SYDNEY // The Australian director David Field received the depressing news by text message. After seven years of slogging away on The Combination, a confrontational film about Lebanese-Australian gangs set amid notorious race riots, he was told last week that his movie had been pulled - just days after it opened.
In an unprecedented and potentially very costly move, Greater Union, the cinema chain, cancelled screenings at all of its Sydney theatres because of outbreaks of violence and increasing concerns over safety. Police say a 28-year-old security guard was set upon by 30 youths after telling a young man watching the film to stop smoking. He needed hospital treatment. Days later, a brawl erupted during a showing and spilt out into the foyer.
As police continue their search for the youths who attacked the guard, the film has returned to all the Greater Union screens, albeit with extra security. George Basha, the film's writer and star, has also been addressing audiences at selected screenings. Mr Field, a well-known Australian screen and stage actor who has made his directorial debut with the movie, said: "I think these young, tough boys are coming to the cinema, they are pumped up, they are energised, they are proud that finally there is a story about them."
That there have been intense reactions is not surprising: the underlying theme of the film is the feeling of alienation among Australia's immigrant population, many of whom are from the Arab world. It uses actual news footage of the 2005 race riots on Cronulla beach when white Australians brawled with Middle Eastern youths. But there are other truths. The screenwriter, Mr Basha, grew up in the gritty and troubled world he depicts; he turned to acting after one of his close friends was set alight for an unpaid debt to a gangster. Ali Haidar, one of the film's stars, was recently sentenced to six months in jail for his role in a fight and many of the actors are Lebanese, Kurds and Vietnamese youths who showed up to an open casting call.
The film is about John, a Lebanese-Australian who has spent two years behind bars and returns home to find his school-age brother, Charlie, involved in drug dealing, crime and prostitution. Their widowed mother is depressed, having been ostracised by the community for her son's incarceration. As John finds a job in a gym and attempts to straighten his life out, he falls in love with the ironically named Sydney, a beautiful blonde "Aussie", who faces pressure from her family over the relationship.
From the outset - a woman crooning in Arabic as the camera pans down from a pale blue sky to palm trees and a jail fence - we are embedded in an Arab world that most Australians would have no idea about, even though it exists in their own country. And the message is obvious: in jail or not, some are trapped in this beautiful place. The dialogue is racist and therefore often shocking. Politically incorrect, Lebanese are called "Lebs", Aboriginals are called "Abos" and whites are "Aussie dogs". Aboriginals say bad things about Lebanese; whites snarl about them.
"We came here in planes, you came here in chains!" yells one young Lebanese boy before he is set upon by a pack of white youths, a reference to the fact that Australia was once a prison island for the UK. "If you come to this country, you must act Australian," Sydney's mother tells her, terrified of her daughter's relationship with a Lebanese boy. Mr Field, who hopes to enter his movie in the Dubai film festival, believes it had to be raw to make its point. "Some of the reviewers have said this is so overtly racist and so blatant and cliched, but racism is mostly overt and cliched. Sometimes it's not in the middle classes because they are more clever about it, because they feel obligated to political correctness. But out in the street, where the hard-working class live, there are no punches pulled. What's interesting is what is not said."
David Stratton, a film critic, condemned the pulling of the movie, calling it "an extreme reaction, a knee-jerk reaction". "It's akin to shooting the messenger. Good films are meant to provoke and challenge, and that is what this film does," he wrote in The Australian newspaper. While Mr Basha admits to the problems within his culture, he also endeavours in his screenplay to celebrate his rich cultural heritage, with its food, music and strong sense of family. John's mother serves plates and plates of hummus and falafel; men smoke shisha and then hit the dance floor for traditional dancing at a buzzing and busy restaurant.
"There are suburbs of Sydney that are very Arabic and I always thought that if we could transfer my feelings and what I had experienced with that community on to the screen, then perhaps the audience would connect with it too," Mr Field said. While the pulling of The Combination has generated valuable publicity, it is also a reminder of the darker racial tensions that do exist between pockets of whites and Arabs. Most notable were the Cronulla riots that erupted after months of tension, when a crowd of 5,000 white Australians gathered to protest against an alleged assault on three white lifeguards by Arabs. The protest turned violent with people of Middle Eastern appearance randomly attacked, which prompted assaults and vandalism on both sides. Television footage of people openly chanting racist slogans about Lebanese was shocking for Sydneysiders, who had long viewed their city as a multicultural success story.
But Mr Field, whose wife is half-Iranian, believes the election of Barack Obama as US president and Kevin Rudd as Australia's prime minister will see an improvement in race relations. "I think 9/11 gave the shock jocks and the right-wing journalists incredible opportunity to attack Arabs, and generalise about them and attack them with the blanket of Muslim terrorists." He is also optimistic that the film will pave the way for new stories to be told about Australia. "We don't grow as a culture if we keep making pretty little stories about the middle class - you know, their journey through puberty or whatever. Sometimes they are entertaining but they are not the only stories."
Mr Field said when he first met Mr Basha he asked him what sort of movies he liked to watch, and was surprised when he answered "black American films". "'You don't watch Australian films?' I asked and he said, 'Why would I? We're not in them. They've got nothing to do with us. We watch black American films because that's what we relate to - we feel like they feel - we are on the outside'." * The National