Once again, Australia has been handed a cinematic piece of art from the deft touch of Glendyn Ivin. Safe Harbour charts the story of a group of five friends, on a sailing holiday far off the North Australian shores, when they come across a stranded boat of asylum seekers. Here begins the moral-quandary which we would all readily claim we could solve through common human decency, however this complex narrative soon unfolds to illustrate that just isn’t so.
As the on-board quarrel between the five Australians escalates into a question of morality vs legality, a vote is taken, and Ryan (Ewen Leslie) makes the captain’s call that a rope is to be tied to the stranded vessel and they begin to tow it towards the land of plenty. As a storm approaches, Damien (Joel Jackson) takes the wheel and turns towards the nearest land; Indonesia.
When morning comes it’s discovered the rope has been cut in the night. At this stage the four-part series transforms into a why-dunnit as opposed to a simple who-dunnit.
Ivin’s directorial strength in this moment of tragedy, along with debutant cinematographer Sam Chiplin, is to allow the scene freedom. So much is bared by the restraint in both sound and pace thanks to Ivin’s approach that the horror of the situation becomes a cinematic visceral experience, which most of the audience will thankfully never have to endure. Although through the imagery and sound we are offered a painful glimpse into the human struggle of asylum seekers. One that was validated by a young man who Ivin met in post-production who had made the crossing himself. The stunning cinematography from Chiplin and a moderative style from Ivin allows the ordeal to be humanised in a way so far unseen on any screen.
The truth of that night does not surface until five years later when Ryan steps into a a taxi driven by one of the refugees, Ismail (Hazem Shammas). Someone cut the rope and out of the forty onboard, seven drowned in the storm including Ismail’s nine-year-old daughter Yasmeen.
Mistrust, self-protection and lies all ensue as the truth is hidden inside a woven narrative of inner-battles with each characters’ principles which sees the finger pointed at all Australians throughout the series. It is, however, apparent that there are greater questions to be answered other than who cut the rope as relationships crumble and old secrets come to light. The Australians’ attempts at making amends only fuels the fire and catalyses an increase in the wedge between not only the two groups but the families themselves.
The four-part drama features Phoebe Tonkin, AACTA and Logie award-winner Joel Jackson, award-winning actor Ewen, acclaimed actress Leeanna Walsman, and award winner Jacqueline McKenzie. Other members of the ensemble cast include Hazem Shammas, Nicole Chamoun, Robert Rabiah.
Both cast and crew were understandably cautious of a screenplay of such a topic which delves into an often poorly told and misrepresented area with a typically incendiary style. Showrunner & writer Belinda Chayko , headed a strong writing team that included Matt Cameron and Phil Enchelmaier which ensured this was not the case. Instead we are given a story of family and a human experience without a whiff of politics or agenda. The shape of the episodes, more back and forth as opposed to flashback, only deepen the audience’s near-lust for answers as to who these characters really are? For an action that killed seven people, it is surprising how little time is spent wondering who cut it as internal and external battles envelop the storyline.
Special mention must be made of the cinematography and editing. These details cannot be understated, although the irony of this is not lost as the lens captures the everyday without gloss. Colour plays an integral part to the story telling, a wisp of pink in a transition suggesting a romantic storyline in future episodes, the variance of colours in the families’ homes, all draw you into a world you feel you recognise. Chiplin’s style is his own and stunning in its own right, some of the angles and close-ups used are heart wrenching in themselves. As with the sound, where momentary silence can say more than anything, Sam is not afraid to shoot imagery as transitions which add to the required tone, whether it be mundanity or wealth. There are Arkapaw-ian elements to his work but only in the way that a certain shot tells you you’re watching something through the eyes of Chiplin.
“In a period of unprecedented mass migration across the globe and of a deepening divide between the haves and have-nots of the world, Safe Harbour is deeply concerned about the fundamental human experience, and very much a drama for our times.” explains producer Stephen Corvini
As with all of Matchbox Pictures’ productions and even more so with the direction of Glendyn Ivin, their inobtrusive approach and core values of integrity and truth in story telling is taken to a new plane with Safe Harbour. The telling of a story so relevant to our times required the humanistic production talents of Matchbox Pictures and the light touch of Ivin. As Corvini said, there was only ever going to be one home for this and it’s SBS. However, with the story and talent involved the international resonance and reach the series will have is undeniable. Many of the creatives involved in nurturing this series were already on the map and now Sam Chiplin joins them as one of the most exciting cinematographers to compose for us. Safe Harbour is a cinematic experience of utter beauty in an ugly world which raises the bar for television production world-wide.
Check out the trailer below and tune in tonight at 8:30pm on SBS
Reviewed by James Mac