SLAM,  Australia, 2018. Starring Adam Bakri, Rachael Blake, Rebecca Breeds, Darina Al Joundi, Danielle Horvat, Abby Aziz, Damian Hill, Russell Dykstra, David Roberts, Nicholas Hope.Directed by Patho Sen-Gupta. 115 minutes. Rated MA (Strong coarse language).

This is a very disturbing film for an Australian audience. It focuses on contemporary issues in Sydney suburbs but which have all kinds of international and social consequences. It is well worth seeing.

The “SLAM” of the title (and you just have to to add an I for Islam) refers to poetry performance.  An explanation may be useful: A poetry slam is a competition arts event, in which poets perform spoken word poetry before a live audience and a panel of judges. Culturally, poetry slams are a break with the past image many may have had of poetry as an elitist or rigid art form. Wikipedia

The film opens with a young woman, veiled, close-up, reciting intense poetry, criticisms of the status quo, revolutionary, fierce acknowledgement of the inhabitants of the land and denouncing colonialism. The poems will recur during the film and will provide an unanticipated climax at the end.

The young woman, Ammena (Danielle Horvat) disappears. Her mother, from Palestine originally, is distraught and phones her son, Tariq (called Ricky), Palestian actor, Adam Bakri, who eventually goes to the police to report a missing person. We in the audience, having listened to the poems, immediately suspect that she might have joined a radicalised group or even gone overseas to support Islamic State.

On the one hand, the film is about the search for a missing woman, the stance that a sympathetic policewoman, Joanne (Rachael Blake) takes and acts on. Later, we find that she has had her own suffering in connection with Middle East violence and is estranged from her husband. But, given contemporary attitudes, fear of terrorists, policies to make Australia safe, Border Force issues, we probably share the initial presumption that Ameena has left the country.

On the other hand, one of the main effects of the film is to share the experiences of the rest of the family, of Tariq who has married locally, has a daughter and his wife is expecting their second child. They have established a business, a cafe, building up custom. And, Tariq’s wife and family are completely accepting – though disturbed by the police and the media, hiring a lawyer friend for Tariq to hold a press conference and explaining his situation.

The police intervene and Tariq taken in and interrogated as, at least, a person of interest, presumption that he is somehow involved in radicalism. The media, relentless, camp outside his suburban house ready with cameras and microphones at the slightest indication of action or even Tariq and his family opening the door.

While Joanne wants to keep investigating the disappearance as that of a missing woman, her police superiors, national agencies, want to act with immediate caution and suspicious presumptions.

There is a solution to the mystery of Ameena’s disappearance. But, the important impact of the film is on the treatment of Tariq and his family, aspects of Australia’s xenophobia, of response to wars and terrorism in the Middle East, touches of paranoia, a plea for acceptance and understanding rather than presumptions of guilt.

Interestingly, the film was written and directed by Patho Sen-Gupta who was born in Mumbai and grew up there, working in the Bollywood film industry, later moving to France where he worked in films for a decade, his partner then coming to teach at the University of Western Sydney and his moving to Australia – obviously absorbing the atmosphere of his adopted country.

Bonsai Films                                      Released  October 17th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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