Australian actors silent on detained refugee performer

3:40 pm on 22 February 2017

Actors in Australia have refused to voice their support for a campaign to free a performer from Australian detention on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

The campaign, which also appeals for the release of a writer and a cartoonist, is being run by the Australian union for actors and journalists, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

Mehdi Savari holding a letter from detainees to the Australian Human Rights Commissioner.

Mehdi Savari holding a letter from detainees to the Australian Human Rights Commissioner. Photo: Behrouz Boochani / RNZI

In 2014, prominent Australians including actors took part in a "We Are The World"-styled mass choir that sang a song called "We're Better Than This", which called for the release of child refugees detained on Nauru.

Several Australian actors have joined the union's campaign but when asked to comment on the 32-year-old performer Mehdi Savari, who is detained on Manus Island, none came forward - which New Zealand actor Oscar Kightley said was strange.

"Strange because it's their union. If you're unwilling to comment it's because you're scared about something. But I don't know what they'd be scared of. I don't know what the consequences would be," he said.

Mr Kightley has been outspoken in New Zealand media decrying Australia's four-year detention of refugees in prison camps on Nauru and Manus Island.

Well-known for his recent role in the movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Mr Kightley was happy to voice his support for Mr Savari, an actor, troubadour, magician and comedian, who used to host a popular children's television programme in Iran.

"I guess I feel for him as a fellow actor and artist, who's chosen to perform in terms of his way of living life and communicating what he's about as a human," said Mr Kightley.

"It's sad to see him caught up in that really. He sounds amazing and, gosh, maybe we could even use him in New Zealand."

Manus Island detention centre

The detention centre on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island has been at the centre of protests and campaigning in Australia. Photo: Behrouz Boochani

Australian author and refugee advocate Arnold Zable said Mehdi Savari was an Awazi Arab - a persecuted minority in Iran.

"In Manus, after the murder of Reza Berati when the men were in deep despair, he began to perform to lift their spirits," said Mr Zable.

"He suffers from dwarfism, he's only a metre tall. It's very difficult at the best of times to be incarcerated in a detention centre but for someone of his stature it's extremely difficult and quite humiliating."

From hospital in Port Moresby, Mr Savari said he was suffering from paralysis.

"After four years I have finally saved enough money to buy myself a wheelchair," he said.

"I am here because of my eye infection and serious gastric problems for which I take daily medication.

"The emotion trauma I've experienced and the physical hardships I've endured living on Manus Island have resulted in the breakdown of my mental health and are the reason why I am in this situation on Port Moresby."

The union campaign also appeals for the release of Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani and the award-winning cartoonist from Iran known as Eaten Fish.

Mr Zable said Mr Boochani was working tirelessly to expose human rights violations perpetrated by Australia.

"He's bearing witness in many forms. He's known in the camp as the reporter. He's working up to 18 hours a day, sending out articles and features that are published both internationally and in the Australian press. The Huffington Post even New York Times recently had a video diary of his," said Mr Zable.

"So he's tireless in his work and as a result he's valued by the international journalistic community."

The Guardian cartoonist Andrew Marlton, who is known as First Dog on the Moon, said Eaten Fish would be an asset to Australia.

"He's got a very wry way of looking at the world and he's got a perspective that not many people do considering where he's come from and what he's seen," said Mr Marlton.

"Getting him here and getting him into an arts school and getting him working as a cartoonist is in everybody's best interests."

Oscar Kightley

New Zealand actor Oscar Kightley has decried Australia's use of the offshore detention camps to house refugees. Photo: Supplied

Oscar Kightley said the three men could make Australia a better country.

"They fled a place because of what they did for a job and they're able to write about these things and have a perspective that journalists and cartoonists and even actors in Australia don't have because they come from countries that were torn apart," he said.

"They can absolutely add to the story-telling that stops that sort of thing from spreading."

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