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Letters to Ali

Letters to Ali with Merlin!

A Sunday matinee with a movie about ordinary Australians who write letters...

Clara Law's Letters to Ali is at once a personal, a humanistic and a political film that echoes Australia's growing public concern over the treatment of refugees, especially children, in Australian detention centres.

a Project SafeCom Movie matinee

Trish started writing to a number she found on the Internet in Feb 2002. This was an identification number assigned to asylum seekers by the Immigration Department. She later found out this number belonged to an Afghan boy of 15 years of age. Fremantle, Sunday 26 September...

With Big Brother's Merlin Luck


Merlin the Magician at work14 August 2004:  Merlin Luck, the Magician - It was exactly the boost the refugee movement in Australia needed. On prime time, a young Australian was making a political statement. You could hear the sounds of tinnies dropping to the floor across the nation. The television broadcast was watched by more than 1.8 million people on that unforgettable Sunday evening.

With Merlin Luck in Perth for just one day, our movie matinee, where Merlin will speak about refugee issues, is the only chance for you to meet the refugee advocate who has rapidly become a national human rights defender. Since Merlin's dramatic upstaging of the 'rehearsed' Reality TV Show Big Brother on 13 June, where he made the point that the locking up of refugees is a dark part of Australia's reality, Merlin has written and spoken out on human rights issues, the Iraq war, landmine victims, female genital mutilation and the international community's failure to address the spread of AIDS.

Merlin Luck - with a baffled Gretel

Since his refugee protest at the Big Brother TV show (see our page about Merlin here), 24-year old Merlin spoke at forums with former PM Malcolm Fraser, refugee 'silk' Julian Burnside QC and other prominent Australians, at the launch of John Valder's Not Happy John! campaign with SMH's Margo Kingston, Brian Deegan and Andrew Wilkie, and at refugee rallies in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide - and now, at our event, in Perth. After our event Merlin flies back to similar commitments during the following week in Brisbane and Bellingen, NSW.

What: Letters to Ali
Filmmaker: Clara Law
Class: Documentary
Running time: 106 min
Where: Luna Cinemas, Essex Street, Fremantle
When: Matinee Sunday 26 Sept 2004
Time: 3:00pm
Cost: $15.00 (10.00 Conc)
Organisers: Project SafeCom (with Amnesty support)

More information: Project SafeCom on 0417 090 130
Bookings: Click here or Phone Hiam on 0417 918 470 or Jack on 0417 090 130

About bookings

Click here to access our online booking form or phone Jack (0417 090 130) or Hiam (0417 918 470) to reserve your tickets. Remember that a prompt payment secures your place at the movie: unpaid bookings may be reallocated by Luna Cinema management at the screening.


You can pay for your ticket(s) in the following ways:

  1. Pay the correct amount at the Amnesty WA Office in a marked envelope: "Project SafeCom movie"

    Location: Suite 2, Level 1, 115 Cambridge Street, Leederville

  2. Make an online transfer directly into our accounts:

    Bank: Bendigo Community Bank Kulin
    BSB Number: 633 000
    Account name: Project SafeCom Inc
    Account: 115643900

  3. Send a cheque or money order in the mail

    To: Project SafeCom Inc.
    Address: PO Box 364, Narrogin WA 6312

About the movie

Letters to Ali, image from the film

The documentary chronicles one exceptional 'average' Australian family the Kerbi/Silbersteins, who decide to help on a small level by writing to Ali - a 15 year-old Afghan boy detained at Port Hedland and unaccompanied by any relatives. This letter would prove to be the catalyst for a three-year on-going battle with Australian authorities to get Ali, then a minor, out of detention.

