Love in the Time of Terror: Slam at Sydney Film Festival

A shorter version of this post (with proper spoiler alerts) was first published at ACRAWSA blog on 7 June 2019. Many thanks to director Partho Sen Gupta and to Prof Alana Lentin for entrusting me with tix to a film on a Sunday night in Randwick (in the pouring rain! see review, below).

Love in the Time of Terror: Slam at Sydney Film Festival

Review by Ingrid Matthews

[Alert: Spoilers]

Slam is a devastating film. It is devastatingly good, intensely sad, and oh so accurate in its portrayal of racism in Australia.

The camera turns its gaze on two institutions in particular: the media; and law enforcement. It was the unfolding complicity between police and journalists – to co-create a story out of thin air, to fabricate evidence of a fiction flying in the face of facts – that drove Slam home for me. While based further west, I recognised those brightly lit restaurant strips and dank police stations immediately. I live here, and work here, and observe the yawning chasm between perception and reality created by media and the law every day of my life. I could smell that wet road.

The film is set around Bankstown, southern wedge of Western Sydney, an Arab-Australian population centre, urban sprawl of multitudes. It opens with Ameena (Danielle Horvat) slamming straight to camera, the rhythm and cadence of her words not immediately apparent as poetry, or not to this stranger in her world. Her performance is suspenseful, masterful, brave; she speaks the truth of colonisation from power to power, her words grounded in earth and addressed to mother.

The close-up tells us that she is woman, she is poet, and she wears the hijab, before panning back to show an enthralled and applauding audience. Then the scene fades as a cameo by Uncle Ken Canning places us squarely on stolen Aboriginal lands.

A poetry slam and a bustle of neatly clipped scenes – an alleyway, on-screen text messages, a cigarette smoked, a car in the distance through the rain – are fleeting moments with Ameena. For the rest of the film we get to know her indirectly: through her words, her mother, her brother, her best friend; her most private space, a bedroom wall that calls for freedom, a bureau drawer with the heavy wrought iron key to a home long taken. The ghost of her social media presence, while pivotal to the plot, is obscured by the clamour of traditional media voices: the radio news bulletins, the scrum of reporters, the tabloid journalist who constructs a fictional journey as the truth slides away, neglected.

It is through the voice of mother Rana (Darina Al Joundi) and eyes of brother Tariq (Adam Bakri) that we hear first that Ameena is late home, and then gone. Tariq’s responsibilities frame his sister’s disappearance: a late-night phone call from his (their) mum, the menacing thump of his car windscreen wipers, cut only by the intrusive voice of the car radio newsreader. His white wife Sally (Rebecca Breed) comes complete with an impossibly annoying family, relatives for whom holding a gin-tasting substitutes for personality. Their hearty bonhomie, sentimental singalongs and performative loyalty, blur into the background for ‘Ricky’ (his white people name).

Tariq drives alone through pouring rain to a dimly-lit police station. He feels the radio news bulletins in his bones. An Australian military jet has come down over the Syria-Iraq conflict zone and its pilot, who is sure to be white and male, a poster-boy for Australian martyrdom, is reported captured and destined for a gruesome execution. Childhood memories of his own father’s execution crowd his mind.

This tension bifurcates throughout the film. Each encounter is defined by whiteness and otherness. When Tariq reports his sister to the missing persons officer Jo Hendricks (Rachel Blake), he knows the threats of racist violence he has seen directed at his sister online are substantive. But instead he must bat away the flimsy threads from which a story about his sister will be spun.

– Marriage pressure?

– No.

Sometimes people just don’t want to be found, says officer Jo, convincing neither Tariq nor herself.

In contrast to the deceptive frame-up that awaits Ameena, domestic details fill in so much truth about the people who miss her in familiar trips across western Sydney. There is the modest red brick exterior for the Nassers, a cramped kitchen for best friend Hanan (Abby Aziz), a neat semi-detached bachelorette for Jo. The cultural poverty of whiteness is witheringly portrayed, in the heavy luxury of the in-law’s furniture (and conversation), to the sagging balloons strung above a concrete patio at Jo’s joyless family birthday.

Joylessness turns to menace turns to violence when Jo’s ex-partner, the father of her late son who has been killed on military deployment, follows her out, begs for her attention, stakes out her house. His hulking, drunken neediness is terrifying. Unlike the terror narrative imposed on Ameena, this man is less stereotype and more typology, a moving mountain who alchemises pain into anger and turns both on the woman he says he loves.

Meanwhile, Tariq searches the city for clues. He is aggressively rebuffed by her love interest (?) Omar, who has troubles of his own. Omar is a man criminalised by the state for being of middle-eastern appearance. Omar has stories of super-max – for what? Reporters gather daily outside Tariq’s old family home, outside his new family home. He and mother Rana, Ricky and pregnant wife Sally and their six-year-old daughter, become grist for the terror-narrative mill, for the quest to nail that JIHADI WIFE? headline.

