A journey worth taking

Director Robyn Hughan on making her intimate observational documentary Journey Beyond Fear

Ahead of its Q&A screening on 18 May at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival (HRAFF), we caught up with director of Journey Beyond Fear, Robyn Hughan. Filmed over seven years, the documentary is an intimate look at Afghan refugees in Malaysia, following one family as they await settlement in Australia.

Robyn shares why she focused on the women in this story, talks about the role of documentary filmmaking in social justice and human rights issues and reveals why characters are the heart of any powerful film.  

Where did the idea to make Journey Beyond Fear come from? What was it about this story of Afghan refugees in Malaysia that spoke to you?

In 2010, my documentary film, A Nun’s New Habit (also a refugee doc) screened in Kuala Lumpur. At this time, little was known in Australia about Malaysia and its refugee situation. After the screening I was asked by an NGO if I wanted to visit the Afghan refugees on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The next day I was driven to an Afghan community and this is the day my research began. I walked into a room of women and children peering up at me with pleading eyes and I was hooked and felt compelled to tell their story. At first, the story was quite broad, following several families, but as time evolved I developed a special relationship with Zahra and her family. They were magnetic and I was drawn deeply into their world.

The documentary centres on women and their stories. What was the motivation behind this?

I think the women were actually drawn to me to tell their side of the story. Often in these communities they are not given the chance to tell their stories so openly, so I felt very privileged to have this opportunity. It was important for me to show the female side and humanity of their situation.. They were suffering a lot, but were also very strong and vibrant. I wanted to break the stereotypes people have of women from refugee communities.

In what ways did the film change from the initial idea to the final cut? Did you learn anything specific during the making of the film that changed its course?

I started off with much broader story, but as time went on I realised the connection with the characters made the story stronger and the emotional content was gold. However, it was not until I was in the edit process that I made the final decision to focus on Zahra and her family. I was going to include a family whom I met in Malaysia, but had since fled to Indonesia. I had filmed them extensively, but realised I didn’t have the room for their story as well. I think it is important to keep focused so the audience can deeply identify with the people at the centre of the story.

What disciplines go into the making of a documentary like this? Can you tell us about some of the people you had on the team?  

I was the lone researcher in an urban refugee ghetto for long periods, connecting with local NGOs and others who had knowledge of the circumstances of this community. Because of the extremely low budget it was up to myself and my partner, Steve Warne, to do the vast majority of filming and carry out all other roles during the shoot. I was often on my own, which had its difficulties and dangers, but in the end made for a better film as the level of intimacy is something one rarely has the opportunity to capture – especially among female refugees.

It took discipline to return time and time again. It was pretty tough but I was very driven. With development money from Screen Australia I was able to write and complete the cutting script and edit. In the post-production process we had support from Sound Firm and Cybertrix and a host of Afghans and Iranians to help with translation.

Journey Beyond Fear was filmed over seven years. What kind of impact does working on a project for such an extended period of time have on you, both as a filmmaker, and as an individual?

It was a massive commitment, but I was determined to see it through. At times, it was both emotionally traumatic and financially taxing, but it also had many high points – particularly when the family made it to Australia. When filming is so intimate, there is no way you won’t be impacted by what is occurring in the families’ lives, and of course, not knowing the outcome makes it difficult to plan ahead. You really have to be able to go with the flow, but at the same time stay focused right to the end, which can be both exhilarating and exhausting.

What were the benefits of receiving support from Film Victoria for Journey Beyond Fear?

The support that I received in the beginning from Film Victoria is what gave me the opportunity to start the project and develop the original idea. I was consequently able to bring a DOP, who was Iranian and could speak Farsi, to Kuala Lumpur for a couple of weeks in the early stages, which really helped to kick-start the process. Receiving this support was invaluable and I most likely would not have ventured on this journey without it.

What was the most rewarding or interesting part of making this documentary?

There were many interesting and rewarding times during filming and while putting the story together. One that is prominent in my mind is when I first discovered what the characters were saying in some very emotional footage I was reviewing. Zahra and her Mum were talking in Dari, so I didn’t know what they were saying until I had it translated much later. From the tone and emotional body language I knew it was strong, but learning what they said was mind blowing for me and I was hugely affected by it!

The documentary is screening at the 2019 Human Rights Arts and Film Festival. What is the role of documentary within social justice and human rights issues?

Many years ago, I attended my first human rights film festival in London and I remember coming away thinking – wow, that really affected me! The impact was huge. I thought to myself, this is what I want to do, but never really thought I would be able to. The films stayed in my mind for a very long time - that’s the power of human rights and social justice in documentary. You have the opportunity to make an impact and change hearts and minds all around the world.

What are the key ingredients to making a strong documentary?

My documentaries tend to be personal stories, so for me it is important that the characters are accessible and compelling, and I believe this is the strength of Journey Beyond Fear. The family provide an amazing window into the refugee experience on a very personal level and you come away feeling like you are part of their family. So I definitely believe the most important ingredient for a strong documentary (or fiction film) is a deep emotional connection with your characters. All the gloss of a high-budget production can leave me cold if I cannot enter the world of the characters on a very personal level.