"One day I picked up my DV camcorder and followed Trish and her family, travelling 6000km across Australia through a desert to a remote detention centre to visit an Afghan boy with whom they had been exchanging letters for 18 months."- Clara Law - Filmmaker, Letters to Ali

Hong Kong-born/Melbourne-based Clara Law and her husband, filmmaker Eddie Fong, felt a similar urge to become involved after reading a story in The Age about Ali written by Trish Kerbi in September 2002. Clara, who is well-known as a feature filmmaker (Floating Life, Autumn Moon, The Goddess Of 1967), and Eddie contacted Trish and they decided to make a film about Ali's case.

Clara and Eddie's personal journey parallels that of Trish and her family as they all travel from Victoria across Australia to Port Hedland in Western Australia to visit Ali, and take up his case for a visa. (Rated M)

"An inspirational account of the positive difference ordinary people can make" -Richard Kuipers, Variety Magazine


Trish started writing to a number she found on the Internet in Feb 2002. This was an identification number assigned to asylum seekers by the Immigration Department. She later found out this number belonged to an Afghan boy of 15 years of age. So she got her four children Emma, Rian, Hannah and Erin, aged 16 to 6 to write to the boy. The children exchanged letters, then the family sent envelopes and stamps and plenty of paper, CDs, T-shirts, and photographs of themselves to him. They began talking to each other frequently on the phone.

Port Hedland, image from the film

In May 2002, Trish and her husband Rob drove for 15 days from Neerim East in the south-eastern part of Australia to Port Hedland in the north-western part to visit him. They made another trip in June 2003 driving through the center of Australia across the Tanami desert, and this was the journey documented in Letters to Ali.

Clara Law: Why I made this film

"Throughout the years as immigrant living in Australia, I have reflected often on this new country. In the year 2001, I felt the country was heading towards a very negative direction.

In 2002 around October I read an article (link to the article) in the newspaper written by a doctor on her story with an asylum seeker, a young boy from Afghanistan. I was very moved by the story and felt that I had to do something. Originally I had intended to make the story into a feature / drama film. However, as I became more involved, I considered to make a drama, a fiction, that the authenticity would be lost. There was also an urgency and immediacy to the subject and that was why in the middle of 2003 I simply put down what I was doing, went ahead and shot this essay film with a DV camera and funded it with my husband and myself.

As words spread, I got a lot of support from my community. EVERYONE who worked on the film, did so on a pro bono basis, with sound studio and post-production house lending us their equipment and support on a hundred percent discount."

Clara Law's Letters to Ali selected for Venice International Film Festival 2004

The Australian Film Commission (AFC) today announced that Clara Law's passion project, Letters to Ali, has been selected to screen at the 61st Venice International Film Festival (September 2004).

Letters to Ali, co-produced by Eddie Fong and Clara Law, is a feature length documentary inspired by a newspaper article written in 2002 by a woman named Trish, recounting her experiences with an asylum seeker named Ali.

An evocative documentary shot on DV Cam, Letters to Ali documents Trish's subsequent journey, in which she travels with her family to an Australian Immigration Detention Centre in Port Hedland to meet Ali, who they have known only through letters.

Clara Law's previous feature drama, The Goddess of '67, received the Coppa Volpi for Best Actress (Rose Byrne) at the 57th Venice International Film Festival in 2000.

Letters to Ali will be screening in competition in the Venezia Digitale section of the 61st Venice International Film Festival, which is dedicated to exploring the expressive possibilities of filmmaking through the use of new digital technologies.

From Inside Film:

Media: Road movie for our times

The Australian
Lawrie Zion
September 01, 2004

CLARA Law is not the type of person to stand on soapboxes. She doesn't even march in rallies. But with the children overboard controversy an election issue for the second consecutive federal poll, the quietly spoken Macau-born Australian director has weighed into the debate about this country's treatment of refugees with her latest film, Letters to Ali.

The feature-length documentary, the only Australian film selected to screen at the Venice and Toronto film festivals this month, centres on the efforts of a family from rural Victoria to reach out to a teenage asylum-seeker - simply known to us as Ali - who had been interned at Port Hedland in 2001.

