Portrait of a place, counter histories, the end of empire, colonialism, geography and imagination.
This week, Berlin-based documentary-maker Gabrielle Brady brings you a counter history of Christmas Island, one of last places on earth to be settled by humans, presented in triptych. The island was annexed in 1888 by the British after they found lime phosphate of the purest order; Australia purchased it from Singapore for $20 million in 1958.
Now, the island is one of the few Australian states or territories in which a minority of the population are Anglo-Celtic. Like Lightning Ridge, the site of Alena Lodkina’s 2017 drama Strange Colours, Christmas Island tends to attract loners and eccentrics from the mainland seeking an unconventional life. In this work, one such roguish character, Chris Tremain, who works as the island’s internet technician, scavenges and scrounges in the ruins of 20th century workers’ housing.
Remain then leads us to a marble monument etched with Chinese characters in the tropical jungle, lamenting the fates of those driven to the outer reaches of the Great British Empire by the difficulties in finding work back home.
Finally, we come upon the eerie remains of the European Club, a segregated relic of the former British colony that discriminated against Chinese workers who toiled on the island as indentured slaves. There, we hear the testimony of Choy Lan, whose parents were forced off the island once their employment was terminated.
In her highly inventive debut feature documentary, Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018), Gabrielle Brady connected Christmas Island’s history of indentured labour and forced migration with its frankly terrible present. Until 2018, the rocky landmass housed the Christmas Island Immigration Reception and Processing Centre, in which asylum seekers were detained indefinitely and mandatorily, in a policy initially introduced by the Labor government. The present occupants of Christmas Island still walk across an emotionally fraught landscape that bears the traces of the grief of a hundred years of fearful migration.
In Brady’s work, rocks, mountains and natural formations speak to the mythical power of geology. Despite the island’s short human history of discontent and exploitation, the tropical jungle seethes and buzzes. Layers of time reveal themselves in the landscape. Brady tends to films plants and ecosystems in such a way as to detect their sentience. What she has found here is no less than the ruins of an unhappy settlement and the ocean surrounding it, the disrepair of an old empire, and a tale of the stupidity and futility of colonial conquest.
About Gabrielle Brady
Gabrielle Brady is an Australian/British filmmaker who is currently based in Berlin. For the past ten years Gabrielle has lived in Cuba, the Australian central desert, Mongolia, Indonesia, Mexico and Europe. Gabrielle works with hybrid and performative elements in documentary storytelling.