Watandar: A Movie about Australia’s Indigenous, Colonial and Imperialist History

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Watandar, My Countryman
Documentary film directed by Jolyon Hoff
Featuring Muzafar Ali
In cinemas, details at https://www.watandar.com.au/

Watandar is a gentle but piercing study of Australia’s indigenous, colonial, immigrant and imperialist history.

It centres on Muzafar Ali, who worked for the UN in Afghanistan as a photographer for many years. Unfortunately, that meant he had to get his family out, marked as he was as a collaborator and a member of the Hazara minority.

The refugee journey took him and his family through Pakistan, where suicide bombers were on the loose, to Malaysia, where they were not welcome and via a disastrous sea crossing, to Indonesia where they were lucky to make landfall.

But his biggest surprise was after he was granted refugee status by Australia in 2015. Arriving in Adelaide, in a country that he knew nothing about, he discovered that Afghans had been vital components of the state’s rural development.

According to the State Library of South Australia, the first cameleers came to the colony in 1838. Though many were from Egypt, Iran, Turkey, India and modern-day Pakistan, they were all disparagingly referred to as Afghans or as Ghans.

Without them, the “kings in grass castles” could not have survived. The cameleers were the supply line that fed them and took their produce to market. The squatters’ economic and political power was extracted from the unpaid labour of Aboriginal people and carried on the back of camels.

That capitalist power grew into Australian imperialism, which ultimately formed part of the destructive US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

The cameleers were nearly all single men and most were Muslim. Racist attitudes by white Australians towards them, and their travels through Aboriginal country, drew many of them into unions with Aboriginal women.

Muzafar Ali made it his project to meet with and photograph their descendants; in this quest he was accompanied by documentary maker Jolyon Hoff.

Many of the people Ali meets live poverty-stricken lives in some of the Australia’s most isolated settlements. Ali’s genuine warmth and interest in them win people over within moments of meeting.

As he takes up his camera, the stories start flowing. The viewer hears aspects of Australian history that have been overlooked or deliberately erased.

Most of his subjects proudly identify both as Afghan and Aboriginal. Ali endorses their dignity and explains the significance of some of the treasured fragments of memory, language and artifacts that have been passed on through the years.

Many of the tales are heart-rending, such as stories of the stolen generations and its lingering trauma. Ali listens compassionately and with understanding, having witnessed comparable outrages in his homeland and in fleeing to Australia.

After the Taliban resumed power in 2021, Ali had to assist desperate family and friends in Afghanistan to escape. Interspersed with his road trips are segments of him managing harrowing phone calls and acknowledging the depth of his own personal distress.

In Muzafar Ali, Australia has gained a humanitarian who can contribute to a national re-imagining. Watandar’s truth is irrefutable.

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