Guest post by Arash Kamali Sarvestani. Arash is an Iranian Dutch Filmmaker and Video Artist. Arash was born in Tehran, Iran on 1981. He studied Cinema in Art at the University of Tehran. In 2009 he moved to the Netherlands to study Video Art in Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, from where he graduated in 2013. In February 2015 he participated in Abbas Kiarostami's film-making workshop in Barcelona. There he made the movie ‘Title of essay: The sea’. There he also came up with the idea of making a film from inside a refugee camp. He was curious to know if it is possible to make a movie about refugees using only mobile phone cameras inside a camp that looks more like a prison. After two years of investigation Arash eventually found Behrouz Boochani who was detained in Manus camp. He shared the idea with Behrouz and the first feature movie of Arash “Chauka, Please tell us the time” is the result of their cooperation.
‘Tall Fences Taller Trees’, simply put, is a film about the encounter of two strangers, two immigrants with different sets of problems in two different communities, and their efforts to shoot a film which sheds light on a very dark part of the history of Australian offshore detention policy.
I moved to Amsterdam in 2009 to study Audio-visual arts at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. The day I left Iran, I expected to return the following summer to visit my family and friends. But in the end, that led to my permanent departure from the land I loved. I fell in love with Amsterdam at first sight. I have not yet found a more beautiful city anywhere in the world. My love for Amsterdam and my hatred of large and polluted Tehran, the oppressive religious system, and all the bad memories I had of my country, especially during my last years in Iran, made me wonder about my feelings for the place where I grew up and studied? The place where my childhood memories were formed, the place where I felt the warm embrace of my parents. How did I not love the city where I experienced love for the first time?
Part of the movie 'Tall Fences Taller Trees’ is a monologue I have by the Mediterranean Sea. The monologue is about these ambivalent feelings I have about the land I came from and the land I emigrated to. In fact, that monologue was formed at the Abbas Kiarostami’s Film Workshop in Barcelona. By dealing with these contradictory feelings of mine, that monologue became the starting point of an endless journey for me. It made me think of the sea that separates human beings from each other. The sea that separated me and my parents, the sea that separates me and my friends, the sea that separated me and my land, this damn sea that separated many people, and the sea that is astonishingly beautiful and at the same time is the massacre site for many innocent people. Innocents who risk crossing it to seek refuge and never reach the shore. The sea which imprisons even those who reach the shore.
Nauru and Manus, two small islands in the middle of an endless ocean, have been a large prison for asylum seekers for many years. Right from the day after the film workshop in Barcelona, I was looking for someone who could make a film in Manus or Nauru with his camera. My best efforts eventually paid off, and I was able to find Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish reporter in Manus who had just started writing articles from inside Manus. ‘Tall Fences, Taller Trees’ starts from the very moment Behrouz and I found each other and started exchanging voice messages on WhatsApp. Our shared love for the Iranian artist and film-director Kiarostami and his distinctive style of storytelling provided a basis for a relationship of mutual trust between me and Behrouz. Instead of a journalistic approach to the story, our perspective involved a humane view of refugees’ life in Manus detention centre. The voice messages we exchanged reached over ten thousand minutes in the six-months span of making the film ‘Chauka, please tell us the time’, turning Behrouz and me from two total strangers into colleagues and later friends. Two friends who still have not seen each other after four years but with a unique bond. It is important to note that 'Tall Fences, Taller Trees’ and 'Chauka, Please tell the time’ are two totally separate movies. The former is a film about how the latter was made, but the many different layers of story with different tastes which characterise it, makes 'Tall Fences, Taller Trees’ a unique and totally different film.
Another part of 'Tall Fences, Taller Trees’ goes back to my daily reality. Film making with two children under the age of two (with a third child soon joining them), for a person who is also a househusband, was (and still is) a very difficult and exhausting task. Espeally knowing that Behrouz and I had a very huge time difference during making the first film. I was in the Netherlands and Behrouz was in Manus. The result was that I had to take care of my children during the day and talk to Behrouz every night between 12 AM and 3:00 AM. I was practically very involved in the horrible atmosphere Behrouz and other asylum seekers were living. After three months, I somehow felt like a prisoner myself. All these obstacles ended up becoming the positive aspects of our film. In 'Tall Fences, Taller Trees’ we hear the voice messages that Behrouz sent to me during the making of ‘Chauka, please tell us the time’ to explain important events in the history of Manus prison. In some of these conversations, a personal experience of Behrouz is expressed. This personal experience, along with my struggle to work in the most difficult conditions, led to the choice of the title for the film as ‘Tall Fences, Taller Trees’.
Another part of the film is dedicated to my conversations with Behrouz and our exchange of views on how to make a film. Conversations leading to the development of the film around the axis of Chauka. Chauka is a revered bird in the Manusian culture, which embodies the concept of time. Chauka is the symbol of Manus and it lives just in Manus island. Australian guards, on the other hand, have given the same name to one of the most dreaded solitary confinement cells in Manus camp. In Chauka the asylum seekers were subjected to the worst physical and mental tortures; and what is worse torture than destroying the concept of time for innocent people whose sole crime is to seek asylum in another country. Understanding the relationship between the two Chaukas and how the identities of local people are used by those in power to torture asylum seekers is key to understanding the Australian Government's policy towards asylum seekers as well as its former colony.
The last part of 'Tall Fences, Taller Trees’ is about an asylum seeker in Manus who suffered from a severe mental challenge. One day during the making of ‘Chauka, please tell us the time’, Behrouz sent me some voice records from one of the asylum seekers imprisoned with him, his name was Hamed Shamshiripour. Behrouz explained how Hamed developed mental health issues in a very short time. He asked me to listen to the records, and since Hamed was also in Chauka's cell, it might be a good idea to include his experiences in the film we were making. Listening to Hamed's recordings was shocking to me, as I was emotionally attached to what was happening in the camp. Listening to Hamed's voice, the first thing that came to my mind was how respectable that person was. A gentleman in every sense. Someone who uttered the words as beautifully as possible, someone who had a very unique way of looking at the world; but that at the same time he was very unstable, so that what he had in mind could change completely in a split second. After talking to Behrouz, we came to the conclusion that since Hamed was not in a good psychological condition, it was better not to ask him to take part in the film. A few months later, when ‘Chauka, please tell us the time’ was finished, Hamed Shamshiripour, who had been facing severe mental health problems for the past several months, ended his life by hanging himself in a forest in Manus island. His death shattered me. I decided to use these recordings in my new film, to pay a tribute to all those who have developed so many mental problems over the years in Manus and Nauru prison camps. Some of them have taken their own lives and many others are still struggling to varying degrees with mental health problems.
How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)
Kamali Sarvestani, A. (2020). About the Documentary ‘Tall Fences, Taller Trees’. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/09/about-documentary [date]