“The voice of many”: Behrouz Boochani’s journey to freedom

If you say “boats” in Australia, everyone knows what you mean. Boats still occupy an important place in the Australian imagination, or in Australian nightmares.

They are always on the horizon, always a political weapon to be deployed at the right time.

Take last Saturday’s federal election. After voting in Sydney, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke to a crowd of supporters, onlookers and media about how two ships of Sri Lankan asylum seekers had just been intercepted en route to Australia, and urged voters to hold his coalition together to stop the boats.

A strict border policy, called Operation Sovereign Borders, has been in place since 2013, although a strict response has been enacted since at least 2001 when the Norwegian freighter Tampa picked up more than 400 refugees heading to Australia and the former Prime Minister John Howard. used it to outflank far-right Pauline Hanson.

Iranian-Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani speaks at a WORD event in Christchurch in 2019.


Iranian-Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani speaks at a WORD event in Christchurch in 2019.

* Traumatized Australian refugees will need more than a smile when they arrive
* We are lucky that Behrouz Boochani is here to tell his story
* National portrait: Behrouz Boochani, writer and refugee

Will anything change with a new government? Observers are not optimistic. Labor stressed ahead of the election that they supported the existing policy. “Stop the boats” remains a populist mantra.

Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani is the best known of the refugees and asylum seekers whose boats have been intercepted over the past two decades, not least because he has given voice so well to those who have been imprisoned for decades. years in offshore detention centres.

Boochani was a journalist in Tehran when the offices of his magazine, Werya, were raided in 2013 by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards during a crackdown on Kurdish expression. His colleagues were arrested and he went into hiding for three months, before traveling to Indonesia and attempting to get to Australia.

“The first boat broke down after 40 hours at sea,” Boochani explained in January 2022. “I was arrested in Indonesia but managed to escape from prison and get on another boat. We We were 65 and it took us a week to get to Australia, we were arrested as soon as we arrived and sent to Manus Island.

Australian documentary filmmaker Simon Kurian has just completed a documentary on Behrouz Boochani.

Provided / Stuff

Australian documentary filmmaker Simon Kurian has just completed a documentary on Behrouz Boochani.

Australian filmmaker Simon Kurian was making a documentary titled Stop the boats in 2016 when he got in touch with Boochani through Facebook.

“I contacted him to ask if he would film for me inside the Manus Island Immigrant Detention Center as no media were allowed in,” Kurian said. “Behrouz then started filming secretly and started sending me footage, a few shots at a time, on USB sticks.”

The long and arduous process was similar to how Boochani did journalism on the island, reporting the inhumane conditions and slowly writing his acclaimed book, No friend but the mountainsand send it sentence by sentence on a messaging application.

Footage filmed for Kurian showed Boochani sitting behind bars in the scorching sun in what he called a concentration camp. Sometimes he sat quietly, and sometimes he sang.

The film showed how inmates, including children, were abused by guards or self-harmed. Their mental and physical health suffered. A riot was documented. A man named Reza Barati was murdered.

One observer described it as “like a process of war to break people up”.

People have warned Kurian against using the horrible phrase “stop the boats” as a title. But he wanted to remind generations to come of “the brutal and unlawful Australian policy which has destroyed the lives of thousands of people, keeping them in limbo in offshore detention for endless years, running counter to all humanitarian obligations and violating their responsibilities under international refugee conventions”. of which they are signatories.

Stop the boats diagnosed the policy as a symptom of wider Australian racism. It has performed at 15 international festivals and is recommended for grade 12 students in Western Australia, says Kurian.

In addition to Boochani, he highlighted the story of Munjed Al Muderis, one of Australia’s leading orthopedic surgeons, who arrived in the country as a refugee from Iraq and spent 10 months in a center of detention.

By working on Stop the boats, Kurian suggested a second film, centered on Boochani and his personal journey. Boochani was happy to oblige.

“Again, since the media was banned from the detention center, I had to hire other inmates to film Behrouz using their cellphones and send me a few shots at a time,” says- he. “I reviewed the footage in Sydney and sent specific instructions to get the shots and footage I needed. Behrouz also filmed himself and other activities within the detention centre.

It was during his detention that Boochani’s book won a string of major Australian literary prizes in 2019, including the AU$125,000 Victorian Prize for Literature.

