Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Remain, a video work by Hodda Afshar

Tropical forest surrounds at all slender man who stands looking at the camera. He has brown skin, black hair and a beard. His white shirt and black trousers stand out against a wall of green. In one hand he holds a cigarette, almost finished. He stares at the camera and smokes slowly. His shoulders curl forwards as though bearing an invisible weight. Around him the sounds of tropical jungle are muted and a voice describes the location as a green hell, telling his story and the story of other men trapped on an island that looks like paradise.

The man is Behrouz Boochani, Iranian journalist, activist, and permanent detainee on Manus Island.Though Australia closed the detention centre there in October 2017 and the men have been found to be refugees, they have not been permitted to leave. Instead they are expected to make a life on Manus without any support from Australia or Papua New Guinea. They live under surveillance from the Australian government authorities and hostility from locals whose lives have been disrupted and whose livelihoods have been ruined by the detention centre. Their waters have been polluted by poor waste management. Just another chapter in the island’s long history of incarcerating prisoners denied a life in Australia or their homelands.It is this liminal space which artist Hodda Afshar has captured in this video work, Remain.

Boochani is known to many Australians for his book No Friend But the Mountains which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize for Literature and for Non-Fiction. He has become the face of the detained men who remain on Manus Island. Afshar has lived in Australia since the age of 16 and recently won the William and Winifred Bowness Photography Prize for her portrait of Boochani.

Another slow shot early in the film features a waterfall in lush forest. A man’s voice describes how this was the site where a fellow refugee died. From the forest, where we watch Boochani and other men walk while hearing the stories of their daily life on Manus and the trauma of their five plus years there, to the white hot sun drenched beach. Nothing about the beauty of this place is comforting. Once again in long slow moments the camera observes the men with a kind of sympathetic objectivity. It lets them tell their story. In a powerful scene one man holds Boochani in his arms, like Michelangelo’s Pieta, as clear tropical waters wash around them. Minutes pass and imperceptibly Boochani slips from this man’s muscled arms and into the water. As the scene changes I am reminded of, not only the Pieta but Christian deposition paintings of Christ as he is taken down from the cross.

These remarkable yet simple movements that the men make as the camera watches are made all the more haunting by their words. Though we do not see them speak, their songs, poetry and recollections of life in permanent detention accompany starkly beautiful images. The transient health of their bodies defying constant neglect and negligible medical care. Songs in Sri Lankan and poetry is Iranian embody this protest too. The contrast between beauty and horror is deliberate and intended to confront the viewer with cognitive dissonance. Afshar’s camera work stays with you after the film ends and the slow motionless observing of the men seems designed to burn into the mind.

Speaking on 25 May after a screening of Remain at the Ian Potter Museum’s Public Water Forum, Afshar described how she worked with the men over nine days to craft something which went beyond the usual images we are shown of refugees. There are no bars or tents, no indications of the cages that constitute their accommodation. Instead, out in the water and walking through the forest, we are forced to see them anew. The viewer must listen to their words without recourse to the tropes of prisoner which have become so prevalent. Afshar is adamant about the power of images. She noted in response to one audience question that our reality and what we know to be real is constituted through images. Images must then also form the fabric of a counter narrative and they must offer an avenue, as art does, for hidden histories to be revealed.

And yet it is not just the slow embracing of their world-as-hell which we come to perceive painfully by the film’s close, it is their voices which as much as anything else make explicit the horror of what Australia has done. A form of torture which leaves no bodily marks. Enduring this monotony, we know, is too much for many of the men remaining on Manus Island. Afshar’s film is dedicated to those who have died on Manus, whether through murder, lack of medical treatment or taking their own lives.

Something so unforgiveable is being perpetrated here which could so easily be remedied. It has gone on foremost of this present century and it continues practices of incarceration on which this nation was founded. Nothing should surprise. But it does shock. The power of what Afshar and the men on Manus have created lies in speaking truth to power and visually presenting the truths of those whose histories are being erased and whose perspectives, we are told, don’t count.

Watching Remain filled me with an urgency and a despair. I felt powerless at the uncountable and ongoing denial of the value,rights and humanity of people who are simply seeking a better life.

You can view Remain in selected galleries around the country. The work is currently on display at the University of Queensland Art Museum until September 2019.

Further reading on un Magazine