Behrouz Boochani (R) (Photo credit: David Collins).

Director Rodd Rathjen showed his mettle in his debut feature, human trafficking saga Buoyancy, so he is an obvious choice to direct an asylum seeker drama based on the harrowing experiences of Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani.

Rathjen will collaborate with Boochani, who will serve as story consultant and associate producer, on No Friend But The Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, developed with Screen Australia’s support.

Aurora Films’ Ákos Armont and Antony Waddington, who optioned Boochani’s 2018 novel, are producing with Hoodlum Entertainment and Sweetshop & Green’s Sharlene George and Gal Greenspan.

The project will be pitched at the Toronto International Film Festival’s International Financing Forum (TIFF) this month.

Boochani fled Iran in 2012 after the newspaper he co-founded was raided by the Iranian government. He attempted to travel to Australia by boat from Indonesia but the vessel was intercepted and he ended up on Manus Island, where he spent nearly seven years.

He wrote the book, which details the riots which erupted in 2014, in Persian on WhatsApp on a contraband phone smuggled onto the island, which was subsequently translated into English by academic Omid Tofighian.

Writer/producer Armont tells IF: “I travelled to Manus Island in mid-2019 to meet with Behrouz and began developing the scope for the film adaptation of the book. As a team, we’re committed to working closely with Behrouz and Rodd in realising a script that retains Behrouz’s voice, first and foremost.

“Rodd has demonstrated his tremendous talent as a filmmaker willing to push himself creatively in representing stories with a deep and timely sense of social significance.”

Aurora entered into the partnerships with Hoodlum and Sweetshop & Green last year. The producers say they intend to attach international filmmakers but gave no details. The aim is to shoot in mid to late 2021, locations to be advised.

Rathjen’s tale of of human trafficking among Thailand’s offshore fishing fleet, shot largely in Khmer and Thai, was selected as Australia’s foreign-language Oscar contender and won the AACTA Award for Best Indie Film.

He said: “I’m really excited to join such an important project with an amazing team. In particular, I’m looking forward to collaborating with Behrouz to ensure the film retains his voice and becomes a unique and profound cinematic experience.”

The director is also developing the feature Rizgari, which follows the fight against ISIS in Kurdistan in 2014, with producer Grant Hill.

Behrouz, who was granted refugee status in New Zealand last month, said: “Writing has always been an act of resistance. When I started to work on the book, six years ago, no one had really heard about Manus Island. Today the book is published in 25 countries and in multiple languages.

“I hope that by now adapting the book into a film we will make this story even more accessible to audiences and continue to generate discussion and change for the world’s refugee communities.

“I hope the film will inspire others [to] speak out and share their stories; to talk and write about their experiences of survival. I am very happy to be working with Rodd and Ákos to develop this story and shape it into something very special. This is not just my story. This story belongs to the almost 80 million people around the world who are currently stateless.”

Sweetshop & Green was founded last year as a joint venture between global TVC production company Sweetshop and Israeli producer Gal Greenspan’s Green Productions.

Former Screen Australia and See Pictures exec Ester Harding joined in July, working with fellow development exec Katy Roberts to identify and lead development on Australian/NZ narrative and documentary projects, with a focus on international co-productions.