DOWNUNDER, 2016, Australia. Starring Lincoln Younes, Rahel Ronahn, Michael Denkha, Fayssal Bazzi, Alexander England, Damon Herriman, Justin Rosniak, Chris Bunton, Harriet Dyer, David Field, Marshall Napier, Josh McConville. Directed by Abe Forsythe. 90 minutes. Rated MA ( Strong coarse language, themes, violence and a sex scene).
Downunder is the kind of film that we say we would not like to see – but, in fact, it is a film that we should see. It is a portrait of ugly Australians.
The film draws on Australian audience memory of the race riots at Cronulla and in the Shire at the end of 2005. Mainly young protesters, becoming more violent and vicious as the protests and fights went on, declaring that they wanted to preserve Australian culture (not really having a clue what that meant), rather oblivious of Australia’s migratory history or that of indigenous people, but making the target the Lebanese community in the area, Lebs, including their presence on Cronulla beach, taken as symbolic of what they thought was wrong with this part of Sydney – and Australia.
It is interesting to note that the film was released commercially soon after the 2016 federal elections with the emergence again of Pauline Hanson and three of her associates finding places in the Senate. The scenes in Cronulla in 2005 presage of so much of the philosophy of One Nation, anti-migration, anti-Chinese, anti-Islam… A frightening reminder that history can repeat itself.
The film uses a lot of footage from the news of the time, the very disturbing close-ups of angry young men, mainly men, but women also, an alarming peer pressure that overflows into vicious slogans and physical violence, with the police trying to cope with the protesters.
But then, the film narrows its focus considerably, concentrating on a group of white protesters and a group of Lebanese. This means particular dramas – but the screenwriter and director, Abe Forsythe, has made the choice for comic representation of the characters and their conflicts. While some of the scenes and dialogue are funny ha-ha, and we can laugh, the point is that the ideology (which, rather dignifies the ignorant attitudes), the language and behaviour is often really dopey, really dumb. The screenplay clearly demonstrates how this kind of racism, attitudes and behaviour, is really stupid.
In the white group, there is a rather genial character, whose name is Shit-Stick (Alexander England), who works in a DVD store, takes his Down syndrome cousin for driving lessons, is often seen with his drugs and bong, who does not want to be racist but is pressurised by some friends (and his first seemingly benign uncle, Marshall Napier, who urges the group on and lends them his World War I trophy rifle and one bullet). The leader of this group is Jason (Daniel Herriman) who is all talk but has a most slatternly pregnant girlfriend with two children who interrupts the proceedings by demanding that Jason pick up some takeaway for her – and she wants kebabs! They go to buy them.
In the meantime, Hasim (Lincoln Younes) is a serious student but he too has a demanding friend, Nick, and bellicose uncle, and makes the choice to go out with them in order to find his brother who may have been caught up in the violence. Off they go to get some weapons from Nick’s drug boss Vic, David Field camping it up, a gay men with Vietnamese boys at hand, pornography on the television, and a crew packing the drugs.
After various encounters, Hasim being chased and bashed by another white group, and Jason having delivered food to his girlfriend, there is an unexpected confrontation, mainly through arguments within each car leading to a crash. This is no gunfight at the OK Corral, rather awkward chases, bashings, gunshots and some unexpected injuries, especially with pathos for the Down Syndrome cousin who has been urged on to bash Lebs but in his heart of hearts appreciates people for who they are.
One of the jokes needs to be seen – one of the Whites has had his head and face tattooed and wants to have Ned Kelly’s helmet, but the joke is what he looks like when he takes off all his facial coverings. This needs to be seen rather than described!
The language in the film is quite strident and vulgar, sexually and genitally over-focused and extremely homophobic and insulting – part of the dumb stupidity that is incorporated into racist rants.
The film is quite well constructed, the parallels made, the setting given in the actual footage of 2005, the exploration of the characters in each group. Maybe, Downunder is preaching to the converted anti-racists. Would it do anything to change the bigoted attitudes of the racist were they to see the film? Unfortunately, probably not.
Studiocanal Released August 11th
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.