When Conviction Drives Your Day Job

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Straight talk with filmmaker Eva Orner on the controversial project that just landed her an AACTA.

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“It’s not easy. It’s not for everyone. There’s never enough money. There’s never enough time. You doubt yourself constantly. It’s incredibly easy to make a bad film. There are a million things that can go wrong. I think it’s virtually impossible to make a good film,” says filmmaker Eva Orner, who last night went home with and ACCTA award for her controversial feature-length documentary Chasing Asylum, which tackles Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

The child of Polish Jews and Holocaust survivors, she says the subject matter of her documentary are always intensely personal.

Her travels to remote, often hostile countries, along with the dark material and danger of filming in warzones (she missed a suicide bombing by mere minutes and nearly stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan) as well as the health risks (Eva suffered debilitating pancreatitis two years ago after contracting parasites) all intensify the challenging nature of her work. But it is the complexity of creating a solid body of work that Eva finds most challenging.

And it’s her sheer love of the subject matter which she says keeps her going.

“I’m a super nerd. Every film that you make is like doing a college course in whatever that film is about. So you delve into US foreign policy or asylum seekers or refugees or Afghanistan and the media and you just become obsessed. I love it because I love learning.”

As for Chasing Asylum which received an AACTA for Best Feature Length Documentary and a nomination for Best Direction in a Documentary, she says: “I sometimes think all I can do is try and tell a story in the best, most compelling way that I can and work as hard as I can with my team to get as many people as possible to see it and talk about it and to think in a different way. Everything else from there is just a gift.”.

Eva had 30 seconds for her AACTA acceptance speech but instead begged for 60 to passionately remind people that she, and those who worked on the film could have been imprisoned for their efforts.

“I feel like this issue is not well known on a global level. I want people globally to know what is happening in Australia. I think that can put pressure on things to change,” she told Collective Hub in an exclusive interview.

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Photo via Joël van Houdt

An exploration into the human cost of Australian Government deterrence strategies aimed at “stopping the boats”, Chasing Asylum features never-before-seen footage shot secretly inside offshore detention centres in Manus and Nauru, revealing conditions refugees face in mandatory detention while waiting for visa approval.

“It’s a complicated issue and I don’t pretend that it’s an easy issue that’s got an easy solution,” Eva, 46, says of the film that took her to Indonesia, Cambodia, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan.

“There are 60 million displaced people in the world at the moment. It’s the most since the end of World War II. There is a crisis. All I’m saying is, we’re not seeing a lot of leadership in that area”.

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Photo via Joël van Houdt

Despite the Australian Border Act making it a crime for whistle-blowers to reveal their accounts of conditions in the detention centres, the film also features at times interviews with social workers, prison guards and other volunteers who spent time in both Manus and Nauru.

“The young people who have worked on Manus and Nauru [are] really traumatised by what they’ve had to do and what they’ve seen and we’re 100 per cent responsible for that,” she claims. “That’s our taxpayer’s money.”

“There are so many amazing people on the ground fighting and working with refugees and trying to help people and it’s just the best and the worst of humanity. It’s sometimes hard to reconcile”.

Melbourne-born Eva first turned her hand to documentary filmmaking aged 24 while still a Monash university Arts student. She won an Australian Film Institute Award and a Logie for her first television documentary Untold Desires.

Chasing Asylum premiered at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival. Coinciding with the film’s release in May, Eva has also wrote a book about the making of the film, published by Harper Collins.

“The government’s policy of secrecy is so strong, nobody sees what happens in the camps,” she claims. “You can read about it, but I think seeing something is very different and that’s what I’ve tried to do, tell the story, obviously visually, and show people what is going on to try and break the complacency and acceptance of it because I think it’s wrong,” she says.

Chasing Asylum was funded through a combination of private investor funds and the documentary Australia Foundation as well as a 2014 crowd-funding campaign that raised AU$80,000. Eva launched the crowd funding campaign after seeing a news report about the more than 100,000 Australians who in 2014 protested the government’s treatment of asylum seekers.

Following the media coverage of the crowd funding campaign for the film, Eva says she was inundated with footage shot secretly by workers who had gained entry into the offshore detention centre, and much of this footage can be seen in the final cut of the film.

Opening image via Lucas Allen.

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