Film review | The Island of Hungry Ghosts

The winner of the Best Documentary category at the Valletta Film Festival is a uniquely poetic look into the fraught mental space displaced migrants are forced to occupy • 3/5 

Director Gabrielle Brady speaks about The Island of Hungry Ghosts during a Valletta Film Festival Talent Talk at City Lights, Valletta
Director Gabrielle Brady speaks about The Island of Hungry Ghosts during a Valletta Film Festival Talent Talk at City Lights, Valletta

A strong selection of documentaries characterised this year’s edition of the Valletta Film Festival, but the strange and elliptical entry by Australian director Gabrielle Brady – already late of the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year – emerged victorious from that solid bunch, securing the Best Documentary gong at the Festival’s ceremony last night.

In a lot of ways, the film gathers together a number of ‘desirables’ one would expect from any ethically thoughtful and formally bold piece of documentary work, even if its narrative focus sometimes feels controversial.

Filmed largely from the point of view of a post traumatic stress disorder counsellor working with displaced migrants on Christmas Island – which is beholden to Australia’s often draconian immigration laws – Brady’s film juxtaposes the psychologically and politically fraught situation of forcibly uprooted individuals finding a measure of catharsis during their therapy sessions with Poh Lin, and the migration of millions of land crabs making their seasonal journey across the terrain – a trajectory overseen by kindly volunteers who take it upon themselves to redirect passing traffic out of the crabs’ way.

At the risk of coming across as both insensitive and banal given the subject matter, the first thing that will inevitably strike many is just how lush and ‘good-looking’ Brady’s film is. The crab sequences in particular – shot with what I can’t help but call loving lens-work by cinematographer Michael Latham – simply makes for drool-worthy visual immersion. Beyond the natural voyeurism of the National Geographic/Discovery Channel approach, there is a keen attention to both colour and movement, with the rapid migration of the crabs across the roads looking like an army of animated measles, and once they reach the forests, the camera allows their sluggish motion to show off their hypnotic anatomy at work. The kind of cinematographic work that truly earns the oft-overused tag of ‘poetic’.

Of course, great as it is to watch and intellectually logical as its inclusion may be, it’s also something of an obvious parallel, and we could take it to task for being too on-the-nose. But once in the counseling sessions, Brady’s approach favours an intense close-up lit through suffused but strong glares of white – an approach both clinical and sensitive. So that juxtaposition with the crabs feels like an act of compassion; a call towards seeing these people’s displacement as an act of dangerous necessity.

In fact, another problematic element of the work – at least, potentially – lies in the fact that Poh Lin is made to play the protagonist of the piece. This choice carries with it the unfortunate consequence of essentially framing the proceedings from the point of view of the white protagonist – sensitive and well-meaning though she may be. But one suspects – as a Q&A with the director during the film’s screening at Spazju Kreattiv on June 12 bears out – that gaining any further access to the migrants themselves would have jeopardised their already precarious status, and through Poh Lin we’re also allowed a look-in into the callous bureaucratic tangle that leads to people – people whose stories we hear in judicious detail – to be classed as undesirable things to be kept out at all costs.

In a film suffused with lyricism and the kind of intangible charm – in the original sense of radiating, talismanic magic – its titular reference stands out as being particularly special. A ritual to appease the ‘hungry ghosts’, it stems from the heritage of Christmas Island’s Chinese migrants – closing the circle of pain, confession and the inexorable link between the natural environment and its human players which makes up the fulcrum of Brady’s documentary.

The verdict

Elliptical and immersive, Gabrielle Brady’s award-winning documentary does come with a fair share of visual indulgence and is ever-so-slightly hampered by a framing device that favours the white local over the immigrants whose story it is meant to survey. But it remains a heady experience, elevated by its access to counseling sessions and a truly remarkable cinematographic approach to the natural world.


The Island of Hungry Ghosts was screened at the Valletta Film Festival, where it was awarded the Best Documentary prize