BORDER POLITICS gets 5/10 Emotional territory

Director Judy Rymer
Presenter Julian Burnside


Judy Rymer’s new documentary sets out to tackle the divisive and complicated topic of recent immigration practices of the West. That is admirable and timely but ultimately this film fails to make any new cohesive arguments or give a greater perspective of the issues.

In barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside we have the makings of a good guide. Urbane, softly spoken but compassionate and passionate about the plight of refugees, Burnside continually implores to camera that we are losing our moral compass and fast. As a man whose beliefs were forever altered doing pro bono work in the Tampa case this is someone with first-hand knowledge of the poor living conditions of those who flee for a better life and also someone who can understand the average Australian who may not be aware of everything that is going on. Alas we never really get much personal sharing of this experience. We follow him from Australia to Scotland (where many refugees have been taken in) to Calais, Germany, Lesbos, Jordan and Mexico. Throughout there are interviews with many experts or community groups that have aided refugees when their governments have not. Occasionally the lawyer speaks directly to refugees themselves or to common citizens who have taken them into their homes and workplaces. These moments are when a human face is put to the conundrum being discussed and the film could have benefitted from more of this.

Mr Burnside feels strongly that human rights are for all and if we get comfortable denying them to immigrants then we set a precedent for them being taken away from all of us. More importantly, our very national and personal souls are at stake with not helping people just simply fleeing their country and war in search of a better life. At one point standing amidst a sea of life jackets he is visibly shaken and his heartfelt words resonate.

Unfortunately there is a lack of counter argument and debate of the ideas that lead us to this thinking. Often he mentions a lack of good leadership, that human rights are for all but there is barely any discussion of why immigrants landing in Jordan and Turkey continue to move onto Germany, France and the U.K. Border fencing put up in other countries to stop that flow, political movements in some of those countries that espouses fear, terrorist attacks in others, the unsustainability of continuing to have the majority of refugees in Jordan due to their sheer volume are all briefly glossed over. A lengthier description of these actions and their justifications and counter claims both morally and practically would’ve been helpful for making his case. Instead all of the people interviewed are people who agree with him and are fighting the same good fight. Audiences watching will get a good sense of why we should help refugees but not a better understanding of why we haven’t so much up to this point. It feels sadly a little too much of preaching to the converted.

The production traverses the globe, moving quickly through different talking heads and locations. It never stops too long in any one place but as points begin to repeat over and over again the film even at a trim 90minutes becomes a bit of a slog. There are bright spots in particular in Lesbos and Jordan where we see real community spirit in helping those affected by the Syrian war. Near the end of Border Politics, journalist David Marr opines “There has to be a way of getting to a point where people realize that what was done in these years was needless and cruel but I’ve lost any sense of how we get there”. It unfortunately rings a little too appropriately with the aim of this film.


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