The present will be judged by the future

First I feel I should say that yet again my plans for regularly blogging have been derailed by life. I have returned to teaching history at Monash University after 6 years and am loving it, but getting back into the rhythm (and the delightful distraction that is interested students wanting to continue talking outside of class) has been a little more time-consuming than I realised it would be. Add to that we have started renovating our house – and well chaos, lots of dust, one unimpressed Cat later – time seems to slip away quicker than I thought possible. But as part of organising a guest speaker for a unit I’m teaching (Australian history through migration) I came to learn about an extraordinary project that I have been dying to write about for a while.

Behind the Wire – is an amazing project that is literally creating and collecting the oral histories and testimonies of the future – in many forms, including video.

“Behind the Wire is an award-winning oral history project documenting the stories of the men, women and children who have been detained by the Australian government after seeking asylum in Australia. The project was founded in 2014 with the aim of bringing a new perspective on mandatory detention: the reality of the people who have lived it.

As well as this website, the project comprises a book, an exhibition, a podcast, audio stories, videos and a series of portrait photographs.” (About Us)

I recently visited the exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum – “They cannot take the sky: stories from detention” – a confronting, amazing collection of the project’s screened histories. I also had the opportunity to speak with Michael Green one of the people co-ordinating the project (along with André Dao, Sienna Merope, Angelica Neville and Dana Affleck), who has kindly agreed to come and speak with my students about the challenges and processes involved in gathering the testimony of those in mandatory detention.

The project fascinates me on a number of levels, and I am in awe of those involved: from the commitment of those who run the project, the courage of those still within the walls of detention, as well as the resilience and courage of those who have made it through immigration to become residents in Australia.

As chance would have it, just prior to talking with Michael and visiting the exhibition, I happened to be teaching a different group of students in another unit that looks at a variety of case studies based on the theme of remembering the past. The case study we were looking at was Holocaust Rememberance, and in particular they were looking at the Visual History Archive now run out of USC. With around 42,000 filmed interviews with Holocaust survivors it is an extraordinary Screened History archive. The conversations with students were insightful and challenging, considering all the ethical, moral and historical repercussions of capturing audiovisual archives of people’s traumatic experiences on screen.

It was one of those random connections, an accident of timing, that meant right while I was discussing and reading about oral history, traumatic memory and the responsibilities of those who witness, who listen to traumatic testimony, I also began exploring the work of Behind the Wire.

Oral history, testimony, is nothing new. Historians have been working with these sources for decades (and arguably history before academia was an oral tradition). But the fact that some of those who are being given this opportunity to tell their stories through Behind the Wire are people that our own government are trying to silence and restrict access to is a sad, immoral reality that adds an edge to the experience of the viewer – and those involved.

These are stories that, without people willing to risk the wrath of our government might never be recorded. They are histories at risk of never being told or heard. The use of modern technologies, such as WhatsApp to enable these testimonies to be recorded, adds another layer of complexity to the project and its significance for historians (and my students). Screened History becomes, in this instance, an example of a project that would struggle to exist (if not fail to exist completely) if not for a new form of technology allowing the videoing of testimony from behind a wall of silence that has been institutionally established.

Many of the stories are difficult to hear, but to not listen is to turn our faces away from an injustice that is being perpetrated by our Government, in our name. It is a situation where, in doing nothing, we become part of the system, silently endorsing behaviour we should never allow to occur.

Screened History in this case is personal, private, intimate, and traumatic, as well as intensely public and political.

The future will judge this period in history, an important question to ask is: what side will you have been on?

To support the project go to: http://behindthewire.org.au/

 

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