ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS
On an isolated island in the Indian Ocean, land crabs migrate in their millions from the jungle to the sea. The same jungle hides a high-security Australian detention centre where thousands of asylum seekers have been locked away indefinitely. Their only connection to the outside world is trauma counsellor Poh Lin Lee.
Located off the coast of Indonesia, the Australian territory of Christmas Island is inhabited by migratory crabs travelling in their millions from the jungle towards the ocean, in a movement that has been provoked by the full moon for hundreds of thousands of years.
Poh Lin Lee is a “trauma therapist” who lives with her family in this seemingly idyllic paradise. Every day, she talks with the asylum seekers held indefinitely in a high-security detention centere hidden in the island’s core, attempting to support them in a situation that is as unbearable as its outcome is uncertain.
As Poh Lin and her family explore the island’s beautiful yet threatening landscape, the local islanders carry out their “hungry ghost” rituals for the spirits of those who died on the island without a burial. They make offerings to appease the lost souls who are said to be wandering the jungles at night looking for home.
In the intimacy of her therapy sessions, as Poh Lin listens to the growing sense of despair of the people she counsels, she begins to feel the creeping dystopia reverberate through her own life.
ISLAND OF THE HUNGRY GHOSTS is a hybrid documentary that moves between the natural migration and the chaotic and tragic migration of the humans, which is in constant metamorphoses by the unseen decision-making structures.
Director, Writer, Producer: Gabrielle Brady
Cinematographer: Michael Latham
Sound Engineer: Leonardo Dolgan Vergas Hernandez
Editor: Katharina Fiedler
Composer: Aaron Cupples
Narrative Practice Consultant: Poh Lin Lee
Script Consultant: Lillah Halla
Francoise Von Roy
First AD: Zena Kells
Field Producer: Dani Yannoulis
Color Grade: Aline Biz
Editing Assistant/ Trailer edit: Iara Rodriguez Vilardebó
Producers: Alexander Wadouh (Chromosom Film)
Samm Haillay (Third Films)
Gizem Acarla (Various Film)
Co-Producer: Julia Niethammer
Comissioning Editor: Jutta Krug (WDR)
Screen Territory Australia
Get Up Fund
GABRIELLE BRADY (Director, Writer and Producer)
Gabrielle Brady is an Australian filmmaker who makes documentary and hybrid films. Gabrielle studied direction at the Cuban International Film School (EICTV), were she lived and made films for three years. Gabrielle has lived nomadically for the past ten years, traveling between Cuba, Mongolia, Indonesia, the Australian central desert and Europe. Her short film Island was commissioned as part of the Guardian documentary series and premiered at the 2017 Sheffield festival. Island Of The Hungry Ghosts is her first feature-length film.
As I write this, there are people I met years ago on Christmas Island, who are still being detained in one of Australia’s three offshore immigration detention centres – with no way of knowing when, or if, they will ever be released. Under the country’s border force law, it is illegal to arrive by boat to Australia and ask for refugee status. Those who attempt the journey are either intercepted at sea by the Navy and towed back to the country they arrived from, or they’re taken to one of these three remote islands and detained indefinitely.
The oldest and largest of these detention centres is on the Australian territory of Christmas Island.
During the years my good friend Poh Lin worked on Christmas Island as a trauma therapist with the people being detained, I would listen to her increasingly distressing stories of what she was experiencing. Poh Lin witnessed the changes from a time where families stayed together in the centres and were able to leave for day trips to see the island. After some months, eventually leaving for the mainland ready to begin their new lives.
But over the years, families were increasingly separated and taken to different centres. The day trips around the island stopped and eventually no one was allowed to leave the detention centre. What was once a few months on the island became years. Many of the people being held in the Christmas Island facility were transferred to other camps on Nauru or Papua New Guinea and exposed to worse conditions with no hope of ever making it to Australia. Poh Lin’s work as a therapist had morphed – she was now working with people who were inside of a new void, a new kind of nightmare. For the first time in her work, Poh Lin was witnessing her clients mentally deteriorating.
The process of making this film took over four years. And with the trust of Poh Lin, the people seeking asylum and the locals of Christmas Island, we have reflected back on what has happened on this remote island at a time when no one was watching.
Island of the Hungry Ghosts is also a story about Christmas Island itself; one of the last discovered places on earth. A land with no original inhabitants. Where the ancient natural migrations are a reminder of a long past and an imagined future. A place where the deep and untamed jungles are populated with hungry ghosts, wandering at night, searching for home.
