Christmas Island’s migrating crabs and political detainees intersect in cinematic fashion for the Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Documentary Award-winner Island of the Hungry Ghosts, lensed by acclaimed cinematographer Michael Latham.
By James Cunningham.
The tiny Indian Ocean Territory of Christmas Island has been a centre for migrating populations for millennia. First, the distinctive Christmas Island red crabs; then indentured phosphate miners from China and Malaysia in the nineteenth century; and most recently, people seeking asylum in Australia.
It is here, at the nexus of those three migrating populations, that first-time feature documentarian Gabrielle Brady locates her extraordinary essay, The Island of the Hungry Ghosts, which screened last month at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Cinematographer Michael Latham had never met Brady, who is Australian but lives overseas, before working with her. One off Brady’s producers had suggested Latham based on his work on the award-winning documentary Ukraine is Not a Brothel (2013).
Brady’s treatment for the film was an examination into the sordid history of Christmas Island. It explored its slavery past, its millions of crabs and more recently its immigration detention centre. The story revolved around and collaborated with one of Brady’s closest friends, Pho Lin Lee.
Lee worked at the detention centre as a trauma therapist for several years and had witnessed first hand the effect of our immigration detention system on detained refugees. For Latham it was an important story that needed to be told and there was this tragic absurdity to the island. “The crabs were protected and could migrate freely whilst humans were being detained and mistreated for their migration,” explains Latham.
As therapist, Lee works with the people being detained to tell their stories, the Island’s willing residents perform ‘hungry ghost rituals’ for spirits whose lack of proper burial has doomed them to wander its jungles for eternity; meanwhile, the crabs march across the land in their millions, in an endless cycle that repeats every year. Poetic and hypnotic, Island of the Hungry Ghosts presented a unique and moving meditation on politics, people and primeval nature.
“ The crabs were protected and could migrate freely whilst humans were being detained and mistreated for their migration. ”
Brady’s approach to the story was also intriguing. Lee didn’t work on Christmas Island anymore so the filmmakers would have to approach the project as hybrid documentary. They brought Lee’s family back to the Island and constructed events based on what happened in their lives, but would shoot Island of the Hungry Ghosts as a ‘pure documentary’. No second takes, no manipulation within a scene, no holding for the camera, you get what you get.
The other issue was how to shoot within the Immigration Detention Centre. Only one television crew has ever been allowed access to the facility, and that was when it was brand new, empty of occupants. It is far too politically sensitive to gain access now. For their own safety the tiny crew built a makeshift a therapy office in Melbourne as a double to shoot with the people seeking asylum who were off the island after being granted temporary visas. It was a huge risk to for them to be filmed as Australia constantly revokes visas and deports or detains people.
Lee had worked with some of these people while they were in detention, and so the therapy sessions were as real as you could get. There was no manipulation, no second takes and no interruptions. It was a therapy session and we had to respect the sensitive nature of that environment. It was an incredibly powerful thing to be a witness to what these people had been through.
Lee and the refugees were re-living intense emotions so Latham had to respect that with his camera work too. “In a way, it is no different to any other documentary or narrative that I approach in that you try to ‘blend in’ to the background as much as you can so that what is in front of the camera is as authentic and uninterrupted as possible,” explains the cinematographer.
Christmas Island has a prehistoric feeling to it. “As if you had walked into Jurassic Park,” says Latham. “Dense jungles covered crawling with crabs, eerily shrieking birds and giant blow holes pushing through volcanic rock formations.” Brady and Latham were looking for that same feeling in their images, something that had a texture and soul. They knew they didn’t want the documentary to be clean and modern. Brady loves the look of film, as does Latham, but it simply wasn’t viable logistically or financially.
The filmmakers wanted Island of the Hungry Ghosts to be as cinematic as possible, and in Latham’s opinion ARRI was really the only way to go. The cinematographer owns an Alexa Mini in order to shoot low-budget productions that otherwise wouldn’t be able to shoot the format. He has invested heavily in equipment, not as a financial investment but simply to be able to give projects a chance of being the best they can.
Latham ended up buying a set of cheap, very old, Russian lenses. These were rough, and were all different shapes and sizes making them tricky to use. He couldn’t use a follow focus on them, or a matte-box or any filters for that matter. Latham had to adapt them to PL Mount; doing that meant the only way to pull focus was to screw and unscrew the lens from the mount. “If I went too far the lens would fall off, which happened a few times, but the lenses had great character and added texture to the image so it was worth the hassle,” Latham says.
