Documentary dealing with immigration and the migrant experience in Australia is a continuous thread running through Australian cinema, more recently eclipsed by works equally complex in their articulation of politics and culture, responding in different ways to Australia's reaction to refugees and the troublesome obsession in Australian domestic political discourse with ‘border protection’. In what follows, we make reference to state-sponsored documentary of the early 1950s supporting immigration in post-war reconstruction, and to a number of recent documentary projects across a spectrum of contemporary forms, projects that respond to public debate around asylum seekers and refugees. Questions of editorial and creative independence and the relationship of these with Australian public television have become increasingly complex and problematic in recent times. The examples we discuss illustrate a diversity of strategies filmmakers have adopted in responding to recent developments in both the financing and production context, and the prominence of political contestation concerning refugee policy. But before turning to the films themselves, aspects of this political and film production context need to be outlined.
Setting aside the occupation of the continent and dispossession of its original inhabitants by the English arriving by boat in the late eighteenth century, Australia's first experience of ‘boat people’ followed the victory of the Vietnamese in the American war in Vietnam. A conservative government under Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (from 1975 to 1983) accepted large numbers of refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in a manner recognised today as a humane response to the Indo-Chinese refugee crisis. A small proportion of these asylum seekers appeared on the horizon as ‘boat people’, and it was this visibility that initiated an abiding obsession with ‘illegals’ and border control that has, on the one hand, tempted and lured opportunistic politicians and, on the other hand, plagued governments on and off ever since. Over the past twenty-five years, Australians’ attitudes to asylum seekers arriving by boat have gradually become increasingly hostile (Betts 2001: 7), even though by any measure, Australia has far less to deal with than many other countries.
The visibility of boat arrivals, and some Australians’ growing hostility toward them, had an abiding focus when a Norwegian ship, the Tampa, rescued four hundred people from a shipwreck in August 2001. A federal election due toward the end of that year excited a promise that ‘stopping the boats’ was likely to be a winner.