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David Jenkins

Should film tackle racial hatred with comedy?

Abe Forsythe’s controversial new film Down Under is ruffling feathers among the Australian establishment.

At the Melbourne Film Festival’s Centrepiece Gala screening of Abe Forsythe’s Down Under, the outspoken and noticeably angry director took to the stage and released a scathing broadside against local distributors. He feels that his film is being suppressed by insidious forces, relegated to single screenings around the country and deemed a garish blight on the Australian movie landscape.

It’s a gutsy move – especially as it would’ve looked pretty sour had the film ended up being plain awful. But, tactically speaking, Forsythe finds himself in an intriguing position. His film went down a storm, because of and not despite its controversial subject matter. It seems that, even though the appeal might not be broad, you can explore themes of racial tension with jokes about blowies, Wolf Creek and unfortunate facial tattoos.

Down Under is a film which lists the reasons we invent to take action in the name of the collective good. Or, some subjective definition of “good”. In 2005, a gathering took place at Sydney’s Cronolla beach, organised via text messages which invited participants to come down festooned with the national flag and bash some “lebs” and “wogs”. What began as a rowdy display of whipped up national pride inevitably descended into violence. The film opens with documentary footage of the event, as white (mainly male) revellers are stirred to action by the lagered-up mob mentality.

Forsythe then cuts away and the remaining film is a grotesque satirical reaction to that shocking opening salvo. Chris Morris’ suicide-bomb-com, Four Lions, instantly comes to mind as a point of comparison, as both films mine dark comedy in the recesses of a murderous instinct. The film follows two gangs who, following the initial fracas, are up for a bit of afters. On one side is a crew of white men who tool up as best they can with a plan to cleanse the neighbourhood with baseball bats and an antique rifle (and its single remaining bullet). On the other, four disparate Lebanese men take to the streets to defend their honour, not really comprehending the horror that awaits them. The film monitors both sides until their eventual, ugly clash.

This could have gone so, so wrong, but Forsythe manages to retain a sense of balance. He mocks his subjects and lambasts their actions, while also depicting them as tragically flawed imbeciles drawn to violence because they have nothing better to do with their lives. It’s quite a feat to see a coterie of foul-mouthed characters all driven by intense hatred but who are also human clowns gravitating towards high failure. The subtle blend of archetype and stereotype is what makes the film work.

It doesn’t take much agency to see that the makers do not endorse what these characters are doing, even while playing their lunatic antics for belly laughs. What’s radical about Down Under is that it is delivering a serious message – about the absurdity and the impossibility of racial purification – that isn’t just primed to appeal to an audience of liberal intellectuals. Cultural myths and folk heroes are torn down, white pride takes a quick break for a kebab, and men harbour secrets which undermine their fervent national pride. If Australian audiences opt to reject the film (and that would be a damn shame), there’s surely a place for it in post-Brexit Britain or – god forbid – post-Trump America.

Tags: Abe Forsythe Australian cinema

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