Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2019)

NR Running Time: 94 mins



  • Opens up a part of the world to us we seldom get to see.

  • Gabrielle Brady’s feature documentary debut is a multi-layered look at grief, trauma, migration, and the compelling need we all share to try and move forward somehow each and every day,

  • Unique, blurs the line at times between documentary and fiction storytelling, and is clever, innovative filmmaking from a director worth paying attention to.


  • The slow, measured approach of the film’s pace may not work for some viewers.

  • The film makes some pointed comparisons that people who believe in the idea of border walls and migrant caravan theories may find absurd and offensive.

  • Documentary purists may have frustrations with the way Brady plays loose and fast with the “rules” of documentary filmmaking.


One ambitious film, Island of the Hungry Ghosts, takes a unique, riveting approach to analyzing the debilitating effects of grief and trauma on immigrant detainees, one steadfast torture and trauma counselor, and a pesky cast of crabs who seem to always want to cross the road.

The setting: Christmas Island, an Australian territory near the Indian Ocean.

With a population of less than 2,000 residents, largely Malaysian Chinese but comprised of multiple ethnicities and origins, the location, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, became the destination for scores of immigrants seeking asylum from various countries in conflict. After a political hot potato was tossed around regarding whether or not the asylum seekers should be permitted to enter the territory, the Christmas Island Detention Centre opened in 2001.

Through the years, complaints of deplorable conditions, immigrant mistreatment and violent protests have dictated the story told around the detention facility. Uprisings have occurred. Detainees have harmed themselves intentionally to try and be removed. The stories from behind those walls are harrowing and difficult at times to comprehend.

Director Gabrielle Brady could have made a documentary about the detention facility alone, and in a day and age where Congress is deciding whether a national emergency exists on illegal immigration in the United States, that would have been pertinent and understandable. However, Brady goes in a much more esoteric and ambitious direction with her film.

Island of the Hungry Ghosts tells a multi-tiered story of immigration, grief, trauma, the lasting effects of violence and abuse, and positions much of the film through the prism of Poh Lin Lee, a torture and trauma counselor on the island who interviews and works with detainees and their families. Lee, married with two daughters of her own, also allows Brady access into her personal life, as we see how she tries to recalibrate her emotional well-being in her time away from the work she does. Life proves to be its own type of therapy.

And then…we have the crabs. 40 million of them.

One of the more interesting elements in the film is the appearance of countless red crabs, almost always attempting to cross a road, and positioned as not only something of a chapter divide within Brady’s film, but also serving as a striking analogy to the asylum seekers who attempted to find a place on Christmas Island.

In one moment, the crabs are becoming more and more plentiful and a resident constructs a makeshift bridge of wood and branches for them to cross over.

Whether intended for levity, or a pointed commentary, the crabs are constantly moving; attempting to find refuge from one place to the next. And as we juxtapose these moments with Lee’s powerful sessions with former detainees and relatives of those detained. Using a sand table and figurines to help her patients discuss their grief, Lee is brought to tears more than once when she, and we, hear just how much of an impact the detention facility has wrought on a great many people trying to find safety by moving from one place to the next.

An unconventional film, Brady also plays a bit loose with the rules of documentary filmmaking. She stages some scenes with actors, and a few moments feel created for the purpose of the story, as opposed to be genuinely captured on camera.

Lee is a fascinating central figure for the film. Her sessions serve great purpose, but her work is seemingly not respected. Patients frequently miss appointments because they have been transferred off the island or otherwise moved elsewhere. Lee receives no notification of this and when she asks, she is told “that information cannot be shared.”

As a result, her work never feels resolved or complete. And yet another analogy emerges between the effort she is making to bring people whole, with a hope of closure she never receives personally or professionally.

While the movie’s slower, measured approach may be too taxing for some, Island of the Hungry Ghosts is a movie that deserves to find an audience. With a rhythm and tone all its own, Brady’s feature-length debut is powerful, innovative, and will keep you thinking about the world we live in, long after the credits fade to black.


Documentary Featuring: Poh Lin Lee

Director: Gabrielle Brady
Written by: Gabrielle Brady
Release Date: March 8, 2019
Sentient Art Film