Post by Border Criminologies’ Advisory Board member Dr Jamie Bennett, Governor of HMP Grendon and Spring Hill and research associate at the Centre for Criminology.

The relationship between the media and criminal justice systems has been extensively explored, with a myriad of scholarly books and journals dedicated to the topic. The Border Criminologies community is concerned with 'explor[ing] the growing interconnections between border control and criminal justice', including the criminalisation and detention of migrant populations. Within this context, I wanted to consider the role of the media in constructing and resisting images of incarceration, and how this is being replicated in documentary film about migration detention. 

It has been argued that media representations of crime and punishment are an important resource that members of the general public draw upon in order to produce and sustain an image of criminal justice. It has been argued by Ray Surette that our view of reality is drawn from a combination of personal experiences, the experience of intimate and influential others that are shared with us, information from institutions including the state and political machinery, and also from popular culture. As most people have little direct contact with prisons but popular culture is saturated with images of crime and punishment, it is argued that the public rely to a greater extent on media representation in order to form their image of imprisonment, policing and the criminal justice system more broadly. This process is equally true of migration detention, another hidden world which most people do not encounter directly but instead only access through media representations. Those images communicate an idea about who is being held, in what conditions, and for what reason. 

Images of criminal justice often contain conflicting ideas and values. Many representations reflect dominant ideas including official government policy, while others go further, generating fear so as to soften people up for political and economic marketing. In contrast, it has been suggested that the media may play a reform function. It has been described that depictions of prisons shape views by providing an insight into a world that the general public know little about and have little direct experience of, they provide a benchmark for acceptable treatment of prisoners, translate academic and political concerns into digestible narratives, expose perspectives that are often at odds with media and official descriptions, and create empathy with prisoners and prison staff. From this perspective, popular culture is an important resource for challenging received wisdoms and encouraging reflection and engagement with debate.

The recent documentary Chasing Asylum - Inside Australia's Detention Camps is an example of how popular culture can be an instrument of resistance, offering a space for an alternative perspective on immigration detention and the criminalisation of migration. The film was made by Eva Orner, whose previous credits include producing the Academy Award winning documentary Taxi to the dark side (Dir. Alex Gibney, US, 2007) about the killing of an Afghan taxi driver while being detained by American troops at Bagram airbase.

Chasing Asylum focusses on the lived experience of Australia’s migration policies. In particular the detention camps in the Republic of Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, which hold people who have attempted to enter Australia by sea. The film uses secretly filmed footage from within the camps, as well as interviews with whistle-blowers who have worked inside them, and contrasts this with found footage of media interviews and speeches on migration policy by senior Australian politicians. Orner has been candid about her intentions, stating, 'I wanted to make a film that would shame Australia'.

The first strategy adopted in the film is to expose the reality of the detention experience. The covert footage shows the makeshift camps with families living in tents, sometimes covered with mould. The health impacts on the adults and children are discussed by whistle blowers including medical staff who describe the mental health problems and acts of self-harm. The experience of children is also shown, with poor education, recreational and health facilities leading to a lack of flourishing. This testimony is accompanied by children’s drawings which feature images including the bars and fences that surround them and the crying parents that accompany them. Young workers from the Salvation Army describe their disillusionment with the futility of their task in caring for a complex and desperate population, without adequate facilities, resources or training. The film also discusses allegations of abuse and mistreatment, including sexual violence against adults and children. What is represented is an inhumane form of detention. The unsustainable lack of legitimacy is reinforced by images of the disorder that has engulfed both camps. The documentary is presenting a dossier of concerns, including issues that often feature in the work of academics and campaign groups, and attempts to present it to a wider, mainstream audience.

The second strategy is to create empathy with those who live in the camp and those whistle-blowers who grew increasingly concerned when they worked there. The interviews with them enable them to give voice to their experiences and concerns. The viewers’ sympathy is reinforced by playing these testimonies against images of poor conditions, children being detained and their poignant drawings. In another segment, the film focusses on 24-year-old Hamid Kehazaei, who died from septicaemia in September 2014, after not being provided proper medical treatment for a cut in his foot. The film-makers meet with his devastated parents, still struggling to come to terms with the death of their son thousands of miles from their home in Iran. Through these words and images, the documentary attempts to represent asylum seekers, not as objects of public policy and discourse, but instead as rounded humans with all of their emotional experiences and social connections.

The third strategy adopted is to confront public policy and advocate an alternative. The images of poor conditions and inhumane treatment are cross-cut with speeches and media interviews by prominent politicians from a range of parties. They all advocate robust approaches to asylum seekers in order to deter sea-crossings. The whistle blowers describe these punitive, deterrent approaches and their effects on those detained. The documentary therefore reinvests abstract policy statements with the reality of human experiences, creating discomfort in the viewer and even attempting to elicit feelings of shame. An alternative approach is advocated, relying upon the historical example of the resettlement and integration of 70,000 Vietnamese refugees in Australia in the 1970s. This approach is defended in an interview with former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who describes the moral responsibility that fell upon Australia having participated in the Vietnam war, and how those who arrived have socially, culturally and economically enriched the country. This process is therefore offered as a more humane and effective approach that that currently dominant in Australia.                

The growth of documentaries concerned with challenging orthodoxy and offering social critique has been described as giving rise to a ‘golden age’ with documentary being the 'flagship for a cinema of social engagement and distinctive vision'. It has been argued that documentary: 'animates the critique of neo-liberal hegemony, contesting authority and catalysing debate, and a good part of the new documentary audience represents a growing constituency of ideological resisters'. This can be seen in works that tackle the economic system, such as Inside job (Dir. Charles Ferguson, USA, 2010), Capitalism: A love story (Dir. Michael Moore, USA, 2009) and Enron: The smartest guys in the room (Dir. Alex Gibney, USA, 2005); those that address environmental harms such as An inconvenient truth (Dir. Davis Guggenheim, USA, 2006) and The age of stupid (Dir. Franny Armstrong, UK, 2009); war crimes such as Standard operating procedure (Dir. Errol Morris, USA, 2008) and Taxi to the dark side; and the criminal justice system including Bowling for Columbine (Dir. Michael Moore, USA, 2002) and The house I live in (Dir. Andrew Jurecki, USA, 2012). With Chasing Asylum, it can now be argued that documentary and popular culture are sites in which migration detention can be resisted and contested.

Chasing Asylum - Inside Australia's Detention Camps is available on BBC iplayer until 01 December 2016 at:

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