Letters to Ali

Letters to Ali (Australia, director Clara Law): No, this isn’t about Muhammad Ali. It’s the story of a 15-year old Afghan boy who’s seeking asylum in Australia, and about the Australian family who befriend him. Australia is the only “Western” country that incarcerates all refugee claimants in remote camps, forbidding them to work or go to school until their cases are decided, which often takes years. The filmmaker befriended a remarkable family who had been writing to “Ali” (a pseudonym) for more than 18 months. They had even driven 12,000 km round-trip to visit him. When they decide to visit him a second time, the filmmaker and her cameraman/husband tag along, and this film is the result.

Although she draws attention to a particularly shameful policy, the film is weakened in my opinion by a few things. Since it was filmed on digital video, some of the handheld camera work left me nauseated. There were far too many shots of the admittedly-gorgeous Australian landscape shot from the bouncing vehicle on the unpaved road. Related to this, the film was simply too long and felt too slow-paced. Another issue was that the first ten minutes promise a much more personal film than is ultimately delivered. We hear about the filmmaker’s own experience as a recent immigrant from Hong Kong, but then she kind of fades into the background for much of the rest of the film. “Ali” is described throughout the film and some of his words are used on the innovative captions the film uses instead of voiceover narration, but since filming inside the detention centre wasn’t permitted, there is precious little footage of the boy himself. When, near the end of the film, “Ali” is allowed some degree of freedom outside the camp, we do see him enjoying himself with his new adoptive family, but due to concerns about jeopardizing his refugee case, he’s entirely blurred out, which was at first odd and then just annoying. Not only can’t we see his face, but we don’t know his real name, nor have we heard his voice. We know just enough about him to sympathize, but no more. The fear that has motivated Australia’s repressive policy has also infected the filmmakers and the lawyers representing “Ali,” leaving him almost as faceless as the Australian government would like him to be. As of this screening, his case is still unresolved. He may be sent back to troubled Afghanistan at any time. Let’s hope this film can make a difference, not just for “Ali”, but for the thousands of refugee claimants still imprisoned in Australia.

Film’s Web Site: www.letterstoali.com


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