– Gabrielle Brady
Best Documentary Feature @ Tribeca Film Festival 2018
Buyens-Chagoll Award @ Visions du Réel 2018
Best Documentary film @ Valletta Film Festival
Special Mention @ Edinburgh IFF
Best Documentary @ Crested Butte FF 2018
Flinders University Feature Documentary Award @ Adelaide FF 2018
Prix SMART @ Festival des Libertés 2018
Grand Jury Prize for the International Competition @ Mumbai FF 2018
Amsterdam Human Rights Award @ IDFA 2018
Best Documentary @ SAE ATOM Awards 2018
Prix spécial du Jury @ FIFO Tahiti 2019
Special Mention from the Movies That Matter Jury @ ZagrebDox 2019
Best Director - Documentary @ Ozflix Independent Film Awards 2019
Best Cinematography @ Ozflix Independent Film Awards 2019
Best Editing @ Ozflix Independent Film Awards 2019
Best Sound Design @ Ozflix Independent Film Awards 2019
Best Documentary @ Ozflix Independent Film Awards 2019
"There aren’t many documentaries quite like The Island Of The Hungry Ghosts. From director Gabrielle Brady comes this look at an isolated island in the Indian Ocean, that’s home to a pair of bewildering sights. Best known as the home of millions of land crabs and their migration from land to sea, the island is also home to a detention center for thousands of men and women who are seeking asylum, only to be held with no end in sight. The center of this documentary is trauma counselor Poh Lin Lee, whose therapy sessions become the film’s central emotional core. With profound spirituality on the periphery in the form of “hungry ghost” rituals that see the natives performing for the dead who have gone without “proper” burial, Island of the Hungry Ghosts is one of the year’s most impressively made documentaries, a film that’s as occasionally surreal as it is persistently moving. The cinematography is absolutely top tier, which plays heavily into the film’s overarching mood and sense of atmosphere. A contemplative, melancholic documentary looking at the balance between beauty and despair, Hungry Ghosts is a true discovery from this year’s Tribeca slate."
SEVEN FILMS YOU NEED TO SEE AT THIS YEAR’S TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL
by Joshua Brunsting II APRIL 18, 2018
"The best documentary award goes to a film that demonstrates extraordinary mastery of the full symphonic range of cinematic tools: cinematography, editing, score, sound design and, perhaps greatest of all, an exquisite use of metaphor. To a film that moved us deeply, impressed us immensely and made us feel we were witnessing nothing less than the emergence, fully formed, of a major new cinematic talent, we are thrilled to award the best documentary award to Island of the Hungry Ghosts."
“Gorgeous… [A] beautifully rendered portrait of an alien landscape… Reality is suspended and in its place Brady’s surrealist dreamscape, shot breathtakingly by Michael Latham, becomes an all-encompassing tribunal on man’s inhumanity to man in a clandestine landscape filled with lost spirits.” ?
BY Pamela Cohn
“Beautifully shot by cinematographer Michael Latham… Such are the luscious images that the film at times feels more like fiction than documentary. The mixture of aesthetic, subject, island location and narrative arc echo the work of Berlin Golden Bear winner Gianfranco Rosi and his Fire at Sea… Affecting and haunting.”
“With profound spirituality… Island of the Hungry Ghosts is one of the year’s most impressively made documentaries, a film that’s as occasionally surreal as it is persistently moving. The cinematography is absolutely top tier, which plays heavily into the film’s overarching mood and sense of atmosphere. A contemplative, melancholic documentary looking at the balance between beauty and despair, Hungry Ghosts is a true discovery.”
by Joshua Brunsting
“A tapestry of ideas about freedom or the lack of it… Brady’s camera is respectful, hanging back and letting these people speak for themselves… The sense of isolation is enhanced by Aaron Cupples’ otherworldly, experimental score… The effect is eerie and the tone befitting the film’s themes and the island’s essential wildness. Brady doesn’t want us to feel good, she wants us to feel the connection. She succeeds.” (????? out of 5) ?
EYE FOR FILM
by Amber Wilkinson
“There is a true ruminative beauty here in Brady’s impressionistic portrait of this haunted island out of time.”
by Chris Barsanti
“A documentary overflowing with empathy, poetry, and elemental power.”
by Hubert Vigilla
“The magic of documentary filmmaking comes alive in this film… A thunderstorm of sensation… A powerful statement.”
by Briana Atkins
“A mesmerizing, elliptical work of cinematic wonder, filled with breathtaking images, the whole an evocative setting for a vital discussion of human rights… Announces a great new cinematic talent from whom we should all hope to see more in the future.”
FILM FESTIVAL TODAY
by ?Christopher Llewellyn Reed
"A visually rich and lyrical setting. It uses a special hybrid film making setting - that takes us in to a dark world and leaves us wanting to dig deeper ourselves by the end of the film. The film is a moving and intimate look at those searching for safety."
MUMBAI FILM FESTIVAL JURY
"new images open our hearts and minds in unexpected ways, and Island of the Hungry Ghosts does exactly that with more force than a dozen preachy agit-prop documentaries ever could. Highly recommended.“
by Doug Dillaman