Down Under holds nothing back when it comes to the Cronulla Riots.
It was a typical sunny day in the Sydney beach suburb of Cronulla. Locals had gathered from all over the city on the 11th of December 2005 to celebrate Australian heritage, hang-out with mates and knock back a couple (and then a couple more) VBs.
Seems fairly innocent. Until of course the crowd turned to a mob. And then the mob turned to a riot of white Australians flaunting their self-appointed superiority over neighbouring Lebanese and “Wog” communities.
The Cronulla riots were a dark couple of days in recent Australian history that highlighted the dangers of racism, mob mentality and retaliation.
So I guess, when dealing with such heavy subject matter, it can’t hurt to throw in a couple of laughs along the way, can it?
Well, director Abe Forsythe agrees, and boy did he hit the nail on the head in his black comedy Down Under.
The film opens with actual footage of the riots.
Scenes of topless thugs brandishing “You flew here, we grew here” across their chests covered the screen, while police swinging batons to protect themselves and anyone who looked remotely “foreign” covered the rest of the shot.
Next, we meet our loveable gang of racists. The line-up includes Jason (Damon Herriman), a husband with two kids and one on the way; Ditch (Justin Rosniak), Ned Kelly’s biggest fan; Shit-Stick (Alexander England), a soft-spoken video store clerk; and Evan (Chris Bunton), shit-stick’s cousin who suffers from down-syndrome.
The gang decides they want revenge.
They’re sick of having their turf (The Shire) even looked at by anyone who wasn’t on The First Fleet, so they decide to take action and patrol the streets looking to bash “Lebs”.
There’s only one problem: they’re not the only ones with that idea. For every racist, there’s a victim – a victim who wants revenge. A group of young “Lebs” with the idea of roughing up some white blokes decide to team up. Here we have Nick (Rahel Romahn), a closet homosexual/meth-dealer/ring-leader; D-Mac (Fayssal Bazzi), a beat-boxing wannabe rapper; Hassim (Lincoln Younes), a hard-worker who gets roped into the blood thirst; and Ibrahim (Michael Denkha), Hassim’s uncle who’s down for a visit from Lebanon and wants a quick swing of the cricket bat.
Forsythe does an incredible job making light of the inherent contradictions that come with being a racist.
Both the white Aussies and the “Lebs” show their appreciation for each others’ culture throughout the film, whether by way of food or music, or a shared willingness not to get bashed. Pretty simply, the characters encompass all the good bits of multiculturalism, while still choosing to run rampant and go out bashing.
Interestingly, throughout the film you begin to lose sight of who is fighting who.
Squabbles between the Anglo boys cover a range of topics from who’s the most committed to unmitigated violence, to what 90s pop songs should be played on the cars broken stereo.
Similarly, the Lebanese crew struggle with run-ins with meth dealers and fights over their religious dedication to Islam.
Forsythe explores their respective narratives parallel, showing that neither side is that different to the other, and in reality, while a lot of the characters talk a big game, neither is really looking for confrontation.
At first glance, I admit I was sceptical about Forsythe’s decision to look at the riots through a comedic lens, but he handles it with great taste.
There’s a perfect balance between banter and serious subject matter that doesn’t overly emotionally burden the audience, and it is delivered in such a way that the incredibly poignant and important message manages to shine through. The film’s climax is heart-wrenching, but hopeful. In the wake of the aftermath, all we can hope for is that the world becomes a little more tolerant, and a little closer to acceptance.