Mary Meets Mohammad

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s got such a biblical ring to it yet Mary Meets Mohammad is as 21st century as you can get. How else would it be possible but in a shrinking world for a 70-year-old woman, a member of a knitting circle in Tasmania, to cross paths with a 26-year-old Hazara refugee? Writer-director-producer Heather Kirkpatrick has recorded the development of this unlikely relationship in a gently observed documentary that packs a steely punch.

Like others whose views were captured in the media in 2011 when the Pontville detention facility was established, Mary was against it. There was an eruption of raw feeling at the announcement that asylum seekers would be housed on the outskirts of Hobart, and frankly she couldn’t see why these Muslim men should be made welcome when Australian solders were on the ground in Afghanistan. She felt they were cowards to leave their embattled homeland behind then gradually she got to know an individual buried in the statistics.

The friendship comes about when Mary’s knitters make beanies for the newly arrived asylum seekers, a charitable act like many of their other craft activities. For the first part of the doco at least, the women visit the facility but the men behind the double-wire fence under guard by Serco are unseen. Asylum seekers may not be filmed. At this point Mohammad only has a presence through voiceover as he tells us his life story. Having left for Pakistan when young and spending most of his life a refugee it is a surprise to discover a certain equanimity when we meet him.

It transpires that the knitters and the men in detention have something important in common, a shared love of handicraft. Some of the men have made prayer mats and knitted scarves, the latter with wooden meat skewers in place of needles. One wonders whether knitting needles were prohibited for the same reason it was not recommended the knitters make scarves, for fear someone might hang himself.

Intermittent establishing shots of the detention centre, Serco-run, forbidding and surrounded by a double-wire fence, have a chilling effect, a scar on a sleepy rural landscape among rolling hills with people locked away inside. The figures on the mental health of detainees kept in these circumstances are shocking. There must be a better way to deal with this intractable problem.

Over a period of 16 months prejudices are broken down and hearts soften but Kirkpatrick’s camera does not avert our eyes when Mary shakes her head a little as she watches Mohammad unfurl his prayer mat and say his prayers. Only a moment ago we watched her say grace as they sat down to a meal together. It is a reminder of the honesty of this terrific humanist story about what’s possible.

In a capsule: A gently observed doco about a friendship between a 70 year old Tasmanian woman and a Hazara asylum seeker. It packs a steely punch.

4 stars