I'm reading
Heather Kirkpatrick is more than a filmmaker
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Heather Kirkpatrick is more than a filmmaker
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Heather Kirkpatrick is more than a filmmaker
Pass it on
Pass it on
14 October 2013

Heather Kirkpatrick is more than a filmmaker

Meet the filmmaker, journalist, outdoor instructor and emergency relief work logistician.

Written by Katherine Wilkinson

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

In 2013 Dumbo Feather and the Brainery Store joined forces to host a Backyard Party that rivaled even the radest of Australia Day BBQs. Geelong, be warned!

At the party there was a screening of Mary Meets Mohammad, a documentary that follows the arrival of Tasmania’s first detention centre through the eyes of local Christian woman and knitting club member Mary and Muslim Afghan Hazara asylum seeker Mohammad (watch the trailer here). It’s a moving story that’s been handled with care and elegance by filmmaker Heather Kirkpatrick.

I was excited to talk to Heather about her documentary, I had read great reviews and the film has been nominated for the Walkley Documentary Award. Then I read her bio. I have to admit; my interest in her film was eclipsed, just a little bit. Amongst her many careers and journeys, Heather has lived in Antarctica. I don’t think I need to say anything more than that. This lady is a genuine Adventurer.

Reading through your bio I’m not sure where to start! You’re a filmmaker, a journalist, an outdoor instructor and emergency relief work logistician – how do you combine all of these roles? What drives you?

I love being spontaneous and accepting diverse career opportunities that come my way. Before making my first feature film I’d never stayed in one place working for longer than eight months. I’m constantly drawn to places of wild beauty as well as immersing myself in cultures. I do a lot of contract work so it’s a matter of listening to my heart and deciding what feels right at the time. I prioritise that over being motivated by a bigger salary. I’ve always had a lot of energy and outdoor expeditions are the perfect way for me to relax, as well as being a workplace I love.

I like to make a difference with my work so I have to be passionate about whatever I am doing. It might be educating others in the outdoors, or helping with a humanitarian disaster or making a film that will throw some light on an issue. I feel I have a privileged life being ‘born into Australia’, a safe, peaceful and prosperous country… I am always mindful of that having been to war zones and many less fortunate countries.

I want to talk about Mary Meets Mohammed but before we get to that, I have to ask about Antarctica. I read that you taught survival skills in Antarctica for seven seasons, that’s incredible! First of all, how did you get into it? And what is it like?

After graduating as a scientist I soon found a career I was passionate about in the field of outdoor education. I studied in this area for a year, which led me to climb up some beautiful icy peaks in New Zealand’s Southern Ranges. I knew when I had reached my fist summit that I had found a serious life-long passion… climbing mountains. This has led me to climb peaks on every continent and then instructing and leading expeditions.

These skills were some of those I needed to work as a Field Training Officer in Antarctica and I have worked seven seasons teaching survival skills and managing field expeditions at the Australian Antarctic bases. It is an absolute privilege to have been to Antarctica and I would describe it as mind-blowing, exquisite, harsh and very precious.

I’ve spent months camping in the field in Antarctica and I love the simple daily rhythms you get into living on the ice. It is lovely to be free of technology and I very happy being immersed in that landscape.

In the past you’ve filmed documentaries in the war-torn communities of the Democratic Republic of Congo and following rap artists in Rwanda, what do you look for in a documentary subject?

Firstly interesting characters to carry your story and subjects that I am deeply interested in. I enjoy being an independent filmmaker so I have that freedom to choose the story I make, even if it means a much bigger financial challenge to get the film off the ground. I’m into real life…there are so many wonderful stories out there and I’d like to think I might make a difference to someone or a situation by telling their story. I like to provoke debate, inspire and educate… that’s what I think I good documentary can do.

People had warned me I might find the Democratic Republic of Congo hard to witness but I came away inspired by the extraordinary resilience of the people and the way they carry on with their lives and help one another.

Their generosity was apparent as I saw one family host another ‘war displaced family’ often permanently and in very cramped conditions.  There were 40 people in one home I visited in the eastern Congo and when I asked the father of the family what motivated them to do that he replied ‘We do it for love and because they are Congolese.’ These are the kind of moments you never forget.

How did you meet Mary and Mohammad?

Firstly I decided I would make a film around the community response to the Pontville detention centre in Tasmania. I wanted to see whether the fear and hostility originally expressed by the local community would change over time. This led me to the local knitting club; someone had mentioned they were knitting beanies for the asylum seekers. I knew from the first day that I walked into the Brighton knitting club that it would be the centrepiece of my story and Mary would be a central character to that.

