filmmaking. You’re working with other people and it has to be a collaborative exercise.”
Mr Thomas said his aim was not to produce an overtly political film. He believes such films can potentially fall into the trap of “preaching to the converted”. Rather, he hopes to tell a human story and, in the process, challenge people’s existing preconceptions about asylum seekers.
“Once you get it down to the human level, it communicates to people no matter what their political position is on refugees,” he said.
“I’m trying to introduce these people to other Australians who have might never have met refugees or asylum seekers before. Once you meet someone, it’s hard to maintain prejudices against them.”
One story that stood out to Mr Thomas was that of Amir, a refugee from Iran who now works in real estate in Sydney. Of all the participants in the film, Amir was detained the longest, but he also smiled the most. Mr Thomas explained that presenting an optimistic outlook is perhaps one way of coping with the effects of trauma.
But at one point during filming, Amir’s smile broke down and the mental scars buried deep within began to surface.
“It’s very illustrative of experiences that people have gone through and the different ways they try to live with those experiences,” Mr Thomas observed.
“Some participants have to forget in order to move on, but others never want to forget, they want to remember so they can tell their children and not take things for granted.
“It’s a film about dealing with the past. If you can’t forget, then what do you do and how do you move ahead? It’s something we all experience, whether it’s losing a loved one or some trauma we’ve been through.”
It took Mr Thomas four years to complete Freedom Stories. During that time, Australia’s asylum seeker policies moved in a decidedly negative direction. While the participants in Freedom Stories were eventually resettled in the Australian community, the refugees currently detained on Manus Island and Nauru are trapped in a state of limbo.
“Although Freedom Stories is a story about people who came here over a decade ago, I think it’s a film that, unfortunately, is still very relevant,” Mr Thomas remarked.
“People in Manus and Nauru have been in detention for so long now that they’re starting to set themselves on fire. Not because they hope the government will change its policies and accept them, but because they don’t have any hope at all.
“Those people we locked up in 2001 – all those lessons were there for us to learn. We never learnt those lessons as a nation and now we’re doing it all again.”
Freedom Stories is a reminder that refugees are no different to ordinary Australians. They are people with hopes and aspirations. They are artists, teachers, mechanics and lawyers.
As both major political parties continue to treat refugees as political pawns, Freedom Stories offers a glimpse into a brighter and more positive future for people seeking asylum in this country.
Bayside Refugee Advocacy and Support Association will host a screening of Freedom Stories at St John’s Uniting Church in Elsternwick on 20 May at 6:30pm. It will include a light supper and post-film Q&A with Steve Thomas. Contact Geraldine on 0408512522 or firstname.lastname@example.org to register.