It wasn’t quite the night before Christmas on December 11, 2005 but there was a great deal stirring in Sydney’s southern suburbs when the festering scab of racism and radicalism was torn off, erupting into all-out warfare on the beaches.
I can recall the Cronulla riots vividly, shivering as I was in dark and chilly Glasgow, looking at the beautiful blue waters and pristine beaches heaving with a furious throng. Having decided to relocate to Melbourne and set to arrive two months later on Valentines Day 2006, it was a horrifying WTF moment, wondering what sort of country I had set my heart on joining.
As it happens, young Australian actor turned writer/director Abe Forsythe, who has won a series of Tropfest prizes for his short films going back to 1998’s Guided by the Light of the Lord, also happened to be in the UK when the news broke.
“I was incredibly homesick, so it was amazing to be looking at the country I love through the eyes of the media overseas, and just seeing this horrible stuff that really made me question where I came from and what I would be going back to,” he says.
His latest feature, the darkly comic Down Under, is set in the immediate aftermath of that shocking day. Highly confrontational, for some the joke will be lost, but there’s smarts amongst the provocative humour that sees carloads of hoons, and more sensible but easily led friends, headed for an inexorable collision course.
Discovering in 2010 that he was set to become a father, Forsythe knew he had a limited window to write a new screenplay and found himself drawn back to that tumultuous time, even as the immigration debate in Australia continued to boil.
“I wanted to look at what happened on that day and all the people who ended up there, for all sorts of different reasons,” he says. “I wondered if you had some sort of help from your mother or father in setting your moral compass in the right position, would you be getting a text message on that day and be thinking it’s a good idea to go down to the beach or would you think, ‘maybe I’ll just stay at home?’”
He knew the answer was complex and that the muddy morality was ripe for examining when he sat down to write the first draft six years ago. Fast forward and at one stage there was talk of releasing Down Under six months ago. Little did Forsythe know just how relevant the material would be following this year’s protracted election campaign.
On the one hand, the lower house welcomed Parliament’s first Muslim woman in Anne Aly and the first indigenous woman in Linda Burney, but it saw the spectre of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party return to the Senate.
“The Cronulla riots felt like this thing we were all appalled by, and then it was like, ‘ok let’s just let’s pretend it didn’t happen and not talk about it,’ and that’s what we did for a long time,” Forsythe says. “I felt similarly when we were filming and now it’s like, ‘whoa, what’s happening?’ We have Waleed Aly winning the Gold Logie, but then someone like Pauline Hanson comes back into power. While we’re making this amazing progress, it’s almost like that in turn threatens this other group and then all of a sudden they need Pauline to come and speak to them.”
“The ultimate irony about this film is that we have one of the most culturally diverse casts in a movie made in this country, but it took a movie about a race riot for that to happen. That’s just pretty wrong if you ask me.
He’s worried about trend globally too. If President Obama seemed like a beacon of hope, then the rise of Republican nominee Donald Trump is deeply distressing. “One of my characters in Down Under wants to build a wall around the Shire and now Trump wants to do that in America,” Forsythe says incredulously. “It’s kind of crazy when me writing the stupidest thing I can think of is being imitated by someone who could potentially be the most powerful person in the world.”
Sure to divide audiences, he at least hopes they give Down Under a go, if nothing else because of its impressive, multi-cultural cast. “The ultimate irony about this film is that we have one of the most culturally diverse casts in a movie made in this country, but it took a movie about a race riot for that to happen. That’s just pretty wrong if you ask me. As a nation, we’re so culturally diverse and interesting, and I feel like it might just be starting to change and properly reflect what we’re like. We’ve just got to stop fucking yelling at each other and calm down a little bit.”
He singles out Hanson as someone who could really benefit from taking the time to get to known these characters and their struggles. “I could think of nothing better for her. I don’t know if she’s a big supporter of the arts or not, I haven’t heard One Nation’s arts policy, but I would definitely extend her a free double pass.”
Down Under is screening as the MIFF centrepiece gala before releasing theatrically on August 11.