Every so often I watch Compass on ABC - it's a program about religion. I love it because it shows people doing good for the community, and explores many cultures. My Dad and I somehow got talking about religion, and we both recommended that each other watch Compass. Turns out we both do! Dad told me he saw an episode that featured an excerpt of Mary Meets Mohammed, a Tasmanian-made documentary about an elderly Christian woman who befriends a young Muslim man - an asylum seeker from Afghanistan. Mary and Mohammed became unlikely friends.
I went back to watch the episode on iView.
In 2011, the Australian government announced the development of Tasmania's first detention centre for 400 male asylum seekers - mostly from Afghanistan - at Pontville, outside of Hobart. Mary, and the majority of the community, opposed the development, believing the refugees would be a risk to public safety. would live in luxury and receive entitlements far greater than their own. The community, including Mary, had strong negative views about asylum seekers which were informed by the media and hearsay.
Mary belongs to a knitting club, and when a suggestion was made for the knitters to make beanies for the asylum seekers, not everyone was in support. Mary and many other knitters were strongly opposed to the asylum seekers, but were curious all the same. She and four other knitters delivered the beanies, and soon became regular visitors when the saw the conditions the asylum seekers lived in, and how much they had in common. The knitters learnt so much about the culture of these men, what brought them here and their hopes for making a good life in Australia. Their perceptions soon changed and friendships flourished.
At one point, Mary told her friends outside the knitting club about visiting the detention centre, and how she and the knitters have befriended its detainees. Her friends' reactions are uncomfortable, embarrassing and heartless - naively informed by the media. The film does signify many Australians' attitudes toward asylum seekers, but it also represents the great levels of compassion that many other Australians have. I believe Mary Meets Mohammed is instrumental in changing people's perceptions of asylum seekers.
After six months Mohammed was released from detention and Mary continued to see him. He regards her as his "Australian Nanna". They said they have so much in common, finishing off each other's sentences. It is a beautiful friendship. And Mary has a new found respect and appreciation for religions other than Christianity.
I talked with my Dad after watching the excerpt on Compass. He wrote:
"Any person that is suspicious of Muslims & how they are portrayed by the media etc. should watch this. Please, let's live together regardless of where we were born & what religion we were born into. I like the way the attitude of those sceptics changed once they met Mohammed & realised he was a wonderful human being."
I was so warmed by the excerpt of the film that I wrote about it on Facebook, tagging the film's Facebook page. Filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick contacted me asking if I could do some promo of the dates the full length feature is screening, and I asked her for an interview. She told me that Mary Meets Mohammed was one of four finalists for the ‘Outstanding Documentary Talent Award’ for 2013 and she and the film were selected in the six finalists for the 2013 Walkley Documentary Prize. Congratulations Heather, Mary, Mohammed and all involved!
Carly: Why did you make Mary Meets Mohammed?
Heather: "I was looking for an idea for a documentary and had only been home a week after working overseas for a while. That week the news of the detention centre was announced and I saw a strong hostile response to this at a public meeting on my own television. Then I saw a visitor group emerge two weeks ater who wanted to make friendship visits to the asylum seekers. With these polarised views in the community I thought it would be a good starting point for a documentary. So the idea really fell in my lap as it was all happening close to home."
How did attitudes towards asylum seekers change - both those of the participants and the viewers'?
"The knitting women who visited the asylum seekers to deliver some beanies had a huge transformation in their attitudes as a result of meeting the asylum seekers face to face. They became weekly visitors and have remained friends with the men since. Viewers have commented how the film is real eye opener and shifted their views."
What are some of the messages in the film?
"Listen to Sally Sara's interview with Mary, as the film is an observational documentary of her journey. It does help bridge cross cultural and cross religious barriers. Mary and the knitters discovered a common humanity with the asylum seekers and that their prior beliefs on asylum seekers and Muslims had been based on mythology and political spin.
When I came in contact with the women at the local knitting club at Brighton, I felt their diverse views on asylum seekers, was somewhat representative of the Australian community at large."
How are Mary and Mohammed now?
"They are still great friends but Mohammad gained a full time job interstate so they are only able to maintain phone contact."
What did you learn from making the film?
"That it was worth persisting making it over two years with no funding aside from a spent inheritance from my father. I learned to become a Director, Producer, Editor and Distributor along the way. The film was just selected as a Walkley finalist which is very exciting. I hope this can be inspiring to other independent low budget filmmakers."
Mary Meets Mohammed is screening around Australia now. Click here for screening times. There are a few Q&A sessions with the filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick and leading composer David Bridie, but book quick as these sessions are selling fast.
You can donate to help the film be screened more widely.
You can also visit an asylum seeker in your area.
I'm giving away a double pass for the Sydney screening which is happening on Monday 4 November. Email me if you'd like to go! I need to know by 4.00 pm today 1 November.