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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday July 28, 2020 


Teenage refugee Ali (not his real name) has been held in Baxter Detention Centre in Port Hedland since fleeing the Taliban in 2001. Responding to a community appeal to help refugees and asylum seekers, Doctor Trish Kerbi and her family have been corresponding with Ali for 18 months. Determined to meet the boy, the family embarks on an 8,600 km journey to Baxter. Documentary maker Clara Law accompanies the family and reflects on her own migration from Hong Kong to Australia as the journey progresses.

Review by Richard Kuipers:
Letters To Ali opens with elegantly composed images of Melbourne suburbia, where Clara Law and partner Eddie L.C. Fong now live after migrating from cramped quarters in Hong Kong almost a decade ago. Simple text on screen informs us of her history and happiness living in a house that has "more rooms than people".

In this quietly and intelligently composed overture, Law imparts just the right mix of hard information and personal commentary to establish her legitimacy as author and participant in this exploration of a migrant much less fortunate than herself. 15 year-old Ali is one of more than 100 minors currently held in mandatory detention in Australia. His story, and that of the family reaching out to help him, has been fashioned by Law into a deeply moving account of injustice and how ordinary people can indeed make a big difference.

The key to this documentary's appeal is the absolutely pure motives of Dr Trish Kerbi and her family. From the moment they arrive on screen, they epitomise the ordinary, fair-minded Aussie people next door whose concern for the welfare of a child prompts an extraordinary demonstration of compassion. The high-spirited family's trek through the outback is a visually and emotionally exhilarating one. The mutual trust and commonness of cause between subjects and filmmakers is plain to see and by the time we reach Baxter they're like old friends. So warm is their presence (and so brutally honest are the children's descriptions of the barbed wire fences at Baxter) that the legally enforced non-appearance of Ali himself in no way diminishes the impact.

The analysis of bigger political issues surrounding Ali's case is wisely non-expert driven for the overwhelming majority of the running time, though Law does permit a couple of well-timed detours. Commentaries by former PM Malcolm Fraser (whose reputation as a statesman of vision and compassion grows daily) and Immigration Minister Ian Macphee (79-82) draw sharp distinctions between current policies and the bi-partisan approach to refugees and asylum seekers in Australia's recent past.

Specifically, they refer to the welcoming of boat people in the wake of the war in Vietnam and how neither side of politics used this influx of refugees to create fear or mistrust. Their testimony is nothing short of a devastating attack on the current government's mandatory detention of refugees - a policy, it must be remembered, that was established by a federal Labor government. Law tells us in her commentary she "dropped everything" to make this film and her passion is evident in every frame. She cannot tell Ali's story without also telling her own and the results are deeply affecting. No matter where you stand politically or in relation to refugee policy, Letters To Ali is a stirring achievement that only the hardest heart will not be moved by.

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CAST: Documentary featuring the Kerbi family

PRODUCER: Clara Law, Eddie L. C. Fong


SCRIPT: Clara Law, Eddie L. C. Fong


MUSIC: Paul Grabowsky


RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 23, 2004


VIDEO RELEASE: November 3, 2004

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