Making a fool of misconceptions
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Making a fool of misconceptions

Filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick reveals the unexpected friendship between a pensioner and an asylum seeker, Karen Hardy writes.

When Mary, a 71-year-old pensioner from Brighton, Tasmania, hears that her knitting group will be knitting beanies for the 400 asylum seekers about to be moved into the Pontville detention centre just up the road, she refuses to do it. As far as she's concerned they're all heathens for worshipping a different God, cowards for not fighting the war in their own country while our boys are dying over there, and men about to take all her pension money, local housing and jobs.

Her reaction mirrored that of many in the local community. When the Department of Immigration held a public meeting in 2011 to announce the opening of the centre, there was a hostile response. People were worried about the safety of their children, about Muslims with an agenda to take over, fearful of riots and the impact on their community.

A scene from <i>Mary Meets Mohammad</i>.

A scene from Mary Meets Mohammad.Credit:Kristy Dowsing

Filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick saw the footage of that meeting and she knew she had the beginning of a story. She heard of a visitors' group, people who would volunteer to visit asylum seekers inside the detention centre, and six weeks later came across Mary's knitting group. She knew then she had found the focus of her film.

Here was a group of women who were knitting beanies for men that most of them didn't even want around, but would deliver them personally. Mary decides, at the 11th hour, to be one of four women to deliver the beanies, curious to see what it's like inside the centre.

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Filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick.

Filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick.

''You hear a lot of people saying a lot of things,'' Mary says. ''That they get more than the pensioners get, they're living in the lap of luxury and that type of thing.

''I just want to go and have a look and see if it's true, to see what kind of people they are … I won't change, I think I'll still be against the whole thing.''

But Kirkpatrick, who had worked with asylum seekers before, was confident there would be some sort of transformation.

''Anyone I've ever seen visit a detention centre is not quite the same person afterwards because it really does open up your eyes,'' Kirkpatrick says.

''Particularly those, like Mary, who don't know much about what goes on inside and just see the headlines.''

And she was right. Over the next 16 months Kirkpatrick followed the knitting group, and Mary in particular, as an unlikely friendship grew between the women and the asylum seekers inside the centre. They bonded over crafts, over fishing, over faith and family.

Mary forms a strong bond with Mohammad, a 26-year-old Muslim man from Afghanistan, who fled Pakistan, where he had been living illegally with his wife and children, in fear of the Taliban who had executed his two older brothers.

When he is released from detention after six months he settles in Hobart and keeps in contact with Mary and their friendship develops.

''I observed an astoundingly deep connection develop between him and Mary, which became the strength and focus of the story,'' Kirkpatrick says.

''I hope the cross-cultural and cross-religious challenges they come to meet will resonate with audiences both here in Australia and worldwide.''

It's a powerful film with a strong message, but it's never preachy or opinionated. Kirkpatrick is a storyteller and she simply lets the story unfold. There are moments that will make you cringe, moments that will make you laugh and cry, moments where you'll realise that you, like Mary, really have no idea about the lives of asylum seekers. It will open your mind and your heart.

''I hope the film has the power to educate, inform and provoke debate,'' Kirkpatrick says.

''I hope the film will prick the conscience of enough Australians so we'll question what's going to happen in the next few years.

''I don't know if I could even have imagined the policy we have now.''

Kirkpatrick says she didn't set out to play the political. She just wanted to know if a ''connection of common humanity'' would prevail for Mary and Mohammad.

''One of my thoughts as I constructed the film was that they actually had parallel lives,'' she says.

''The asylum seekers have had the toughest of tough lives in their countries and at a parallel level in Tassie, the state with the lowest socio economic standing, people are doing it very hard.

''When Mary and Mohammad do connect there's this empathy that they're both battlers, that they love the simple things.

''They're from two completely different worlds but the connection was really there.''

Mary Meets Mohammad was one of four finalists for the Outstanding Documentary Talent Award at the Australian International Documentary Conference. Kirkpatrick has also developed an educational study guide to accompany the film, which will be available to schools and interested groups. The film has been approved as a philanthropic project by the Documentary Australia Foundation so any donations made will be tax deductible.

Mary Meets Mohammad premieres at Canberra's Palace Electric Cinema on September 19 at 6.30pm followed by a Q&A session with Heather Kirkpatrick. The film continues until September 25.

See marymeetsmohammad.com

Karen Hardy is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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