Meet the Filmmaker: Angus McDonald – Manus
Angus McDonald is an Australian contemporary visual artist who has been exhibiting across Australia and internationally for 25 years. He began filmmaking in 2017 as part of his social advocacy project, Howling Eagle, which promotes the adoption of humanitarian approaches to support forcibly displaced people seeking asylum.
The short documentary MANUS is McDonald’s first standalone film. It was awarded Best Documentary at the 2019 St. Kilda Film Festival, and is an official selection for the BAFTA qualifying 2019 Aesthetica Film Festival (the UK) & the Byron Bay International Film Festival. MANUS has also been granted eligibility for consideration for the 2020 Academy Awards in the Documentary Short category.
Firstly, can you tell us a bit about the film?
MANUS is a 13-minute film, which shines a light on the plight of hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers held captive by the Australian Government on Manus Island in PNG for the past 6 years. I created the film based around footage shot there by two-time Walkley award winning journalist Olivia Rousset when she secretly visited the men for a single night with two others (Jarrod McKenna and Father Dave Brown) at the end of 2017 when the Detention facility at Lombrum on Manus Island was closed. The men held on Manus were ordered to move to new centres nearby on Manus, but hundreds refused to leave, resulting in a standoff that lasted several weeks.
MANUS focuses entirely on the testimonials of the men themselves because I wanted the public to meet and hear from them, something that has happened to rarely and suits the Federal Government who has continually tried to keep those on Manus, and also Nauru. Invisible from the general public. Hearing their own stories is crucial to understanding the human dimension that is at the heart of the whole asylum issue. The film also includes at the end, a poem about Manus written by Kurdish journalist, award-winning writer, and asylum seeker on Manus, Behrouz Boochani, voiced by him specifically for the film in his native Farsi.
I’ve attempted to create a carefully crafted film about innocent people in a long, brutal predicament, told in their own words, intended to provide powerful insights into their situation and humanise their plight for the public. This is a film about humanity and solidarity that has universal significance. It’s about how we all treat each other.
As Abdul Aziz Adam, a refugee from Sudan who was on Manus for 6 years until recently said so eloquently: “Remember one thing, we are human beings”
What was your biggest inspiration to make this film/How did you get involved or attached to the project?
The biggest inspiration for creating the film is my conviction that we as country can do much better in relation to how we treat people who arrive here to Australia seeking our support and protection. The goal of the film is to contribute towards the public rediscovering their compassion and contributing to a change in our collective approach towards dealing with those fleeing war and persecution. We need to recognise that those who arrive are not criminals or illegal. They are simply people running for their lives who seek our help and we need to begin helping them instead of adding further to their suffering.
I have been a visual artist for 25 years, primarily a painter. I began filmmaking two years ago believing that film was the best medium in which to reach the public to advocate for more humanitarian approaches to managing the welfare of forcibly displaced people seeking asylum. I began creating films around this issue as part of an advocacy project I created called Howling Eagle which began releasing content free to the public on YouTube in 2018. The goal was to raise awareness of the asylum seeker issue and contribute towards a change in attitudes. The whole series is titled “Philoxenia” (a Greek word pronounced ‘filo-zenya’ & meaning ‘extending hospitality and friendship to the stranger’) and comprise a selection of short films and interviews about refugee protection across the globe and current refugee policies in Australia. Eventually this led to MANUS, which is my first standalone film and the first I have entered into film festival competition. It recently was awarded Best Documentary at the St. Kilda Film Festival and has also been granted qualification by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for consideration at the 2020 Oscars in the Documentary Short category. After the BBFF it will be part of several other film festivals overseas including the BAFTA qualifying festival Aesthetica in the UK in November.
What does a film festival like Byron Bay Film Festival mean to you and your work?
The Byron Bay Film Festival is one of Australia’s leading film festivals so it’s a privilege to be officially selected. It means a lot for us to be able to share the film alongside so many excellent films and talented filmmakers. It has a particular significance for me because I also live in the Byron area, so I feel like I’m sharing the film with my neighbours at home and that’s gratifying. To receive this type of recognition means everything to my work because it helps us to establish a reputation so we can continue on to create more ambitious stories in film in the future. For that I’m very grateful the film was selected.
Byron Bay Film Festival showcases an array of entertaining, inspiring and thought-provoking films. Do you feel that your film helps people ‘Dream With Their Eyes Open’? And if so how?
I love that catchphrase, it’s so evocative. In our case, it is very appropriate because the men that have been held on Manus Island for 6 years are akin to a strange and uncomfortable dream in the sense that they are invisible to the public in any real-world sense. We never see or understand them as individual human beings with families and back stories just like our own. Instead, we only hear about them as a cohort of faceless people, and when we do hear about them, it’s often in a distorted, negative fashion that suits the political agendas of those in power who support the policy. The dream that I have is that by opening the eyes of the public that we share this film with, we can start to consider finding better, more compassionate and decent ways as a whole society to look after human beings who ask us for a hand-up.
What is the best piece of advice you can give to future independent filmmakers?
Work hard, take care of the details and forget about the disappointments on the way. If you have a vision and stick at it, things will open up for you in the end.
What was the most challenging part of the filmmaking process?
