Director: Michael James Rowland
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The United States isn’t the only country with its panties in a bunch about immigrants, legal or otherwise. Over the last 10–15 years, Australia’s policies with regard to immigrants have slipped from relatively open to fairly hostile. While the politics of the country today seem to be favoring a return to a more liberal approach to immigration, there is still much resistance.
Lucky Miles was made as a kind of wake-up call to Australia. Rowland deliberately sets most of the action in the year 1990 to help Australians recall that it wasn’t so long ago when asylum seekers and boat people were dealt with in a more balanced way. Far from being a liberal polemic, however, Lucky Miles is a rich and entertaining film that tellingly won the Audience Choice Award at the 2007 Sydney Film Festival.
The film is based on real-life accounts of illegal immigrants who survived their journey to Australia in barely seaworthy boats, only to be dumped in the empty deserts on the northwest coast of the continent in the state of Western Australia. The film begins, however, in Cambodia in 1972, as an Australian soldier bids farewell to his Khmer lover. He gives her a business card and tells her to call the number if her family gives her a hard time. He also promises to return in a few weeks.
Flash-forward to 1990 and a jerrybuilt putt-putt filled with Iraqi and Cambodian refugees and their Indonesian mules. The boat pulls up to shore. Large sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see. When one of passengers questions the location of the drop-off, lead mule Muluk (Sawung Jabo) assures them that just over the top of the dunes is a road where they can catch a bus into town. Khmer refugee Arun (Kenneth Moraleda) asks if the bus goes to Perth, where his father lives. He pulls out a business card to show the address. Muluk assures him it does. While the Iraqis and Khmer celebrate their arrival in a democracy where they can claim asylum, Muluk and his crew slip away.
Naturally, there is no road, no bus, nothing at all but endless desert. The Iraqis and Khmer head in opposite directions down the beach, hoping to walk to the nearest town. The Khmer manage to find a road. They see a sign, shot through with bullet holes, that puzzles them. They also see empty beverage cans along the road. One throws a rock at a can, and all of the Khmer crouch and cover their heads as it hits the can. This is comical to watch, but reflects the reality of unexploded bombs these Khmer faced in their own country. The Khmer follow the road and find a roadhouse. As they sit drinking free refreshments at the roadhouse, the owner slips off to call the police. All the Khmer are rounded up except for Arun, who was outside filling his water jugs and who runs for his life. He’s used to police who shoot first and ask questions later.
Meanwhile, the Iraqis are having troubles of their own. Yousif (Rodney Afif) bristles at the orders given by the self-appointed leader Hussam (Majed Abbas). When the pair go to collect fire wood, Hussam pulls a knife out. Realizing that Hussam was one of Saddam Hussein’s death dealers, the people who killed his entire family, Yousif runs and falls over a cliff. Yousif brings the “sad” news back to the camp of Youif’s demise, claiming to have called out and made a thorough search. The men, convinced by his story, continue on without thinking more about it.
Yousif, scraped and stunned, survives and starts walking. He collides squarely with Arun, who is running at full speed away from the “bad town.” Arun, who has water, spares a few precious gulps for Yousif, and the men decide to join forces. Yousif wants to go back to the town, but Arun insists this would be a mistake and since he holds all the cards—the water—the men set off for Perth.
Meanwhile, back at the boat, Ramelan (Sri Sacdpraseuth), Muluk’s nephew, is playing with a cigarette lighter. He accidentally loses his grip on it and sets the boat on fire. The trio of smugglers must swim to shore. Muluk refuses to let Ramelan come with him and Abdu (Arif Hidayat), punishment for sinking the boat. Now we have several groups of illegal aliens wandering around Western Australia.
Add to the mix a trio of Army reservists who are sent to track the refugees’ whereabouts. A city mouse Aboriginal named O’Shane (Glen Shea), a country mouse Aboriginal named Tom Collins (Sean Mununggurr), and country mouse white Australian Greg Plank (Don Hany) are in pursuit after reports of the smugglers’ boat are made. The film makes droll comedy out of the fact that O’Shane is an Aboriginal who cannot track; he constantly asks Tom where the refugess have gone. The trio are a less physically abusive version of the Three Stooges whose misadventures, including dropping their Land Rover in a water hole, keep them one step behind Yousif, Arun, and forlorn and abandoned Ramelan, who joined the duo with promises to lead them to civilization.
This is a film that makes certain light of the dumb luck and misfortunes of its characters without caricaturizing them or diminishing the plight they are in. Although Arun wishes to avoid the police at all costs, they are his best hope for survival in the harsh outback. Yousif, “a fully qualified structural engineer” who was reduced to driving a cab in Iran for five years (a job Ramelan covets), seeks control at all costs. When, after splitting up in anger, the trio accidentally reunites in an abandoned shack, Yousif spends all his time trying to get a rusted, broken truck to run again. It seems hopeless, but he has a Westerner’s sense of individual responsibility and determination.
Eventually, the reservists catch up with Yousif and Ramelan in a hilarious, realistic chase sequence that has to be seen to be believed. When news of their ordeal hits Australia’s airwaves, pub dwellers near the site of their capture hand it to the little buggers for surviving so long. Arun, who was separated from Ramelan and Yousif, remains at large. He brings the picture to its inevitable denouemount through the kindness of one of those pub dwellers. The gentleness and humor sounded at the end strike the perfect note for reconciliation Rowland said he hoped to achieve with this film. This is the rare movie that will make you laugh while it makes you think. I was privileged to see its North American premiere and meet its talented director and producer.