A Nun’s New Habit
(Australia, 56 mins)
Writer/Director/Co Producer Robyn Hughan; Co Producer Veronica Sive; Editor Stefan Markworth
“Sister Carmel is no longer required to wear a habit, but since her return to the convent in the outback city of Whyalla, her new habit, is arguably just as profound.”
A Nun’s New Habit is in part a portrait of Sister Carmel who has been working with refugees incarcerated in Australia’s detention centres. We come to know her through her friends and family, and importantly through interviews and illustration of her actions. Through multiple layers a portrait of Sister Carmel emerges. The documentary also has a political dimension; noting that history repeats itself and that society seems always to need someone at the bottom. The forces of cruelty and compassion have been twin components in Australia’s colonial and postcolonial history. The film therefore works by keeping to a binary pattern of inspiration and degradation. In a contemporary context, ‘Illegals’ or refugees, are deprived of their humanity and the ‘processing’ of them is scandalous. The film explores how the process of defining individuals as illegals and as a threat to national security provides an excuse for indefinite detainment. It’s not surprising that images of barbed wire feature frequently as reality and metaphor as the story of Sister Carmel unfolds. Running through the film (and serving as its political and activist centre) is the story of the infamous Baxter detention centre which was closed in August 2007. We learn that more than 50 detainees were transferred to psychiatric hospitals and many of those released remain psychologically damaged.
If the film charts the tragic human cost of ‘inhospitality’ it also offers beauty and redemption presented through a portrait of the spiritual life and outlook of Sister Carmel. Visiting the detention centre we ‘overhear’ passing comments “I notice you brought the roses” and “I know how much the men enjoy the beauty of them.” At first it seems odd – quaint, irrelevant, perhaps a trifle indulgent. Surely that man needs a lawyer, not a rose! But the film begins to wins us over with seduction and kindness, with what the British romantic pot William Wordsworth called ‘those little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.’ Flowers are a genuine comfort, and for one man supplied with almond blossoms by Sister Carmel, they are a comforting and a poignant reminder of home. A Nun’s New Habit is a painfully elegant film with high production values and excellent cinematography. It’s the spirit of beauty that triumphs over sad, selfish, humanity. The film will find a sympathetic echo in a variety of nations struggling to maintain, protect or defend their human rights against the authoritarian national security agenda.
“Sister Carmel is no longer required to wear a habit, but since her return to the convent in the outback city of Whyalla, her new habit, is arguably just as profound.
Along with many of her contemporaries, Sister Carmel has become passionately involved with the plight of refugees incarcerated in the neighbouring detention centre. She visits the centre giving on going support to those who have been locked up for many years, participates in protests and lobbying politicians, and generally works on raising awareness in the community.
Her compassion and sense of integrity is apparent throughout the film as she fights for the release of those in detention. Sister Carmel is a pure delight as she dispels many of the myths related to nuns and living in a convent. What is it that makes a woman give her life to religion and God? Is she really a Good Samaritan?
A Nun’s New Habit provides valuable lessons in religious tolerance and compassion. It flies in the face of the fundamentalism and hatred that so dominates public discussion at this time and humanises the refugee and highlight tolerance in our society.”