A black comedy set during the aftermath of the Cronulla riots, it is the story of two carloads of hotheads from both sides of the fight destined to collide.
Abe Forsythe’s new black comedy, Down Under, isn’t the silly rollicking film the trailer promises. It’s a dark, didactic film about the turmoil of racism in a society that believes it has an unblemished track record.
We like to think of ourselves as a successfully multicultural nation in Australia. You hear politicians say it all the time, even as a former Prime Minister trumpeted a ‘Team Australia’ ethos. And just take a look at our food courts – we have it all. Chinese. Turkish. Italian.
How could we possibly have a race problem?
Yet, amid continuous debate about refugees, and calls for Muslims to be forbidden entry into Australia, we need not even scratch the surface of current politics to decipher how deeply riven we are as a nation. We might like our food cosmopolitan, but the cries for a white Australia seem louder than ever.
It’s perhaps timely, then, that this be explored in the new Australian film, Down Under, through the lens of a race riot that stole news headlines more than a decade ago. The Cronulla Riots, so symbolic of tribalism and land ownership, may feel like an anomaly on the Australian landscape, but in today’s political environment, it doesn’t seem so outrageous.
In the film, Hassim (Lincoln Younes) reluctantly joins a group of friends, led by hothead Nick (Rahel Romahn), on a mission to find his brother, who has gone missing since the riots. Revenge is clearly on Nick’s mind.
It’s also on Cronulla boy Jason’s (Damon Herriman), who rallies the Aussie troops to bash up some wogs. He faces opposition from pacifist Shit Stick (Alexander England) and Shit Stick’s Down Syndrome cousin Evan (Christopher Bunton), who have the task of showing how hypocritical and selective racism can be.
What follows is a single night that depicts the rage on both sides: the Aussies defending their beach, and the Lebanese guys fighting back. Two cars loaded with testosterone, fear and hate – they mirror each other. It’s a long night, and for some time, it feels like all we’re seeing is that anger. Neither is likeable. Indeed, the film has its strengths, but empathetic characters are not one of them.
The pressure is on director Abe Forsythe to unpack what is actually a historically complex situation, including Australia’s origins as a nation, and the rise of Southern Cross-drenched aggression. And Forsythe makes a courageous stand with Down Under, a black comedy that tries – sometimes successfully – to unpack the one-mindedness of a belief that an Australian beach belongs to white Australians.
Yet, Australia’s traditional owners are completely absent from the story, as are the media agitators of the sorry affair at Cronulla. Put simply, Down Under is a limited portrayal of what went wrong, and why we had – and continue to have – a race problem at all.
Forsythe is not exactly taking sides. Instead, he shows there are always reasonable people among the madding crowds. This even-handedness may be commended but there's no denying that this is uncomfortable viewing. Despite the stupidity he mocks, there was little laughter and a lot of it was nervous, in stark contrast to the trailer, which makes Down Under look like Australia’s version of Four Lions, a dark comedy about terrorists in the UK.
In the hands of another, it might have been clumsier; still, this darkly comical story would have benefited from more subtlety. Any subtext floats closely beneath the assortment of profanities and racist taunts, and the hypocrisy Forsythe is targeting is easily apparent: the bogan Aussie who is selectively racist; the bigoted pregnant girlfriend demanding kebabs and Turkish pizza; the references to Gallipoli, which point to a legacy of hate.
And this is the problem: the overt didacticism of Down Under, and its uneasy use of humour in such darkness.
The film offers no solution to Australia’s tense race relations. The result, unfortunately, is an hour-and-a-half of meandering aggression, which seems like it won’t peak. When it finally does, it’s an anti-climax.
Forsythe has clearly approached this loaded with the best of intentions. There is no mistaking his anger about racism and its far-reaching effects. But the film doesn’t quite seem to rise above its message to tell a more complex story. Its lack of hope and optimism suggests that the best we can hope for is a food industry that trumpets flavours of the Middle East, even when its people are not welcome.