“The irony has not escaped anyone,” says Kurian. “Here is a writer, writing about being held in exile by Australia, forbidden to set foot here and yet winning one of the greatest literary prizes this country has to offer.”

As Boochani said Things in 2019: “They treated me like I didn’t exist. But I existed. I exist in Australia through my work. In bookstores, I look at people. Very surreal.

Mayor Lianne Dalziel, left, and Te Maire Tau greet Behrouz Boochani at Christchurch International Airport in 2019.

Alden Williams / Stuff

Mayor Lianne Dalziel, left, and Te Maire Tau greet Behrouz Boochani at Christchurch International Airport in 2019.

“Behrouz’s writing is lyrical and poetic, even if the horrors he describes are indescribable,” said Australian writer Sofie Laguna.

Writing became Boochani’s way out. In what must be the boldest act ever undertaken by a New Zealand literary festival, WORD Christchurch invited Boochani for a unique event in November 2019, for which he was granted a one-month visa.

Unable to cross Australia, he took a 35-hour flight from Papua New Guinea and reached Christchurch early one Saturday morning looking tired and dazed. He remained in New Zealand and was granted refugee status in 2020.

Kurian followed Boochani to Christchurch and documented his new life as he settled into a senior assistant researcher role at the University of Canterbury.

“I feel a real connection to New Zealand and I’m learning a lot about indigenous resistance and the process of decolonization here,” Boochani said in January.

People who met Boochani might think he would withstand the spotlight of a feature-length documentary. Kurian agrees.

“Behrouz is a very quiet and private person,” he says. “Which is hard to believe given the force of his voice to draw the world’s attention to the atrocities committed in the detention camp.

“But he’s not looking for the limelight for himself. He will always shift the conversation to his portrayal of the cause of the hundreds of asylum seekers detained in Manus and Nauru. He always saw himself as the voice of many, rather than being about him. He is also deeply creative in the way he sees and experiences the world.

“He doesn’t see this as a film about himself or his life, but rather as a film about how he exposed a brutal system through writing and creating and a long struggle to challenge a system designed to dehumanize people. people.”

Behrouz Boochani in 2018 outside an abandoned naval base on Manus Island, where he was held for three years.

Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty-Images

Behrouz Boochani in 2018 outside an abandoned naval base on Manus Island, where he was held for three years.

The film, titled Behrouz, will have its world premiere in Christchurch, the city that hosted it, on June 11. The event is co-presented by Screen Canterbury, WORD and Christchurch City Council. Kurian thanks them all, as well as Mayor Lianne Dalziel, for making the premiere possible. Both Boochani and Kurian will be present for a post-movie Q&A.

Meanwhile, Boochani moved to Wellington in February. Will he ever travel further?

Former Australian Home Secretary Peter Dutton, who is expected to replace Scott Morrison as Liberal leader, said in 2019 that Boochani would never set foot there. Boochani responded by saying he never wanted it.

“Behrouz holds no grudges against Australia or the Australian people, but he has a strong dislike for the political system which exiled and tortured innocent people who fled war and persecution, and sought refuge in Australia, hoping that he would do well as a signatory to the International Convention for Refugees,” says Kurian.

“In our many conversations on the subject over the past few years, I have come to understand that Behrouz thinks most Australians would not support the indefinite detention overseas of people seeking asylum. But unfortunately, the governments of Howard, Tony Abbott and Morrison were able to justify the policy with fearmongering propaganda.

Kurian hopes his two films will endure as records of Australian cruelty and inhumanity. But there is a horribly topical twist to the UK government’s new policy of transferring asylum seekers to Rwanda, which some say is directly inspired by Australia’s so-called ‘peaceful solution’.

“There are four types of Australians on this issue,” Kurian concludes. “First, those who are totally uninformed and lean into the scaremongering narrative. The second group opposes refugees and migrants because of their far-right racist ideology. Then there are those who prefer to look the other way .

“And finally, there are the handful of advocacy groups and supporters who have campaigned for years to end this policy. This latter group has grown in recent years as the voices of people like Behrouz have brought reality to light.

BEHROUZ will premiere at the Isaac Theater Royal in Christchurch on June 11, before its Australian premiere in Melbourne on July 16.

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