Australian film-maker Gabrielle Brady's "Island of the Hungry Ghosts" is a documentary that often plays like fiction. That can be a very good thing, but not in this case. In fact, if you didn't know going in that it's a documentary, you might have a problem arriving at that conclusion.
In the beginning, it appears to be an examination of the migration of 40 million crabs to the sea on Christmas Island, an event that has been covered in numerous nature documentaries. The island is located in the Indian Ocean, about 217 miles south of Java and Sumatra and a bit less than 1000 miles northwest of the mainland of Australia. At the last census, it was designated as having 1,843 permanent residents.
After a couple of scenes where we watch workers on the island preparing for the crab migration, the setting shifts to a room where we see Poh-Lin, a woman who is apparently working with people as they play with little plastic models in a tabletop sandbox.
Of course we find out why, but at first you have to scratch your head and wonder exactly what is going on. What we eventually learn is that the woman is a type of psychological counselor and the people sitting across from her are refugees being detained in a high-security detention facility deep within the island's jungle.
At the same time, we see the locals performing rituals for the original settlers who are seen as ghosts who wander the island at night because they never received a proper burial. The rituals consist of taking heaps of paper and other objects and tossing them into fires that are contained in meshed-metal containers.
We get it. People care about the long-dead settlers and the migrating crabs, but at the same time they imprison refugees trying to escape their countries where they face unimaginable hardships. The message is dandy. The execution of the message is forced and uninspiring. The result is more ghastly than ghostly.
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