On a recent trip to Seattle I had the pleasure of attending the Northwest Film Forum (NFF), a non-profit film and arts center focused on fostering a cinematic community. Not only do they champion and screen a wide variety of independent films, but they offer educational workshops, a public editing lab, cinema rentals, host film festivals, and much more. They are the epitome of a one-stop-shop for all things film. When traveling I always try to seek out unique moviegoing experiences, but I was on a short timetable and didn’t have a lot of time to plan out where I would go, let alone what I would see. A local friend recommended I go to the NFF, and so I went. I showed up that same evening with nothing but a screening time, picked a film by title alone and off I went. Well, I may have grabbed a local IPA at the counter first – the adventurous moviegoer’s trusty sidekick – and cozied into the small but obviously well-loved theater.
There is something absolutely exhilarating about going into a film totally blind, with no expectations or knowledge, and I don’t do it enough. It seems our moviegoing experiences, maybe now more than ever, are at risk of losing their mystery, and by consequence, our sense of discovery. Nearly everything we could want to know about an upcoming release is at our fingertips. Framed by teaser trailers, festival reviews, or “leaked” footage and production details, we are constantly told how to watch a film and often given way too much information about what’s in it to begin with. I’m not saying this is always a bad thing. It’s how we discern where to focus our attention, but what we exchange for this information is genuine surprise and discovery. I had honestly forgotten the sheer delight to be found in the ignorant plunge, but I’d like to advocate for it here.
What I discovered at the NFF was Gabrielle Brady’s deeply affecting hybrid documentary, Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018). You can chastise me now for being ignorant of such a well-regarded documentary, but I don’t regret it. I came to learn what the film was about very, very slowly, partly through my own ignorance of the film’s concerns, but also because of Brady’s style. Lacking any explicit exposition or informational subtitles the film plunges you into its characters’ worlds without coordinates. I was definitely lost at first, but not unhappily.
Reflecting on the experience I realized it was the perfect blend of blind moviegoing ignorance and the film’s own ambiguity that lead to a truly rare cinematic condition: discovery. I wasn’t told how to read the film or even what it was about because I wasn’t privy to its promotional material beforehand and Brady’s style didn’t offer any easy roads in. I loved it, and I’d encourage you to pepper in a willfully ignorant plunge now and again as a healthy supplement to your cinematic diet. I encourage this in hopes of combating the known, the given, and the routine. Let’s reinstate, if only occasionally, the cinema as a site of pure moviegoing discovery. The old adage, at least for me, holds true: ignorance is (cinematic) bliss.
Now that I’ve selfishly ruined your potential to see Island of the Hungry Ghosts with said ignorant bliss I’d seek your forgiveness and offer a plea for its known merits. As mentioned, my slow discovery of the film ultimately revealed an emotionally rich and haunting three-headed story. We’re on Christmas Island, a small territory of Australia taking up only 52 square miles, just south of Java. The main story of the film follows Poh Lin Lee, a trauma counselor at an immigration detention center for asylum seekers and refugees. We’re allowed into the heartbreaking counseling sessions where detainees recount horrific stories about family separations and the violence they’re fleeing from. This is expertly juxtaposed with intimate moments from Poh’s own life and the toll her job is taking on her family. The second storyline bears witness to the island’s Malay Chinese community, who were originally brought to the island as indentured labourers over a century ago. The “hungry ghosts” of the title refers to their improperly buried ancestors and their efforts to pay homage to them. The third storyline follows the great Red Crab migration across the island. Millions of crabs make their way to the ocean each year to breed and release their eggs into the sea. It is an amazing act of synchronization and beauty.
The community goes to great lengths to ensure the crabs are able to safely traverse the island, going so far as to stop traffic, close roads, and build makeshift bridges for them. Shots of these moments become deeply affecting and ironic placed alongside the island’s history of brutal enslavement and inhumane detainment of refugees. Crabs are free to cross the island, even helped along their journey, as countless refugees fleeing inhospitable situations are indefinitely detained. Brady weaves together a complex web of social injustices, past and present, amidst admirable environmentalism — a heart-wrenching contradiction of humanity. Island of the Hungry Ghosts sends a powerful message regardless of your prior knowledge of it, but as I slowly came to understand the film’s concerns in the theater, its strategy hit me like a revelation. It became an oddly despairing and exhilarating experience I attribute in part to my own moviegoing ignorance.
For some more ignorant moviegoing opportunities, check out the IU Cinema’s summer schedule, but don’t dig too deep into the details! Just show up and enjoy the ride.
Caleb Allison usually prefers his films slow, cryptic or menacing and doesn’t always understand why. A Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Caleb researches home-video cultures, film history, and production and distribution industries. He is an unrestrained collector of the Criterion Collection, a fan of Super 8 film and a Tarkovsky nut.