“He is calm. He shows no fear. He looks happy.
It’s a sobering image when you realise that these people are being lined up to be killed by Iraqi soldiers and were marked to be buried alive shortly after the picture was taken.”
1989. Two lines of Kurdish refugees, children in the foreground and adults behind. Eyes forward or staring down the barrel of the camera, they stand squashed together, chests pressed into the backs of their line neighbour as though queueing for some inane activity. Only one young boy in a small blue parker breaks the continuity by looking directly into the camera and smiling. His smile is broad and genuine, as though he recognises the photographer – as one would smile at a friend or a beloved relative. He is calm. He shows no fear. He looks happy.
It’s a sobering image when you realise that these people are being lined up to be killed by Iraqi soldiers and were marked to be buried alive shortly after the picture was taken.
Farhad Bandesh, the driving force behind the protest song entitled The Smiling Boy is a Kurdish refugee (it’s worth noting that the population of his people are spread between Northern Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey) who had been imprisoned on Manus Island after fleeing persecution in his home country. After the second world war, the Kurdish people where promised a nation state of their own. This never eventuated. In 2013 Farhad fled persecution in his home of Ilam, a city in Iranian Kurdistan. Upon arriving at Christmas Island by boat from Jacarta he was immediately exiled to Manus Island detention centre.
The Smiling Boy is accompanied by a fully animated film clip – directed and produced by Neil Sanders (Melbourne’s own LoopdeLoop ‘Loop-King’). Perhaps you may not consider him the first choice to tackle such a subject and Neil himself goes onto to say ‘At first I thought this was not a project suited to me, I usually draw silly wobbly characters that make funny noises, but the moment I heard the song I was drawn in. Farhad’s story and passion in his delivery of it are an animator’s dream come true.’
Animation is the perfect medium to visually explain such an intensely evocative subject matter. The ability to employ powerful visual euphemism and metaphor with grace and dignity as well as presenting brutally honest accounts of reality is an intrinsic truth of the artform, that animators and lovers of animation expect of auteur animated storytelling. The Smiling Boy does not fail in its delivery of using animation for its truest artistic purpose – a straddling of reality and metaphor to produce storytelling that is engaging, affecting and emotive.
Speaking with Neil about his goals for the film clip he says ‘My hope is that it refocuses the debate on refugees around the human cost of Australia’s border policy. Our government has treated these people like chess pieces to deter further arrivals, ignoring their humanity and international law.’
At the time of interview, Neil commented on Bandesh’s status as an incarcerated refugee ‘Farhad has been a refugee for 6 years at Manus Island Papua New Guinea, and 1 year in detention at MITA, Melbourne. He is still waiting for freedom (Dec 11 2020 will be his 8th detention birthday!), and continues to write and release songs about himself and the 1300+ refugees still detained indefinitely by Australia.’
It was during his time at MITA that Farhad connected with not-for-profit organisation Wild At Heart who specialise in mentoring the creative talents of marginalised individuals. In a stroke of luck, Farhad was supported in his musical creative pursuits whilst still held in detention by Wild At Heart, who encouraged, mentored and lifted him up. Speaking briefly to program manager, Sally Balhorn said ‘We set him up with his mentors and gave feedback on the song’s progress which no doubt made an impact on the trajectory of Farhad’s creative journey.’
Commenting on the message behind the song and film clip Neil explains what he and the creator hope to present to the audience ‘Farhad’s song relates the suffering and resilience of the Kurdish people to his personal struggles in detention. You can hear in his voice the strength he draws from the ongoing struggle of the Kurdish people and how it helps him to maintain his courage in the face of indefinite detention.’
Together they collaborated to bring to life the vision of The Smiling Boy via the artform of animation. Neil doesn’t take full credit for directing and producing the clip and makes it clear ‘Farhad has been involved and the driving force behind the project from the outset, being a visual artist as well as a musician. While on Manus Island he had very little access to instruments and art materials which was awful for his mental health, and then last year there was a threat to onshore asylum seekers having access to mobile phones which was luckily blocked in the senate. Recently while in MITA in Broadmeadows he has gotten a laptop which has freed up his creativity greatly.’
Sean Healy, an animation director who specialises in live visuals for musicians, reached out to Neil in early October 2020. Neil explains ‘Sean directed a music video for Farhad’s protest song ‘Cruel Policy’ and Farhad was hoping to have an animated video for his new song. After hearing the song and seeing that it was nearly four minutes long I quickly realised that it was too big a project for one person to work on alone in the short timeframe so proposed making it a LoopdeLoop Animation Challenge theme.’
This proved to be a challenge for which animators were willing to put time and effort – pen to paper (or more likely, stylus to Wacom) and a collaborative team was assembled to create the clip. As a pro-bono passion project, the brief was simple – create a short animated loop using the photograph The Smiling Boy as inspiration or rotoscope over footage of Farhad singing the poignant chorus lyrics (“As they bury me alive…’’) which will be edited to form a video clip for Farhad’s song by the same name. The team consisted of nine animators aside from Neil Sanders. As with all independent projects, challenges arise and on forming the collective during Melbourne’s Quarantine lockdown and creating the brief Neil explains ‘I have been running LoopdeLoop Animation Challenge for over ten years at this point, but after taking a six month hiatus it was difficult to spread the word and rally people to the project. I spent a week formulating a project brief, making example artworks and discussing the project online and over the phone with people before making the brief live. In the end we only had a total of nine contributers. Farhad provided a video of him belting out the chorus to camera, which I broke into sections for us to rotoscope (trace over the footage). This became the foundation of the music video, with other contributions targeting a specific lyric or message of the song.’
The colour palette matches that of the photograph and is muted – almost flat. The use of colour as a narrative device works well in this particular type of storytelling and sets a tone to the whole piece which is carried home by the accompanying music. Together, a powerful visual re-telling of events that should never have happened is delivered with poise, dignity and raw honesty.
The Smiling Boy is a worthy piece of animated history to make time to view and is on YouTube now. Lyrics are available in the description.
As of writing, in a turn of events spearheaded by national protest and bolstered by Greens Senator and MP, Lydia Thorpe, Farhad has been freed from Manus and is now working to bring attention to others who continue to be imprisoned.
We would like to thank Neil Sanders for his time and for Farhad who took the time to comment on this article ‘Thanks very much for promoting the launch of the song via your website and social media. Thanks for your support, I need support to send the message of this song.’
The Smiling Boy
Written and performed by Farhard Bandesh
Director of Animation – Neil Sanders
Aaron Gietman Melbourne, Australia – http://instagram.com/batshit.asylum
Ana Maria Mendez Salgado, Colombia + South Australia – http://anamaria-art.com
Greg Holfeld – Adelaide, Australia, http://gregholfeld.com
Himanshu Gopalani, India – http://instagram.com/him_paat
Isha Mangalmurti – India, http://instagram.com/ishamangalmurti
Jean Poole – Melbourne, Australia – http://skynoise.net
Neil Sanders – Melbourne, Australia – http://neilsanders.com.au
Yeimy Sanchez, Melbourne, Australia – http://yeimysanchez.art
Zoe Medcraft, Melbourne, Australia – http://instagram.com/trugglet