What began as an anonymous letter written by a concerned citizen turned into a steady stream of correspondence and phone calls. It culminated in road trips across the country as Trish Kerbi, a GP, her husband Rob and their four children, travelled 6000km to meet Ali. By then Ali, who had lost touch with his own relatives, was calling Trish "mum".

Law became aware of this story after reading an article written by Kerbi for The Age two years ago. The letter accused the Government and the media of trying to stifle public empathy for the plight of illegal immigrants. "I was frustrated that the refugees were denied a human face," says Kerbi, whose family first met Ali after he had been in detention for a year.

Moved by Kerbi's account, Law decided to take action. "I had already thought that there was something inhuman about what was going on, but I hadn't really gone into it," she tells The Australian.

She showed the article to her husband and collaborator Eddie Fong, who suggested they make a film about it. But what kind? A veteran of the international festival circuit - with a string of adventurous art movies including The Goddess of 1967 (where the titular character was a Citroen), Floating Life and the Tang dynasty drama Temptation of a Monk - Law expected she would make a fictionalised version of Ali's story.

"But the more we found out about it, the more we felt it couldn't be a feature drama film," she explains. She feared that the "authenticity would be lost".

It was clear to her that Ali's story should be told from an immigrant's perspective. "One of the reasons why I felt so strongly about this was that I could project myself into Ali's situation and realise what it might have felt like," she says. Law moved to Australia from Hong Kong in 1996.

"I understand what it is like not to have your family here, or friends, or to be unable to speak the language. And because of that I felt sympathetic to the boy. In that sense, my point of view is different to that of someone who is born here. Though Trish is generous and compassionate, she probably wouldn't feel the same way as I do."

As it happens, the film is just as much about Kerbi and her clan as it is about the fate of Ali. Once Law decided that she wanted to make a documentary, she and Fong joined them on the road for another transcontinental journey. Although slow-paced at times, the film is a powerful evocation of how an ordinary family can become involved in an issue in a deeply personal way that transcends conventional notions of political activism.

Letters to Ali received a standing ovation when it screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival in July. But it raises questions about the present spate of refugee-themed arts projects. Do they provide audiences with an easy way to feel good about themselves by identifying with a fashionable issue?

To this, Law laughs gently before answering: "Well, that's a very cynical approach. I really think there are people who want to look at an issue in greater depth than the way it is being presented by those in power. Yes, maybe that's one of the reasons, but what's wrong about that if that makes someone want to do something?"

Law acknowledges that the political realities of border protection are anything but straightforward.

"Certainly there are reasons for a government to put people in a particular place while they are going through the process of trying to find out if they are true refugees," she says. "But I think it is their attitude and the way they are treating them that is the problem. And I don't think it has to be political. It is really a human issue. Those people don't need to be locked up right through the process."

Law says that in Hong Kong "we were dealing with refugees all the time. We also have detention centres there, but people can leave the centre during the day and go to work, and children go to school and they have a kind of normal life while they wait, and they contribute to society."

So is Ali able to play an active part in this society? Though his face is always pixilated, we see him move beyond the caged confines of Port Hedland during the course of the documentary, which was completed early this year. But there is no sense of closure.

"For legal and safety reasons I can't really say what is happening with him now," says Law. "But in an abstract way, he is still in astate of limbo. Nothing has changed from last year 'til now and, if anything, his optionsseem to be narrowing."

Law is beginning to focus on her next project, a fictional feature called Like a Dream, which centres on a relationship between an American man and a Chinese woman. Co-written with Fong, the film will be co-produced from the US, and shot in New York and Shanghai. With talk of well-known actors taking on the two leading roles (Law can't say who they might be yet), it is clear that this will be no shoestring production.

Yet while Like a Dream might boast a larger budget, ritzier locations and a name cast, Letters to Ali will remain a watershed project for Law and Fong, in part because the experience so clearly demonstrated the potential of harnessing digital technologies to tell stories that might not find favour with the funding bodies.

