Joan Robinson, Director of The Trial.
Q: What was the inspiration behind this documentary? And/or how did it come about?
A: I met Omar Merhi while making another documentary about a union. From that first meeting, I was impressed by Omar. While working with him he confided to me that his brother Abdullah had been charged with terrorism related offences. I remember one day when I was interviewing him, he was receiving many calls and text messages. He showed me one message that read “I’m gonna kill your family”. Omar and his family were under huge pressure and receiving a variety of threats. They even received bullets in the mail. I was horrified. Omar lives in the same suburb as me. I was aware that there had been some backlashes against Muslims in the area, especially immediately after 9/11, but here it was in another guise. At that stage Omar’s brother Abdullah and his co-accused had been arrested 6 months earlier in November 2005.
My original idea was to simply follow and observe Omar and his family as they dealt with the day-to-day impact, media and backlash generated by Abdullah’s trial. I thought the project would provide some insight into Muslim Australians for non-Muslims. Omar thought so too and agreed to be involved in the documentary. Since 9/11 he had been active promoting greater understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. However, as the project progressed, I became more and more interested in the interaction between the law and Australia’s approach to counter terrorism and the fate of the men on trial. Through my research I realised that this was going to be Australian’s biggest terrorism trial at that time, and that it would be the first real test of some aspects of the new Anti-Terror laws, including controversial elements that could have wide-ranging ramifications. I met Barrister Greg Barns whilst working on another film project and discovered he was defending one of the 12 men on trial. I started talking to Greg about the upcoming trial and he offered to assist me with my documentary. He talked about how the men may be convicted of what he called “thought crime”. We decided to also involve Greg as a character in the film as a way of exploring the impact of the anti- terror laws as well as providing an extraordinary insight into the trial and legal process. Greg would be our guide to the complex laws and day-to-day trial process and issues.
Q: What do you like about making documentaries?
A. The short answer is – the people I meet and the things I learn.
I doubt I will ever cease to be amazed by how open, honest, trusting and generous people are willing to be. As a documentary filmmaker I feel privileged to be given access to people’s lives, insights and emotions, often at very difficult and stressful times. I’ve met some extraordinary people through my documentaries.
Q: Did you encounter any challenges in making this documentary and, if so, how did you overcome them?
A: There were many challenges involved in making this documentary. Most we could overcome and the ones that we couldn’t we worked around.
Firstly, I wanted to make an observational documentary about a trial and its impact, even though we could not film inside the court room or talk to the accused. We do effectively tell most of the trial’s story and its impact on our participants outside the courtroom observationally but we wanted to add to this by showing some of the drama occurring inside the courtroom. We achieved this by creating dramatic reconstructions, which we based on transcripts from the trial and which we filmed in the actual courtroom in which the trial was held.
Making an observational documentary about the law, a trial and some of its participants while it’s in progress presented many unique challenges. We’ve had to continuously negotiate with the courts and numerous lawyers from day 1 to film’s completion and beyond. I am not a lawyer and the trial process was new to me – I had much to learn about the law and how it operates in practice. I was very pleased when Brian Walters – a very experienced and respected barrister – agreed to be involved with the film and provided us with legal advice.This was invaluable. And, in this documentary project, there was a lot at stake for all the participants – it was a very difficult process for all involved. The Merhi family were experiencing great emotional pressure and the defence lawyers were working very long hours on a complex and stressful case. If convicted, their clients were facing many years in jail apart from their families. Added to this mix was the fact that the trial was expected to run for 6 to 9 months. Therefore, the story of the documentary would unfold over a long period of time. I was there with my camera day after day – in court following the trial and filming with participants before or after court. Much of the time I also needed to be in two places at the same time. In the end I negotiated each step and day as best I could. It certainly helped to have an experienced producer, John Moore, supporting the project throughout.
Q: How does the documentary relate to your past work, if at all? Was this film a natural next step or a radical departure from your previous work in film, TV etc?
A: This documentary was a natural step as well as a departure from my previous work. Like THE TRIAL my previous work used observational filming methods to explore social, human rights or cultural issues through a person’s experience or insight. Unlike my previous work, this film includes dramatic reconstructions and narration, which facilitated our need to abbreviate, explain and explore a very long and complex story in just 52 minutes.
Also, I’ve produced or co-produced all my previous work.
Q: Any other production anecdotes/stories?
A: At the very beginning of this project, I had very little knowledge of terrorism, the justice system and the new anti-terror laws. I had never set foot inside a courtroom. There were many aspects to the law that I didn’t understand. But, I realised that if I didn’t understand the laws and how the law works, then neither would most of our audience. Filming with lawyers like Greg Barns meant that many aspects of the law and the court process could be explained in a language that most people would be able to understand. As a result of my legal inexperience, I feel that the documentary also provides valuable insight to the legal process.
I am very disappointed that we couldn’t include the prosecution’s or the police’s viewpoint in the documentary. Our policing agencies work hard to maintain our safety and perform an often thankless and very difficult job. The fears, motivation and viewpoint of the police leading up to the men’s’ arrests certainly would enhance the debate about Australia’s approach to terrorism. Their work leading up to the arrests could probably be a documentary itself. For legal reasons both the prosecution and the police declined to participate.
Q: Apart from “it’s a masterpiece” what would your ideal viewer response to the doco be?
A: I hope people will empathise with the Merhi family in this documentary. They have endured a great deal of abuse and trauma following the arrest, trial and conviction of a family member. They’ve been treated as guilty by association by some. Omar and Amne Merhi aren’t terrorists. Most Muslims aren’t terrorists. It’s important that all Australians understand this. But I also want people to think about Australia’s anti-terror laws, our values and freedoms. How much liberty should we give up to protect ourselves from terrorism? Where should we draw the line? Maybe we have the balance right, maybe we don’t. I hope that the film generates a public debate about the anti-terror laws and Australia’s approach to terrorism and human rights.
Q: Did you learn anything through making this documentary, about either yourself or your subjects?
A: Well, I worked full-time on this project for two years, so “yes” I’ve learned a lot. Although there’s always plenty more to learn, my filmmaking knowledge, my understanding of counter terrorism laws, Islam, terrorism and our justice system has increased dramatically over the last two years.
Q: What is your next project or what are you working on now?
A: I’m currently developing a number of concepts, including other projects that explore sensitive, political and/or controversial topics.