One of Judaism’s defining characteristics is Chesed – compassion – which is why traditionally Jews have been involved in philanthropic endeavours throughout the ages. “Chesed is a Hebrew word commonly translated as “loving-kindness,” “kindness” or “love.” Chesed is central to Jewish ethics and Jewish theology and is a common term in the Bible for describing God’s love for humankind and God’s special relationship with the Children of Israel.”
The Hebrew Bible and rabbinic teachings command us to look after the stranger, as we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. Rabbi Hillel’s admonition, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary”, resonates with us, providing a basis for living in our modern pluralistic society.
So it is hardly surprising that many Jews feel such empathy for those who are persecuted or live under oppression, with a concomitant compulsion to right the wrongs of the world. No doubt Jewish Oscar Winner and Mount Scopus alumna Eva Orner is motivated by such teachings.
She has recently made a film to ‘shame’ Australia internationally. Garry Maddox writes:
Oscar winner Eva Orner is on a mission. The Australian filmmaker left the success she was having in the US to spend two years touring the world’s refugee camps and political hot spots with a camera, co-ordinating whistleblowers to shoot secret footage inside the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres.
Now Orner is spending six weeks travelling the country – launching the incendiary documentary Chasing Asylum and a book about its making – to urge Australians to call for the scrapping of what she considers cruel and immoral policies on asylum seekers.
“It was the most personal film I’ve made. I thought I needed to make a film to shame Australia internationally and also to educate people in Australia about what’s happening,” she says passionately.
That education is necessary given the secrecy surrounding the country’s treatment of asylum seekers and the complexity of the issue.
How do we make sense of the drownings at sea, the policy of stopping the boats and troubling reports of distressed refugees setting themselves alight or needing an abortion after a rape at an offshore detention centre?
Should we show compassion to people fleeing persecution, to children locked up for years, or are we best to trust the federal government is protecting our borders through mandatory offshore detention?
Orner pondered such questions while forging a career in New York then Los Angeles. Within three years of heading overseas in 2004, she had produced a documentary about torture by the US military, Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side, that won her both an Oscar and an Emmy.
… “Anger and frustration” were the motivation behind Chasing Asylum, which she funded entirely with private donations..
Shooting it – following refugees in Indonesia, Cambodia, Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan and Australia over 18 months – was a brutal experience.
“It was hard, man,” Orner says. “I’ve been making films for over 20 years – a lot of tough films – and this was by far the hardest. It was the most personal.
“The heroes of the film are obviously the refugees and the asylum seekers but also the whistleblowers, who were so brave. Without them, we wouldn’t know what’s happening.
“Along the way, you see lives have been destroyed. Refugees and asylum seekers have been so damaged by what they’ve been through.
The documentary earned a rare glowing endorsement in an editorial in Melbourne‘s The Age that praised Orner’s courage. “We urge citizens to see the documentary,” it read. “We believe it will convince most of them our lawmakers must evolve their policies.”
So who is this crusader? And why does she care so much that she wants to shake the country into action?
Orner, 46, grew up in Melbourne‘s Brighton. Her mother studied biochemistry at Melbourne University; her father, who never finished high school, became an apprentice toolmaker then built a successful automotive engineering business.
With older brother Michael, she had what she calls “a great Australian childhood”, attending the Jewish school Mount Scopus Memorial College before studying arts at Monash University. While she considers herself non-practicing, her family’s Jewish background left a powerful impression on her view of the world.
With three out of four grandparents dying during the Holocaust, Orner’s Polish-born parents were welcomed to Australia as post-war immigrants.
“It’s always been an issue very close to my heart as a first-generation Australian and a child of a family that was pretty devastated by the Holocaust,” she says. I was brought up with a pretty strong sense that terrible things happen to good people and that people are often in situations where they need help and support and kindness and generosity.”
Seeing the footage secretly shot by whistleblowers on the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres, Orner is appalled by the asylum seekers’ living conditions.
“It’s shocking…The fact that we’re paying $1.2 billion to keep a couple of thousand people living in squalor is shameful.
“People are living in tents that are mouldy. They have sub-standard food. Their children have no access to things needed for development in childhood like freedom and space and privacy and toys and games and proper education.”
Orner blames successive Australian government for “a very harsh, secretive policy” on asylum seekers for 15 years.
“The biggest disappointment for me in Australian politics is that our two major parties have virtually the same policies when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers.”
The way forward, she believes, is shown by former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s actions when boats were arriving from Vietnam in the seventies and early eighties.
“He set up processing camps in Malaysia, it took six to eight weeks for people to be processed then they were flown to Australia to avoid deaths at sea.”
“If we set up proper processing centres and we process people, the system works beautifully. We just need to have proper screenings – efficient and fast and adequate.”
Orner says Australia ranks a lowly 67th in the world for refugee intake, taking 13,750 a year, which she considers mean spirited. (Although the Abbott government announced a one-off take-up of 12,000 Syrians, she says fewer than 100 have been resettled.)
“The big argument from people is ‘what do you want to do, let everyone in?’ No one is saying that.
“I’d say let’s take in 50,000 a year. We have a low population, we have a lot of space, we have low unemployment.
“Bring people in, teach them the language, educate them in our customs, let them become part of our multicultural society and let us be the beneficiaries of what they can offer us instead of spending $1.2 billion a year torturing and, in some cases, damaging and killing people.”
Orner believes the plight of asylum seekers in detention should be an issue in the federal election.
