Uniting power of music at the centre of John Swatland’s ‘Scattered People’

Saha and Mas.

A new documentary featuring some of Australia’s most prominent musicians is being used to show the sense of community among asylum seekers ahead of Refugee Week.

John and Lizzi Swatland’s Scattered People follows Mas and Saha, two young Iranian asylum seeker musicians, as they navigate a new world of immigration detention.

Forced to flee their homes for the crime of making music, they are isolated from everything known and familiar. In immigration detention, the pair discover the Scattered People band, and through a shared love of music, once again find hope, community and a way to be heard.

Led by founder, Brian Procopis, with members including Gang Gajang’s Robbie James, the Scattered People band not only perform for but incorporate refugees – including Mas and Saha, in writing, performing, and recording songs.

The film features interviews with interviews with musicians including Missy Higgins, John Butler, Dan Sultan, Archie Roach, Michael Franti, Harry James Angus (The Cat Empire), Baker Boy and Katie Noonan, as well as academics, psychologists, and refugee specialists.

Scattered People will premiere this Thursday at the Randwick Ritz, with screenings planned around the country in the lead up to and during Refugee Week.

It’s the culmination of a six-year journey for the Swatlands, who produced the project via their company Being Reel Films, with John directing.

John Woodruff executive produced, with Rebecca Barry serving as a consultant producer and Lindi Harrison as editor.

Lizzi told IF the film was an opportunity to contribute to the national discourse around asylum seekers.

“It’s about changing the conversation,” she said.

“We’re all human together on this planet, so we just want to do what we can do to make that difference.

“It’s not our day job, but it is something we are very passionate about.”

Indeed, it was John’s chiropractory business that helped set the film in motion, with James being one of his clients.

After deciding to tell the story of Mas and Saha, the couple sent emails to a range of prominent musicians, asking them to detail how music had changed their lives.

Robbie James.

The project was taken forward in 2018 when it was selected for Screen Queensland’s Working the Pitch initiative, a two-day masterclass and consultation that gave John and Lizzi the tools to create a pitch trailer.

While John said that trailer allowed them to lay the groundwork for distribution, they found it “very hard” to secure funding for the project.

“We developed the base of our distribution plan through taking the trailer to various organisations but there was a lot of resistance to financing due to what we believe was the political nature of the film,” he said.

“It’s not a political story but when you mention asylum seekers, there is a negative impression of them out there, which the government has contributed to.

“I think it is detrimental to our society and our social fabric is threatened by these divisions.

This week’s premiere will be presented by the Asylum Seekers Centre, and will be followed by a Q&A with the producers, as well as Iranian musician Mas and James.

Other asylum seeker organisations will hold screenings of the film throughout the next few months, from which they will receive the proceeds.

John said they were also hoping to have a broadcast release.

“During the next few months, we will send it to the ABC, SBS and Foxtel Arts to see if they want to take it on as an acquisition,” he said.

“We will see how this release goes as to whether there is an opportunity for another release with a distributor.”

Find out more about the event screenings here.