Following the ShorTS International Film Festival in Trieste and the Noir Film Festival in Como in 2017, the Mercurius Prize lived another interesting chapter in its story at the HRFF- Human Rights Film Festival in Zurich on 7 December 2018. Given its focus on films of particular sensitivity to human rights, as well as on psychological depth and understanding from a Jungian perspective, the Mercurius Prize Committee found in the HRFF an ideal and inspiring framework to exercise and reflect on its mission and goals.
Under the direction of Sascha Lara Bleuler, the 4th HRFF took place in Zurich from the 5th to the 10th of December — the day of the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN– and hosted a rich program of feature films, documentaries and round tables with filmmakers and contributors from all over the world (cf. https://humanrightsfilmfestival.ch).
The MPC Jury, composed of Nathalie Boëthius-de Béthune, Steve Buser, Nancy Swift Furlotti, Luis Moris, Giovanni Sorge, Murray Stein, Chiara Tozzi and Valentina Lucia Zampieri, under the chairmanship of Keith Cunningham, was offered the following selection of films for our consideration and evaluation:
In My Room, by Ayelet Albenda (Israel, 2017)
Los Versos del Olvido by Alireza Khatami (Germany, Chile, France, 2017)
Srbenka by Nebojsa Slijepcevic (Croatia, 2018)
Island of The Hungry Ghosts by Gabrielle Brady (Germany, UK, Australia, 2018)
After careful consideration and animated discussions, the MPC Jury voted to award the Mercurius Prize to Island of The Hungry Ghosts by the Australian Berlin-based director, Gabrielle Brady (cf. http://www.christmasislandfilm.com). The film was shot on the isolated Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, where every year, since time immemorial, millions of land crabs move from the jungle to the sea. On the same island, thousands of asylum-seekers have been locked up and held indefinitely in high-security Australian detention centres. Juxtaposing the natural migration of the crabs in the powerful and wild landscape and the tragic migration of humans confined in the detention structures, the film focuses on the work of a trauma therapist who lives on the island with her family and provides therapy sessions, using the method of sand-play, for the asylum seekers as she attempts to offer them support in the nearly unbearable situation of their indefinite confinement. A third element of the narrative is represented by “hungry ghost” rituals performed by the local islanders to appease the lost souls of those who died on the island without a proper burial. For its rich symbolism, powerful cinematography and capacity to render through poetic language the therapist’s inner process and to portray through mesmerizing images a contemporary human tragedy and evident violation of human rights, Island of The Hungry Ghosts seemed to the Jury the best recipient for the Mercurius Prize at the HRFF.
Given the centrality of psychotherapy in the film, and of the well known method of sand-play, introduced to Jungian psychotherapists by Dora Kalff, the MP Committee in collaboration with ISAP ZURICH invited the film director, Gabrielle Brady, to a reception at ISAP where she had the opportunity to present her work and show several segments of her film. The reception took place prior to the later screening of the film in the evening at the Riff Raff Cinema. The house of ISAP was full with Participants, students, and guests in attendance who eagerly listened to Ms. Brady tell the story of making her film and sharing her sense of the importance of its message for our times. In the subsequent apero riche (donated by Chiron Publications) people could speak informally with Ms. Brady and with one another in a congenial atmosphere presided over by ISAP President, Deborah Egger.
There followed a convivial dinner with Gabrielle Brady and members of the MP Committee, including the President Murray Stein, Steve Buser, Luis Moris, Giovanni Sorge and Valentina Lucia Zampieri, and attendance at the cinema Riff Raff, one of the venues of the HRFF, where the film was shown to a full house.
Before the screening of the film, President Murray Stein awarded the Mercurius Prize to the film maker and read the following statement, elucidating the reasons for this selection:
The Mercurius Prize Committee is pleased to award the Mercurius Prize to the film, “Island of the Hungry Ghosts,” by filmmaker Gabrielle Brady.
This impressive work was selected because of its psychological sensitivity and its graphic depiction of a major international human rights issue of our time – mass migration – as well as for its cinematic art. The filmmaker, Gabrielle Brady, has shown keen awareness for the qualities of place and context and the psychological traumas that change lives forever.
The film is full of fresh and surprising images and symbols that create a sense of empathy and understanding for those suffering the traumatic effects of mass migration.
In its special way, “Island of the Hungry Ghosts” invites viewers into an experience of injustice and betrayal of basic human rights in our time.
For this brilliant accomplishment, “Island of the Hungry Ghosts” is hereby awarded the Mercurius Prize at the Human Rights Film Festival Zurich 2018.
The screening of the film was followed by a panel discussion with Gabrielle Brady, Dr. Steve Buser, a clinical psychiatrist representing the MP Committee, Hilary Witt, Somatic Experiencing trauma therapist, and moderated by Marcy Goldberg. During the discussion Steve Buser reflected on the film from a depth psychological perspective, highlighting its various dimensions and layers, its powerful symbolic elements and mentioning how sand-play is deeply rooted in the Jungian tradition. Hilary Witt explained her approach in therapy with severely traumatized persons, similar to the migrants and asylum seekers shown in the film, and underscored the particular use of and relation to sand of the therapist in Island of the Hungry Ghosts.
Gabrielle Brady spoke about the process of making the film as a project shared from the beginning with her friend Poh Lin, the therapist working with migrants. She also described the reception of her film in Australia, where it was positively received by the audience and elicited controversial reaction by the authorities. The moderator asked some sharp questions about the legal issues the film had to face, and during the Q&A section with the audience Brady also evoked the use of censorship for films like hers in Australia.
In conclusion, the Mercurius aspect of the film seems to be concentrated not only in the powerful metaphors and symbols, but also in its transformational effect on the audience, which can be impacted in its attitude toward migrants by Brady’s sensitive treatment of the theme and become more aware of the intrinsic violence and the apparent violation of Human Rights in the context of migration nowadays.
Valentina Lucia Zampieri