The electrifying opening scenes of Slam upend the anodyne images that dominate Australian cinema; “Mother, they will not make me forget. They cannot silence this tongue, these stories from your womb to my mouth,” declares Palestinian-Australian poet Ameena Nasser (Danielle Horvat).
Standing confidently under searing stage lights, Horvat’s clear-eyed performance telegraphs a woman of sensitivity and strength. “This is how we rise up, gather strength, become a force to reckon with, refuse to submit, to assimilate. Their continued colonisation will not abate.”
In Slam, art is not neutral, but a site of resistance. Those crushed beneath Australia’s colonial structures are able to stand in solidarity and speak their truth. It is a platform where Ameena finds a voice, until she mysteriously vanishes. The film follows a host of characters affected by her absence — this includes estranged brother Tariq, or “Ricky” (Omar’s angelic Adam Bakri), who is drawn from his affluent neighbourhood back to the Western suburbs where he is forced to confront his past; and Joanne (Rachael Blake), the officer in charge of Ameena’s investigation, whose colleagues insist that Ameena has joined a terrorist cult overseas.
Director Partho Sen-Gupta, who started his career as an art director in Bollywood films and has since settled in Australia, weaves together this web of conflicted individuals with dextrous empathy. Their traumatic memories are captured in impressionistic, nightmarish flashes of bold colour, while Western Sydney, the most culturally and linguistically diverse region in Australia, nabs a rare starring role.
Ahead of Slam’s Australian premiere at Sydney Film Festival, Claire Cao talked to Sen-Gupta about racial microaggressions, the rousing power of Bankstown Poetry Slam, and the strength of mothers all over the world.
Claire Cao: Ricky lives in the Inner-West, and the geographical distance from his former home in Western Sydney is profound.
Partho Sen-Gupta: Yes, he’s moved out, he’s left where he’s from. That distance represents a separation between who he is and who he has become. Who he has become is something that migrants are forced to become — you’re supposed to abandon who you were, your traditions, your language. That’s called the “Good Migrant”. That’s what he’s done, he’s done that work to move away from being “Tariq”, which is his original name, to “Ricky”, which is the good migrant, the person who has become “Aussie.”
CC: The film centres on Ameena’s disappearance, but she has a strong presence throughout the film, and an impact on Ricky. Is Ricky’s passivity in his act of assimilation made uneasy because she’s such an unashamed activist through her poetry?
PSG: It’s actually through her disappearance that she comes back into his life, because until then, he’s kind of moved away from that space and he doesn’t get along with his sister because she’s too radical, and he says, “Come on, we have to have a good life.” He doesn’t see her anymore and this disappearance forces him to actually know her again. He finds out about more about her and realises that he actually didn’t know her through that disappearance, and through her words, he reconnects back to what he really is.
I’m of Indian origin. I moved to France in the 90s, I went to study cinema there. I became a Francophone, I became French. I espoused all their values in my 20s, I wanted to be like that. And I became like that, I got citizenship, I lived there. After some time, I realised that I was lost. I was not them, and I was not me either — I moved away from myself, from my origins, and my culture. I had moved into another culture, which I still love, and I adore that culture. But I would never be them, they would never accept me as one of them anyways, because the colour of my skin, because of my accent, my name which is unpronounceable [laughs]. So Ricky is this sort of example of assimilation that we constantly talk about in the West. It’s a state of being that is constantly demanded of migrants.
CC: Which I think is a struggle that a lot of people in diaspora communities face. In order to fit in you have to actively ignore micro-aggressions and history of your people, which I think you captured really well in Slam.
PSG: That’s right. My [nine-year-old] child isn’t really understanding microaggressions as of yet but she will. And it’ll be difficult for her because she will suddenly be forced to realise that she is different, that she is the other.
And that’s exactly what I was trying to talk about in the film — that you can’t ignore it. Ricky envelops himself in his lovely space with his partner who’s lovely, his kid and his life. But somewhere inside, he knows that there’s something missing and something is not working for him. This violence that happens to his sister suddenly draws him back and awakens in him this unease that he’s had for a long time. That’s what happened to the diaspora. You just put it in the back, you just say: “Okay, I’m not gonna deal with this shit.” Like, I have a good life here. But that’s a big backpack that you’re carrying all the time. Someday, you have to deal with it.
CC: This kind of conflict is made so much more difficult by the mass dehumanisation of Muslims in the media, a motif in your film. With the recent events of the Christchurch shootings and the rise and kind of alt-right radicalism all over the world, do you think that Slam will have a new kind of resonance with Australian audiences?
