Walking to the Tasmanian Premiere of the documentary feature film ‘Mary Meets Mohammad’, I wondered about which of the many themes surrounding the Tasmanian asylum-seeker detention centre at Pontville would be highlighted.
Some of the issues: very poor political process with no consultation with the local community prior to the Federal Government’s announcement, the political cul-de-sac into which Australia’s two major political parties have callously driven the asylum-seeker issue including derogatory labels ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’, the well-being or otherwise of the detained, the well-being of the local community, the (un)welcome the detainees would receive by the locals, the degree of access allowed for local supportive people to enter a high security area in order to provide welcome and community for the detainees and the stories of the community groups that supported the asylum-seekers.
Filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick has gifted us a heart-warming documentary featuring the power of meeting one another; of our common humanity. This is a precious gift in Australia’s current season of aggressive division.
The documentary commences with the confronting public meeting between local people and Federal Government personnel seeking to explain why the Government has taken the decision to construct a detention centre for asylum-seekers in the community without consulting the community. Only a few local people, including Anglican priest Revd Kaye Paice and lay leader Rick Giddings, speak in favour of welcome. The scene is set for an exploration of not just attitudes but of the journey of some people towards welcome and hospitality and of other people whose rejection remains. I my experience, this is a fair depiction of the diversity of Tasmanian opinion on this issue.
Mary, an elderly local resident, starts her engagement with this community issue strongly opposed to the asylum-seekers being welcomed, as seen in the film trailer, here. While expressing, “I am dead set against them coming here” Mary has a growing sense of curiosity, “I am curious about what they’ve got (in the detention centre) and how they are living. I want to go and see if it’s true. I don’t think I’ll change. I still think I’ll be against the whole thing.”
When asked, “Have you ever met a Muslim man?” Mary’s “No.” is followed by another question from the filmmaker, “What do you imagine?” and Mary’s direct answer, “I imagine them as being a pack of heathen.”
Mohammad, an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan, speaks, “I thinking about the Australian community: it is good or not? I saw a lot of time in the television the politics kicking the asylum-seeker just like a soccer ball.”
We have here two very different people with very different perspectives of the Pontville detention centre and asylum-seekers. This sets the scene for a journey of exploration for both Mary and Mohammad. Exploration of the power of meeting: the grace and curiosity to seek understanding and relational knowledge of the other (different) person. The film’s title captures this, ‘Mary Meets Mohammad’.
There is much more that could be said but two examples here: a. The multilayered ‘Mary’: Mary of Pontville and Mary the mother of Jesus who in going with God’s will, grows in her understanding of the mystery of God’s ways in the world. b. The metaphor of generous ‘knitting’: knitted beanies and knitted humanity. I strongly recommend this rich film for conversation in book clubs and church home groups.
For the Christian, and Mary of Pontville is a Christian, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:25-37) rings true as we are challenged by Jesus Christ’s, “Go and do likewise”. i.e., ‘be neighbour’. It is not the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbour?” but rather Jesus’ challenge, ‘Go and be neighbour’. In this, Mary does us all a service by her openness and humility as she, along with the Brighton Knitting Group who knit their beanies for charity, now includes the asylum-seekers detained at Pontville in her generosity; a generosity that has been hard won, it has not been without personal cost to her. In speaking with Mary following the film, I was strengthened by her own determination to overcome the cost of ridicule at her support for asylum-seekers and her friendship with Mohammad. Her strength, “I wanted people to see Jesus in me.” I have. Thank you, Mary.
Other stories of positive engagement with the asylum-seekers are also told. We see Emily and Clarisa encouraging community support, the Mayor of Brighton, Tony Foster, energetically supportive and the Pontville Anglican Church’s involvement. These stories are only partly told and while I was left wanting to know more of their experiences and learning I was aware that filmmaker, Heather, could not include in the documentary all the film she had shot over her two year investigation!
Other themes are explored and among them the issue of the effects of indefinite long term detention removed from the Australian community, on the mental health of detainees is particularly disturbing. Mohammad’s candid sharing of his experience is deeply moving and troubling. I had the pleasure of speaking with him following the film. He is a gracious and gentle Hazara Muslim man agonising over the safety of his threatened family. His fear for his family, his daily anxiety is totally understandable and merits our deepest empathy and support.
Only 3 days prior to seeing this film I had come across a wrist band from Beyond Blue given at a workshop I attended on Mental Health. Walking from the cinema I noted that I had been unconsciously holding the wrist band. While this was an unconscious act, I was very conscious of the dramatic deterioration in the mental health of some asylum seekers I had known during my visits to Pontville. My heart is heavy; tears have formed, as I heard of their continuing suffering and despair. May God forgive Australia!
I can only plead with our Federal Government that health and security checks and release in 90 days must be the policy norm that we work towards. Even selfishly, if over 90% of asylum seekers end up living among us, surely we would want them to be healthy in body and mind? Why are we so afraid?
I first met Heather Kirkpatrick at the Pontville Anglican Church while she was gathering information and filming. It is now a privilege to see the documentary film flowing from Heather’s dedicated work.
‘Mary Meets Mohammad’ is an inspiration and challenge to work openly and honestly with persistence, curiosity and generosity at being neighbour to all those people with whom we share life.
Please do all you can to attend a cinema and if in Hobart the State Cinema, to experience this exceptional film.
There is more information including the documentary film’s trailer at, Mary Meets Mohammad.
See also, Knitting bridges culture chasm by Emma Hope and Knitting binds cultures together in Mary Meets Mohammed a radio interview with Ryk Goddard.
In a recent Op-Ed article in a Tasmanian newspaper, I have written of the importance of conversation, Sitting down together. Elsewhere I have reviewed the story of another Afghani asylum-seeker, The Rugmaker of Mazar-E-Sharif .