In 2011, with its detention centres overflowing, the Australian Government announced it would be opening a new facility 30 minutes out of Hobart in the tiny town of Pontsville. Upon hearing the news, the local community were utterly divided.
At the same time, Tasmanian documentary filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick was looking for a story to tell.
“I’d only been home in Tasmania a week when I saw the news of the detention centre being announced and the response to that on the ABC. There was a very strong reaction, a strong sentiment against it in the immediate community, so it caught my attention.”
Straight away, she knew there was a story in it. It had the right amount of conflict and all she needed now were some characters to bring it to life.
“I walked into the knitting club and I immediately saw this very colourful group of women, who to me represented a cross-section of Australian society, where everybody has a different opinion on asylum seekers.”
One of those present was Mary, a staunch Christian, who was brutally honest about her feelings towards the mostly Muslim men, calling them “heathens”. Apart from opposing their religion, she was also afraid the asylum seekers were going to take money away from pensioners while living in so-called luxury in the detention centre.
Fortunately for Director Heather Kirkpatrick, Mary was curious enough to want to go inside the centre to see what life was like behind the barbed wire, and happy to be filmed in the process.
“She was such a strong character and strongly opposed, so she was always interesting. But I didn’t know that Mary would visit the detention centre—I was actually following a few different stories at the knitting group. There’s always an element of surprise when you’re not writing a script, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
During her visit, Mary meets Mohammad, a young Afghan Hazara. Over the next two years, Heather traces the story of their friendship, from inside the detention centre, to outside the compound once the centre has closed and Mohammad has settled in Hobart.
What results is a fascinating tale of prejudices melting in the fires of human connection. By the end of the film, Mohammad is claiming Mary to be an honorary grandmother.
Mary Meets Mohammad is currently screening around the country to sold-out crowds. But it’s not just the independent cinemas which have picked up the doco, so have churches.
“Churches have been wonderful with this film. I’ve had so much support. A lot of churches are actually screening the film in the parishes. Christians love the film, Muslims love the film. It’s a good one to bring us all together.”
Local Christians including Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, John Harrower, feature in the film, as the Pontville Anglican Church looks onto the detention centre.
“What Mary does is uncover that the truth is actually far from what she believed in the beginning…The interesting flip-side of the film is that these refugees are so open-minded, they don’t mind what religion you come from. I mean, they might be Muslims—and most of them are—but what actually unfolds in the film, is that Mohammad is actually more open-minded than Mary,” says Heather.
Despite having her strong views recorded forever on film, Heather says Mary hasn’t faced a backlash since the documentary began screening.
“There’s not been a single bit of criticism towards Mary. She says she goes to the shops now and people say ‘Oh, you’re Mary in the movie.’ But she hasn’t had any problems whatsoever.”
“And I think that whole community, and Hobart in general has been transformed by having this detention centre close-by. It’s a small community, people see all the good things that can happen, and all the stories that come from it.”
Mary Meets Mohammad is screening in Darwin tonight (12/09), followed by Perth on Sunday (15/09), Brisbane on Monday(16/09), followed by Canberra. It will hit Sydney and Melbourne in November. If your church or community group would like to screen the film, you can enquire via email. Watch the trailer below.
Image credits: Kristy Dowsing and Toby Story.