‘Love is the answer’: the Kurdish refugees finding art and healing in a country that imprisoned them
Mostafa Azimitabar and Farhad Bandesh are walking around the Byron Bay hinterland, in a state of wonder at the world.
This is a world that was denied to them, along with their freedom, for too long; in their flight from persecution in Iran, these two already traumatised young Kurdish men would be detained by the Australian federal government for almost eight years.
A new documentary about their journey, Freedom Is Beautiful, will screen this weekend in Melbourne. Directed by Angus McDonald, the film follows their flight from Iran, through the years in detention, to finally being able to make new lives in Australia – albeit still not fully free.
It is a story of finding beauty in the darkest days; of overcoming trauma to make space for art, hope and joy. As they’re filmed walking through rainforests and swimming in the ocean, Azimitabar says: “My life was the size of a room for years and years.”
Azimitabar was born in Kermanshah in Iran during the country’s war against Iraq. In the film, he describes the bombs that rained down as “the melody of my childhood”. A member of Iran’s systemically persecuted Kurdish minority, he studied English as a foreign language but didn’t finish his degree: “I had to leave … I was in danger”. When Azimitabar left Iran he had thought “27 years of torture was finished and I could start a new life,” he says in the film. “I hadn’t had freedom before in my life.”
Bandesh also grew up to a soundtrack of bombs and screams. His family fled the Iranian city of Ilan; he had been a guitar maker and a musician but Kurdish music was banned, as was writing or speaking his own language. One of millions of stateless Kurdish people, he has been searching for safety ever since.
In the film, Bandesh describes his journey from Jakarta to Christmas Island as a kind of torture: 65 people crammed on a small boat, vomiting, huge waves that left him grasping for rope to keep himself above water. When he first saw Manus Island, he recalls, “I saw this small, remote island. We are trapped for ever. Sweating every day and night. You couldn’t sleep or eat. Your body was shot. Their treatment of us was degrading, they humiliated us every day for years.”
On Manus, Azimitabar says he was beaten with an iron bar; he developed a stammer as a result of the trauma. “I would stare at the fences and think, ‘When will this be over?’” he says. “I would tell myself, ‘I don’t know when it is my day but one day will be my day and I will be free.’”
That day wouldn’t come until January 2021, when he was 34 years old.
The film melds phone footage capturing scenes from Manus Island with contemporary footage shot around Australia, as Azimitabar and Bandesh remade their lives. It bears witness to how these men used music and art as resistance. Speaking to the Guardian, Bandesh talks of the political songs, poetry and 150 artworks he created in offshore detention: “It was a weapon against cruelty. My survival is art and art is my resistance … I fight with my art.” For Azimitabar, painting in detention took away the pain. “It took my soul to freedom,” he says.
When hundreds of refugees were brought to Australia on the advice of doctors, hotels were used as alternative places of detention – and Azimitabar found himself in another kind of prison. From November 2019, already suffering from severe depression, PTSD and asthma, he lived without sunshine or fresh air for 23 hours a day, in a room that faced a concrete wall. “My life was a narrow room and a corridor,” he tells the Guardian.
Bandesh was medevaced from Manus in July 2020, and would spend 17 months between two facilities on the mainland. He says he had to fight to have a window opened “a tiny bit. Just for a basic human right. They treated us like we were nothing.”
McDonald turned to film-making after the European refugee crisis of 2016, when he had been traveling through Greece. “I was really amazed at the way Greek local communities responded. They had no resources but they just had this idea that they needed to help these people.” He didn’t see the same thing happening back home, and wanted to make a contribution. “I realised that making paintings about it wasn’t going to cut it … [film] is like painting in seven dimensions.”
He made Freedom is Beautiful in partnership with Amnesty International, after meeting both men in 2021, while they were still in hotel detention. “I realised just how incredible they were,” he says. “[They taught me] that to be strong you need to hold on to ideas around love and hope. Otherwise it will just kill you from the inside.”
Azimitabar and Bandesh first came to his home in April 2021, to paint in the studio, to swim in the ocean, to touch and feel the natural world once they were free. They have been frequent visitors ever since; it’s here that Azimitabar painted a self-portrait that would be shortlisted for the 2022 Archibald prize. He used a toothbrush to paint it – the tool he would paint with on Manus Island, he says, where he used coffee grinds when they were denied paint. “I don’t want to change these techniques,” he says now. “The toothbrush is a very good friend of mine.” He has never studied art, he says: “Suffering was my teacher.”
For McDonald it was fascinating to see “how art can be so powerful. To see how art became so fundamentally important and actually observe how it worked”.
Bandesh and Azimitabar are free from detention – but they are still not safe, or really free. They are in limbo, on temporary protection visas that must be regularly renewed. They can work but they can’t study or own a business, and they can’t leave. Ten years on, about 75 refugees and asylum seekers remain held offshore, most in Port Moresby, and thousands remain in limbo in Australia. “We keep fighting for their freedom because they are human beings and they have the right to be free,” Bandesh says. “We want the government to accept what they have done to them.”
In 2022, Azimitabar sued the federal government over its use of hotel detention. In July this year Judge Bernard Murphy ruled that the policy was lawful, but his judgment was scathing: “I can only wonder at the lack of thought, indeed lack of care and humanity, in detaining a person with serious psychiatric and psychological problems in the hotels for 14 months,” he said.
Today, Bandesh works in a factory, and makes wine for a business partner, sold under the label Bandesh Wine & Spirits. Kurdish winemaking is a tradition that goes back thousands of years, but in Iran he had to make it in secret. “You’d be amazed at how absolutely beautiful his shiraz is,” says McDonald. “It’s incredible.” Bandesh remembers the thousands of “amazing” Australians who reached out to those detained, and gave them hope. “This is humanity. It’s beautiful.”
Azimitabar works as a guide at the Art Gallery of NSW, and paints in a studio in Sydney. “I didn’t want to get angry. I wanted to be kind to myself. I decided to keep my smile and I wanted to be a person for people who don’t have a voice,” he says. “I always say that my message is love. I have been kept in prison for 2,700 days by the Australian government. And I believe that love is the answer. This is the way that we can kill the monsters.”