On the morning of December 11th, 2005, hordes of people gathered by the beach to commence a day of celebrations in a local suburb. By midday, the crowd had grown to 5000, and amidst the festival decorations, the presence of home-made slogans painted across chests and t-shirts gave an ominous warning: “We grew here, you flew here”; “Aussie pride”; “Fuck of Lebs”; “Wogs out of Nulla”; and “ETHNIC CLEANSING UNIT”. At 12:59pm, a man described as being of Middle Eastern appearance was surrounded by a group of white Australian men. He sought to avoid the crowd by entering a nearby pub, but was forcibly dragged out and beaten with bottles and fists before the police intervened.
This incident is now recorded as the first show of aggression in what has come to be known as the Cronulla Riots: 72 hours of intense civilian violence between groups of white Australians and ethnic minorities of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Bangladeshi appearance. The otherwise peaceful, beach-loving community of Cronulla becoming a temporary site of racially-motivated street warfare, as car loads of men and youths from all sides of the cultural divide armed with home-made weapons ran rampant in search of retaliation.
What were they retaliating against exactly? Was it the loss of jobs? The lack of English-speaking locals? The increasing presence of hijabs? Or maybe, a sense of disrespect for their religion? A disagreement on taste in music?
Forgive me. It is not my intention to make light of one of the most horrific events in our recent history. Read it instead as my ill-placed attempt at personal consolation after spending quite some time immersed in the graphic and disturbing images and stories of something so ugly, which occurred in the country of which I am a citizen. Sometimes, when we are faced with the harsh reality of the world, the only way we can digest it is with a sense of faith and good humour.
And this is exactly what the controversial new Australian film, Down Under, bravely, attempts to do.
Created under the vision of writer/director Abe Forsythe, who watched the Cronulla Riots unfold through the lens of the UK media, where he was based at the time, Down Under is a gutsy, tongue-in-cheek jibe at the socio-political complexion of our country that asks us to take a good, hard, belly-aching, look at ourselves.
Set in the aftermath of the Cronulla Riots, devastatingly captured across the film’s opening sequence of media footage, Down Under follows two self-made gangs from suburban Cronulla who have decided to seek revenge on their cultural counterparts. Respectfully borrowing from character tropes we all recognise and love (either because we grew up with them or because they were on Fat Pizza), we are taken into the alternate lives of our two reluctant protagonists – Hassim (Lincoln Younes), the quiet studying “Leb”, and the bong-smoking, video-store-working “Shit-Stick” (Alexander England). The polarities are classic and, apparently, timeless.
What ensues is a comedy of errors that borrows, steals and derides all forms of cultural hierarchy, racial superiority, and the logical absurdity of race-based violence. Peppered with intelligently crafted dialogue and well-executed slapstick humour, this film takes stab after cheeky stab at the rationality behind the divisive and xenophobic rhetoric that has become commonplace in our country. Says Forsythe about the film’s rationale:
The reason I wrote this initially was because I felt like we weren’t discussing or dealing with what had happened ten years ago. And that’s a very Australian thing to do, I think. It’s just ‘oh we’ll just pretend it didn’t happen and let’s not talk about it and hopefully it will go away’. And I think that the current political environment proves that it hasn’t gone away. Actually it’s just coming back and it’s being re-appropriated and justified in other ways
Forsythe’s words ring true: since the film first screened at the Sydney Film Festival in June, in Melbourne alone there have been at least two self-proclaimed as anti-immigration or anti-Islam rallies; a violent disruption of a Coburg anti-racism rally by far-right protestors; as well as several xenophobic comments made publicly by high-profile politicians in the lead up to the election.
But according to Lincoln Younes, who plays the character of Hassim, simplifying the issue into which views are right and wrong is not always productive:
Whether it was the cast on the Anglo side or the Middle Eastern side, we learned that it’s not so black and white. It’s not that you want to go do something bad and create conflict. People have different motivations the disturbing thing is that, when it comes to conflict, the antagonists believe that what they are doing is right. That it’s productive and an obligation. And that all comes down to their cultural circumstances and even their habituation. Which then leads to the idea that there isn’t one solution or one minority or one location that’s to blame. It’s something that needs to be looked at collectively and solved collectively, otherwise it will just continue to be perpetuated, and as the last few months have shown, exacerbated.