They shot for around three months, in two blocks. Shooting a good few hours of footage most days with quite long takes. Sometimes Latham would roll for over an hour non-stop, which is pretty tough physically as the observational stuff was all handheld. As with documentaries it varies; some days there was very little shot and other times they would shoot all day long.
The crew was super small. There was Brady as Director, the Sound Recordist Leo Dolgan and Latham. They also had Zena Kells on the first block and Dani Yannoulis on the second block who were mainly off set dealing with logistics. But that was it.
None of them had worked together prior to shooting Island of the Hungry Ghosts, however Latham explains that the dynamic between them was great. “We all chipped in to get it done,” he says. “I would joke and sometimes call Brady ‘the mule’, as more often than not she was lugging the lenses and batteries for me. Dolgan and I would help each other out too. He would rig a LED light to his boom pole for a top light, and I would run around in the jungle to get foley sound.”
Director and Cinematographer talked a lot about the Island being an ‘inhospitable environment’. The forest would overgrow anything in its way including buildings and parked cars. Everything seemed to bite, or sting. They wanted to present this idea of a dark undertow; the ghosts of the Island’s past. To get that feeling they would shoot in shadowy environments, obscuring the frame and move the camera in a slow creeping fashion. Our makeshift slider made from a piece of plywood skateboard wheels and a painters truss (see image). “Because we were shooting on an island on a budget all the equipment had to be flown in and I couldn’t find anything to rent that was long enough so we built our own slider. It was a nightmare to use,” says Latham.
The great crab migration was a great unknown that kept on shifting. It was weather dependent and it hadn’t rained in months which kept delaying the migration date to the point that they were worried it might not happen at all. The crew were constantly liaising with the Park Rangers about what was happening.
Once the crabs did start migrating the roads would shut down in sections so that the crabs could cross. It meant sometimes they couldn’t do the things we wanted, or had to hike with gear, but it was also a good way of tracking where the large numbers of crabs were. By checking the local board that displayed the roads status they could figure out where to shoot next.
The final part of the crab’s migration happens at night and into the early morning. Latham had battery-powered Flex LED 1x1s that he used up on a cliff to give a moonlight effect. Lighting such a large area with such small lights meant that he required a light sensitive camera, so it became one of the few moments he shot with a Sony a7R II.
“ No second takes, no manipulation within a scene, no holding for the camera, you get what you get. ”
The thing they filmmakers did not account for was other people that had also come to the main beach to witness the once a year migration. They had head torches and cameras with flashes which were constantly affecting Latham’s shots. “It was a complete nightmare!” says Latham. “We only had one chance at getting those crucial shots which we had all been working toward for months, and it felt like a disco was going off in the background.”
Latham was doing take after take of subtle slider shots only for a flash to go off mid-move. Some people were willing to co-operate, others had no desire to help and who were constantly flashing or walking through shots. It was a very trying experience for the cinematographer but luckily, he got what he needed.
Regarding post-production, Latham has graded things in the past but doesn’t consider it his ‘forte’. “I try to avoid doing it myself as much as possible,” he says. The grade was completed in Spain by Aline Biz, and although he would like to have been there he was shooting in Australia at the time. Latham always tries to send stills back and forth to a director and have a ball park of what they are aiming at before the grade. “It always has room to change but I think it’s good to have a base to start off with,” he says. “Our approach to the grade was to emulate film as much as possible. The colours were pushed towards a film stock emulation and grain was added. Nothing too stylised, just a subtle cinematic look.”
“I think our nature sequences are more gratifying as, from a cinematographer’s perspective, I had more of an ability to craft,” Latham explains. “With observational documentary work you’re mainly in survival mode, trying to keep up and get coverage.”
Generally, Latham says, you only get one chance at achieving a shot and so on a daily basis there is always something that can be done better, be it with lighting or something you didn’t cover well. “To keep my sanity I have to remind myself to move on and to just try my best and learn from my mistakes,” he says. “I am trying to be more ‘zen’ about it, however it’s hard not to get frustrated.”
Michael Latham an award-winning cinematographer best known for his work on documentaries including Ukraine Is Not A Brothel (2013), for which he earned Gold at the 2014 Vic/Tas ACS Awards and was nominated for the 2015 AACTA Award for ‘Best Cinematography in a Documentary’, and Casting JonBenet (2017) which earned the AACTA Award for Best Feature Length Documentary.
James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.