This film had many challenges. The efforts of Olivia Rousset to clandestinely capture the original footage on Manus when she secretly travelled there with Jarrod McKenna and Dave Smith was an incredible achievement. When Olivia later offered me that footage hoping I could craft something engaging and emotive, we had more challenges. We had 14 hours of testimonial footage that we needed to narrow down to just 10 minutes. The objective was to create the narrative entirely in the men’s own words without us getting in the way or overly editorialising. But at the same time, we needed to create a story that held together and had some structure. I feel like we got there.
If some or all of the team is coming to the festival at Byron Bay. Who is coming and what are you looking forward to?
My primary editor, Nolan Verheij, is working overseas in Germany and can’t make it. He’s freaking out that he can’t be here because he’s also a Byron area local. I’ll be there, and two other people from the team that made valuable contributions to the film will also be there: Lisa Mulholland who edited, and Nerine Moodley who does all our logistics. We’re planning on Olivia Rousset, who shot the original footage on Manus, coming up for a screening event and hope that Manus refugee, Behrouz Boochani will join our discussion by Skype from PNG.
Any upcoming projects for you, your team or key creatives involved in your film?
I’m developing a feature length documentary around the same issue of forced displacement shot at one of the world’s largest refugee camp in Jordan together with my team. If Manus shows the problem, the next project will be about the solution. I’m also working on a major exhibition of paintings to be held next year in Sydney.
Any upcoming projects for the filmmaking team?
We’ll be working towards the feature documentary I mentioned and also releasing a new series of short films later in the year around solidarity. This is a project I’ve been working on for some time now.
What drives you as a filmmaker?
Telling stories that engage and touch people. As a painter, this was my mission for 20 years. Although filmmaking is an entirely different and newer medium for me, I’m searching for the same things. Film can tell stories in a way that genuinely move and inspire others. Searching for those moments in the filmmaking process is exhilarating.
If you have had previous involvement or experience with BBFF how would you say it compares to other festivals or related events?
I’ve been to BBFF previously as an audience member, but never as a filmmaker. It’s a brilliant festival, incorporating a lot of energy and showcasing brilliant and diverse films. In terms of Australian festivals, it’s right up there at the top and has its own unique character because we all know, Byron is a unique! One of the factors that sets it apart from other festivals is that so many creative people who are prominent in various areas of the film industry either live up in this region or have strong ties to the area. That only makes it a bigger part of the cultural landscape in the region and we’re fortunate to have such a high calibre a festival like this here. I’m looking forward to seeing many films that are selected this year.
If you are based in the Northern Rivers? What brought you to the region? In terms of filmmaking is there something distinct about the region that feeds into your work? Community? Landscape? Creative contacts?
I’m originally from Sydney but moved here, to Lennox Head, 20 years ago after I’d been living overseas for 6 years in Greece and Italy. I always loved the area ever since I began coming here after I left high school. It has something special, the space, the light, the diversity of people, the sense of community, the natural beauty and the creative energy. They say you have to live here 25 years before you can say you’re a local- I’m almost there! But this is home for me and I’m fortunate to live in this beautiful place.
Anything interesting or unique about the filmmaking process for this film, any hiccups along the way, any happy coincidences that changed the films direction?
No real hiccups! just the long intense grind of crafting of the story! The film was based on hours of original footage shot at night captured beautifully by Olivia Rousset but in difficult conditions with limited lighting. That’s why we went for black and white. We also edited the footage to focus on the speaker and blacked out other parts of the frame in many places.
The event that changed the film significantly was introducing Behrouz Boochani’s poem which he kindly agreed to let us use. The film was a stream of dialogue by various men on Manus and I was looking for something more ephemeral to close the piece in an emotional way and lift it. Olivia mentioned a poem Behrouz had written that she loved. I found a poem he’d written called Manus Poem and asked him if he would recite it for the film in Farsi, his own language. I wanted to do that because the other dialogue is all in English, the second language for all those on Manus that were interviewed. Those who spoke have excellent English, but it was important to also include one passage that was spoken in the original language of one individual’s homeland to remind us how far they have come and what they have been through. Behrouz agreed and sent some audio files via WhatsApp. The poem was originally translated into English by Behrouz’s regular translator, Omid Tofghian who also translated his award winning book, No Friend But The Mountains. We also received some brilliant assistance in constructing the phrasing from another translator who knows Behrouz, Mahnaz Alimardanian, to build a visual montage around the poem. Behrouz is an incredible writer. It’s a heart wrenching poem that captures the depth of despair felt by those on Manus. The interesting part was that once we’d done the final draft of the film, Olivia pointed out that the poem she had originally meant was another poem! Behrouz has written many. However we stayed with what we had because it was an excellent fit.
Is anything else you would like to share?
Just to thank everyone that contributed to the film including those on Manus. It was a team effort by dedicated people committed to changing this policy. I also want to especially thank Olivia Rousset who initially approached me and offered me the footage she had captured, hoping we could create something significant to shine a light on the plight of those on Manus. I hope Olivia feels that we did that justice. If recognition from our official selection for “MANUS” here and at other film festivals can contribute in any way to changing the current policy and freeing those that have been victims of this policy, then I’ll be grateful. The film is dedicated to every man that has been held offshore for more than six years. We hope audiences will take away something valuable about the nature of our humanity after seeing the film and that it might impact their thinking about how we all treat each other.
We’re looking forward to the festival and honoured to be selected!