“Information is better than money”.
Such is the credo of Rosemary Kariuki, the titular subject of Rosemary’s Way. She’s a self-described ‘big noisemaker’: Kariuki’s name alone is enough to bring tears of joy to the eyes of countless migrant women in Sydney’s western suburbs. Kariuki’s life work has been to provide these women with information, whether that be informing them on how to access life-changing disability benefits, providing them with avenues to seek action regarding domestic abuse, or clarifying the ins-and-outs of an unfamiliar social landscape.
Director Ros Horin’s second feature-length documentary (following Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe ) is a paean to Kariuki’s efforts, which help to connect and support the migrant women within her community. By bringing them out of the isolation imposed by an unfamiliar nation, she instils a new sense of freedom and power along the way. While the film is unafraid to delve into the grim realities many of these women face, its tone is that of genuine and unblemished hope, buoyed by its namesake’s unrelenting drive and optimism. It may not be the most penetrating documentary, but Rosemary’s Way achieves its modest goals with heart and aplomb.
The initial stretch of the film follows Kariuki’s’s day-to-day routine as a community liaison officer in Auburn, Sydney, as she interacts with the diaspora of migrant women who now call the suburb home. These meetings may involve Kariuki travelling between residences, but often she will invite them over to her own home, fermenting a sense of familial intimacy. Beyond this, Kariuki organises day trips where the ladies can mix together as they go on a mountain trail walk or visit a country town. The film is crisply shot, but often settles into familiar workmanlike territory, which combined with some unfortunate font choices for the title cards often make the film look like a lost episode of Australian Story (1996–). But aesthetic splendour is not where the heart of this film lies.
When interviewed, these women often tell a variation on a similar story; leaving their country of origin for Australia, they experienced the pressures of having to adapt to a new social environment (often experiencing domestic abuse at the hand of their partners) and being isolated from the world they once knew. Then, Kariuki reached out to help them.
Kariuki makes a point that she is “practicing (the) multiculturalism so often talked about in Australia”. Witnessing her cross social barriers with heart and good humour is quick to bring a smile to your face, while seeing her provide the tools for other women to do the same makes you wonder how she hasn’t been awarded Australian of the Year five times over.
Kariuki’s efforts culminate in a ‘cultural exchange trip’ to a beachside Sydney town, where the migrant women stay for several nights with a number of host families eager to take them in. Here, Kariuki’s presence takes a back seat, and instead we simply observe these two groups as they discuss a wide variety of topics. While a few too many host families speak with the kind of cloying liberalism lampooned in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Horin instead focuses on the common ground that these two disparate communities create for each other. Some may consider this approach too soft, but it’s a refreshing change of pace from the sensationalist culture clash antics of a Go Back To Where You Came From (2011–). Such cynicism would also fail to mesh with Kariuki’s joyful and exuberant approach to her work.
A gentle film of connection, kindness and genuine intersectionality, Rosemary’s Way offers a pleasant and refreshing sunbeam of hope in our increasingly chaotic existence.
Rosemary’s Way screens as part of Sydney Film Festival’s Virtual Edition and Awards from June 10–21 2020, with an introduction from the director. More info here.
James Walsh is a Screenwriting student from Melbourne and is self appointed as Bong Joon-Ho’s biggest fan.