Australia has a deep current of racism running through it. For all of our talk of “mateship” and a “fair go,” the increasingly large scale examples of cultural and institutional prejudices permeate both our politics and the streets. As recently as May and June of this year, anti-immigration groups clashed with anti-racism groups on the streets of Melbourne. Yet the terrifying spectre of the 2005 race riots in Sydney’s south still loom large, and are the basis for Abe Forsythe’s DOWN UNDER, an uneven mixture of self-awareness and tacit approval of other forms of discrimination.
Starting with the simplicity of the text message sent around at the time of the Cronulla riots, urging “every fucking Aussie in the Shire” to “help support Leb and Wog bashing day,” DOWN UNDER is a film of mixed tones. The news footage shown in the first few minutes of the film matches the disturbing nature of the text’s language, with white extremists violently espousing rhetoric while wrapped in the security blankets of discount store Australian flags. To Forsythe’s credit, he matches the intensity of these moments over the course of the next 90 minutes, as two groups of men head out into the night for retribution.
In the wake of the riots, studious Hassim (Lincoln Younes) is convinced by Nick (Rahel Romahn) to head down to the beaches to help look for Hassim’s missing brother. Joined by visiting and orthodox relative Ibrahim (Michael Denkha), the group begins driving around on a series of misadventures. Quite separately, the downtrodden stoner Shit-Stick (Alexander England) is also dragged along by bogan Jason (Damon Herriman) to go and wage war on any non-whites down by the beach, beginning an inevitable march towards a cultural clash.
Forsythe attempts to lay bare the realities of Australian attitudes towards “the other” by presenting the two groups as equally flawed. Yet it’s not so much a discourse as a simple dichotomy of stereotypes, and even the tips of the hat to solemn prayer do little to diffuse what is basically warring versions of the comments section of YouTube. Most of the humour comes from the broad bogan gags (particular those around Harriet Dyer’s heavily pregnant wife of Jason), or Shit-Stick’s ability to cut through some of the rhetoric, such as refuting the idea of a “Leb-proof fence” as a “contracting nightmare.” There’s also an even darker stream of casual homophobia throughout the entire piece which is hard to escape, a weird concession to the hyper-masculinity at every turn.
It’s just a shame that Forsythe doesn’t seem to have a sense of narrative rhythm, hurtling one scenario after another at the screen. Some get incredibly dark, especially towards the end, in the film’s literal car crash of a conclusion. At these points it’s a little too close to reality to be completely comedic. During others, violent scenes play out to the strains of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and other Christmas tunes, getting closer to the surreal montages that work best with the material.
DOWN UNDER is a film that Australia, and the rest of the world, needs right now. At the time of writing this review, we have just witnessed national outrage at a racist cartoon The Australian saw fit to print in 2016. Just last month, TV host Sonia Kruger called for a ban on Muslim immigration to Australia. Internationally, not a day goes by when US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump doesn’t open his mouth to change feet. The film’s tagline, “Australia v Australia: nobody wins,” preaches the idea that an “eye for an eye makes everyone blind.” It’s just unfortunate that it’s obfuscated behind the same provincialism that necessitates a national discussion around these issues in the first place.
DOWN UNDER is playing at the Melbourne International Film Festival 28 July – 14 August 2016 as the Centrepiece Gala. It is released in Australia on 11 August from StudioCanal.
2016 | Australia | DIR: Abe Forsythe | WRITER: Abe Forsythe | CAST: Lincoln Younes, Alexander England, Damon Herriman, David Field, Mashall Napier, Rahel Romahn | RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes | DISTRIBUTOR: StudioCanal (AUS) | RATING: ★★