PSG: This country is run by gatekeepers who do not allow these kind of films to be screened. That’s the problem — I made [the film], now the next step is to get it out there. Of course, Sydney Film Festival is a great outlet for us. But we don’t have a big distributor so we get pushed around. In this country there’s only Madman and Transmission and they rule the roost. So the discourse is still controlled, despite whatever has happened in the world, and it will be a tough fight to find the footing for audiences.
[Distributors] know that mainstream press is going to be very shy with us. I’m accusing Liberals of racism and that’s something that they’re not going to take very lightly. And the problem with racism is that, as long as it’s the Nazi you’re accusing of racism — the Fraser Anning, the Blair Cottrell — it’s fine. Everybody hates them. But what’s scary is the everyday stuff that happens. With your friends, with people you know, at your workplace, and it’s under the guise of, “Oh, it’s a joke, don’t worry, I didn’t mean it this way. I have friends who are people of colour.”
CC: Yes, truthful confrontations of racism always seem to draw controversy. I think that slam poetry is such a beautiful gateway for people to resist and express these opinions. Did Bankstown Poetry Slam have any part in inspiring that focus in Slam?
PSG: Absolutely! When my partner and I arrived here eight years ago, she was the one who said: “Oh, there’s a thing called the Bankstown Poetry Slam, a lot of my students perform poetry there, let’s check it out.” I knew about slam poetry before because I’ve seen it when I lived in France. And in the US, I’ve seen a lot of it, but I had no idea that it was happening here. We went to one of the shows at the Bankstown Arts Centre. That’s where I saw this young Muslim woman, a hijabi woman. She stood on stage and performed this really crazy good poetry— she spoke with such strong words.
I was really impressed because, at that time, Tony Abbott was Prime Minister, and there was a lot of a lot of Islamophobia happening in Australia. There was this whole diatribe everywhere with people saying “Muslim women who wear hijabs are oppressed.” This was a visual contrast, a complete contrast. A strong woman with a strong voice standing there and saying these powerful things. I said: “I have to write something. There should be a film about this.”
I was standing outside near the toilets and that same poet came outside. She stood there and she was looking at her phone and then she walked away into the darkness. It was like the scene in the beginning with Ameena, exactly like that. My filmmaker mind started working — I said: “Okay, what happens to her if she disappears tonight?”
PSG: It’s the disappearance that is going to cause this questioning…this fantasy in everybody’s minds. They all fall prey to this trope, which is that a strong hijabi woman with a strong voice must have gone to fight with Islamic militants. It’s such a stupid trope and everyone falls prey to it — even her family who slowly become convinced that it’s what happened.
CC: The police in your film are a threatening and biased institution that uphold this narrative. But Joanne’s character was very sympathetic and skeptical — can you speak to that contrast?
PSG: Yes, after all, we are all people. I don’t believe in condemnation. The government tells us stories that we like to believe — through the newspapers, through the media. But this woman’s child died in an IED explosion in Iraq on duty. She was forced to accept this story of martyrdom.
This film is a probe that I use of mothers of dead soldiers. All over the world, mothers of dead soldiers have always become the conscience against war. In Australia during World War One, mothers of dead Australian soldiers became the first anti-war movement. The stories in this film are all about these women. Let’s not forget that the story is also about, not only Ameena who disappears, but also about her mother, Rana (Darina Al Joundi) who [experienced and fled a warzone where she lost loved ones] to come to Australia with her children.
CC: I love the scene between Rana and Joanne. It was a push-back against the narrative that Rana should be grateful for her life in Australia. I loved that interchange of assumptions.
PSG: The two women are interchangeable in a way. They are women who have suffered loss because of war. That’s where they connect. This violence that’s happening in the world is common to everyone. If you open the radio or the TV, they’re constantly talking about violence. Our leaders and politicians use violence as a way of control and I think that affects everybody. And we just had a young woman who was killed in a park. It surrounds us — not only happening in Syria but in Australia, in the US, in China, everywhere. This film is about the state of violence we live in, and realisations of the people that suffer. Joanne revolts against the system, Tariq revolts against the system, Ameena revolts, all in their own ways.
Slam will be playing on Sat 15 June & Sun 16 June as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
Claire Cao is a freelance writer and avid dumpling lover from Western Sydney. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow Review of Books, Voiceworks, SBS Life and the anthology Sweatshop Women. She tweets @clairexinwen.