Who knew that a simple zoom out could be so heartbreaking? Iranian-Kurdish journalist and Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani, that's who. Secretly recording his indefinite detention in Papua New Guinea's controversial facility for asylum seekers, it's a filmmaking flourish he uses several times throughout Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time. Shooting his restrained surroundings on a mobile phone, his camera captures images both scenic and ordinary — a beach and a communal space, for example — only to then lurch backwards to reveal bars obscuring the view.
The statement Boochani makes with this stylistic choice might be obvious, but it's important. For the incarcerated, freedom and normality is so close and yet so far. That applies not only to peering beyond their fenced-in confines, but trying to flee oppression in search of a better life. They're ostensibly right next door to their ideal destination, Australia, and yet the place they're forced to inhabit couldn't be further from their dreams. Indeed, as they struggle with their imprisonment, endure a climate of violence, and make calls to their families back home, their situation more closely resembles a nightmare.
Of course, this has all been splashed across countless news headlines already; the documentary is being released in the same week that the Australian government settled a $70 million lawsuit with Manus Island detainees. But as Chasing Asylum demonstrated last year, there's a difference between hearing about the harsh conditions Boochani and company suffer through, and seeing them first-hand; just as there's a difference between seeing asylum seekers as a faceless mass, and getting to know their individual stories.
A collaboration with Iranian-Dutch filmmaker Arash Kamali Sarvestani, who produced, edited and composed the suitably emotive score, the movie is less an interview-filled expose, and more a moody portrait of the daily reality of life on Manus Island. Men share tales of bleak incidents within the facility, and try to speak to wives, children and mothers left behind. In between, the camera roams — sometimes over bunk beds no one would want their worst enemy to sleep in, sometimes finding a kitten fenced in behind the wire.
Poetic in its depiction of the banality of detainment while offering an impassioned polemic on a punitive regime, Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time is a film of juxtapositions — its subjects yearn for beauty while experiencing abject horror. It's no wonder, then, that Boochani and Sarvestani have chosen to name their feature after a term with a significant double meaning. 'Chauka' refers to both a local bird known for emitting noises at specific times, and the solitary confinement facility within the camp.