I met Mohammad more than a year later when the detention centre closed. By then Mohammad had been recognised as a refugee and decided to live in Hobart. He and a number of the Hazara asylum seekers from Afghanistan had remained friends with the knitting women. Their visits to the detention centre had cemented some long-lasting friendships. Mohammad is a really wonderful person and I feel very honoured that he had trust in me to record his story.

Did their story develop as you thought it would? What were your expectations going into the project?

The story took turns where I never expected and at other times I had a strong inkling things would happen. That is the exciting thing about documentary… it is powerful because it is real and unpredictable.

It can tear at your emotions when you least expect it. I never imagined I would be filming for just over 18 months. I couldn’t put the camera down when Mary met Mohammad. It was such an extraordinary and beautiful relationship and it was deeply rewarding to record its evolution.

It was hard never knowing if you were working these ridiculous hours to no avail. Would people even want to watch it? Would they be emotionally moved by it? All the producers I’d met had said without an asylum seeker’s face on camera it wouldn’t have enough emotional impact.

I’ve been a radio producer though and knew the power of voice and narrative. I also think being very connected to the outdoors and the natural world helped me find landscapes that could work as metaphors for Mohammad’s narrative. I love the way the story has been constructed and to me Mohammad’s voice is like a ghost, but a reminder that humanity is inside the walls of our detention centres.

I read an interview where you said, “humanity is being hidden behind the fences of detention centres”. Given this and the prevailing negativity that surrounds the issue, what’s your outlook on the asylum seeker issue in Australia? I guess I’m asking do you have hope that the conversation will get better?

Australia is unique amongst all the western countries in the world; other countries don’t lock up asylum seekers indefinitely. Instead they detain asylum seekers for about 30 to 90 days before they can live and work in the community while they await their refugee determination process.

The federal government mounted a parliamentary enquiry into our immigration detention network in early 2011 after a lot of disruptions inside our detention centres. The study found 86 per cent of asylum seekers held in detention had clinically significant depression and a quarter reported suicidal thoughts. The primary cause of mental breakdown was indefinite detention.

The parliamentary enquiry recommended a maximum period of 90 days in detention, closing down our remote detention centres and implementing community based detention at a fraction of the cost of high security detention. The government went the opposite way and recreated offshore processing. Many asylum seekers are mentally destroyed for life as a result and this ought to be pricking our conscience as a nation.

I have hope for a better national conversation about asylum seekers. Many people after seeing Mary Meets Mohammad tell me they feel differently. Sometimes it has been an eye opener for them or they have joined a friendship group with refugees after being inspired by the film. It may have to be a grass roots movement that changes the asylum seeker conversation in this country, unless we find a Prime Minister and a government that might act as compassionately as Malcolm Fraser did with the Vietnamese refugees. Fraser had as many boats as we do now arriving at the time but reduced them to zero by offering a humane, durable and globally responsible solution.

With no queue or effective pathway for 75 percent of the world’s refugees, who don’t have the opportunity to wait in a safe refugee camp, Fraser created safe processing centres in Asia to determine who were refugees and then offered around 25,000 plane tickets a year to about 250,000 refugees over eight years. This would be about 5 per cent of our annual migrant intake. We would be doing this now if we genuinely cared and listened to the advice of the expert refugee agencies.

Another new policy in Australia is one that prevents family reunion for asylum seekers. It is extraordinary to even imagine trying to break the bonds of love and family and to feel morally okay about that. These are the most vulnerable people in the world and we choose to further tear them apart once they get here, from the inside out.

To call you well travelled is an understatement. You’ve guided in Alaska, India, Siberia, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, Kazakhstan… What has been the greatest challenge?

I’m not sure I’ll be good at answering that as every trip has its moments, but I thrive on the challenges. It might be carrying your rafting equipment and all your gear through thick and trackless scrub for a day or two to get to a remote white-water river where for days you journey past pristine forests and descend wild gorges. It can be cold, wet, with camps full of leeches, but if you have the right attitude that can be a lot of fun, learning to contend with it all in the best possible way.

I have been on ski mountaineering trips in Kazakhstan and Pakistan where my team had to assess avalanche risk in some pretty hostile conditions. We were glad we made the decision we did as we sat in camp and watched an avalanche charge down the mountain slope we were on a few hours earlier. You are constantly assessing risks that keep you fully alert and alive to the elements of nature. There is a certain exhilaration with that and nothing in the city has ever got close to that sort of experience for me. I feel blessed to be leading the life I do where I have time to recreate and live closely with nature. It is here where my soul really sings and knows it is at home.

Katherine Wilkinson

Katherine Wilkinson is a Melbourne-based journalist and writer.

Images: supplied by Heather Kirkpatrick

Dumbo Feather has evolved, follow the journey by signing up for the Small Giants Academy newsletter