"Nowadays the whole film scene is very conservative - not just Australia, but all over the world," Law says. "So doing a film this way gave us a real freedom and we will continue to use it in projects where we can't raise finance."

The pair was "almost overwhelmed" by the degree of support they received. Though the film was mostly funded from their own pockets, they received some support from the Melbourne film festival, and editor Jill Bilcock and musician Paul Grabowsky were just two of many professionals who offered their services for free.

Law says she won't be satisfied until she sees real change. "I come from a place where democracy isn't taken for granted. Here you're supposed to take it for granted, but it can be abused very easily in a legal way if there is no morality to guide it. That's what I think this film is all about."

Letters to Ali opens nationally (except in South Australia) on September 23.

Media: Return to sender

Sydney Morning Herald
September 17, 2004

The government locks up the refugees, but one family tried to make the stay easier for a young asylum seeker without one. Alexa Moses reports on a moving documentary.

A final image in Melbourne filmmaker Clara Law's first feature documentary is a sunset. The pink-edged clouds look like a dragon bringing her babies home. In that single shot, Law encapsulates the story of Letters to Ali.

The dragon in this film is Dr Trish Kerbi, a determined, fiery Victorian mother of four.

In 2002 she started corresponding with a 15-year-old refugee locked up in Port Hedland detention centre.

Rob and Trish Silberstein and the kids

Kerbi encouraged her children to also write to the boy, whose family is missing, presumed dead. Kerbi's family [see photo inset], including her husband Rob Silberstein, visited the refugee they call "Ali". Slowly, he became a surrogate son.

Law and her husband, the film's co-writer, cinematographer and editor, Eddie L. C. Fong, were inspired by an article Kerbi wrote for The Age about her relationship with Ali.

Law and Fong, whose Australian features include Floating Life and The Goddess of 1967, emigrated from Hong Kong in the early 1990s.

"Eddie and I already had a lot of discussion about how the asylum seekers were treated in this country," Law says. "We were angry about it. We have more of an empathy for people who have to leave their home."

The 47-year-old filmmaker remembers how she felt when she arrived in Australia.

"It's a kind of limbo. You at times question why you're here. There was much you had to leave to come here: your memories and friends and family. And the daily things.

"That can be a struggle. You have to look at a map when you need to get around. Food - different food and different ways of finding food. I still cook Chinese food. We brought along noodles when we went to Port Hedland. It's a comfort."

Law and Fong accompanied Kerbi's family and a guinea pig on the trip from Gippsland to Port Hedland last year.

Letters to Ali, which was selected to screen at this month's Venice International Film Festival, is slow and poetic for a documentary, perhaps because Law had never made a documentary before and because she originally intended to turn Kerbi's story into a dramatic feature film.

"The more we found out about the story, the more we felt we couldn't create fiction," Law says. "It's really about human beings.

"It's very intuitive filmmaking, for me. You have the camera in your hand, and if it's good you keep filming. One friend said it wasn't the left brain working, it's the right brain. It's very emotional. It's not a usual documentary."

Law and Fong made the film without funding because they didn't want to wait until a government agency or private company granted them a green light.

Many people worked on the film for no charge, including musician Paul Grabowsky, sound designer Livia Ruzic, and Sarah Lucy, who created the titles, captions and credits.

Letters to Ali makes great use of captions or "intertitles" - words on the screen that serve the same purpose as voice-over - and exquisite shots that look meticulously composed.

Law included a section in the film where Kerbi and Ali respond to words such as "death", "ocean" and "home".

"We live most of the time the external life, but the internal life drives us," Law says. "Human beings are born to attach to things. We want to attach to home, food, place, books."

In the film Ali tells Law what he did when he was swamped by memories of his missing Afghan family: "He would go away and try to cook or something else to take his mind away. He was trying to find comfort."

Ali is living outside the detention centre, but does not have his visa yet.