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Letters to Ali (2004)

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clip The first long march education content clip 1

Original classification rating: M. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

In June 2002, Trish Kirby, her husband Rob and their four children travelled thousands of kilometres from their home in Melbourne to Port Hedland Detention Centre to meet fifteen-year-old Ali, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan. Trish reads extracts from an article she has written ‘Walking in their Shoes’ about meeting Ali for the first time. Each of the children – Emma, Rian, Hanna and Erin – recalls impressions from their first meeting.

Curator’s notes

Law’s use of sound and text in the beginning of this clip is a good example of how it is used throughout the film. It creates a slow-paced, meditative rhythm which gradually unfolds. The newspaper article and simple sound effects combine with Trish’s voice-over of her story to recreate the sensory experience of entering into the detention centre for the first time. Like Trish, the audience is invited to ‘walk in their shoes’. Letters to Ali is about many overlapping political and humanitarian issues, but perhaps none more important than the fundamental right to childhood – something that Ali has been denied while he is held in detention. By recording the Kirby children’s responses to meeting the young Ali for the first time, and filming them in an open boundless landscape, Law emphasises the injustice of Ali’s position as a boy locked up in a small room unable to play in the world. Their initial perceptions about refugees, people from other ethnic backgrounds, and people living in detention give way to their realisation that in many ways Ali is just like them.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows the Kirby family recalling their first visit to see ‘Ali’, a young refugee in detention in Port Hedland, Western Australia. It opens with images of printed text from 'Walking in their shoes’, Trish Kirby’s published account of the family’s first visit to see Ali. Kirby reads from the article in voice-over. This is followed by individual interviews filmed outdoors in which each of Kirby’s four children recounts their memories of that first meeting. Kirby talks in her study about her response to Ali’s request to get him a lawyer.

Educational value points

  • This clip presents a powerful account of one family confronting the ‘reality’ of refugee detention by making a personal connection with a refugee boy. The family’s feelings of strangeness and fearfulness at entering the detention centre are vividly conveyed in Trish Kirby’s understated narration. She describes ‘a heavy gate being locked behind’ them, the children ‘huddled together wide-eyed and silent’ and the guard ‘unlocking the third door’.
  • The clip uses an ordinary Australian family and their response to the plight of a young boy to draw attention to and raise questions about the government policy that imprisoned children in the name of border protection. ‘Ali’, a 15-year-old Afghan asylum seeker, was imprisoned in the Port Hedland Detention Centre in WA. In 2004, 90 of the 997 asylum seekers in detention were minors. Detention of minors effectively ended in 2005 with an amendment to the Migration Act.
  • The clip shows the way images of printed text can convey key aspects of narrative and create thematic effect. A key theme in the film is separation, and the use of printed text complements this theme by distancing viewers from the immediacy of the experience even as Kirby’s voice draws them in. Ali is separated from the family, the text of their letters providing the main connection. The text, part of Kirby’s story published in The Age, was the inspiration for the film.
  • The soundtrack heard at the beginning of the clip accompanying the filmed text creates a sombre, slightly fearful mood that suits the account of the family’s entry into the detention facility. Kirby’s voice is enhanced by an echoing effect as if she were in a large chamber. Sound effects such as those of a heavy door closing and a high-pitched metallic scraping convey the isolated and alien nature of the prison-like detention facility.
  • The filmmaker contrasts Ali’s world in confinement – visually referred to in the regimented black-and-white text – with the Kirby children’s world of freedom shown in vibrant colour and in an open-air setting. The Kirby children are filmed outdoors against a wide landscape, the sky and the sea. The natural bush sounds included in their interviews contrast with the soundtrack that accompanies the account of them going into the detention facility.
  • The clip provides an example of the generosity of the Kirby family, who made a journey across the continent as part of their commitment to support a young refugee. Initially the Kirbys had written letters and made phone calls to Ali. They then travelled from Melbourne to the isolated outpost of Port Hedland to visit him and to cement a friendship with him. Trish Kirby had to explore the limits to her generosity when Ali sought her help to get a lawyer.

The clip opens with images of printed text from 'Walking in their shoes’, Trish Kirby’s book about Ali. Trish and her four children are interviewed in various locations about their first meeting with Ali.

Narrator (reading an excerpt from the book) It was an eerie feeling, passing through the heavy gate and hearing it lock behind us. My children, in their brightest, most colourful clothes, huddled together wide-eyed and silent. My 6-year-old commented, “It’s a good thing we’re only visiting.” After we’d locked all our belongings in the lockers and clipped on the obligatory ID cards, the guard unlocked the third door and ushered us into the visitors’ compound. We all hung back like teenagers on a first date. We’d exchanged 16 letters in the month before our visit, and he knew what we looked like. But cameras are forbidden inside the detention centre, and we had no idea what to expect. He was, in effect, a bunch of endearing letters and a gentle voice at the other end of the phone.

Emma When we first met him, there was, like, kind of a barrier, like – well, not a barrier, but, um, he was over one side and we were over the other side, and we just stood there for like two minutes. We were like, “Oh, my God.” Because we’d been talking to him and writing to him for so long and then we met him, and we just couldn’t believe we were meeting him in person. And, um, the – it was really formal conversation, formal meeting, formal goodbye.

Rian Um, everyone was really shy. No-one knew what to say. It was our first time talking to a refugee person, and we didn’t know if they’d be all traumatised. We didn’t know how to treat them. And then after about 15 minutes, we were just talking to them like they were normal friends that we’d known for ages, which was really cool.

Hanna And I thought, like, he had, like, really light skin and I thought he would have darker skin. And, yeah.
Interviewer And do you think he’s very different from you or…
Hanna Not much, no.

Erin We played cards. We played with the – we played keepings-off people.
Interviewer Mm’hm.
Erin And we played catch.
Interviewer Mm’hm.
Erin And we played – and we, um, played cards, and I was cheating.

Trish Well, when he wrote and asked me could I provide him with legal assistance, and that really frightened me. I thought, “Whoa, I can’t do this. I can’t afford to pay a lawyer for him. I’m just going to have to, you know, be honest and say I can’t do it.” But before I did that, I did some more research and found some groups that actually provide pro bono lawyers and solicitors, and, um, I spoke with a lawyer who mentioned that if he was an unaccompanied minor, we could get him living it us on a bridging visa. So I mentioned it to (beeped out) and he was very frightened. He didn’t want to do it. But over a couple of weeks, he considered it and said yes, he should do that, he would do that, and at that time, he started calling me Mum.

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