The Trial is one of Melbourne’s most important hidden documentaries. It follows the stories of two accused men in Australia’s biggest terrorism trial, which ran from February to September 2008.
The terrorism trial itself was all over the media that year. It involved 25 lawyers, 12 accused and heard hundreds of hours of secretly recorded conversations and presented 66,000 pages of evidence. Many of the accused were charged as a result of words they had spoken rather than any actions they had taken, which was a first for the Australian legal system.
While the Herald Sun headlines screamed ‘Footy Jihad’ outside the courtroom, inside sat experienced filmmaker Joan Robinson, busily taking notes. I spoke with her about her amazing journey to create this unlikely film. I also spoke with Omar Merhi, whose brother, Abdullah, was convicted of being a member of a terrorist organisation in the trial and spent four and a half years in prison. He, along with lawyer Greg Barns, was the main subject of the film.
The Trial is so compelling because it presents a view of the legal process that is rarely captured. It shows the real consequences of Australia’s anti-terror laws on individuals as well as possible ramifications for everyone’s freedom of speech.
Joan Robinson, Coburg, 5pm
I met Omar Merhi working on an earlier film. While I was interviewing him, he told me about this brother, Abdullah, who was going through committal hearings. By August, I approached him to see if he was willing to participate in the documentary.
Omar was one of the few willing to publicly speak in defence of his brother. I hoped the documentary would be a way for people to get an insight into Muslims and to see we are all Australians.
I met Greg Barns through another project about the election campaign. Greg gave me the lay of the land in terms of the legal challenges of filming the documentary.
So there were three story lines in the film; the trial itself, Greg and Omar. They provided the human side and showed the impact of the trial process. We approached the police and the prosecution to provide their point of view, but they made the decision not to participate for legal reasons. I was disappointed because I was keen to provide their perspective.
Documentaries are made based on relationships. If you subject tells you they don’t want you to film then there is nothing you can do. Being the subject of a documentary is a big leap of faith and its all about trust and respect.
A mirror to ourselves
I went into the courtroom for the first time ever in January 2008. We had to convince the court of our intentions and many legal issues were at play at different stages. I studied the dos and the don’ts. For example, you can’t talk with the accused. There were many instances where the trial could have stopped because of the media reports. The Herald Sun published a lot of inappropriate stories in particular.
Because we couldn’t film the actual trial, I used the transcripts to create the reconstructions. We approached the courts to do a film shoot in the courtroom. We had a least fifty people in the courtroom for the shoot in June 2009.
I love filmmaking but it’s exhausting and financially difficult. The Trial wasn’t an activist film, but we set out to highlight the potential and real aspects of the terror laws on human rights and civil liberties. I make documentaries to put a mirror to ourselves and to look at who we are as Australians, just showing how things are. It is about trying to make the world a better place.
Omar Merhi, ETU Trade Union, North Melbourne, 3pm
Initially I was totally reluctant to be in the film. We are just not the sort of people who talk to the media. Despite my hesitation, I saw a lot of benefit in it. I think it’s important to fight for what you believe in. We suffered a lot after my brother was arrested so it was important to give our side of the story.
I was stunned to learn of my brother’s arrest. I knew of the group, I knew they had extremist views, but never in my wildest dreams, ever, did I think it was related to terrorism. Even today it’s almost surreal.
I attended the trial most days, especially when it was about my brother. I was fairly outspoken, but within reason. The best way was to go there and hear all the evidence and then make your own judgments.
The filming of The Trial was a rollercoaster. It was a bit difficult because there was a bit of my personal life, a bit of my work life, my brother, and the trial itself. Psychologically it was very tiring.
I received lots of support from the trade unions. I don’t say it to brag, but I had hundreds of phone calls and sms from delegates and officials. It was just amazing, you think the Islamic or Lebanese community would help, but they turned away. They [the unions] knew Abdullah because he was a construction worker, and they said “we’re all one big family, so we’re supporting you both until the end”. To this day, I feel I owe the union heaps.
Abdullah was found guilty so I can’t say he’s an angel, but at the end of the day, this is the best country in the world. The anti-terror laws are radical, but they are there for a reason. They are there to protect the security of this country which is of paramount importance.
There was no media circus when Abdullah was released from prison recently. He has integrated back into society and is slowly starting to do work. He is spending a lot of time with his wife and kid – because he owes it to them – and no one really picks him out in the street.
Whether it’s your brother or someone else, we just have to work together to make this the best possible country we can. If one of your own brothers goes off track, then you pull him back on track. There is no place in society for terrorism at all, particularly in Australia.
The Trial was originally broadcast on 17 November 2009 nation-wide on SBS, except in Victoria. If you would like to meet director Joan Robinson, she will be speaking at Melbourne University on Wednesday 11 August 2010 about The Trial. Public Lecture Theatre, Old Arts Building. 5:30 – 8:30pm.
To RSVP contact Zoe Dauth at firstname.lastname@example.org.