UCKY Miles, Sicko and This is England. Three movies: my thoughts. Spoilers galore, sweet thangs, so if you’re planning to see any of them and are phobic like me, consider yourself warned.
They are coming!
Lucky Miles: When I saw the trailer for this movie, I was intrigued. An Australian movie that didn’t fall into the terrible and terribly depressing ‘comedy’ category, but without diving straight into the ‘so sober no one even laughs’ category; what an astonishingly unique concept! Given that I am in love with the Whedonesque style of humour-in-the-dark, it seemed promising. Not just that, but an Australian movie that wasn’t primarily about white people with brownish ones thrown in just for contrast. One which tangled with the dreaded ‘boat people’ without simply demonising them; a rare occurrence in the current climate. So yes, intrigued.
It’s the tale of a bunch of people, some Iraqi, some Cambodian, dumped on the West Australian coastline. Soon the Indonesian crew of the boat that delivered them to the middle of nowhere find themselves swimming for shore after their boat burns and sinks. Most of the Cambodian group are picked up in next to no time; ditto for the Iraqis. One of the Cambodians, Arun, one of the Iraqis, Youssif, and one of the Indonesian boat crew, Ramelan, find each other in the midst of the scrubby desert and together—with many squabbles and risky lack of water—aim for any kind of civilisation whatsoever.
Is it funny? Yes. There’s little doubt about that: it intends it, and sometimes it achieves it. There’s three Army reservists in the area, for example, who drive around randomly looking for the three asylum seekers, and their combination of semi-trained professional officiousness and matter-of-fact casualness made me smile. But there are a number of things which are depicted as humourous (at least if the audience I was watching with were any judges, and I suspect they were pretty close to the ‘ideal’ viewers the filmmakers envisaged) which I was really troubled by. I think the problem I had with the things that were made funny was that they seemed to depend upon covering-over the precarity of the position all of the asylum seekers were in: it’s not humour-in-the-dark so much as look-away-from-the-dark-and-this-situation-looks-hilarious! It might be vaguely amusing that when the Iraqis and Cambodians reach the top of the dune from the beach they were dumped on, the road the Indonesian captain promised would have a Perth-bound bus coming soon in fact doesn’t exist; or it could be a frightening depiction of the extraordinarily vulnerable position asylum seekers are placed in because they have to rely upon those who might not (be able to) really care about them so very much. The risk of not having enough water, for example, might have been continually raised as an issue, but the effects of dehydration were minimised so that it could be amusing that one character is reduced to using a plastic shopping bag as a water container. Or when Youssif’s desperation is articulated as eloquent and proud anger at Arun and Ramelan, it becomes amusing because it’s characterised as an over-reaction, relying, then, on obscuring the fact that they are actually incredibly vulnerable: out in the middle of nowhere, with little water and food and little possibility of a) getting out, b) being found and c) actually being granted asylum if/when they are.
It’s not that the precariousness of their position is altogether disappeared: peeling lips, exhaustion, the dangers of being shoeless and so on are kinda depicted. But none of these is permitted the weight of mortality which actually characterise it: Arun and Youssif come across Ramelan, who has collapsed from dehydration, but after a quick drink, he’s up and ready to ‘lead’ them to Perth. At one point Ramelan is attacked by a goanna, which leaps up onto his back; the shot is in silhouette against the top of a hill, and we see him jump around trying to shake it off, but that’s about it: there’s no consequence, except for his later (hi!lar!i!ous!) description of ‘the devil’ who attacked him to his companions—he’s not bitten or scratched, at least not that we see or that he complains of. I’m not even sure that goannas do such things, though this film is supposed to be based on true stories, so perhaps I’m just not knowledgeable enough. Perhaps even more oddly is that in all the trekking around that they do, they never encounter snakes, and none of them falls and badly hurts themselves. I mean, they’re pretty noisy so theoretically that might have scared snakes away, I guess, but Ramelan’s wearing thongs the whole time and there are moments when they’re scrambling down scree-y hillsides etc, so to me it felt like a fairly selective depiction of the risk of the Australian environment to those unaccustomed to negotiating it. Moments when Perth, as it turns out, is not just over the next hill slip by without much of a consideration of the fact that without a real sense of the distances they’re working with, they can’t even plan their water rationing properly. And all of this seemed to conceal their vulnerability—that these people are risking death to come to Australia—mostly to make it funny. For Australians. Hm. Ugh. Am I being too harsh?
More troubling than all this is that the movie ends when the three Army reservists find the three friends and the captain of the Indonesian boat who has caught up with the three. Arun, who has been trying desperately to get to Perth to find his father, has been avoiding the Army who rounded up the rest of the Cambodian group, yet he seems to have forgotten his concerns about that by this point; Youssif cites the relevant passages of the UN Convention on Refugees. The reservists are kind of bemusedly amiable about this (educated) claim to refugee status, but there’s certainly nothing which hints towards the fact that whilst the three may have escaped their vulnerability at the hands of an unfamiliar environment, they remain, in the end, probably equally albeit more predictably vulnerable at the hands of a fairly hostile government. Given the concern to actually depict the situation of asylum seekers, this absence feels significant: the vulnerability which leads to the humour is OK, it seems to suggest, because it arises from the ignorance and naivety of the three ‘foreigners’; this obscures both the fact that that vulnerability is also a product of a particularly stingy and problematic immigration policy, and that ‘the authorities’ and the policies surrounding the treatment of asylum seekers are such that ‘being found’ may also be a threat to them.
Interestingly on this point, the movie is set a while ago—1990. Is this an attempt to avoid having to depict the effects of the policy of mandatory detention, introduced in 1992? If so, then this functions in two ways: it both attempts to ‘humanise’ (ugh!) the usually (in our media) faceless ‘mass’ of refugees without appearing ‘political,’ (the accusation of which is of course a key technique for dismissing particular (read: non-right-wing) stories in the current Australian discursive space) perhaps thereby getting around this particular difficulty and encouraging sympathy in those who might not otherwise feel it—a position I disagree with, though also am sympathetic to. Yet this move also depoliticises the issue, enabling a distance between our three heroes and the current system, between refugees and the precarity they live with; and thus it fails to draw attention to the fact that the three heroes are both more vulnerable than they are depicted to be, and probably less vulnerable than current asylum seekers, not to mention the fact that under current circumstances the amiability of their interactions with the representatives of governmental authority—the Army reservists—is unlikely to still occur. To leave this out feels like the filmmakers not only pulled their own teeth to some extent, but may have produced the grounds by which the ‘stories’ may simply be dismissed as tales that matter not.
In the end, I was unhappy with it: however much I liked parts of the story, the covering-over of the vulnerability made me feel awkward about finding some stuff humourous (though I’m perfectly willing to accept that that may be partly white guilt; I do have a tendency to be uncertain about how happy I am to be amused about, say, stuff to do with race which I haven’t thought through the politics of… though that said, this isn’t always the case—I don’t have to agree with the politics of some stuff to find it funny, but if I find the politics offensively dodgy it gets in the way of me finding things amusing, and so I wonder if my instincts are actually reasonably political in this regard. Euh. Complex. In other words, perhaps it was just that this crossed a line into offensive for me, and my discomfit with it arose from that.) By the same token, my thoughts on it remain uncertain and unformed, so if you have a different response, tell me about it in comments: I think part of me wants to ‘rescue’ this film because it’s such a rare creature, being an Australian movie about refugees.