(Australia 2020; Dir: Alies Sluiter)


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review by Līga Požarska


length: 18

year of production: 2020

country of production: Australia

director: Alies Sluiter

production: Meng Xiong

director of photography: Jeremy Rouse

editing: Tania Nehme, Jack Smith

sound: Stefano Campello

cast: Babetida Sadjo, Trevor Jamieson

festivals: Adelaide Film Festival 2020, South Australian Screen Awards 2020, Sydney Film Festival 2020, Tampere Film Festival 2021

© images: 'Ayaan' (Alies Sluiter)

She emerges from the sea, inhales quickly and shallowly as there is no time for deep breaths. With an infant in her arms, Ayaan is on the run — a fugitive. Under a programme titled DO THE RIGHT THING ‘Ayaan’, directed by Alies Sluiter, is competing in Tampere Film Festival’s international competition. (Please note: this review contains spoilers.)

Recent short films dealing with migration have demonstrated a great deal of diversity in choosing which aspect of the refugee situation to focus on — some notable examples have been covered by Talking Shorts ('White Eye' & 'Quarantine'). What most of said films have in common is the sense of asylum seekers’ hopeless condition and their powerlessness when faced with local borders and authorities. Australian writer-director Alies Sluiter (also a professional composer and violinist) adds trust into the mix.

On an Australian rural beach, Ayaan encounters Frank, a man who, by the looks of it, can either help or betray her. She hesitates, then gets into his car. Her confidence is shaken when she discovers that he’s a ranger. Dialogue is barely existent between the two; destination “Perth” is the first word uttered from Ayaan’s lips. The lack of any verbal communication adds to her vulnerability, as well as her unpreparedness for overcoming language barriers. Instead, silence and heavy breathing do the talking, while aggressive background sounds — roaming search helicopters and barking dogs — intensify the feeling of persecution. Gradually, tension unfolds.

Why Perth? Is there someone or something waiting for her? Ayaan’s backstory remains unclear, her nationality unknown. Therefore her struggle becomes a universal portrayal of refugees’ hardships. Without knowing her native country, we cannot suspect what Ayaan is running from: war, dictatorship, poverty, famine? The credits suggest that a Somali cultural advisor was part of the crew, leading us to believe that Ayaan might be fleeing Somalia. The only song featured on the soundtrack supports this idea: ‘Hondo’, performed by Netsayi Chigwendere, a song about war and its effects on people. Nevertheless, a clear cause doesn’t matter here.

Babetida Sadjo remarkably embodies the urgency of Ayaan’s condition. This almost non-verbal performance conveys a plethora of a displaced person’s mental and physical struggle. Protectively she holds on to her baby, grabbing branches with all her might, using her last remaining force to face the coastal wilderness. Jeremy Rouse’s camera registers her tiniest facial expressions — Sadjo’s distressed gaze is her strongest tool: the close-ups of her eyes are the film’s emotional key — and details emphasising the harshness of her path, marking her exhausted feet on dry soil.

Long shots reveal her utter loneliness: in one image, she bravely confronts the majestic Australian landscape as if she were an ant, tiny and vulnerable in contrast to the grand mountain range. Vastness overrules, yet, so much space where Ayaan and her baby are actually unwanted: Australia is known for its strict treatment of asylum seekers — let’s not forget that grim campaign stating “No Way – You Will Not Make Australia Home” that earned Trump’s admiration in 2019.

Frank, an Aboriginal ranger portrayed by Trevor Jamieson with dignity and compassion, does not perceive Ayaan through the lens of prejudice, instead seeing a human in desperate need of help. A picture he carries with him suggests he’s also a husband and a father. His ethnicity, though irrelevant to the plot, is essential, inviting the viewer to reflect upon Australia’s treatment of both asylum seekers and Indigenous people. In 2017, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concerns about the human rights situation in Australia, highlighting several problematic issues, including refugee and indigenous rights. Suddenly, two displaced people are riding in that Defender: one forced to flee, the other’s lands taken by colonizers.

The closing credits open with a statement by the filmmakers, in which they acknowledge the traditional owners of the country (Narungga, Nakunu and Kaurna nations) on whose land the filming took place. This small thank you note is a respectful bow to these groups of Aboriginal Australians inhabiting the South.

Sluiter’s film offers a hypothetical scenario in which Ayaan is submitted to the authorities. For a minute there, she thinks that the helpful man will denounce them to his police colleagues. Slightly trembling she observes other refugees held at the port: What if she also gets separated from her child? Tears begin to well up in her eyes. Letting her experience intense fear of deportation and then sparing her from this fate is the film’s strongest point.

‘Ayaan’ is a simply structured and genuine film with a strong emotional capacity and bittersweet aftertaste. Essentially, it’s a tale about kindness and whether to trust in it. While the world is descending into growing cynicism, Sluiter’s film celebrates sincerity.