Sunday, 31 January 2010

Review: The Combination, dir David Field (2009)

Written and directed by two actors the film goes deep behind the headlines relating to ethnic discord in Sydney's western suburbs. It's a cracker of a film, filled with pain and humour, fear and passion. It should be gold-plated and hung, like a mirror ball, from the ceiling of the Federal Parliament.

George Basha, the writer, also stars in the lead role. David Field, the director, memorably played the main oyster farmer in The Oyster Farmer (2004).

Basha has written a moving sequel to Romeo and Juliet, but has set it among the roudy schoolkids and middle-class parents of modern Australian suburbia. For me, whose grandfather came from Africa as a migrant early last century, the afterglow of the kind of hatred and fear the movie displays is more or less still real.

The movie also shows that you can make a fantastic film on a low budget using unknown actors. All the actors deliver value, giving the film a finely-balanced, forward movement. There are no glaring standouts. All of the crew deserve a solid round of applause.

The events of the film bracket the Cronulla riots of December 2005, when crowds of Anglo-Australians descended on the beachside suburb, many wrapped in flags, intending to deal out summary justice to young Lebanese men. The conflict started a few days earlier when a group of Lebanese men bashed a lifeguard, and the message to assemble was communicated by text message. Arrests were made and the recriminations continue to be felt in the fabric of Australian society, as the violence unmasked a discord that is constantly present in the community.

In The Combination, schoolyard conflict spills over into the streets when Charlie (Firass Dirani) starts to deal in amphetamines, supplied by Ibo (Michael Denkha), a BMW-driving mid-level dealer with a cruel streak.

Charlie doesn't really know what he's getting involved in, and his brother John (George Basha), who has just got out of jail, starts to get worried.

John, meanwhile, has met a young Anglo-Australian woman, Sydney (Clare Bowen), and a deep romance builds despite her parents' outright rejection of her new boyfriend. They give her an ultimatum: drop him or move out of home.

(There's a great scene where John, waiting on the doorstep having just spoken with Sydney's mother - who clearly doesn't approve of him - looks down at the doormat at the front door. 'Welcome', it says. John's face shows the irony in the woven inscription.)

Sydney's mother and father, and Charlie's and John's mother, are played with energy and talent, adding to the film's flawless ensemble.

Charlie, for his part, is keen on Anna (Katrina Risteska), despite the fact that she's the girlfriend of the ethnic gang's main nemesis, Scott (Vaughn White).

So while Charlie and his mates get tangled up in drugs, money, guns and violence, John cleans out toilets at the local boxing academy and deepens his involvement with Sydney, taking her out and giving her the attention she's not getting within her own tribe.

(She reminds me of my own grandmother: a young, beautiful girl looking for love in the big city and finding it in the arms of a charming, kindhearted wogboy.)

The violence simmering just below the surface of the Lebanese-Australian community erupts sporadically, making you fear for Sydney's safety. As an innocent, she deserves the best, you think, and you worry lest the dream she's living will be shattered by an overspill of that violence. It bubbles and crackles incessantly. It has a life of its own, and the weak humans that populate the scene are animated by it.

There are two deaths, one on each side of the racial divide.

Basha's vision imagines resolving the conflict. To achieve this goal, he tries to tell the story truthfully and unflinchingly. If you can support the tension the film creates, in the watching, you should watch it. You really won't regret it.

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