As his mother and wife and daughter orbit his responsibility, Tariq orbits the absence of his sister Ameena. The loss of his sister, her absence, is filling with flashbacks.To a checkpoint in the desert, to his terrified younger self, to the loss of his father at the hands of those who are nowhere near western Sydney, but oh so close to himself, his memories, his life.

All this tension around the grieving Nasser family and friends, those who know Ameena, who love her and fear for her, is cut across by the cruelty of crisp newsreader tones, bulletins like bullets, telling Tariq what he already knows, that the Australian state will punish him, a man of middle-eastern appearance, for the imminent execution of the pilot, the son they sent to the middle east in a warplane.

As Tariq snaps, first at Omar and then at the reporters, police officer Jo brushes off her bruises and goes to work. Like the press pack, the police are determined to create a terrorist narrative from a missing woman who wears the hijab and performs poetry. They have brought in the feds, who want a reason for their fancy anti-terror funding. But the personal violence in her life has tilted Jo’s perspective. She stares down the higher-ups, stating that the case remains a missing persons matter, given there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.

Jo’s boss, another white man who directs his anger and perceived inadequacies at her competence and truth, spirals out of control. ‘We are under attack’, he shouts irrationally, attacking her in the confined space of the police station corridor. ‘You made me look like a fool! You look like shit!’

The Nassers, who are in fact under attack from the combined power of the press, the police, and hegemonic whiteness, have to do something. After all, the white in-laws are aghast. They are not racist, butthose people. Left unsaid is the mirror held up: as Tariq struggles with the violence that has invaded his life, he feels their condemnation, the false accusation. It is he, the ‘man of middle eastern appearance’ who has brought this discomfort into their lives, not the aggressive press pack, not the vested police lies, not the person unknown who caused his sister to… disappear.

Wife Sally packs up their 6 year-old daughter and leaves for the safety of her parents house. The white pater familias, he of gin-tasting proclivities, brings in an image-manager spin-doctor called Brian who, grand(dad) announces, ‘will know exactly what to do’.

[The audience laugh, but resignedly. The thought of a white male grandfather and his paid Pr guy knowing ‘exactly what to do’ about the disappearance of a young woman poet of Palestine, an Australian hijabi who fights for freedom from assimilation, whose story is being re-authored into JIHADI BRIDE? They can not bring her back to life, and do not care that she is gone. It is so sad that we laugh.]

Perhaps the most devastating scene of all stems from this intervention. Having lost his father and his sister, his family driven first from their Palestinian homelands and then from their suburban Australian home, Tariq appears at a media conference. He is flanked by Brian the media minder and two Arab men wearing [Islamic skull cap] taqiyah. Australia has been good to us, intones Tariq-Ricky. Education. Security. Freedom.

His recitation echoes the common Australian sentiment, one Jo had also earlier insisted on hearing from him. But Australia has been to good to you, she says, rather than asks. Yes, he replies obediently. The gnawing hollowness – presumably deliberately  reminiscent of captured westerners, recorded for blackmail purposes by executioners overseas – is haunting.

But director Partho Sen-Gupta knows his audience well. Cut to a celebration of new life, bursting with joy, the happy sound of Palestinian pipe, of homeland drum. People are milling, talking, dancing, smiling. Grandma Rana has donned the hijab, smiling despite carrying the kind of melancholy that comes from a world which took your husband on the way to a safer place, only to take your daughter at its destination.

As she reaches out and embraces her son, the police arrive. Jo, who maintained all along that Ameena is a missing person, is there; her colleagues who eagerly collaborated in the fabrication of a terror tale for the tabloids are there too. As the news is delivered, insects hum. Every Australian, no matter our ethnic background, knows that sound.

A special mention before I wrap up my observations of this exquisitely told story.

The sound designer excelled. The insects were essential to placing us between flashbacks, in tacking from the militarised desert overseas to the urban landscape of western Sydney. Men in uniform who pose an existential threat are the common thread. When dream and nightmare blurred with reality, between childhood and adulthood, Australia and Palestine, day and night, it was the insect sounds and birdsong that grounded me in time and place.

The other perfect touch in sound design is the throb of windscreen wipers on those drives through Sydney downpours. That rhythm melded with the heartbeat of baby in utero as Tariq and Sally attend an ultra sound appointment? I noticed. Sally being pregnant, and baby arriving, are not a prominent narrative strand in this film, but are essential to both story and mood, to film and to audience, and to our humanity. Life, after all, goes on.


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