Putting border protection into perspective


Mother Fish (M). Director: Khoa Do. Starring: Kathy Nguyen, Sheena Pam, Hieu Phan, Vico Thai. 92 minutes

Mother Fish'Behind every headline, every policy and every queue ... is a human face.' Former Young Australian of the Year Khoa Do's latest film Mother Fish is an exercise in empathy. It recreates the treacherous sea journey made by two young sisters (Nguyen, Pam) and two men (Phan, Thai) as they travel as refugees from Vietnam to Australia.

There is a depth of personal experience contained in the film. Do and his family came to Australia as refugees when Do was an infant. The principal cast members all came to Australia as refugees from Vietnam (Phan was a so-called 'boat person' way back in 1979), except Nguyen, who was born in Australia to refugee parents.

This lends authenticity to performances that otherwise lack in professional skill. Do previously achieved something similar in his film The Finished People (2003), a pseudo documentary in which real-life Sydney street kids dramatised fictionalised versions of their own lives. The result is poignant but not always effective.

Do also takes a non-naturalistic approach to staging the story. This method is intriguing but not entirely successful. The action takes place inside a textile factory, where one of the girls, as an adult, recalls her long-ago voyage on a dilapidated river boat. As she remembers, the factory becomes the setting of those memories: the benches form the outline of the boat; the floorboards stand in for ocean. Sound effects and swaying camera help evoke the undulating, watery surroundings.

Mother Fish was originally conceived as live theatre. In that context, where audiences are expected to imagine locations that could not possibly be recreated on stage, this abstract staging would have been effective. On film, it is distracting, and actually keeps the characters at an emotional distance. There is no chance of 'losing yourself' in their story, because it's not possible to forget that you are watching a film.

This is a fundamental problem, as it undermines Do's primary intention, which is to put his audience into the shoes of refugees travelling by boat, and thereby to force them to experience empathy for the characters and their counterparts in our real world. Why, then, not make the filming as naturalistic, as realistic, as possible?

Still, there is no doubting the sincererity of Do's desire to educate, rather than simply entertain. Mother Fish is the first in a planned trilogy of films about refugees. The second, Falling for Sahara, about African-Australian refugees in Melbourne, is in post-production. Films such as these, that give voice to the experiences of refugees, fulfill a vital role in that they inject truth and humanity into a conversation often dominated by fear and ignorance.

During an election campaign where both major parties are trying to win votes with prejudicial rhetoric about 'border protection', a bit of truth and humanity is just what's needed. Mother Fish, then, is well worth seeing.

Jesuit Refugee Service will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a special screening of Mother Fish in Sydney on 6 August. Khoa Do will be present to introduce the film. Other screenings around Australia will follow during August and September.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a regular contributor to Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.


Topic tags: Mother Fish, Khoa Do, Kathy Nguyen, Sheena Pam, Hieu Phan, Vico Thai, vietnamese refugees



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Existing comments

The media constantly portrays "boat people", "illegals", "asylum seekers" etc as a threat to our security. where has our humanity and compassion gone?

The news reports remind me of the 19th century theme of the yellow hordes of Asia taking over Australia. Have Australians who came from war torn Europe after 1945 and Communist bloc forgotten their past experiences? why did they seek refuge in Australia? Maybe some have forgotten.

Terry | 05 August 2010  

A welcome review of the work of a fascinating and informed filmmaker. The timeliness of the cinematic release, as Tim Kroenert notes, may help offset the baseness of the major parties' politicising of lives in the balance.

Barry Gittins | 05 August 2010  

The pollies get away with their tripe because the media let them.

Today again Morrison was claiming refugee applicants should be stopped so they can't get their "prize" without a hint of understanding that the "prize" is their legal right to arrive and ask for protection.

Our useless media never just say about "boat people" but they are ALLOWED TO COME.

Marilyn Shepherd | 05 August 2010  

There is very big difference between refugees entering Australia after World War 2 and the current people smuggling schemes. Refugees were selected from camps in Europe and were given allocated places in host countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand etc. After the Vietnam War, refugees had to flee in boats out of Vietnam and they did not have anywhere else to go, as all their neighbouring countries were also under Communist rule.

Most Australians still welcome real refugees, but do not like people smuggling, which causes so much loss of life at sea. We cannot afford having refugees being discriminated because others use the lucrative services of criminal people smuggling gangs to take their place.

Our government has the right and duty to prevent our borders from being used for criminal activities. We also need to apply strict quarantine to protect the health of our wildlife and livestock. There are good reasons why people just cannot arrive whenever and whenever they want. These reasons have nothing to do with “racism” and other well-trodden slogans.

Beat Odermatt | 05 August 2010  


Have you ever wondered why boat people don't just buy a plane ticket rather than a boat passage? Might the reason be that we would never give them a visitor's visa because we would see them as too risky simply on the grounds of their nationality or country of birth?

And in any case, how can you justify removing them to places that are deemed outside the 'migration zone', simply to prevent them accessing the Australian legal system?

As to the Vietnamese boat people, all the neighbouring countries were not under communist rule. What about Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia - all of which were much closer than this country?

Warwick | 05 August 2010  

Beat, if you were about to have your head cut off, your family murdered and your home burnt to the ground would you stay around and wait for Australia to give you a visa or would you pay anyone you could.

There is absolutely no difference between refugees from Europe escaping nazism and facism in the 1930s and after the war and an Hazara Afghan fleeing the Taliban.

And it is not a crime to pay to leave.

Marilyn Shepherd | 06 August 2010  

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