Perhaps reflective of this sensibility amidst the cast, one of the most endearing qualities of Down Under is the way that it regards each of its characters with a sense of affection, no matter how bigoted or deplorable their actions. Like ‘Gav’, played with impeccable commitment by Damon Herriman, a self-appointed head honcho of the white Australian street battalion, who bumbles through the ambiguous morality of buying his pregnant girlfriend a kebab whilst out on patrol to “bash some Wogs”. Or Nick, played by Rahel Romahn, who has us in stitches at his constant foul-mouthed quest to lead the pack, only to shrink so sweetly into uncertainty and self-doubt when faced with real violence. When examined, it seems obvious that these are the types of real-life confrontations one would face when seeking to actually implement the meanings of racist rhetoric. To present them through the lens of comedy is a surprisingly fitting way to highlight these logical inconsistencies. We are entangled in the plight of the characters.
“I think comedy disarms people and by laughing it almost gives them permission to accept issues that they wouldn’t normally accept”, says Younes. “For 80% of the film you’re laughing at things you either find funny or things that you shouldn’t, but it makes the last 10 minutes that much more powerful and disturbing because in a way you feel accountable at the end after laughing at it throughout. Hopefully as an audience member you feel like you’re a part of the issue and what they’re going through because by laughing you’ve allowed it to happen. And that’s the nature of the issue. One party can’t solve it. We all need to be a part of it.”
And so it’s positive to note that Forsythe has received a warm reception for his film from multicultural communities all over Australia. “I’ve been heartened to see that it’s been speaking to the Middle Eastern community and some of the other communities that are involved much more than I thought it would. I’ve had people coming and up and telling me that they feel that even though it’s an exaggeration in parts, that it’s still a true reflection of what goes on. And not just for them but for their parents as well.”
The experience has been similar for Younes, who is of half-Lebanese descent. “It’s speaks lengths to where we are as a culture that one, it’s so topical and close to home and two, that it’s obviously resonating. We are, at least so far, embracing it, which means hopefully we can continue to progress.”
Unfortunately, there has also been push back from some exhibitors across the country who believe the film does not have an audience and find the film morally reprehensible. All of which is evidence of the ongoing uphill battle Australian art and film makers face to air the important, yet uncomfortable, stories of our times. For Forsythe, this should be a clarion call for other film makers and story tellers to rise to the challenge. “It’s so important for me that people go and see this movie in the first week of release and expand its reach further to other cinemas, because it will actually send a message that this kind of story telling is important and I want to see more films made like this. Films that tackle these sorts of issue and do it in a surprising way.”
He adds, “As filmmakers, we were often repulsed by what was happening in front of the camera and the place that the cast were having to go to in themselves to make it real. You would make your way through it and six hours later you’re finished, and while you collectively know that it was exactly the right level for where it needed to be, it wasn’t a fun experience. It’s just that we could feel the importance of doing it.”
And although truly violent and maniacal faces are shown in this film, not in the least from bold performances by Josh McConville (‘Az’) and his burly troupe of flood-lit ‘bogans’, we are also guided with a voice of reason from an unexpected place.
‘Evan’ played by Chris Bunton, is the young cousin of ‘Shit-Stick’, and the unlikely compatriot of the motley crew, not in the least because he has Down syndrome. “That’s something that hadn’t even occurred to me” says Forsythe. “A disability advocate I was talking to after the screening, noted how so many films have roles that people with disabilities can play, but they get looked over for people with big names. Chris is the heart and soul of the movie, and he’s a proper actor too. He has a disability but he knows how to handle himself in a scene. In essence he is just a really beautiful human being and that really comes across.”
Down Under is not a perfect film, but it doesn’t pretend to be. It takes us through moments of gut-wrenching confrontation and laugh-out-loud humour, but most importantly it connects us sincerely with the absurd reality of racial conflict, drawing parallels between the misguided plights for power from either side of the racial divide.
“I don’t feel like this movie is going to solve anything or change anything but at least it can make people talk about these issues, discuss them and think about them in different way” says Forsythe.
“The other day this guy comes up behind me and taps me on the shoulder, I turn around and it’s this Afghani man who had come out here on a boat, and he said ‘I just really want to thank you for making this movie’. He had tears in his eyes and he gave me a massive hug. I would never have thought I would have someone like that come up to me and really beautifully express what it meant to them. It’s strange and it’s lovely.”
There is only one reason you should go and see Down Under, and that is that no one else is going to tell you this story the way this film does. And never has there been a more important time for us to know this story and admit it as our own; as the collective misstep that we are all a part of and that we work to overcome with the bonds we choose to forge every day.