Chance can be serendipitous and it can also be a bloody nuisance. When filmmaker Partho Sen-Gupta’s partner Alana Lentin – a political sociologist and social theorist – landed a professorial role at the University of Western Sydney and they decided to relocate with their young daughter, his Mumbai-set, rain-lashed and nightmarish child sex trafficking detective-noir Sunrise was stalled at the funding stage.
Of course, the money miraculously cleared while they were barely finished unpacking, requiring multiple trips back and forth to India and then editing and post-production in Paris to fulfil French co-production requirements. Thankfully, Lentin was very understanding, a grateful Sen-Gupta says. “She was like, ‘it’s going to be difficult, but you have to do it, it’s important’.”
Sure enough, both chance and Lentin herself played a major role in deciding the subject of Sen-Gupta’s new project, Slam. Whereas Sunrise had at its heart the horror of a missing daughter and the unnerving, emasculating effect on her father (a bruised cop played by Adil Hussain), Slam – co-funded by Screen Australia, Screenwest and France’s CNC Cinémas du Monde – concerns the disappearance of Ameena, a young Australian woman of Palestinian origin and a budding slam poet.
One of the most multi-cultural areas of Australia, with over 70-plus nationalities, Western Sydney also plays host to a thriving slam poetry scene. Lentin suggested Sen-Gupta join her at an event during a break in filming Sunrise.
“At the time [then Prime Minister] Tony Abbott was going quite crazy about a lot of things, like the hijab and Muslim women, and here on stage was this woman who stood there in a hijab and started this very avant-garde poetry and I said to myself, visually as a filmmaker, ‘this is such an interesting image’.”
Sen-Gupta was transfixed. “We have all these clichés about Muslim woman and the hijab and it being backwards and all that, and it was completely at contrast with her, because she’s feminist, she is radical and she has complete command over her prose and poetry.”
Later at the event that day, Sen-Gupta had to step out briefly as his daughter got fidgety, and saw the same woman on her phone outside. “That’s when my mind started ticking,” he says. “I asked myself, what happens if this woman disappears tonight with this atmosphere that we live in? What are people going to think?”
That moment cleared his writers’ block, with Sen-Gupta second-guessing his ability to tell a story that resonated while still finding his feet in a new country he was bouncing in and out of.
Set to be shot in Western Sydney late this year, hopefully with the involvement of local slam poets, and with post-production in Western Australia and France, as with Sunrise, Slam explores notions of wounded masculinity, this time through the character of Ricky, Ameena’s brother. Adam Bakri, star of Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated Omar, has been cast in this central role.
“He is the exact opposite of Ameena and has worked very hard to assimilate, to become an ‘Aussie’, doing what is demanded of migrants in the West, rejecting everything about where they come from,” Sen-Gupta says of Ricky.
Ameena’s disappearance changes everything. Coinciding with the shooting down of an Australian air force fighter over Syria, she stands accused of having radicalised and travelled there to join the Islamic State. “Suddenly he discovers that assimilation is not something he can hold onto. It’s given to him by the majority and can be taken away. That is a migrant story that is everywhere. Today it is the Muslims, yesterday it was the Jews and before that it was the Irish.”
Chance also led him to casting Lantana star Rachael Blake as Joanne, a cop assigned to Ameena’s case. She’s a single mother whose son, a soldier, was killed by an IED in Afghanistan. “I remember seeing Rachael in Sleeping Beauty on the plane to Australia,” Sen-Gupta says. “Joanne carries her own biases about Muslims, but she slowly becomes someone who goes against the majority because she feels that she has given her child for a war that she probably doesn’t believe in.”
Shuddering at the news of the bombing attack in Manchester the night before we speak on the phone, Sen-Gupta says the very idea that it could have been his seven-year-old deeply disturbs him, but he is just as worried about rising intolerance. “I’m extremely disturbed by the idea that all these little children have been murdered and it’s a very difficult one, but that doesn’t mean you can blame everybody for it because there are hundreds and thousands of people who do not have these ideas, and that is one of the stories that I’m trying to tell in this film.”
Sen-Gupta is not Muslim, but as a person of colour, he has faced plenty of discrimination. “I get dragged into certain ideas by bigots and racists, but that’s not the point. For me it’s important that stories like this should be told and I’m really glad it’s been well-received by Screen Australia. Slam questions a lot of things that people want to say but perhaps are scared to. It probably will open some kind of debate and I’m sure I’ll get a lot of brickbats, but that’s ok. It’s not a social commentary film. It’s like Sunrise, a more stylistic piece.”
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