“Its heartbreaking…That’s not who we are and not who we want to be. At some point we’ve got to stand up. It’s got to stop.”
Orner, along with actress Cate Blanchett, was one of only two Australians nominated for an Oscar in 2008. Most commentators predicted that Michael Moore‘s Sicko would win the Best Documentary category. However, to the surprise of many, Orner’s Taxi to the Dark Side, which examines US torture practices in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, received the award.
Within hours, Orner created controversy by describing the US Government as “a bunch of war criminals”.
“The Australian filmmaker won the Academy Award for best feature documentary as co-producer of Taxi to the Dark Side, a film about the US Government’s use of torture in its war against terrorism.
The documentary features interviews with US soldiers who participated in the torture of suspects in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.
Ms Orner said she did not blame low-ranking soldiers for such behaviour.
“Obviously, everyone’s responsible for their own actions, but you put people in bad situations who are ill-equipped, not trained, under enormous pressure and getting orders from above to do bad things.”
“The current administration are a bunch of war criminals and they need to be stopped. People need to know what’s going on.”
Back in 2014, Raymond Gill wrote: Raising UnAustralia: Eva Orner’s asylum seeker documentary
“A feature documentary that examines how Australia went from being the Lucky Country to a country that persecutes desperate asylum seekers,’’
is how film producer Eva Orner is selling her new project to potential investors.
The title, Bloody UnAustralian, comes from the expression she grew up hearing in her hometown Melbourne when people expressed their very Australian disgust of unfair behaviour or persecution of the underdog.
Orner is outraged by the Australian government’s treatment of asylum-seekers and plans to use her story-telling skills to tell the world about it.
“I’ve raised the money in record time,”
Orner said, explaining that she’s tapping into a widespread anger about the asylum seeker issue that is not just attracting Australian money, but from donors around the world.
“This is the reason I hope the film goes well globally because refugees are a global crisis with new figures showing there are now 50 million refugees in the world.”
Orner said that while Australians are well aware of the current and previous governments’ treatment of asylum seekers, it has come as a surprise to people overseas, and to Americans in particular.
“People who work in human rights and journalists here know, but not that many people here know about it. I think people love Australia and they have this lovely perception of Australia, and so they can’t believe it.”
Taxi to the Dark Side exposed US government authorised torture and sensory deprivation methods which resulted in the death of an Afghan detainee in a US run prison in Afghanistan.
“I feel like I’m taxi-ing to the dark side of Australia,”
Orner said of this film which has already attracted plenty of hate mail for her on public forums in Australia.
She said she is prepared for the film to be regarded by some as a sort of anti-Australian Tourism Commission campaign, but her hope is that the film will gain a widespread cinema release in Australia and reach a broader audience than television news feature programs that have investigated “boat people” issues.
Orner said she is a filmmaker, not a journalist, and she is not setting out to uncover new material, but to use her filmmaking skills to tell a compelling, albeit tragic, story.
“I think the only way you can change people’s minds is if you meet these people who are scared and desperate. I definitely want to humanise the story,”
she said, which she plans to do by filming asylum seekers in Lebanon, Iran, Afghanistan and Indonesia.
Eva, along with her like-minded film makers, enjoys the highlife that inevitably results from making such documentaries. As Christine Sams, Entertainment Reporter, wrote in 2008:
“Eva Orner, the only Australian nominated for this year’s Oscars aside from Cate Blanchett, has been partying hard with glamorous stars including Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore ahead of the Academy Awards tomorrow.
Orner, 38, is relishing her chance to immerse herself in Hollywood’s lavish lifestyle.
“It’s so funny. I’m sitting in a lovely car being driven to a party in the Hollywood hills,”
Orner said over the phone from Los Angeles yesterday, on her way to a dinner honouring female nominees.
“Last night we had dinner with Mike Moore, then we went to a party with Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore . . . so you know, there’s a lot happening.”
Orner, who is from Melbourne but is now based in New York, has been nominated for best documentary feature as the producer of Taxi To The Dark Side. While the documentary deals with gritty issues surrounding the use of torture by the Bush Administration, Orner is now seeing another side to America’s culture: exclusive celebrity parties.
“I’m feeling excited, grateful, exhausted, a little overwhelmed . . . and very lucky,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”
Orner has chosen a Collette Dinnigan gown for the Oscars ceremony at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, after being inundated with offers from local designers. At one of the parties preceding the awards, Orner wore Jan Logan earrings, flown in directly from Hong Kong.
Sadly, those who disagree with Orner’s take on asylum seekers are subjected to ad hominem attacks, labelled bigots and racists. Yet this is unjust, as Jews have a profound understanding what it’s like to be persecuted and being forced to flee the country they have called home.
Many, like Orner, are the children and grandchildren of refugees, and we do not lack compassion.
But we are realists, observing with alarm the rise in gratuitous attacks against the local population, plus the increase in antisemitism since Europe adopted an open borders approach. This is not scaremongering, but facing sober hard facts.
Few of us need reminding that many of the attacks in Europe have been targeted at Jews; recently in France a kosher supermarket came under terror attack, while in Belgium it was the Jewish Museum.
I’m not sure how Eva feels about Israel, but last year she approved a New York Times article written by Thomas Friedman, which was extremely critical of Netanyahu:
So while a hearty Mazeltov is due to Orner on her upcoming film and book, to paint the situation as black and white, without regard to the dangers inherent in welcoming unauthorised arrivals, is engaging in fantasy – which, come to think of it, is what filmmakers do best!